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Saints vs. Ravens: 5 Players to Watch in Preseason Clash

While everyone will be focused on the New Orleans quarterback battle, here are five other players to watch when the Saints open their preseason against the Baltimore Ravens.
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After what felt like the longest offseason in franchise history, the New Orleans Saints will finally take the field against an opponent.  The Saints travel north to face the Ravens in the first preseason game for both squads.

The Saints had to part ways with several starters or major contributors on both sides of the ball to get under the salary cap this offseason. While there is still playoff-caliber talent throughout the roster, several new faces are competing for key spots.

Most eyes will be on the quarterback position, where Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill battle for the sizeable task of replacing retired icon Drew Brees. Rookie fourth-round pick Ian Book has also caught the attention of training camp onlookers and will see snaps.

Quarterback will certainly be a major factor in the team's success in 2021. However, several other positions have major questions as the Saints head toward their September 12 regular-season opener.

Here are five players to watch closely as New Orleans opens their 2021 preseason competition.

PAULSON ADEBO, CORNERBACK

New Orleans Saints cornerbacks Paulson Adebo (29) and Ken Crawley (25) perform defensive drills during a training camp session. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY

New Orleans Saints cornerbacks Paulson Adebo (29) and Ken Crawley (25) perform defensive drills during a training camp session. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY

Adebo, a rookie third-round draft pick from Stanford, will see his first game action since November 9, 2019.  He opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns, possibly affecting his draft stock.

At 6’1 and 192-Lbs., Adebo has the stature and physicality to match up with any NFL wideout. He has excellent athletic ability and ball skills, intercepting 8 passes and breaking up 27 more in just 22 games at Stanford.

Adebo has a rare combination of man coverage skills and off-ball abilities. He possesses a fluid change-of-direction and outstanding natural route recognition.

Adebo has had a solid string of training camp practices so far.  He probably would have been a late-1st or early second-round pick if he played last season.

After the offseason release of CB Janoris Jenkins, the Saints have major questions at the number 2 corner spot opposite Marshon Lattimore.

Veteran Ken Crawley has had a standout camp thus far, with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and free-agent addition Prince Amukamara also factoring in for playing time.

Paulson Adebo represents a higher upside at cornerback because of his potential shutdown abilities. He’ll be tested against an upgraded Baltimore receiving corps that looks to improve from it's 32nd ranked passing attack in 2020.

DEVONTA FREEMAN, RUNNING BACK

Nov 28, 2019; Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) runs the ball against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 28, 2019; Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) runs the ball against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It’s still weird to see a former star from their most bitter rival in a New Orleans uniform.

After six standout seasons that included two 1,000-yard campaigns with the Atlanta Falcons, the Saints signed Freeman after spending 2020 with the New York Giants.

Freeman has a compact frame with a strong lower body. He is a capable receiver out of the backfield with a slashing running style similar to the dynamic Alvin Kamara.

Freeman, 29, played in only five games with New York and has missed 25 games over the last three years with various injuries. He’ll have to stay healthy to earn a roster spot, but could turn out to be a key signing for the team.

Freeman has a compact frame with a strong lower body. He is a capable receiver out of the backfield with a slashing running style similar to the dynamic Alvin Kamara.

His versatile skill set would allow the Saints to use Kamara more as a receiver while running a similar attack.

Veteran RB Latavius Murray is the team’s thumper between the tackles and is the ideal complement to Kamara. Neither player is expected to see heavy snaps against the Ravens, likely leaving Freeman to get a heavier load.

Baltimore is typically one of the league's better run defenses and has a physical front seven. Freeman will be challenged by veteran special teams ace Dwayne Washington and second-year RB Tony Jones Jr. He’ll have to show that he can still handle the brunt of the offensive load to make this team. 

ZACK BAUN, LINEBACKER

New Orleans Saints linebacker Zack Baun (53) on the kickoff return team. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY 

New Orleans Saints linebacker Zack Baun (53) on the kickoff return team. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY 

Linebacker had been another area of concern for the Saints this offseason. Demario Davis is one of the NFL's best defenders, but the team lost LB Alex Anzalone in free agency and released Kwon Alexander.

