The New Orleans Saints will get at least one more season with star quarterback Drew Brees, and Sean Payton is hoping this team can send him into retirement with a Lombardi Trophy. The postseason has been very unfriendly to the Saints as of late, as they have suffered three straight heartbreaking playoff losses over the last three years. Will what the Saints added this offseason help push them over the hump, and can the rookies they selected in the 2020 NFL Draft come in and make an immediate impact on this talented roster?
The Saints draft class was not one that had NFL analysts drooling, but they picked up some solid players that should help this team. Cesar Ruiz is a versatile offensive lineman that could start in Year 1, Zack Baun is a complete linebacker and then Adam Trautman could one day evolve into Taysom Hill's No. 1 tight end -- or will it be Jameis Winston's No. 1 tight end? That will be another battle to keep an eye on in training camp.
Payton's first goal during this unprecedented offseason will be to evaluate his talent and establish a rough depth chart. This task will be more difficult than usual since there is no preseason due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. New Orleans has plenty of talent, but which players will get more playing time than others? Let's take a look at five of the most intriguing training camp battles for the Saints.
1. Backup quarterback
Candidates: Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill
Payton has been adamant that the Saints can have a bright future with Hill at the helm, and says he has "a ton of confidence" in him. It was a big reason why he was tendered with a first-round pick and then paid accordingly. Hill has been more of a gadget player that has found success catching the ball or playing special teams, but he will now have to compete with the NFL's reigning passing champion.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opted to go with Tom Brady over Winston this offseason, and the former No. 1 overall pick found a new home with a former rival. He may have a bright future in New Orleans -- especially under the careful watch of coach Payton. Winston may have created the "30 for 30 club" last season, but it's clear he has potential. Winston has a big arm and definitely isn't afraid to take chances. With him undergoing LASIK surgery this offseason, taking care of his meniscus tear and now finally recovered from the broken thumb on his throwing hand, Winston could be set to take over the Saints in the near future, but he will have to compete with Hill to do so. When Brees went down with his hand injury in 2019, Teddy Bridgewater was the one who replaced him. If Brees gets injured this season, who will play in his place?
"Taysom knows there's going to be competition and certainly Jameis knows that as well," Payton said. "To have two younger players that both have similar skill sets that I think endear themselves to winning, we're excited about."
2. Strongside linebacker
Candidates: Alex Anzalone, Zack Baun
Anzalone is a talented player, but it's hard to rely on him as he has played in 16 games just once in his three years due to injury. He probably is the favorite to retain the role of starting linebacker, but it's hard not to be intrigued by the rookie Baun. The former Wisconsin star was named first-team All-Big Ten last year after he recorded 75 total tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception. He showed tenacity when rushing the passer and was capable in coverage as well. With Demario Davis on the weakside and Kiko Alonso and Craig Robertson holding down the middle -- the Saints coaching staff will keep a close eye on who performs better in training camp on the strongside.
3. Backup wide receiver
The Saints are sitting pretty at the wide receiver position with Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but who will be next in line? You have to figure Tre'Quan Smith, who has caught five touchdowns in each of the last two seasons, will be the primary backup, but he will still have to fend off the younger talent New Orleans brought in. Carr has been with the Saints for the last three years, so he may know the system more so than the players he is up against. Butler and Humphrey showed some potential in the preseason last year, but will again have to prove they are worth a roster spot and worthy of regular-season touches, and Harris is more of a Pro Bowl special teams star than rotational receiver. New Orleans did add a few undrafted wideouts that could have a chance to pop in training camp, however.
Johnson out of Oregon is a big, 6-foot-4 target who ran a 4.58 40-yard dash time, and some think he would better serve as a tight end. Callaway caught 92 passes for 1,646 yards and 13 touchdowns during four seasons at Tennessee, and was one of the Volunteers' main playmakers on offense. He's an aggressive wideout that thrived in jump-ball situations and could be a candidate to steal a roster spot.
4. No. 2 tight end
Candidates: Josh Hill, Adam Trautman
Hill put up career numbers all across the board in 2019, but he's not really known for his pass-catching ability. He's a great blocker and has been in this system for years now, so there's no doubt he will get playing time in 2020. At the same time, the Saints drafted Trautman out of Dayton for a reason. The 6-foot-5 tight end set school records during his time at Dayton, and in 44 games he recorded 178 receptions for 2,295 yards and 31 touchdowns. He figures to be the No. 1 tight end of the future for the Saints, but it will be interesting to see if he's the kind of player Payton wants to draw up plays for, or if he needs to work behind the scenes to get playing time during his rookie campaign. You have to think Jared Cook, Hill and Trautman will all receive playing time this year, but could Trautman do enough in training camp to become a legitimate part of this offense?
5. Right guard/Center
The Saints have a bit of a hodgepodge when it comes to their interior offensive line. Andrus Peat is obviously the starter at left guard, but the rest is to be determined. Cesar played center during his time at Michigan, but the Saints appear to be set at that position with McCoy, who turns 23 in a few weeks and was a second-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Payton should give Ruiz a chance to compete with McCoy for the right to snap the ball, but it may be more likely that he starts alongside the second-year player.
Easton signed a four-year deal with New Orleans last year to replace Max Unger as the Saints' center. Instead, McCoy took over and flourished in both run blocking and pass blocking. Either Ruiz or Easton should take over at the right guard spot in 2020. This isn't the most important position battle for the Saints, but it is one of the more interesting ones.