Top 5 Saints training camp battles

The New Orleans Saints will open training camp on Thursday at Millsaps College. Every position is important, but some will feature big battles for starting jobs and roster spots. Saintsinsder.com ranks the five top position battles to watch in training camp. Saintsinsider.com's Matthew Postins explains why these battles are so important in this article.

CENTER: Jonathan Goodwin vs. Matt Lehr.

Goodwin was one of my five players to watch, so it's really no surprise that his position is a key camp battle.

Goodwin is considered the likely starter at center, but if you read my players to watch article you know that Goodwin doesn't have much starting experience, aside from 10 he made one season with the Jets. The Saints seem to have faith in his ability to make the move, but he's never been a consistent starter in the NFL and must prove that he can master the offensive line's most nuanced position.

Lehr has done it. He spent nearly two seasons as the starting center in Dallas. He's a journeyman pro to be sure. But he's reliable and knowledgeable about the position and could take advantage of Goodwin if he struggles early in camp.

Goodwin's size and experience in head coach Sean Payton's offense gives him the advantage here. Remember — center is the only offensive line position that has seen turnover this offseason. So watch it carefully. The Saints sure will be.

PLACEKICKER: Martin Gramatica vs. Taylor Mehlhaff.

The Saints gambled and lost on Olindo Mare last year, so they'll have the veteran Gramatica compete with the rookie Mehlhaff this summer.

Gramatica came in and saved the Saints' bacon late last season. He made five field goals and eight extra points in his three games. Buccaneers fans used to call him "Dramatica" for his late-game heroics. But his epic struggles in Tampa Bay in 2003-04 ultimately led to his release and a nomadic existence since. Before his woes began, he was one of the league's most accurate kickers.

Mehlhaff, drafted in the sixth round, has a history of accuracy and on-field bravado that remind one of a young Gramatica. He doesn't have a world-class foot, but he finished his career as Wisconsin's second-leading scorer in school history (295 points) and tied for second all-time in field goals (50). He also holds the Badgers' all-time record by making 145-of-148 extra point attempts. He has also been a national kickoff champion.

Mehlhaff is one of only a dozen kickers to be selected in the draft the past five season, but some of them have worked out well. Green Bay's Mason Crosby and Dallas' Nick Folk were 2007 draft picks that stepped in immediately and produced.

Given the investment, Mehlhaff is the favorite. But kicking, more than any other position, can turn on one mistake.

RUNNING BACK: Deuce McAllister vs. his own body

With all the injuries and mileage McAllister has endured in his career, is there any way to say with certainty if he will be productive at all in 2008?

The Saints will likely be patient with McAllister, who has meant a great deal to the franchise and still has three years left on his contract. If he makes it through training camp, expect the Saints to give him some reps in preseason games as a way of determining his fitness for the regular season.

The longer it takes for McAllister to look like himself, the less likely it will be that he'll make a serious contribution in 2008. And if he can't, mark down Pierre Thomas as a fantasy sleeper, because he will fill the void.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Sedrick Ellis vs. Brian Young.

Young missed nearly half the season last year due to injury after three years of consistent play up front for the Saints. So, naturally, the Saints drafted his replacement in the first round, Ellis.

Ellis is a mound of a man — 305 pounds. He's not exceptionally tall for the position, but he has a reputation for pursuing the football that earned him a Top 10 selection. The Saints were looking to improve their pass rush, and Ellis could help with that inside. He was one of the best gap-shooters in the college game last year.

Young has always been consistent, a working man's defensive tackle. Before his injury last year he produced, on average, 50 tackles and 3 sacks from 2004-07. Young isn't exceptionally quick, but he executes the fundamentals of the position well. Plus, he has the experience with defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs' system that Ellis lacks.

Chances are both will play in 2008. What training camp and the preseason will determine is which of them will start. I expect it to be Ellis, unless he struggles mightily with the transition to the NFL. If Ellis starts, that could benefit Young, who would make a great change-of-pace tackle.

RUNNING BACK: Aaron Stecker vs. Pierre Thomas.

Reggie Bush will start. But who will Payton trust if McAllister can't play? Good question.

Stecker rushed for 442 yards last year and the Saints wouldn't let him get away when Tampa Bay came calling in the offseason. Thomas rushed for 252 yards, but Stecker had five touchdowns to Thomas' one. They're practically the same back, but Stecker has some wear on the tires after eight seasons. There's a school of thought that Thomas could overtake him, at least as the No. 3 back, this summer.

Throw in the fact that one respected publication has Thomas returning kickoffs in 2008, which is usually Stecker's job, and you get the feeling that the No. 3 running back could be one of camp's most competitive positions.

My money's on Stecker, but Thomas will push him.


Matthew Postins is the publisher of saintsinsider.com.


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