The Crystal Ball Continues

The Saints Training Camp has officially begun and skill position battles are already hot and heavy. At running back, Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller might just be one of the most potent 1-2 RB punches in the NFL this season. Khiry Robinson appears to have a solid hold as the 3rd back. But the real competition is who will the Saints keep as the 4th back on the roster? Veteran or rookie? Check it out!

A few days ago, we took our annual crystal ball out of the closet to start figuring out which of the 90 New Orleans Saints training camp players will make the final 53-man roster this season. Not an easy task considering that in just over a month (September 5th at 3 PM CT), Sean Payton and his staff must say good-bye to 41% of the players currently on the team.

I have deduced that 21 of the 90 players on the roster will make this squad under almost any circumstance. Well, let me rephrase that. Those 21 players will definitely make the team, unless they start pulling Junior Galette-type shenanigans (and I'm pretty sure that I don't have to define this for you).

Payton and the rest of the coaching staff have already made it crystal clear that after last year's debacle, they will NOT deal with any knuckleheads in the locker room this season. That said, I still feel very good about these 21 'sure thing' players.

Another seventeen guys on the Saints roster have been pegged as 'it's going to take something extraordinary to leave me off the team' type players. So that gives us 38 total players who we really don't have to make a decision about, and another 52 who will be fighting for those final fifteen spots. And what a fight it's going to be!

Coach Payton made it clear from the very first day of Organized Team Activities that the difference in this year's Saints camp from last, is that the competition to start, and in some cases even make the roster, will not just be competitive, but extremely fierce as well. So much so in fact, that Payton literally put up a "Compete Street" sign right outside the Saints Airline Drive facility's locker room door. He obviously did this to completely drive home his 'we're going to compete at every level' point from the very beginning of OTAs.

Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, who is going into his 10th season in New Orleans (& 15th overall), is the unquestioned leader of the Saints and is the starter at quarterback. Garrett Grayson, the 3rd round pick from Colorado State will also make the team. In our last report, we chose QB Ryan Griffin in a very close battle over the incumbent backup, 12-year veteran Luke McCown. There are still mixed emotions about this pick because McCown looks so comfortable running Payton's offense; however, I feel strongly that the former Tulane Green Wave star will turn heads this preseason in his 3rd year, and will ultimately win the job.

Now on to the running back position. On its surface, running back appears to be the easiest position to forecast. Or is it? Most football people see Mark Ingram as the Saints undisputed bell cow back this year, C.J. Spiller as the explosive 3rd down back, and Khiry Robinson as the dynamic change of pace diversion. That leaves former Arizona Cardinal star Tim Hightower, 7th round pick Marcus Murphy from Missouri and former Saints practice squad player Edwin Baker from Michigan State competing for that final RB roster spot. Hightower's NFL resume is impressive, and he has already shown in camp that he looks fully healed from a severe ACL knee injury he suffered way back in 2011 as a member of the Washington Redskins. In fact, he hasn't touched the ball on an NFL football field since.

Hard core Saints fans might remember Hightower as the Cardinals running back who almost put a major damper on the Saints magical 2009 Super Bowl run. It was the Saints first playoff game in 3 years, as well as the very first play from scrimmage that day. Hightower got the ball from quarterback Kurt Warner and took it 70 yards to the house for a quick 7-0 Cardinals lead with less than 20 seconds off the clock. The Superdome became eerily silent and its denizens were stunned...but that silence did not last long. The Saints went on a 45-7 run the rest of the way to win the game by 31 points, 45-14.

Many people, especially those residing in Arizona, most remember that game as the one that ended Warner's career. Former defensive lineman Bobby McCray delivered a vicious blind-side hit on the future Hall of Fame quarterback after a Will Smith interception; a hit that would later be clearly put on display during the Saints 2012 'Bountygate' debacle. Today, Hightower said that he remembers that hit on Warner much better than even his own impressive TD run, the 2nd longest in Cardinals playoff history. That is just one of the many reasons that the Saints love having Hightower around. He always puts team before himself, and that was never more evident than in his initial interview with the media today.

