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Saints’ 53-man roster projection: Zach Hocker, Willie Snead in

I’ve done countless roster projections since I began covering the NFL. This might be the hardest one I’ve ever put together.

It’s not because there are too many close battles or not enough talent at certain positions. It’s because there are so many injuries and unknown timetables.

Do the Saints carry Keenan Lewis until he’s healthy?

How about Dannell Ellerbe?

Will running backs Khiry Robinson and C.J. Spiller be back sooner than later?

And what’s up with Jairus Byrd?

All of those guys end up on this roster. The Saints began placing players on injured reserve earlier in the week. It seems like they would have cleared all of those guys out if they were putting others on injured lists.

Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if a couple more names hit injured reserve. If they do, that changes everything and this roster projection will be decimated.

Anyways, going off of what we know, here’s my best guess at how the 53-man roster will end up. The team has to trim from 75 to 53 on Saturday:

Quarterback (3): Drew Brees, Luke McCown, Garrett Grayson
Out: Ryan Griffin
Analysis: It’s hard to shake the feeling that Luke McCown didn’t already have this one wrapped up before the fourth preseason game. If he didn’t, he probably finished the job by going 5-for-5 with a touchdown on the first series of the game.

Running backs (5): Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller, Khiry Robinson, Marcus Murphy, Austin Johnson
Out: Edwin Baker, Toben Oporum, Tim Hightower
Analysis: Both Spiller and Robinson are fighting injuries, which makes it somewhat difficult to project this position. If both players are unavailable for Week 1, then it’s likely Tim Hightower makes the initial roster. Johnson has the fullback position locked up.

Wide receiver (6): Brandin Cooks, Marques Colston, Brandon Coleman, Willie Snead, Josh Morgan, Seantavius Jones
Out: Joe Morgan
Analysis: It’s hard not to think that Joe Morgan seriously damaged his chances against the Packers. He dropped a pass that led to an interception and fumbled. Perhaps it’s an overreaction to one performance. He had some solid moments in camp. But this certainly wasn’t the way Morgan wanted to end his preseason. Seantavius Jones makes it for special teams.

Tight end (3): Josh Hill, Benjamin Watson, Alex Smith
Out: Chris Manhertz, Orson Charles
Analysis: This is only temporary. Charles will be on the team once his one-game suspension ends.

Offensive line (8): Zach Strief, Terron Armstead, Max Unger, Tim Lelito, Jahri Evans, Andrus Peat, Senio Kelemete, Mike McGlynn
Out: Sean Hickey, Cyril Lemon, Nick Becton, Mike Golic Jr., Bryce Harris
Analysis: It wouldn’t be a surprise if someone like Becton manages to make the team. He’s been the best of the rest. Hickey could also jump in ahead of McGlynn. It’s close. I prefer the veteran.

Defensive line (7): Cam Jordan, Akiem Hicks, Jonathan Jenkins, Kevin Williams, Tavaris Barnes, Bobby Richardson, Tyeler Davison
Out: Kaleb Eulls, Ashaad Mabry, Parys Haralson
Analysis: The battle is tight at defensive tackle. Kaleb Eulls and Ashaad Mabry have both had positive moments during the preseason. Whoever loses here will have a good shot of landing on the practice squad. I previously thought Richardson was headed in the wrong direction. He bounced back against the Packers. Haralson is on the bubble. His usage in the preseason makes it seem like he’s on the right side of the equation, but it’s hard to find his fit since some of the guys at linebacker can play defensive end.

Linebacker (7): Stephone Anthony, Dannell Ellerbe, David Hawthorne, Hau’oli Kikaha, Ramon Humber, Davis Tull, Kasim Edebali
Out: Justin Anderson, Henry Coley, Jerry Franklin
Analysis: Ellerbe’s status is up in the air. He’s been out since the first game of the preseason with a toe injury. If he isn’t ready or is placed on an injured list, then Coley makes the team. However, if Ellerbe’s injury isn’t something that is going to linger the Saints need to keep him around. He’s the best cover linebacker on the team. Edebali can also help at defensive end.

