Saints training camp notebook Aug. 6-9: Backup QBs execute, secondary shines

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New Orleans Saints training camp rolled into Day 12 with an impressively consistent indoor practice headlined by quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Ian Book. With Jameis Winston sidelined with a sprained right foot, per head coach Dennis Allen, it was an early look at the presumed offense for the first preseason game against the Houston Texans on Saturday. Here’s what we learned:

 

New Orleans dropped their first unofficial depth chart Monday evening, and a few positions stood out. On the offensive side, Michael Thomas is rightly back at WR1 with Marquez Callaway and Kevin White behind him, respectively. What seemed to take fans by surprise was rookie Chris Olave listed as third on the depth chart past Jarvis Landry and Tre’Quan Smith. Olave has been a standout all of camp; his sharpness off the line of scrimmage captured in many social media highlights. While Landry has equally impressed with consistency and nifty one-handed catches, it’s a fair question towards Smith.

It reminds me of the reaction when Justin Jefferson was a rookie and Minnesota listed him similarly at third past Adam Thielen and Bisi Johnson. That said, the situations couldn’t be more different. Smith, frankly, has shown up this summer; he bested C.J. Gardner-Johnson in both 1-on-1 reps Monday. He’s certainly in a different position than Johnson, who was a seventh-round pick the year prior with 31 catches. Quietly, Smith’s most valuable trait is his run blocking.

The primary difference is the employment of personnel. In the 2019 season – the year before Jefferson was drafted – the Vikings ran 11 personnel at the lowest rate in the NFL. They primarily employed 12 and 21 personnel – with just two wide receivers. There was a legitimate question of how Jefferson would make it on the field.

In contrast, per Sharp Football Stats, New Orleans employed three-wide receiver sets quite a bit last season: 11 personnel on 48% of plays, 01 personnel on a league-high 6% of plays, and second and third-highest rates of 02 and 20 personnel, respectively. Despite a talent-lacking group of pass catchers. I looked at the skill player groupings used in 11 personnel for 247 plays by the Saints last season – Smith was involved in 169, of which 37% were run plays.

In simpler terms, we should expect a lot of three-receiver sets this season. But instead of a trio drawing from Marquez Callaway, Smith, Kenny Stills and Deonte Harty, it’ll be much more formidable with Thomas, Landry, Smith and Olave. That Olave won’t hold the state of the Saints offense in his hands his rookie season is ultimately a great thing. And per the team tendencies, there will be plenty of three-receiver sets to spread the wealth.

The more interesting battle is in the tertiary group of receivers. As ineffective as he was last season, it’d be dubious to ignore Kevin White has flashed throughout camp – at minimum in stature. Dai’Jean Dixon recorded an impressive touchdown and a deep sideline catch from Ian Book in tight coverage Tuesday. Easop Winston Jr.’s one-handed catch (his second I’ve seen) on a deep sideline pass from Book was a top highlight. And Kirk Merritt displayed strong situational football in the two-minute offense scoring a touchdown thrown by Dalton with 10 seconds on the clock. Much like it did last season with quarterback, the preseason should illuminate a lot in the receiving group.

On the defensive side of the ball, I went back to charting the various safety looks in the rotating secondary with Monday’s camp session emphasizing run plays in 11-on-11’s. Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye are poised to be the starting tandem, and their versatility is captivating to watch by the snap. You can begin to see the disguises in coverage with so much movement: Maye and Mathieu will drop back at the snap from creeping up to the line of scrimmage, Maye backpedals into single-high coverage while Mathieu blitzes, and consistently move from split-safety to strong and free safety interchangeably. Alontae Taylor dropped back into two-high coverage one snap after swapping with Mathieu. Justin Evans was featured heavily in the safety looks Monday after filling in for Gardner-Johnson in the slot. He still appears one of the truer free safeties in his range and fluid movements but is notably eager to come downhill and tackle a runner in the backfield.

Today’s camp session was even more fascinating. Daniel Sorenson stuck out, and he took several snaps dropping back to free safety versus split-safety looks most of last week. Sorenson has a decent backpedal. He displayed solid mental processing of plays in front of him with quick reactions and impressive foot speed. His counterpart was often P.J. Williams, who just about flew into run defense keen to make several stops in 11-on-11 drills Tuesday. Williams dropped back to free safety most notably today – my count was five snaps. Sorenson and Maye each had three that I saw. Then I counted 28 split-safety looks that intertwined throughout. Often with the same tandem switching from strong to free, vice versa, dropping in two-high coverage, and ending on the line to blitz. Monday’s practice saw a lot of Dime packages that continued through today with a few more personnel groups. There was even a point where Bradley Roby dropped back into split-safety coverage opposite Marcus Maye.

“I think there is a lot of versatility in the guys that we’ve seen. We’ve seen PJ playing back there, Marcus Maye playing back there, Justin Evans, JT Gray, Sorenson, now Mathieu’s back,” Dennis Allen noted on Saturday. “There’s a lot of guys there that bring something to the table. It’s an interesting competition that we have, and I think all of them have stepped up to the plate at this point.”

It’s nothing short of a highly competitive battle in a group thought to be one of the weakest positions heading into this year’s draft. Dennis Allen touted the versatility offered by safeties with complementary skill sets earlier this offseason, but it’s only plausible with a certain group of communicative and intelligent players. This secondary is all but swimming in them.

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Story originally appeared on Saints Wire