Before we dive too deeply into the happenings at today’s New Orleans Saints minicamp practice, we need to acknowledge a critically important fact: minicamps are neutered football. The players aren’t allowed to run at full speed or hit. Nobody is wearing pads. For the most part, practice consists of individual work and limited 7-on-7 sessions. It’s almost pointless to try and forecast much from “football in shorts”.
Now that said, there is some important information to gain. Which players are working with the first, second, and third units? Where are they lining up? How vocal are the key communicators – linebackers and safeties, quarterbacks and centers? Are the new rookies and free agents active in practice or pedaling on a stationary bike?
For the most part, newcomers seem to be hitting the ground running. Tight end Coby Fleener tied Willie Snead for the day’s most catches with four, but linebacker Craig Robertson made an impressive play in coverage against Fleener. The 6-foot-1 Robertson flipped his hips and turned upfield down the seam to run alongside the 6-foot-6 Fleener before making a dramatic leap into the air, batting the pass away.
With Dannell Ellerbe sidelined again to injury (having seen only seven games in the last two years), Robertson looks like the frontrunner to start at weakside linebacker in the fall. Five different linebackers, none of them Robertson, filled in at different times there last season.
Another position depleted by injury is weakside defensive end. Head coach Sean Payton confirmed today that last year’s starter, Hau’oli Kikaha, is out for the year with a third ACL tear in his left knee (the first two happened in 2011 and 2012). But Payton was optimistic about Kikaha’s road to recovery:
"“…he’s been unbelievable in regards to his mindset. You think you might get someone who is extremely disappointed, and I’m sure that was the case. Yet, the night he received his first diagnosis, he sent me a three-page long text, just about how this has just motivated him more. He is a pretty tough cookie. Obviously, you’re the exception if you can come back after the third ACL (injury) and play, but I wouldn’t bet against Hau’oli. He has that mindset, and that’s encouraging.”"
With Kikaha out indefinitely and heir-apparent Kasim Edebali sidelined until training camp as an injury precaution, it’s fallen on former wideout Obum Gwacham to run with the first team as a pass-rush specialist. Gwacham is a great athlete but still exceedingly new to the position. To his credit, he’s attacked the situation fiercely, adding almost 24-pounds onto his playing weight from last year in transition. Going up against an elite opponent – $16.25-million man Terron Armstead – daily in these practices will be a great learning experience for Gwacham.
It’s unlikely that CFL import Erik Harris contributes as heavily as his former Hamilton Tigercats teammate, Delvin Breaux, but the 6-foot-3, 225-pound safety/linebacker looks like he belongs; he broke up several passes and narrowly missed out on an interception. With Jairus Byrd also missing another summer to rehab a knee injury, Harris is getting a ton of reps with the first team defense at free safety. The vision for Harris may be a Rafael Bush-like role in three-safety packages along with second-round draft pick Vonn Bell and fourth-year starter Kenny Vaccaro.
The Saints turned heads by looking to 2014’s NCAA champions for draft picks, but both Bell and receiver Michael Thomas seem to be living up to their hype as big investments. Thomas has earned quarterback Drew Brees’ trust in less than a month on the team; the veteran passer’s eyes shine and he can’t help but smile when talking about his new 6-foot-3, 212-pound target. Thomas reeled in both passes thrown his way today, one of them scoring a touchdown in the two-minute drill to close out practice.
Speaking of receivers, today’s practice saw the return of two familiar faces: longtime wideout Robert Meachem in on a one-week tryout, now wearing franchise great Marques Colston’s #12 jersey. With second-year undrafted free agent Kyle Prater occupying Meachem’s #17, the speedster decided to wear a different jersey that fans would be quick to recognize. Meachem is only in on a tryout basis for this week’s minicamp sessions, but he would likely add some much-needed experience to a young receiving group if he can show he deserves a crack at making the roster.
It seems like the Saints are going to go another year without a settled answer at kicker. The longest-tenured placekicker was Super Bowl champion Garrett Hartley, who’s enjoying retirement in his turkey blind. Since then the team has seen a carousel of hopefuls flame out, and this year’s experiment looks no different. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Connor Barth won the day’s kicking contest, but 2015’s kicker, Kai Forbath, led the way last week. This competition is very much up in the air and should run through to final roster cuts in early September.
That’s it for today. Be sure to stay tuned for tomorrow’s updates, and if you can, try and make your way to Metairie to catch the second day of Saints minicamp practices open to the public. If you’re not already, follow the Who Dat Dish’s Facebook page and official Twitter account for more Saints news and live updates from practice.