Cornerback (6): Brandon Browner, Delvin Breaux, Damian Swann, Kyle Wilson, Keenan Lewis, Stanley Jean-Baptiste
Safety (5): Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro, Rafael Bush, Kenny Phillips, Pierre Warren
Out: Brian Dixon, Sammy Seamster, Jamarca Sanford
Analysis: This feels like a lot of cornerbacks. There’s an extra one to absorb the injury of Keenan Lewis. Brian Dixon could make it on for his ability on special teams. If Lewis were healthy, things might be shaky for Jean-Baptiste. It’s crazy to think how deep this position looked a month ago. Now it’s thin with injuries to Lewis and P.J. Williams, who was placed on injured reserve. Warren gets in over Sanford. Warren has some play-making ability and contributes on special teams. However, his bad angle to a ball that allowed a 77-yard reception against the Packers could lead to his demise.

Special teams (3): K Zach Hocker, P Thomas Morstead, LS Justin Drescher
Out: Dustin Hopkins
Analysis: I had Hopkins right up until the end. I thought he was better in practices. But he’s missed kicks from 48 and 55 yards. Hocker has hit two over 50 yards and missed one from that distance.

Bryce Harris, Brandon Browner, Kenny Vaccaro out of uniform as Saints take on Green Bay

GREEN  BAY, Wis. — Cornerback Brandon Browner and strong safety Kenny Vaccaro have both practiced this week, but neither are available for Thursday’s preseason finale against Green Bay.

Offensive tackle Bryce Harris, who was also present at Tuesday’s practice, is not dressed out for the game, either.

Previously injured Saints players C.J. Spiller, Khiry Robinson, Ramon Humber and Dannell Ellerbe are also out of uniform tonight.

Welcome to Lambeau Field for tonight’s game between the Saints and Packers

Lambeau

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The saints wrap up the preseason tonight against the Green Bay Packers.

Most of the starters are not expected to play tonight. Coach Sean Payton said previously that Ryan Griffin is expected to get a lot of snaps tonight.

A lot will be riding on his performance. Griffin did not enter last week’s game against the Houston Texans until there was less than a minute remaining. He immediately threw an interception.

If Griffin does not impress, it seems likely New Orleans will carry Drew Brees, Luke McCown and Garrett Grayson at quaterback.

Scouts in the house: The Chicago Bears have a scout here. The Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Montreal Alouettes also have scouts here.

Weather: It’s supposed to be around 73 degrees at kickoff. The temperature is not expected to drop lower than 67 degrees during the game. It is not supposed to rain.

Nick Toon, Vinnie Sunseri, Ronald Powell clear waivers, placed on injured reserve

The three veterans the Saints waived with an injury designation on Tuesday have cleared waivers.

Wide receiver Nick Toon, safety Vinnie Sunseri and linebacker Ronald Powell were not claimed by any NFL team, meaning they are now placed on injured reserve.

The three veterans will remain on injured reserve unless the Saints reach an injury settlement with the player once he’s healthy, allowing him to become a free agent.

Analysis: Losing Keenan Lewis to hip surgery is another blow for Saints secondary

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints DB Keenan Lewis (21) fights off the block of WR Joe Morgan (13) on a pass play during the Saints' morning Training Camp practice Friday in White Sulphur Springs, WV.

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS — Saints DB Keenan Lewis (21) fights off the block of WR Joe Morgan (13) on a pass play during the Saints’ morning Training Camp practice Friday in White Sulphur Springs, WV.

At some point this season the New Orleans Saints’ secondary will be on the field together. When that point comes remains a mystery.

New Orleans took another hit this week with cornerback Keenan Lewis undergoing hip surgery. According to the NFL Network, he’s expected to miss at least four weeks.

Lewis has been the linchpin of the Saints’ secondary and serves as the No. 1 cornerback. Without him, the team will likely turn to first-year player and Canadian Football League import Delvin Breaux to fill in. Brandon Browner, who signed this offseason, will be the other starter.

Lewis battled an injury earlier in camp and tried to play in last week’s game against the Houston Texans.

