Saints roundtable: What encouraged, surprised and scared us at minicamp practices | Jeff Duncan

Saints minicamp is in the books. Players and coaches are on vacation for the next five weeks as they take some downtime before the start of training camp in late July.

Granted, it’s difficult to draw much insight from three non-tackling practices in shorts and shirts. But there was enough work there for our Saints coverage team to draw conclusions and form some early opinions on the 2022 Saints.

Our post-Saints minicamp roundtable discussion after watching three days of full-squad work on the practice field:

Q: Now that you’ve seen the team on the field together for the first time, what player, position or aspect of the team are you most excited about?

Luke Johnson: It’s got to be the receiver room, right? As disappointing as it is that we’ll have to continue to wait and see what Michael Thomas looks like, the Saints clearly got better by adding Chris Olave and Jarvis Landry. Even if Thomas isn’t the dominant player we last saw in 2019 — and he may be — he won’t have to bear near as much burden when he’s healthy enough to return. The fact that their Nos. 1, 2 and 3 receivers last year will be Nos. 4, 5 and 6 this year should excite people.

Jeff Duncan: Capt. Obvious here, but the defense looks terrific. They consistently dominated the offense during team drills throughout minicamp, which was to be expected with so many key offensive players either missing or limited by injuries. Still, it was impossible to not be impressed by the talent and depth on all three levels of the unit. This defense has the potential – and I stress the word, potential – to be dominant this season.

Rod Walker: Since Luke chose the receivers and Jeff picked the defense, I’ll go with a specific player here. That player is Chris Olave. The Saints liked the rookie receiver from Ohio State that they traded up to get him. Early impressions is that it was a wise move. He’s clearly a playmaker that will bring this team a big-play downfield threat that they need. He should be a perfect complement for Jameis’ Winston’s strong arm. Put him in an offense with Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry and it’s hard to imagine a team that has improved more at a particular position.

Q: What, if any, are your greatest concerns?

Luke Johnson: Mainly that there are just fewer sure things about this team. You pretty much knew what you were going to get with a Sean Payton-coached squad, but Dennis Allen still has to prove it. Pete Carmichael has shown he can be an effective play-caller before, but the circumstances are different this year and, in a way, he still has to prove it. Jameis Winston has to prove he can do it over a full season. These topics are all kind of simmering below the surface of what has otherwise been, I think, a strong off-season for the Saints.

Jeff Duncan: Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s a great sign that Jameis Winston is still favoring his left leg or that he’s being held out of team drills. I’m sure the Saints are just being cautious with him, but it raised my eyebrows when Dennis Allen said he couldn’t guarantee that Winston would be 100 percent for the start of training camp.

Rod Walker: This concern isn’t really related to minicamp because it’s hard to really get a good feel for offensive line play during this time. But with Terron Armstead gone, you want to see how this unit is going to hold up. Will right guard Cesar Ruiz make the leap in Year 3? Will first round draft pick Trevor Penning be able to fill Armstead’s giant shoes? Or will that task be left up to James Hurst, who got the first team reps at left tackle during minicamp. How good the Saints’ offense is will inevitably come down to how well the guys upfront play.

Q: What was the biggest surprise of minicamp?

Luke Johnson: We knew from organized team activities that Winston was going to be out there with the team, but it’s still a pretty big surprise that he’s there considering he tore his ACL last Halloween. And, frankly, I’m not sure why it was that important for him to be on the field. His limp has been overblown as a storyline during the slow news period of the off-season, but it’s not like it’s not there, and he’s still clearly got some work to do to be back at full strength. If it were me running the show, I think I might’ve tried to convince Winston he doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone by being out there.

Jeff Duncan: Andy Dalton looked way better than I expected him to. Maybe I’m guilty of having low expectations, but I was impressed by just about everything Dalton did. He was accurate, mobile and in complete command of the offense. Considering the aforementioned concern I have for Winston, it’s comforting to see how proficient Dalton has been so far in running the Saints offense. He’s exactly what you look for in a veteran backup QB.

Rod Walker: The depth at receiver and in the depth in the secondary. Here’s something Dennis Allen said after Thursday’s practice. “One of things we wanted to do this year was add talent to the roster and increase the competition amongst the roster. I think we’ve done that in a lot of different areas.” Co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Kris Richard and new receivers coach Kodi Burns probably would agree. They are going to have some really tough cuts to make when it comes time to trim the roster to 53.

Q: Which player is the biggest question mark, heading into the season: Alvin Kamara, Mike Thomas or Jameis Winston? And why?

Luke Johnson: It’s Thomas by a mile. I don’t think it’s out of the question that we see him out there looking exactly like the guy who smashed the NFL’s single-season receptions record in 2019 — he is a deeply motivated player who I am certain has noticed his name disappearing off the ‘Who is NFL’s best receiver?’ lists. But the fact of the matter is it’s been more than two years since he’s been that guy, and I also don’t think it’s out of the question that he just isn’t the same player. Time will tell, but at the present moment, nobody can say anything for sure about him.

Jeff Duncan: I’m sticking with Winston, but I think there are legitimate concerns with all three players. As Luke said, Thomas hasn’t played football in two years. I’ll be shocked if he is able to step back on the field and be the same dominant player he was in 2019. And Kamara’s situation is obviously a concern. There’s a reason they brought in David Johnson for a tryout. That didn’t happen by accident.

Rod Walker: From a health standpoint, I’d say Winston. On one hand, he just had surgery 6 months ago, so the limp should be expected. On the other hand, the season is less than three months away. Based on camp, I trust Andy Dalton more than any backup who was on the roster in 2021. From a team standpoint, I’d say Kamara. He’s the player the Saints can least afford to be without simply because there aren’t many people in the league who can do what he does. How the league handles his Vegas incident will be critical to the season. (By the way, Saints’ fans should be thankful that’s the only legal matter hanging over the team. Imagine if the team had signed Deshaun Watson).

Q: Do you like the roster as is? Or should the Saints sign David Johnson and/or Joe Schobert? Why or why not?

Luke Johnson: I wouldn’t hate to see their personnel department comb through what’s left of the interior defensive line market, especially if there’s a surprise cut near training camp. But really, I think this all boils down to whether Jameis Winston is the guy at quarterback, because they’ve got pretty enviable depth and star power most everywhere else.

Jeff Duncan: I’d like to see them sign another running back as insurance for Kamara, whether it’s Johnson or someone else. Johnson looked pretty good at camp but he’s struggled to stay healthy in recent years. Otherwise, I think this roster is pretty much the one we’re going to see to start the 2022 season.

Rod Walker: Yes. The roster seems to be rock solid from top to bottom. The Saints have shown the past few months that if there is someone who can make this team better, they are going to try and go get him. Adding depth at running back in case of a lengthy Kamara would make sense. Anything outside of that is just lagniappe.

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