It's a pleasant situation to be in when a team has its 53-man roster nearly in place. Except for the last few roster spots, which will be filled by rookies (destined to be inactive during the regular season anyway), the Saints have their starting lineups and almost all primary backups ready to go.
Of course, every year the Saints sign around two dozen "camp bodies," first-year or rookie players with little shot of making the final roster. Occasionally a "camp body" will impress the team enough to make the practice squad, or even the final roster. Still, they are necessary to make training camp and preseason work, providing relatively inexpensive participants to challenge and push their teammates. Some will stay close to the team and hope to get allocated to NFL Europe the following Spring. Others will impress enough to get picked up by another NFL team more in need of their position.
Despite the many departures and arrivals, the roster is nearly settled. There will be a few interesting competitions, between backups at quarterback, runningback, wide receiver and cornerback. Skill position battles are always especially fun to witness at training camp. There may even be a battle for the sole punting job on the team.
Here's a positional breakdown right now, before coaching sessions begin.
Players in italics are not projected to make the final roster at this time
Starter: Aaron Brooks
Backups: Jake Delhomme, Jeff Lewis, *JT O'Sullivan
A position that could be addressed in free agency. Behind Brooks, the Saints have little experience and although Jake Delhomme knows the system well and has started games in his career, most teams in this same situation will be looking for the right veteran. While the team won't be spending and big money on a backup quarterback, another veteran could be brought in to challenge Delhomme for the #2 spot. Lewis and 6th-round pick O'Sullivan would likely be out of the loop in that case. Should Delhomme stick at #2, Lewis and O'Sullivan would battle it out for the #3 position, a fight that O'Sullivan could win.
Starter: Deuce McAllister
Backups: James Fenderson, *Jonathan Adams, Jeff Chaney, *Ricky Williams, Fred McAfee
The youngest position on the roster, only McAllister and special teams captain Fred McAfee are guaranteed a roster spot. A veteran runningback is expected to be added to serve as the primary backup. James Fenderson played mostly special teams in limited action last year but is recovering from a knee injury right now. If not for the injury he would be gaining valuable experience in NFL Europe right now. Adams and Chaney are power backs, although Adams is a terribly raw rookie and Chaney hasn't played football since his college days at Florida State in 2000. Only Adams, and undrafted rookie out of small Arkansas State has a genuine shot at making this roster, although his pass-receiving and blocking skills are undeveloped. Ricky Williams is a tiny but powerful runningback with exceptional hands as a receiver. As a senior he caught over 90 passes at Texas A&M. This Ricky Williams, who wears #42 and not #34, actually has a shot at returning kickoffs and playing some third-down back. McAfee doesn't have the size to play on offense but is a cornerstone of Al Everest's special teams.
Starter: Terrelle Smith
Backups: Moran Norris, Kevin Houser, *Demetrius Smith
Terrelle Smith is fully recovered from a back injury suffered late in the 2000 season and aggravated late in the 2001 season. When healthy, Smith is one of the best young blockers in the league and was a big factor in the success Ricky Williams has enjoyed the past two seasons. He also is improving as a receiver although he isn't a reliable ball carrier. Norris is better in that field. A 4th round pick in 2001, Norris saw some playing time at the end of last season but didn't get a chance to really showcase his talented. Norris is more of a runner than Smith but isn't as ferocious or strong a lead blocker, although he is improving as well. Houser is strictly a long-snapper. Smith is a big, strong guy from a tiny school who rushed for 10 touchdowns as a senior.
Starter: David Sloan
Backups: Eddie "Boo" Williams, Lamont Hall, Johnny Mitchell, *John Gilmore
Newcomer David Sloan, signed away from Detroit this offseason, brings a rare mix of blocking size and receiver skill to the position, and could prove to be the most important addition of the football season. Sloan isn't quite as talented as ex-Saints starter Cam Cleeland in the passing game, but is far more reliable and is a proven veteran commodity. Williams, a collegiate wide receiver, has been improving and growing as a blocker and is showing that he could eventually become a full time starter at tight end. With Sloan on board, Williams won't be pressed into action again. Hall is a big, strong blocking-form tight end with little to contribute in the passing game. But on goal line situations, and some last year as a fullback and lead blocker, he is a tremendous asset. The Saints are only expected to keep three tight ends, so veteran Johnny Mitchell and 6th-round pick John Gilmore from Penn State will be training camp bodies. Mitchell hasn't played in a regular season NFL game since the mid-'90s and Gilmore is a developmental prospect.
Starters: Joe Horn, Jerome Pathon
Backups: *Donte Stallworth, Jake Reed, Michael Lewis, Onome Ojo, Jimmy Robinson, *Frank Cutolo, *Derrick Lewis, Hilton Alexander, *Todd Elstrom
Joe Horn is firmly entrenched as the starter. Jerome Pathon and Donte Stallworth will compete for the #2 receiver position. Both are injury prone and chances are that one will start the season over the other by default. If both are healthy they will each get considerable playing time but the veteran Pathon would likely start over the rookie. Aging Jake Reed is a year away from retirement but will occupy a roster spot. Reed brings lots of maturity and leadership to a locker room that suffered from internal strife last season. The diminutive but lightning-fast Michael Lewis has displayed so far improved receiving skills and could win both the starting kickoff and punt return jobs. Onome Ojo, a 5th round pick in 2001, is starting in NFL Europe alongside teammate Jimmy Robinson. While both are doing well for the Rhein Fire, only one will likely make the final cut, but only if the Saints decide to keep six receivers. Cutolo, Lewis, Alexander, and Elstrom are interesting young prospects but are merely camp bodies. An undrafted rookie from Eastern Illinois, Cutolo especially is working on return teams and is behind Stallworth and Lewis right now.
Starters: Kyle Turley (left tackle), Victor Riley (right tackle)
Backups: Spencer Folau, Scott Sanderson, *PJ Alexander, Shane Cook
Turley moves from right tackle to left tackle for the first time as a pro, although he played left at San Diego State University. Riley, a massive lineman from Kansas City and a former 1st round choice, will start at right tackle this season except for Week 1, when he is serving a one-week suspension stemming from a domestic violence incident. Spencer Folau, who started for Miami last season and has a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens, will start at right tackle in week 1 and serve as a backup the rest of the way. Folau's best position is probably right tackle or guard, although he started at left tackle last season for Miami because of injuries. Sanderson was signed in the middle of last season after the Saints placed Willie Roaf on injured reserve. He can play both guard and tackle, and could make the team as the primary backup to Kyle Turley. Sanderson is the closest thing to a left tackle that the Saints have behind Turley, Riley and Folau. Undrafted PJ Alexander is an interesting young prospect who actually played center in college, but could eventually find a home anywhere on the offensive line.
Starters: Wally Williams (left guard), Jerry Fontenot (center), *LeCharles Bentley (right guard)
Backups: Kendyl Jacox, Tutan Reyes, Bubba Miller, Mitch White, Bruce Wiggins, John Romero, Jeff Chase, Chris Valetta
Wally Williams is a lock at left guard and Fontenot is a long-time starter at center, and highly-touted rookie LeCharles Bentley appears to have already won the starting right guard job over Tutan Reyes. Fontenot, 36, is probably in his last season, and will be training Bentley to take his place next year. Bentley will get valuable experience in the system while starting at right guard. Jacox is starting quality depth who could unseat either guard or even Fontenot. He was very highly regarded at San Diego as an up-and-coming player, and will be given a chance to compete, probably with Wally Williams. Tutan Reyes will compete for a backup guard job while newly-signed Bubba Miller will be the primary backup to Jerry Fontenot this year. Miller, who signed a one-year contract, is coming off of an ankle injury and may not be ready for training camp, but was a Pro Bowl caliber player before his injury in preseason 2001. White, Wiggins, Romero, Chase, and Valleta are all second year players who didn't play in the 2001 regular season. White was a 6th-round pick last year, and a guy the Saints tried at tackle although he may end up at guard. Regardless, he stands little chance of making this extremely deep offensive line unless he unseats Reyes or a depth player at another position. Chase is a backup in NFL Europe right now.
Starters: Norman Hand, Grady Jackson
Backups: Martin Chase, Richard Seals, Abdul-Salaam Noah, *Jerry Montgomery
The Saints have the strongest pair of defensive tackles in the NFL when Hand and Jackson are healthy and in the game. Behind their nearly 700 pounds of run-stuffing force is 320-pound Martin Chase, who will be rotated in regularly. Seals has been with the team before, and was released in the final cut at last year's training camp. Noah and undrafted rookie Jerry Montgomery are camp bodies.
Starters: Willie Whitehead, Darren Howard
Backups: Kenny Smith, *Charles Grant, *Derrius Monroe, Jermaine Miles
Darren Howard will start for the third season in a row, and will be called upon to become more of a leader. Howard owns the Saints record for sacks by a rookie and is good against the run and as a pass rusher. Whitehead is by default a starter after Joe Johnson left for greener pastures. He will likely share time with first round pick Charles Grant, a rookie who reminds many of a young Johnson. Kenny Smith, who has split time as an end and tackle in the past, won't get any playing time at defensive tackle but could get some playing time this year spelling Darren Howard. 7th-round pick Derrius Monroe has a troubled past, but if he can keep that in check, he has blazing pass-rush speed for a 265-pound end. Monroe missed the 2000 season because of a drug suspension and played limitedly as a senior, and out of position at defensive tackle. He showed plenty of potential in practices so far and could force the Saints to keep eight defensive linemen with a good training camp. Miles is starting in NFL Europe right now and could push for a roster spot as well.
Starters: Darrin Smith (weakside), Charlie Clemons (middle), Sedrick Hodge (strongside)
Backups: Bryan Cox, *James Allen, Curtis Holden, Roger Knight, Jonathan Jackson, JJ Jones, Roylin Bradley, *Travis Carroll, *Andrew LeClair
Saavy veteran Darrin Smith and second-year speedster Sedrick Hodge are slated to start on the outside while Charlie Clemons is set to start at middle linebacker right now. Fiery but aging veteran Bryan Cox, coming off of a broken leg, could mix it all up. The former Pro Bowler is still capable of starting, and the Saints will try to put their best three linebackers on the field at the same time. If Cox shows enough in training camp, the Saints may be "forced" to start him on the inside, move Clemons to strongside and Hodge to weakside. That would give Darrin Smith, one of the smartest players around, a chance to play in nickel situations and also help Sedrick Hodge out. Curtis Holden and Roger Knight are two second-year players who have been with the Saints since last training camp. Both are good pass rushers, although neither will get on the field this season. Holden has a good shot at making the team as a special teamer, although Knight will challenge him for a sixth linebacker roster spot if he can recover from his knee injury. Jonathan Jackson is starting in NFL Europe right now, while Jones, Bradley, Carroll and LeClair are camp bodies.
Starters: Dale Carter, Fred Thomas
Backups: Kevin Mathis, Michael Hawthorne, Ken Irvin, *Keyou Craver, Jerry Wilson, Tim Carter, Dee Moronkola, *Kevin House
If Dale Carter's dominating performance at the first minicamp is any indication of his ability, he could be a true shutdown for the Saints defense this year. That would do loads of good for the entire unit, as the Saints also have a respectable nickel package as well. Although starter Kevin Mathis and his large salary cap hit could be released after June 1, the Saints still have Fred Thomas, Michael Hawthorne, veteran Ken Irvin and promising rookie Keyou Craver. Thomas is expected to return as a starter, while Hawthorne, Irvin and Craver will compete for the #3 spot in the nickel rotation. If Mathis is not released, and if he can recover from a string of neck injuries, he would probably win the #3 CB job himself. Veteran Jerry Wilson would be next in line for a roster spot in case of injury. Tulane product CB Tim Carter, was impressive in preseason 2001 and is starting right now in NFL Europe, albeit as a free safety. Moronkola and tiny rookie CB Kevin House are camp bodies.
Starters: Sammy Knight (strong), Jay Bellamy (weak)
Backups: Richard Newsome, *Melvin Mitchell, Steve Gleason, *Chonn Lacey, *Rick Sherrod
Knight and Bellamy are entrenched as starters, but depth behind them will fall to one of five young players. Veteran S Chris Oldham is not with the team and is an unrestricted free agent right now. Newsome backed up Bellamy last year at free safety and was also a player on special teams. Newsome played a little out of control at times last season on special teams but is a good safety prospect although he may not have the range for free safety. Rookie Melvin Mitchell was a steal in the 5th round this past April, and will likely be groomed this year to make a push to unseat Bellamy next season. Mitchell is a big, hard-hitting safety with great speed. Steve Gleason is an ex-linebacker who has been with the Saints for a while, and was actually on their regular season roster in 2000. Rookie Chonn Lacey is a tremendous athlete from Temple, and a guy who could play receiver, cornerback, kick returner or safety. Unfortunately, he is ill-prepared for any position but is a shoe-in for the practice squad this season. Rick Sherrod is an undrafted free agent rookie who could also make a push for the practice squad.
Starters: John Carney (placekicker), Toby Gowin (punter)
Backups: Dirk Johnson (punter), Dan Hadenfeldt (punter), *Jeff Reed (placekicker), *Javier Beorlegui (placekicker/punter)
The Saints have an inordinate amount of kickers on the roster right now. Expected the Saints not to carry this many into training camp. John Carney is firmly entrenched as the clutch field goal kicker for the team. Having three punters on the roster raises the question if Toby Gowin's job is in jeopardy. Gowin isn't the strongest punter but has a strong leg, and does kickoffs for the Saints so Carney can save his leg for field goals. Gowin is also an unexpectedly solid tackler, something he had to do a lot of in 2000 when the Saints' coverage teams were so poor. Dirk Johnson is punting well in NFL Europe right now, and is also an athletic player who can do more than just punt.
by William Assaf, NewOrleansProFootball.com Feature Writer