The secondary was supposed to be the strength of this defense, but it has been decimated by injuries this offseason. Safety Jairus Byrd has not practiced since organized team activities, as he’s out with an undisclosed injury.

Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro is fighting an injury that kept him out of action against the Houston Texans, and Browner suffered a knee injury in the first week of the preseason and has not played since. Both players are expected to be back sooner than later.

For Byrd, the timetable for his return remains a mystery. The team, however, continues to downplay the situation.

“I think we have a pretty good idea in regards to when those guys will be back, and we’ll plan accordingly,” coach Sean Payton said. “Some of that you can’t control, and it is not just unique to our team. It’s pretty common in the league.”

The members of the defense have been steadfast in saying the group will eventually come together despite not playing with one another during training camp.

The Saints also say they’re confident in their backups.

“I think we pride ourselves on having a good second line,” defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. “Most teams look at as you’re only as good as your backups anyway. If the guy in front of him goes down those guys got to step up. We thing we have a good group of guys that can handle it.”

Still, not playing together was one of the issues often cited last season for the defense regressing to become one of the worst units in the league after finishing in the top five the previous year.

Last year, Byrd missed most of the offseason program and did not get back on the field until late in training camp. It took him several weeks to get up to speed and then he missed the rest of the season after suffering a knee injury in Week 4.

Lewis won’t have those issues when he returns. He’s familiar with the system and is a proven commodity, but the current group could have issues getting on the same page and getting used to one another early in the season.

The potential saving grace here is that, unlike last season, the Saints appear to have quality depth at cornerback this season. Breaux, who was also injured for a period of time this preseason, has appeared capable in practices and should be able to hold down the spot better than some of the candidates who played opposite Lewis last season after Champ Bailey was released coming out of camp.

Behind Breaux and Browner, rookie Damian Swann has also played well. Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Kyle Wilson fill out the cornerback depth. Brian Dixon is also in the mix.

But sustaining and thriving are different things. With a questionable pass rush following the release of Junior Galette earlier in camp, New Orleans needs a secondary that can cover long enough for the front seven to get after the quarterback.

It’s now questionable how well the group can handle that task without Lewis.

What was once a strength of this defense is once again a major question mark.

MORE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS COVERAGE

Saints claim cornerback Sammy Seamster off of waivers

Miami Dolphins defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo, center, talks with cornerback Bobby McCain (28) and defensive back Sammy Seamster (37) at the teams NFL football training camp, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015 in Davie, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Miami Dolphins defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo, center, talks with cornerback Bobby McCain (28) and defensive back Sammy Seamster (37) at the teams NFL football training camp, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015 in Davie, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The New Orleans Saints claimed former Miami Dolphins cornerback Sammy Seamster off of waivers on Tuesday.

Seamster, a 6-foot, 205-pounder from Middle Tennessee State, played in two games for the Dolphins as a rookie in 2014.

Claiming a player like Seamster at the 75-man cut-down essentially offers the Saints a chance to get an extended evaluation of him.

“To claim a player to your 75 is fairly easy to do, it’s much more challenging to claim a player to your 53,” Payton said. “We would have been unable to do that if it was just a 53, so we have  a chance to look at a player here for a week.”

Saints place P.J. Williams on injured reserve with reported torn hamstring

NFL_Combine_FootballThe New Orleans Saints placed rookie cornerback P.J. Williams on season-ending injured reserve on Tuesday with a reported torn hamstring, according to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

Williams, a Florida State product who battled injuries throughout training camp and played in only one preseason game against the New England Patriots, was the second of the team’s two third-round picks.

New Orleans projected Williams as a potential competitor at a nickel cornerback position that has been filled by Delvin Breaux and fifth-round pick Damian Swann in Williams’ absence.

Saints cut roster to 75; Nick Toon, Erik Lorig among notable releases

Texans_Saints_FootballThe first round of roster cuts has arrived.

Per NFL rules, the New Orleans Saints must cut the roster down  to 75 players by 3 p.m. today.

And the day got started early. New Orleans traded return man Jalen Saunders to the New England Patriots on Tuesday morning, the first in a series of moves that must be done an hour before the Saints practice.

With so many moves expected, The Advocate will keep a running blog of the roster moves as the day advances. Keep an eye on the page.

Saints Transactions

  • Traded Jalen Saunders to New England, per source
  • Placed defensive end/outside linebacker Anthony Spencer on injured reserve, per source
  • Waived wide receiver Nick Toon with an injury designation, per source
  • Waived safety Vinnie Sunseri with an injury designation, per ESPN
  • Claimed second-year cornerback Sammy Seamster off of waivers from the Dolphins, per ESPN
  • Placed rookie cornerback P.J. Williams on injured reserve, per ESPN
  • Released outside linebacker Ronald Powell, per source
  • Released cornerback Terrence Frederick, per source
  • Released fullback Erik Lorig
  • Released wide receiver R.J. Harris, per source
  • Released offensive tackle Antonio Johnson, per source
  • Released linebacker Chris Young, per source
  • Released wide receiver Lance Lewis, per source
  • Released defensive end Markus Pierce-Brewster, per source
  • Released defensive tackle David Hunter, per source
  • Released offensive guard Cole Manhart, per source
  • Released cornerback Travis Manning, per source

Saints trade Jalen Saunders to New England for conditional pick

Advocate staff photo by RUSTY COSTANZA --   at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Sunday, August 30, 2015.

Advocate staff photo by RUSTY COSTANZA —
at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Sunday, August 30, 2015.

The New Orleans Saints have traded Jalen Saunders to the New England Patriots for a conditional draft pick, a league source confirmed to The Advocate.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the news first.

New Orleans will receive a conditional pick depending on Saunders’ playing time with New England, who was looking for a return man. For New Orleans, a team that still has to make at least 14 moves to get down to the 75-man limit by 3 p.m., the move represents an opportunity to get value out of a player who had become expendable.

Saunders, a former fourth-round pick of the New York Jets who was cut three games into his rookie season, emerged as a return option for the Saints late last season, taking a kickoff back 99 yards against Atlanta and averaging 11 yards per return on nine punt returns.

But Marcus Murphy‘s emergence as a return man — Sean Payton declared that Murphy would make the team after Sunday’s third preseason game — took Saunders’ role on the roster.

Now, Saunders will have a chance to win New England’s return job after returning five kicks for an average of 26 yards against Houston last week, including a 50-yard return that Saunders nearly broke into the open.

New England also got a chance to take a closer look at Saunders, who has also spent time on the practice squads in Arizona and Seattle, when the two teams held two joint practices at the Greenbrier before facing off in the second preseason game.

Saints mailbag: How will the Saints score in the red zone without Jimmy Graham?

This started out as a mailbag. Then someone asked this question:

I didn’t immediately have an answer. Like everyone else, when Graham was traded to Seattle, my initial concern centered on the red zone.

How would the Saints score there?

Who is going to catch jump balls now?

Is this the end of the fade route in New Orleans?

So, when this question came in, I started watching some red-zone plays from last season to see if there were clues on how the team will generate offense in that area of the field this season.

Instead, what I started to see was that my concerns about a Graham-less offense in this area of the field were overblown.

Graham scored nine touchdowns in the red zone last season. That’s a big figure and someone is going to have to pick up the slack. But of those, only four were exclusive to Graham’s talents. On those plays, he either posts up his man or goes up and gets a ball that no one else could catch.

The rest are plays others can make. Within this group, there are a handful of back-shoulder catches that are unquestionably the result of his chemistry with Brees. Marques Colston scored a touchdown in a similar manner, but there’s something to be said for the chemistry that existed between Graham and Brees.

Making sure someone can pull in those passes consistently is the biggest concern. As far as the jump balls go, one could make a case the Saints should have used those more often last season.

Still, there’s plenty of evidence this team can score without Graham. Some concern is warranted with the offense now 1-for-3 in this area of the field with Brees at quarterback this preseason, but the plays below make it seem like the Saints will figure things out.

Touchdown 1

RZTD1

On the first red-zone touchdown of the season, Brandin Cooks ran a short in route, at about 2-yards depth, and managed to get in the end zone. He beat his man off the line, Brees delivered the ball in the right spot to carry him into the end zone, and Cooks had an easy score.