Unless there's an injury or something highly unexpected occurs (see Junior Galette behavior), Ingram, Spiller and Robinson should easily make the final roster. The real question here is, what does Hightower do on the field that is markedly different than the 3 players ahead of him on the depth chart? The answer at this juncture is 'it's hard to tell', but the final answer might be 'not much.' In the short time since camp began, Hightower has distinguished himself as one of the hardest working guys on the team. This man is hungry and it shows. And after talking with him today, this writer is pulling hard for Hightower to complete his comeback and become a full fledged member of the Black & Gold.

Here is where it gets tricky though on picking the 4th running back. Who will ultimately be the Saints return guys? Wide receiver Jalen Saunders came in and rescued the Saints moribund return game at midseason last year, and was actually one of the very few bright spots on the team once the bottom completely dropped out on the season. C.J. Spiller and WR Brandin Cooks are clearly the Saints most explosive weapons on offense this year, but have both been also getting a lot of reps returning kicks and punts thus far in camp.

But does Sean Payton want to risk injury by putting his most athletic offensive producers on special teams? Payton answered that question yesterday, saying "I plan on using everyone I need to use on special teams if it's going to make this Saints team be the best it can be." If that is indeed the case, then the Saints may save that returner roster spot for another 'need' position. And that would likely be a bad signal for the chances of Saunders, as well as possibly 7th round draft pick Marcus Murphy's opportunity to make the final roster.

On the other hand, Murphy has been a popular selection among media members to make the team because of what he might be able to provide on special teams. Murphy tallied over 5,100 total yards at Missouri and nearly 3,000 of those came in the return game, 2,036 of them off kickoffs and 801 yards on punt returns. Couple that with 7 return touchdowns and those are astronomical numbers for any player on any level.

The problem I'm seeing on the football field thus far in training camp is that Murphy just looks small....very small. Many have asked me this week if Murphy can be the next Darren Sproles. And the answer is maybe, but only if he can add a bunch of upper body strength to his 5-foot-9, (cough) 195 pound (soaking wet) frame. Until I looked at the media guide, I would have guessed Murphy weighed 165 pounds. And that much needed upper body strength is not going to be added in the next 3 weeks of camp. Not unless Sammy Sosa or Alex Rodriguez arrive in White Sulphur Springs anytime soon.

That leaves 2014 practice squad running back Edwin Baker as the other option for the Saints. Baker, who was the 7th round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2012, scored two touchdowns the following year for the Browns but failed to stick in Cleveland. After also having practice squad stints in past years with Denver and Houston, Baker was picked up by the Saints last September a few weeks after he was cut by the Browns in training camp. Baker was put on the Saints practice squad, but was later added to the active roster on October 25th before the Packers Sunday night game because of injuries to Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson.

That Sunday Night win over the Packers was easily the team's highlight performance of the 2014 season. And only 4 days later, Baker would receive his only official carry of the year against the Carolina Panthers on a Thursday night road win. After a slow start to the 2014 season, that Carolina victory evened the Saints record at 4-4, and led everyone in the Crescent City believe that the team had righted the ship and was headed for yet another playoff run. As we all now know, it wasn't meant to be.

My prediction for the running backs this year is that Mark Ingram will run for over 1,200 yards and get double digit touchdowns as Sean Payton returns his running game similar to the one that got his team to the Super Bowl in 2009.

C.J. Spiller will become the home run threat the Saints haven't truly seen since Darren Sproles had 2,700 total yards for them in 2011, his first season in New Orleans. Remember, Sproles came over from San Diego in his 6th season in the NFL, the same year of service that Spiller arrives in the Big Easy from Buffalo. In addition, Spiller will be playing with a huge chip on his shoulder this year. He clearly resents the fact that many believe he was a bust as the 9th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft.

Khiry Robinson will be the Saints 3rd back on the team, and in a huge surprise, Edwin Baker will win the 4th running back spot. I really like Murphy's potential a lot, but I feel he needs a full year on the practice squad to get stronger for next season.

And as you already know, I am unabashedly rooting for Hightower to make this Saints team. His story is just too warm not to root for; I just think he is in camp as a major insurance card if Ingram, Spiller and Robinson get hurt. I hope I'm wrong.

Next up, the most pivotal position for the Saints this season. I will pick which wide receivers make the Saints 2015 roster!

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