They re-signed Alexander last week, but he is expected to see light duty this preseason while rehabbing from an Achilles injury.

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New Orleans drafted Ohio State's Pete Werner with a second-round pick, who would join a handful of young but inexperienced players at the position.

Former undrafted players Andrew Dowell and Chase Hansen, along with 2019 seventh-round pick Kaden Elliss, have all had nice moments in camp.

Baun, a third-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, had somewhat of a redshirt year as a rookie. After playing mostly as a stand-up defensive end in college, Baun was moved to linebacker without the benefit of offseason workouts or preseason games last year.

With a full year and a complete offseason to better learn the system and position, Baun has had an impressive training camp so far. He's already a solid pass rusher and capable run defender. Baun looked comfortable in space and has handled himself well in pass coverage.

Neither Davis nor Alexander will see much action in this game, and Werner suffered a minor injury in practice that may keep him sidelined this week.

Baun, Dowell, and Elliss will face a stiff challenge from Lamar Jackson and an athletic Ravens running game that attacks the perimeter. Baltimore tight end Mark Andrews is also an athletic target that will test Baun's development in coverage.

KAWAAN BAKER, WIDE RECEIVER

New Orleans Saints receiver Kawaan Baker (14) performs drills during a training camp session. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints receiver Kawaan Baker (14) performs drills during a training camp session. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Most Saints fans know the grim outlook at wide receiver for the team. All-Pro WR Michael Thomas is sidelined after ankle surgery. Electric kick returner Deonte Harris may be suspended to start the season. Inconsistent fourth-year WR Tre'Quan Smith, the most experienced receiver left, has been dealing with another injury.

New Orleans has had uncanny success at finding receivers that have gone undrafted or fallen to the draft's late rounds. Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Willie Snead, Brandon Coleman, Harris, and Marquez Callaway have all had success after being overlooked entering the league. 

Could Baker, a seventh-round pick from South Alabama this spring, be another success story?

Baker has good size for the position at 6’1 and 215-Lbs. He couples that with explosive athleticism that could make him a home-run threat from anywhere on the field. He improved his route precision over his last three years in college, an important trait that must continue to win a roster spot.

Baker will face challenges from Easop Winston, Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Jake Lampman, and free-agent addition Chris Hogan. 

With Thomas and Smith injured and uncertainty surrounding Harris, someone other than Callaway will need to step up for a productive passing attack.

Baker and the other receivers will have to get separation against a deep crew of Baltimore cornerbacks and a pass defense that ranked sixth in the league. 

Keep an eye on Juwan Johnson also, an undrafted rookie wideout last year who's shined since moving to tight end this summer.

BRETT MAHER, KICKER

Kicker Brett Maher practices with the Sanford Sports Science Institute.  © Abigail Dollins / Argus Leader via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Kicker Brett Maher practices with the Sanford Sports Science Institute.  © Abigail Dollins / Argus Leader via Imagn Content Services, LLC

It was more bad news for the Saints when it was announced that kicker Wil Lutz would miss the start of the season after groin surgery. 

Lutz is one of the best kickers in the league. His strong leg and reliable accuracy gave New Orleans almost guaranteed points once they got to the opposing 40-yard line.

Lutz' replacement is 31-year-old Brett Maher, who hasn't kicked in a game since Week 14 of the 2019 season. Maher has two years of NFL experience, both with the Dallas Cowboys. He has converted just 74.6% of his field goal chances, but was 6 of 7 from beyond 50 yards in 2018.

Maher, along with the winner of the punter battle between Blake Gillikin and Nolan Cooney, play for one of the most demanding head coaches in the game.

New Orleans coach Sean Payton has notoriously little patience for kickers. Kicking miscues directly resulted in three losses for the team in 2016, ultimately costing the team a playoff spot.

The Saints have had the luxury of two of the league's most reliable kickers in Lutz and Thomas Morstead.

New Orleans is a team with questions on both sides of the ball and will be establishing a rhythm with a different quarterback. Maher must be able to provide a reliable scoring option if drives stall.


Follow Bob Rose on Facebook and Twitter @bobbyr2613.

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