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Another week of NFL action is behind us, meaning some New Orleans Saints players managing injuries are closer to returning from injured reserve. Now, being eligible to return isn’t the same thing as guaranteeing they’ll play on Sunday. Sean Payton characterized the situation last week as a more cautious process, saying: “Hopefully in the next, call it three to four weeks, we’re going to have some guys gradually coming back.”
Of the five players who could have returned a week ago, only one of them ultimately did — offensive lineman Will Clapp. So we probably won’t see everyone on this list suit up against Washington. It’s possible the Saints tap the brakes a bit and let them get two weeks of rest in with the bye up ahead, getting the team back closer to full strength coming out of the break.
With a road game with the Seattle Seahawks and a Halloween matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers waiting on the other side, it might make more sense to phase some of these players back in alongside Michael Thomas (from the physically unable to perform list) and David Onyemata (from his 6-game suspension).
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here are the names to know before the Saints begin making decisions in the days ahead:
K #3 Wil Lutz
Jan 5, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints kicker Wil Lutz (3) celebrates with punter Thomas Morstead (6) after kicking a field goal against the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter of a NFC Wild Card playoff football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook -USA TODAY Sports
Lutz was eligible to return last week, but his recovery from core muscle surgery warranted a longer stay on injured reserve. Hopefully he’s able to play soon, because his replacement (Aldrick Rosas, who coincidentally beat Lutz for a spot on the All-Pro first team back in 2018) has only made one of his four field goal tries so far. Those points are badly-needed; just one successful kick would have prevented the Saints from going to overtime against New York.
TE #81 Nick Vannett
New Orleans Saints tight end Nick Vannett (81) watches practice during NFL football training camp in Metairie, La,. Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle)
Vannett suffered a preseason knee injury against the Jacksonville Jaguars that was expected to sideline him for just two to four weeks; still, the team ended up starting him on injured reserve to start the season out of an abundance of caution, and now we’re almost six weeks past his projected return date. He isn’t much of a receiver, but having a more capable blocker than Garrett Griffin (or, frustratingly, Adam Trautman) could help keep the offense on schedule and prevent negative plays.
CB #25 Ken Crawley
New Orleans Saints cornerback Ken Crawley (25) during the team stretch at NFL football training camp in Metairie, Saturday, July 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle)
Few players had a stronger summer than Crawley, who was projected to start in Week 1 ahead of rookie draft pick Paulson Adebo. Then he injured his hamstring against the Jaguars and opened the year on injured reserve. Then the Saints signed free agent corner Desmond Trufant to push Adebo. Then they made a splashy trade for Bradley Roby, a quality No. 2 option. Adebo had been playing well enough to keep Roby and Trufant on the sidelines, but Crawley’s return could shake up the depth chart. It’s worth noting Trufant was a healthy inactive against the Giants and the Saints currently have three more corners on their practice squad.
WR #10 Tre'Quan Smith
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith (10) catches a pass during NFL football training camp in Metairie, Friday, July 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle)
Like the three previous players listed, Smith was first eligible to return last week. Clearly the Saints felt he needed more time rest his injured hamstring, which took him out for most of training camp. It’s really disappointing given all the work he put in with Jameis Winston this offseason and how poorly the receiving corps has performed without him.
Once Smith is given the green light, he should immediately assert himself as the unit’s best and most experienced option. If Kenny Stills is signed to the 53-man roster soon to allow him to continue to play (he can only be elevated from the practice squad twice), look for two players out of Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Chris Hogan, and Ty Montgomery to be pushed out of the rotation to open spots for Stills and Smith.
LB #5 Kwon Alexander
New Orleans Saints middle linebacker Kwon Alexander (58) jogs during pre-game warm-ups before an NFL preseason football game against the Baltimore Ravens Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)
Alexander worked so hard to return from a late-season Achilles injury, so it was even more frustrating to see him go down to injured reserve with an unrelated elbow issue after Week 1. He’s now served his minimum three weeks of rest and is eligible to play as soon as the Saints activate him. But we don’t know the specifics of his elbow injury or how long it will take him to recover, so let’s keep expectations muted.
In the meantime, the Saints have gotten better linebacker play out of rookie Pete Werner than they found in second-year pro Zack Baun. Neither player is on Alexander’s level yet, but the Saints have and will win games while he’s out of action. But the sooner he’s reunited with Demario Davis the better. There’s no substitute for the energy Alexander brings to the defense.
DE #92 Marcus Davenport
New Orleans Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport kneels prior to an NFL preseason football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
It took Davenport all of five minutes (give or take a few seconds) to establish himself as the Saints’ best defensive lineman this season. Then he injured his pectoral muscle, putting a very disappointing interruption to what looked like the start of a great year for him. Of the players eligible to return this week, his case feels like the least likely. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Saints keep him on ice through the bye week and into Week 7 so he can return around the same time as David Onyemata (in Week 8’s game with the Buccaneers), given how well his backups Tanoh Kpassagnon and Payton Turner have been playing.