Going into camp we already have a good feel for the Saints’ roster and the role most players will have. This is a mature team with an established track record and along with that comes proven commodity players that are known entities. The identity of the team is largely formed from a tenured coaching staff and talent, and so they’re just building on top of the foundation that’s already been built. For that reason it’s very different from a rebuilding team where one wouldn’t even know where to start with roster questions. This team feels pretty set. Sure there will be injuries, surprises and changes that come with any training camp for any professional sports team, but with so much already established we can easily identify the unresolved uncertainties. To me there’s five players with a lot of questions surrounding them, and how they’re answered will ultimately dictate a roster spot for them or for someone else behind them. The fact that questions surround these players is not necessarily a bad thing. It means we’re not sure where they fit in, but there could absolutely be a place for them. It also means they’re on a roster bubble and stepping up will be critical to their career survival.
1. Patrick Robinson – To me Robinson has never really stepped up to prove he’s a legitimate quality cornerback in the league. He was up and down his rookie season, showed some fairly significant improvement in year two like he might make the next step, was completely lost in the Spagnuolo defense, and then he tore his ACL in an attempt to bounce back from that dreadful season. Make no mistake, Robinson was one of the most error laden players in that worst defense in NFL history 2012 season. That defense was horrific in a historical sense and Robinson was one of the worst players on it. And while that could be enough to condemn him, we can’t ignore how much Spagnuolo was a poison to the entire unit. I’ve never been a big fan of Malcolm Jenkins nor Roman Harper, but they both also looked their worst in that scheme. Robinson has size, speed when healthy and he was a 1st round pick. But can he return at least to that form he had in year two and can he recover from the injury? The depth at corner isn’t that tough to overcome as P-Rob is battling guys like Corey White, Rod Sweeting, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Trevin Wade for playing time. This isn’t a murderer’s row of competition. If he’s healthy he is squarely in the mix, but that’s a big if.
2. Victor Butler – Like Robinson, Butler is coming off a knee ligament tear. He was penciled in as a starter at outside linebacker prior to that injury. Since then the team has moved on and guys like Parys Haralson and Junior Galette have established their respective roles on the unit. There’s also a lot of young linebackers in this camp that we know little about that could threaten Butler’s job security. Unlike Robinson, though, I feel confident that Butler is undoubtedly a top 53 player on this team if he’s healthy. So the two pronged question of “can he cut it” and “is he healthy” is really down to the latter with Butler. To me he’s the most versatile outside linebacker on the team because he can pass rush, cover and play the run. We’ll see if he can bounce back.
3. Joe Morgan – Yet another player on this list due to a season ending knee injury before ever making an impression in 2013. Last season was absolutely brutal for Morgan as he went from the unquestionable #3 receiver on the team to arrested for a DUI and on injured reserve in the space of a month. Since then the Saints brought back Robert Meachem, Kenny Stills has emerged as a real player and the Saints traded up in the first round to draft Brandin Cooks. If you look at the depth chart right now, I’d list Morgan as the #6 receiver at best behind Colston, Toon and the others I just mentioned. What a difference a year makes. This is going to be a tough mountain to climb for Morgan especially when you consider that he didn’t participate in the OTAs as he’s still not fully recovered. Further, he was kind of a one trick pony as a field stretching speed receiver and this injury could have seriously impacted his biggest asset. At this point Morgan is on the outside looking in and it will take special star alignment for him to get back to where he was.
4. Nick Toon – Toon has been all potential and no production to this point. After a rookie season on IR he turned in a 4 reception season last year. Brees was only able to complete 33% of the passes he threw Toon’s way. It got to a point where Brees didn’t even bother looking his way the few times he was on the field. And the fact that he’s in year three and doesn’t give any special teams value, it’s now or never to take a step to the next level. Sometimes it takes a receiver three years to understand route concepts, get acclimated to the NFL and fully come into their own. If by year three we’re still seeing no advancement with Toon, it might be time to cut bait. Toon’s problems are completely between the ears. He has the physical presence, speed and hands to be a successful NFL player. He struggles with his breaks, timing on passes and bracing for hits. That’s all coachable stuff you can improve, but at some point patience wears thin if the light isn’t coming on.
5. Terron Armstead – My nervousness with Armstead at left tackle has been outlined ad nauseam. I think he will be great, truly. But we haven’t seen nearly enough at this point to know this for sure. And what if he can’t cut it? There is no contingency plan. The Saints are all in on Armstead at left tackle and if something happens to him the Saints’ line is in shambles (see how they performed with Charles Brown last year). I know Armstead has worked hard to build strength in the offseason to hopefully handle the rigors of a 16 game NFL season and hopefully he can make that transition to the full time starter with ease. But this is a guy that’s only played a handful of games in the NFL, and prior to that he was blocking guys at Arkansas Pine-Bluff. Not exactly the best competition preparation.