Touchdown 2

RZTD2Here’s Graham. But I wouldn’t classify this as a classic Graham touchdown. He runs a quick out route, pulls in the ball, and fights through a couple defenders to get in the the end zone. It might be the best effort he made to get in the end zone all season. Still, this isn’t a play that is exclusive to his talents.

Touchdown 3

RZTD3

Classic Graham here. Run to the corner of the end zone, throw it up, pray.

Touchdown 4

RZTD4

Marques Colston goes up the seam here, fakes like he’s coming back to the ball, and then keeps going. The fake shakes his defender, giving him enough room to make the catch, and then he fights through two safeties to get into the end zone.

Touchdown 5

RZTD5

Here’s Graham again. He runs a lazy route over the middle, sits in the zone between two linebackers, and then runs it in. No over covered him. This is another play that could easily be made by someone else on the team.

Touchdown 6

RZTD6Josh Hill starts out blocking here. When Drew Brees begins rolling to his side of the field, he peels off, catches a pass and runs it into the end zone.

Touchdown 7

RZTD7

This is one of my favorite routes from a running back last season. Travaris Cadet goes over the middle and fakes like he’s going to sit in a zone. He then breaks to the sideline, pulls in the catch and runs it in.

Touchdown 8

RZTD8

Pierre Thomas catches a screen, gets some great blocks from his teammates, and runs it in.

Touchdown 9

RZTD9Austin Johnson runs a route to the left side of the field and no one covers him. Brees spots his man, delivers the pass, and Johnson punches it in.

Touchdown 10

RZTD10

The Packers bite on a play-action fake, which allows Josh Hill to go uncovered for an easy touchdown.

Touchdown 11

RZTD11Graham never really looks open on this play, but Brees delivers a back-shoulder throw where only he can get the ball. Other guys can make this play, as seen on Touchdown 17, but there’s something to be said for the level of chemistry that existed between Brees and Graham. It shows up here.

Touchdown 12

RZTD12Graham runs to the corner of the end zone here, uses his frame to box out the corner and makes the catch. This is an example of his unique skills being put to use.

Touchdown 13

RZTD13Graham runs a post route here, posts up the defensive back, and pulls in the touchdown catch. Graham at his best.

Touchdown 14

RZTD14

Kenny Stills motions across the formation, revealing that the Bengals are in a zone coverage. He is not immediately picked up at the defensive line and beats the safety to corner of the end zone.

Touchdown 15

RZTD15Graham runs to the end zone, posts up, leaps, makes the catch. Classic Graham. Few people in the league make this play. He’s one of them.

Touchdown 16

RZTD16

The linebacker freezes at the line here as Graham runs down the field uncovered. This one certainly isn’t exclusive to Graham.

Touchdown 17

RZTD17The throw here is almost identical to the one to Graham on Touchdown 11. Brees puts it on Colston’s back shoulder for the touchdown.

Touchdown 18

RZTD18

This is all after the catch. Nick Toon runs a little curl, makes the catch, then spins through about four guys for the touchdown.

Touchdown 19

RZTD20

Erik Lorig runs a screen, makes the catch, and runs it in.

Touchdown 20

RZTD19No one covers Ben Watson. He marches right into the end zone without issue. Doubt that happens much this year. Give Graham some credit. The safety brackets him, which creates the free pass for Watson.

Touchdown 21

RZTD21

Watson navigates through the zone coverage over the middle and gets into the end zone.

Touchdown 22

RZTD22Hill runs a delayed route here. He’s initially picked up but the man in coverage bails on his assignment. This allows Hill to score an easy touchdown.

Touchdown 23

RZ23

Colston goes up the seam. The safety is late getting over. Brees delivers a high pass, which Colston has to go up for. Touchdown.

Touchdown 24

RZTD24This is basically the same play as the last one. Hill runs a delayed route, isn’t covered, and scores easily.

Touchdown 25

RZTD25

Here’s another touchdown created by Brees putting the ball on Graham’s back shoulder. Again, this is a play others can make. The question is if Brees trusts them enough to consistently make the throw.