Bigger Things Needed from Saints Rookie Class of 2020

The Saints rookie class of 2020 were afforded a year of development because of the talent in front of them. With several key losses on both sides of the ball, much bigger things are needed from these players for any chance of success in 2021.
Author:
Publish date:

The 2020 New Orleans Saints rookie class may not have taken the NFL by storm but had some solid contributors in the team's fourth consecutive NFC South championship.

Last year's rookies had far from the impact that the splendid class of 2017 had on the team. They were also hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic that caused the cancelation of offseason activities and the entire preseason.

The 2020 rookie class played a nice complementary role but were afforded a sort of ‘‘redshirt’’ year because of talented veterans in front of them. Offseason personnel losses will thrust many of these players into much more prominent roles in 2021.

CESAR RUIZ, GUARD (MICHIGAN)

1st Round - 24th Overall

New Orleans Saints offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz (51). Credit: si.com/USA TODAY 

New Orleans Saints offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz (51). Credit: si.com/USA TODAY 

A surprise first-round selection, Ruiz mainly played center in college. He appeared in 15 of 16 regular-season contests and both playoff games.

Unable to beat out veteran Nick Easton for the starting right guard spot, Ruiz received his first career start in Week 4. He’d start 10 of the last 13 games, including playoffs, and played in 69% of the team’s offensive snaps.

Essentially playing a new position, his play improved down the stretch of the year. He struggled in pass protection at times but was credited with just one sack given up.

The New Orleans line also paved the way for a sixth-ranked rushing attack and led the NFL with 30 rushing touchdowns.

Ruiz, a solid technician and powerfully built at 6’3” and 307-Lbs., will be the unquestioned starter at right guard with the offseason release of Easton. He is having a terrific training camp and looks far more comfortable going into his second season.

Ruiz is one of three former first-round selections along a New Orleans offensive line that is considered one of the league's best. Pro Bowl tackles Ryan Ramczyk, Terron Armstead, and C Erik McCoy are among the NFL's best at their positions.

ZACK BAUN, LINEBACKER (WISCONSIN)

3rd Round - 74th Overall

New Orleans Saints linebacker Zack Baun (53) applies pressure on Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley (7). Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints linebacker Zack Baun (53) applies pressure on Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley (7). Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans traded two draft picks to Cleveland to move up in the third round for Baun. An outstanding pass rusher in college as a stand-up defensive end, the 6’2 and 238-Lb Baun would move to linebacker for the Saints.

Baun had a veteran set of linebackers ahead of him and was without a full offseason to learn the coverage responsibilities of the position.

Baun appeared in 17 of 18 games, including playoffs, but mostly on special teams. He had 15 tackles, one for loss, but was in on just 8% of the defensive snaps.

This spring, New Orleans re-signed LB Kwon Alexander to complement All-Pro Demario Davis and used a second-round choice on LB Pete Werner. However, after the offseason losses of linebackers Alex Anzalone and Craig Robertson, Baun will be expected to play a bigger role.

Baun has had an outstanding training camp and was one of the team’s biggest stars in their preseason opener against Baltimore. He looks far more comfortable in coverage and sideline pursuit.

Werner was expected to be a potential opening day starter at linebacker. However, Baun's rapid development may be too much to overtake. After questions about the position entering the offseason, the linebacker is shaping up to be a strength of the team.

ADAM TRAUTMAN, TIGHT END (DAYTON)

3rd Round - 105th Overall

New Orleans Saints tight end Adam Trautman (82) catches a touchdown pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints tight end Adam Trautman (82) catches a touchdown pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints traded all four Day 3 selections in the 2020 NFL Draft to the Vikings to slide back into the third round for Trautman. 

Despite playing at a smaller college, he had caught the attention of scouts with his physical attributes and performance in postseason all-star games.

Trautman got off to a slow start but earned more playing time as the season progressed because of his blocking skills. He appeared in 17 games and played 37% of the offensive snaps, starting five of the last seven regular-season contests.

Playing behind 2019 Pro Bowl TE Jared Cook, Trautman saw few targets as a receiver as a rookie. He had 16 receptions for 175 yards and a touchdown on the year.

Trautman presents a mismatch for opposing defenders. He’s 6’5” and 255-Lbs. with the speed to beat defenses down the field. As a receiver, he has excellent hands and shows the route precision to be a reliable target.

The Saints drafted Trautman with a clear eye towards starting him in 2021. With Cook now gone, he’ll have to show that he can consistently produce for the offense.

MARQUEZ CALLAWAY, WIDE RECEIVER (TENNESSEE)

Undrafted

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marquez Callaway (1) performs receiver drills during a training camp session. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marquez Callaway (1) performs receiver drills during a training camp session. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Probably the biggest surprise of the 2020 Saints was the emergence of Callaway as an undrafted rookie. Making the team was impressive enough, but he performed well when thrust into a key role early in his career.

A rash of injuries through the receiving corps pushed the undrafted Callaway into a starting spot in Week 5. He’d respond by catching 12 of 16 targets for 109 yards over the following two games.

Callaway had his injury issues during the year but still caught 21 passes for 213 yards over 11 games. He showed good route precision and reliable hands as a rookie, quickly earning the trust of his quarterback and coaches.

