In the six seasons prior to 2012 that Sean Payton was around the Saints, only once was roster truly unbalanced.
In 2007, the team started the season with 28 offensive players and 22 defensive players. Other than 2011, when there were four special teams players because Garrett Hartley began the season injured, Payton’s Week 1 rosters have been 25 offensive players, 25 defensive players and three special teams players.
(We’re throwing 2012 out because Payton wasn’t around and had no say in the roster.)
Rob Ryan, meanwhile, has been all over the place in regard to what he has been able to keep as defensive coordinator of the Raiders (2004-08), Browns (’09-’10) and Cowboys (’11-’12). He has had as many as 26 defensive players to as few as 23.
So that should give a good gauge as to what will happen with the Saints’ roster following Thursday night’s preseason finale at Miami. About a week ago, I was at the perfectly balanced 25-25-3. And I still am as of today.
But there are some switches from my Aug. 22 roster, some due to injuries while others are due to their performance against Houston. And there may just be one surprise hidden in it all. The NFL mandates that rosters must be down to 53 players by 5 p.m. CST Saturday.
Quarterbacks (Payton Ave.: 2.1)
Make It: Drew Brees, Luke McCown
Cut: Ryan Griffin
This one is pretty clear cut. Only once in Payton’s tenure have the Saints kept more than two quarterbacks to begin the season and that was in 2007. That’s why the average on his Week 1 roster is 2.1. Griffin will likely make it through waivers and will come back to the Saints as a practice squad quarterback. McCown isn’t Brees, but he’s a capable backup should the Saints need to bring him in for a play or series.
Running Backs (Payton Ave.: 4)
Make it: Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, Travaris Cadet
Cut: Khiry Robinson
Our first cut that will make fans upset, Robinson and Cadet were back-and-forth for us. But Cadet’s special teams ability and his capability of playing the Sproles Role keeps him around. Robinson could slip through waivers and end up on the practice squad. While this is our guess, it wouldn’t surprise us if the roles were flipped.
Fullbacks (Payton Ave.: 1.16)
Make it: Jed Collins, Austin Johnson
We flip-flopped on Johnson but he has shown enough athleticism that he’d be a hard guy to cut. The other thing in his favor in our eyes – Collins missed all of last week with an undisclosed injury.
Receiver (Payton Ave.: 5.83)
Make it: Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Kenny Stills, Nick Toon, Preston Parker, Andy Tanner
Cut: Courtney Roby, Tim Toone, Saalim Hakim
IR: Joseph Morgan
In five of Payton’s six seasons at the helm, the team has kept six receivers. Only in 2009 did the team begin the season with five. Our first “surprise” cut here is Roby, one of the team’s best special teams players in his tenure with the Saints. We think Tanner and Parker did enough Sunday against Houston to solidify spots. Parker can play a role as a return man in a pinch and, in fact, this fact could affect Cadet’s position on the team. As for Tanner, he has shown himself to be valuable enough to keep. He caught two touchdowns against the Texans and followed them up by playing kickoff coverage and finished around the tackle both times.
Tight End (Payton Ave.: 3.67)
Make it: Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson
Cut: Michael Higgins, Keavon Milton, Josh Hill
We’re veering from tradition here with this one. Payton has never kept fewer than three tight ends but there aren’t three legitimate NFL tight ends on the roster. Higgins has been around the Saints for years, but has never truly advanced enough to solidify his position. He had a penalty this past week for an illegal block above the waist.
Offensive Line (Payton Ave.: 8.66)
Make it: Charles Brown, Ben Grubbs, Brian de la Puente, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief, Eric Olsen, Terron Armstead, Bryce Harris, Tim Lelito
Cut: Elliott Mealer, Jeremiah Warren, Andrew Tiller, Marcel Jones
Nine linemen made the cut in Payton’s first four years. The following three seasons, though, saw only eight linemen on the roster. We foresee the number go back to nine this season. Lelito is our surprise keeper. He has had a steady camp and when he came in to play right guard against Houston, the Saints offense got going. Olsen hurt his chances with the poor start at right guard against the Texans, but he’s solidly the team’s backup center and has been in the system for awhile now. Harris provides the team with a veteran backup at tackle, with Armstead just biding time while getting experience in practice.
Jones appears to have been passed up by Lelito at second-team right guard. Both he and Tiller, who were drafted by the Saints in the 2012 draft, look like locks for the practice squad.
Interior Defensive Line (Payton Ave.: 4.5; Ryan Ave.: 3.33)
Make it: Brodrick Bunkley, John Jenkins,
Cut: Issako Aaitui
With the switch to the 3-4 from the 4-3, combined with the fact that some of the ends can play inside, it’s obvious the Saints will only keep two inside linemen. Bunkley comes back as the starter with Jenkins the Saints’ third-round pick this April. Aaitui never really made an impression during the preseason.
Defensive Ends (Payton Ave.: 3.66; Ryan Ave.: 3.88)
Make it: Akiem Hicks, Cam Jordan, Jay Richardson, Glenn Foster, Tyrunn Walker
Cut: Tom Johnson
IR: Kenyon Coleman
The numbers here are a bit inflated because of players who can play multiple positions. Hicks will start at end but can play inside. Walker is the same. Richardson, meanwhile, can play at both defensive end – where he started in Oakland under Ryan – and outside linebacker. Foster has proven to be one of the best finds of the preseason, rating as the second-best defensive end this preseason according to Pro Football Focus. He has a league-best four sacks, including one against Houston’s first-team offense.
Johnson would be the surprise cut. His release would be a direct result of Foster’s brilliant preseason and Walker’s surprising upside. Johnson has spent much of the past three seasons injured, which doesn’t help.
Linebackers (Payton Ave.: 6.5; Ryan Ave.: 7.55)
Make it: Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, Ramon Humber, Will Herring, Junior Galette, Martez Wilson, Parys Haralson, Kevin Reddick, Rufus Johnson
Cut: Ray Shipman, Eric Martin, Chris Chamberlain, Baraka Atkins
IR: Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Victor Butler
We know what you’re thinking – NO JONATHAN VILMA? ARE YOU CRAZY? The answer is, yes, we’re crazy. But not for this decision. The way Humber and Hawthorne have played this preseason, it’s easy to put them on the roster over Vilma. He has had several surgeries on his left knee and hasn’t been the same player since it was injured during the 2011 regular season. The toughest decision here was to keep Martin off the roster. The undrafted rookie started out training camp with a bang, working consistently with the second team. But Reddick’s rise as preseason went along is hard to overlook for us. Herring would seem to be the odd name on the list, but Payton has spoken glowingly of the veteran for his special teams play this preseason.
Safeties (Payton Ave.: 4.5; Ryan Ave: 3.33)
Make it: Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, Rafael Bush, Kenny Vaccaro, Isa Abdul-Quddus
Cut: Jim Leonhard, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Jerico Nelson
Leonhard was the tough cut here. He’s a veteran who brings savvy and experience and is a Ryan family disciple. But he is way down the depth chart and didn’t appear to be a factor on any special teams this preseason. Ryan has never kept more than five safeties and Leonhard would seem to be the final cut. Abdul-Quddus and Bush are both special teams experts, a reason why cutting Roby is easier than it would seem. Ryan has rotated in every safety at some point this preseason and his multiple packages makes it necessary to keep as many safeties as possible.
Cornerbacks (Payton Ave.: 5.16; Ryan Ave.: 5.88)
Make it: Jabari Greer, Keenan Lewis, Patrick Robinson, Corey White
Cut: Chris Carr, Korey Lindsey, Rod Sweeting
We went back-and-forth on Sweeting and White. In the end, White showed more promise in preseason game coverage than Sweeting and was better at special teams. Carr’s experience is hard to get rid of but his place on the roster would seem to be tied to that Lelito, Tanner, Parker and Herring. This was one of the tougher groups to finalize
Special Teams (Payton Ave.: 3.2)
Make it: Thomas Morstead, Garrett Hartley, Justin Drescher
Only once has Payton kept more than three specialists and that was in 2011 when Hartley began the season with a right hip injury. This one is an easy call.