The second day of New Orleans Saints minicamp practices was won by the defense. If nothing else that should tell you how suspect the takeaways from June practices can be.
I hate to knock the Saints’ defense, but no unit in the NFL may have lower expectations placed on it this summer. The team invested three of its five draft picks (a total of nine of fourteen picks over the last two years) and all but one of its veteran free agent signings on that side of the ball. Head coach Sean Payton added several new faces to his coaching staff.
There are seventeen different defensive backs on the roster right now competing for ten, maybe eleven jobs in the fall. Coming off two worst-in-the-league seasons, positive growth has to be expected from Dennis Allen’s beleaguered unit.
But let’s not overhype what’s happening in half-speed practices before anybody has put pads on.
Longtime wideout Robert Meachem, aged 32 this coming September, is in the throes of one last comeback attempt. He talked second-year undrafted free agent Kyle Prater into swapping Meachem’s old #17 jersey for Marques Colston’s #12, but Meachem sat out practice today with a foot injury.
What this means for Meachem’s chances at getting a shot at staying around past this week is anyone’s guess, but two young receivers are seizing their moment: undrafted rookie Jared Dangerfield (Western Kentucky) and R.J. Harris (New Hampshire), who spent 2015 on the practice squad. Meachem, Dangerfield, and Harris are likely all in competition for the fifth receiver job; that speedy home-run threat who can stretch defenses vertically.
Opposite them, the defensive backs are working hard to prove their worth. Hometown favorite Keenan Lewis is still not participating in team drills as he rehabs another lower-body injury, so New Orleans native Delvin Breaux is the only cornerback with a starting job locked down.
Enter P.J. Williams. The Florida State cornerback fell to the third round in last year’s draft, where the Saints picked him up. He then hurt his hamstring in training camp and missed his entire rookie season. Now he’s hungry and looking to start; Williams leads the team in passes broken up (4) through two days of Saints minicamp practices with a near-interception on each day.
Other young cornerbacks got cameos on the first team defense today, including undrafted rookie De’Vante Harris (Texas A&M) and the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Brian Dixon, who has spent two years developing and getting coached up for this opportunity.
One interesting development on offense is what’s being done with the running backs. For years, Payton has used two different types of running backs: hard-nosed bruisers to crash downfield on first and second down, and agile pass-catchers who can also pick up blitzers on third down. Compare Chris Ivory to Darren Sproles to get an idea of the specialization.
The problem is getting too specialized. Starting in 2012, defenses could basically pick out what the Saints were going to do based on which running back was on the field. Sproles? It’s a screen pass. Ivory? It’s a run. Payton’s offense got predictable and lost its efficiency.
Now, though, it seems the team is doing some cross-training. That started last year when Mark Ingram blossomed into an every-down back who could run, catch, and block effectively; he saw the most catches (50) and yards (405) of his career despite only playing in 12 games.
Ingram’s backup, Tim Hightower, has gotten in on the action too. Hightower caught a couple of passes today for some big gains of yardage. Here’s what Payton had to say after practice about the importance of versatile running backs:
"Anytime there is a running back outside the formation coming in, the first thing you receive is a pre-snap man or zone. In other words, if a linebacker or safety goes out to cover him, you are probably seeing man to man (coverage). If a corner just bumps, you’re probably receiving zone (coverage). Part of it is indicators for the quarterback whether it is empty or a lot of times he is out and he comes back into the backfield we just get the quarterback man or zone before we are into our cadence."
Former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Nate Stupar closed out practice with an interception of Drew Brees. Hightower lined up as a slot receiver, something he hadn’t done before, and was told to run a slant route.
Stupar cued in on Hightower’s responsibility on the play and jumped a quick throw that bounced off of Hightower’s hands. The 28-year old linebacker came down with the ball and howled in victory to cheers mixed with woeful grumbling.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be attending tomorrow’s Saints minicamp in person, so stay tuned for exclusive content on Who Dat Dish’s Twitter and Facebook pages.