The 6’2” and 204-Lb. Callaway looks primed for a breakout season. With All-Pro WR Michael Thomas sidelined after ankle surgery, Callaway has taken over as the team's top wideout. He’s had a fantastic training camp and an impressive outing against the Ravens.

The scary thing about Callaway is that the scouting report on him coming out of college was that he was a terrific deep receiver who lacked the route precision to be effective underneath.

Callaway's explosiveness and game-breaking ability will be a crucial part of the offense in his second year.

JUWAN JOHNSON, TIGHT END (OREGON)

Undrafted 

New Orleans Saints' tight end Juwan Johnson (83) makes a second quarter catch against the Baltimore Ravens. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints' tight end Juwan Johnson (83) makes a second quarter catch against the Baltimore Ravens. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Undrafted out of Oregon last year, Johnson made the squad as a wide receiver. After spending the early part of the year on the practice squad, he earned playing time down the stretch because of his blocking ability.

Johnson appeared in seven games as a rookie. He was targeted ten times, catching four passes for 39 yards. A big receiver at 6’4” and 231-Lbs., coach Sean Payton hatched a new plan for his young receiver during the offseason.

Johnson saw snaps at tight end during the team's OTA's early this summer. He played well enough that he was switched to the position at the start of training camp.

The position switch has paid early dividends. Johnson has been one of the offensive stars of training camp. He carried that success onto the field against the Ravens, making two downfield catches for 71 yards. Johnson also held up well as a blocker against the talented Baltimore front.

Johnson will need to continue his improvement as an in-line blocker and perfect his pass routes. But he has already all but assured his spot on the roster.

With continued development, he could also be a key component of the New Orleans offense in 2021.

MALCOLM ROACH, DEFENSIVE TACKLE (TEXAS)

Undrafted

New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Malcolm Roach (97) reacts after making a tackle during the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Malcolm Roach (97) reacts after making a tackle during the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Roach, a versatile defensive lineman in college, showed enough promise to crack the talented New Orleans interior rotation as a rookie.

He was one of the few rookies active for the season opener and played 100 defensive snaps over the first four games.

Roach's playing time dwindled as the season progressed. He appeared in nine games, had two tackles for loss among 16 total stops, and was credited with 4 QB pressures.

New Orleans will be without star DT David Onyemata for six games to start the year because of a league suspension. They already lost Sheldon Rankins and Malcom Brown from their deep rotation in the offseason.

A powerfully built player at 6’3” and 290-Lbs., Roach has an explosive burst at the snap and good upper body strength. He and third-year DT Shy Tuttle were the favorites to start the season at the beginning of training camp.

Roach has had a quiet training camp and possibly in a fight for a roster spot with fellow undrafted tackles Jalen Dalton, Christian Ringo, and Albert Huggins. The entire defensive line had a good showing against the Ravens in the preseason opener.

BLAKE GILLIKIN, PUNTER (PENN STATE)

Undrafted

New Orleans Saints punter Blake Gillikin. Credit: neworleanssaints.com

New Orleans Saints punter Blake Gillikin. Credit: neworleanssaints.com

Entering training camp last season, Gillikin was not going to unseat decorated veteran P Thomas Morstead. However, the Saints thought highly enough of him to ‘‘stash'' him on injured reserve in his first year.

New Orleans released Morstead this offseason in a salary-cap move. Gillikin has taken firm control of the competition to replace him over undrafted rookie Nolan Cooney.

Gillikin has a powerful leg with excellent directional abilities. He averaged over 43 yards per punt with the Nittany Lions, booming seven over 65 yards and downing 53 career kicks inside the opponent's 10-yard line.

Morstead's terrific leg and directional skills often gave the Saints a distinct field position advantage. Gillikin will have big shoes to fill in this underrated aspect of football.

TONY JONES JR., RUNNING BACK (NOTRE DAME)

Undrafted

New Orleans Saints running back Tony Jones Jr. (37) runs past Baltimore Ravens safety Ar Darius Washington (47). Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY

New Orleans Saints running back Tony Jones Jr. (37) runs past Baltimore Ravens safety Ar Darius Washington (47). Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY

Striking gold with an undrafted running back is nothing new for New Orleans. They unearthed a gem in franchise Hall of Famer Pierre Thomas and solid contributors with Chris Ivory, Khiry Robinson, and Travaris Cadet during Sean Payton's tenure as coach.

Comparing Jones to any of those backs is premature. He appeared in just one regular-season game as a rookie, picking up 13 yards rushing in the regular-season finale before leaving with injury.

Jones has had a standout training camp as he enters his second year. The success carried over to the preseason opener. He led all rushers with 82 yards on just 7 carries, scored a touchdown, and caught 5 passes for 38 yards.

Jones, 5'11" and 225-Lbs., has good power between the tackles and has shown outstanding vision and balance this summer. He’s also shown improved receiving ability, a perceived weakness in college.

New Orleans has a fierce competition at the final running back spots between Jones, Latavius Murray, Devonta Freeman, and Dwayne Washington. With continued development, Jones may not only secure a spot, but could also earn meaningful touches during the regular season.

The Saints rookie class of 2020 was afforded a year of development because of their talent. With several key losses on both sides of the ball, much bigger things are needed from these players for any chance of success in 2021.


READ MORE SAINTS NEWS: