Saints Rookie Class Expected to Make a Bigger Impact as Season Progresses
The New Orleans Saints entered the 2020 season with perhaps the deepest roster of talent in the NFL. That depth has been tested during the team's 3-2 start, as the Saints have had to withstand injuries to starters Michael Thomas, Deonte Harris, and Andrus Peat offensively and Marcus Davenport, Marshon Lattimore, David Onyemata, and Janoris Jenkins on the defensive side.
With such strong depth at nearly every position, New Orleans didn't necessarily expect major contributions from their rookie class in 2020, perhaps aside from first-round pick G Cesar Ruiz. Although their rookies have not had a major impact yet this season, several of them have played increased roles through the first five games.
Here is what we've seen from the Saints rookie class through the first third of the season.
CESAR RUIZ, GUARD (1ST ROUND)
Ruiz, the 24th overall selection out of Michigan this spring, was expected to open the season as a starter at right guard before a late preseason injury slowed his development. As a result, veteran Nick Easton earned the start on opening day. Ruiz saw his first action of the year in a Week Two loss at Las Vegas, playing just six snaps. He’d get more playing time against Green Bay in Week Three, 51 snaps when an injury to Andrus Peat knocked him from the game. Peat’s injury forced him to miss the fourth game against the Lions, giving Ruiz his first start.
The Saints rushed for a season-high 164 yards and 3 touchdowns in that contest. Ruiz played all 70 offensive snaps and helped pave the way for running backs, Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. Peat was back in his starting role against the Chargers, but Ruiz would play 65 of the team’s 76 offensive snaps after Easton suffered a concussion.
The 6’3” 307-Lb Ruiz has shown nifty feet and excellent technique in pass protection and impressive power as a run blocker. New Orleans has had some issues along with the interior with pass protection early this season. Easton has played more consistently than Peat, but Easton has shown capable of stepping in and playing well at all three inside spots. Expect Ruiz to be in the starting lineup in place of Easton sooner than later, perhaps coming off the bye next week.
ZACK BAUN, LB (3RD ROUND)
The Saints traded up in the 3rd round to select Baun out of Wisconsin with the 74th overall pick. After being inactive for the season opener against the Buccaneers, Baun would play 42 snaps over the next three games on special teams but see the field for only one defensive snap. He earned his first start in Week Five against the Chargers on Monday night, playing 12 snaps in situational duty.
Baun set the edge well against the run against Los Angeles and showed good potential as a pass rusher. Used mainly as an edge rusher in college, we will only see Baun used in situational roles and as an extra rusher while he gets used to coverage responsibilities. However, he has outstanding athleticism and terrific instincts, which should lead to increased snaps down the stretch.
ADAM TRAUTMAN, TE (3RD ROUND)
New Orleans traded all four of this year's Day 3 draft choices to move back into the 3rd round and select Trautman out of Dayton with the 105th overall selection. He played seven offensive snaps and nine more on special teams against Tampa Bay in the season opener. Trautman hauled in his first NFL reception, a 17-Yd catch, while appearing in eight offensive snaps in the second week, and caught both of his targets for 17 yards on 32 snaps against the Packers in Week Three. A groin injury to TE Jared Cook gave Trautman his first NFL start in Week 4 against Detroit, but he was not targeted in 19 offensive snaps. He has 3 receptions for 34 yards in four games of action so far.
Trautman has been praised by coaches for his run blocking. He has terrific athleticism, good size (6’5” 255-Lbs), and excellent hands, making him a mismatch for most defensive backs. Trautman is a good route runner, but it often takes time for a new player to learn the New Orleans offense. With so many other offensive weapons in the Saints offense, the team can afford to let their rookie tight end develop while grooming him for a starting role in 2021. With his natural abilities, expect Trautman to make some key plays down the stretch of the year.
MALCOLM ROACH, DT (UNDRAFTED)
Roach surprised some by earning a spot on the deep New Orleans defensive line despite being undrafted. The rookie from Texas made an immediate impact, playing on 23 snaps against the Buccaneers in the season opener and collecting a tackle for loss among his two stops. He had 4 tackles, including another for loss, while appearing in 29 snaps against the Raiders in Week Two, and would play 48 combined defensive snaps over the next two games.
Roach has shown excellent power and an explosive first step inside over the first portion of the year. He has played the run extremely well and gotten good penetration as a pass rusher. Roach's standout play has caused last year's undrafted sensation, DT Shy Tuttle, to be inactive for three games and even taken snaps away from reliable veteran Malcom Brown. Expect Roach to continue to be a crucial part of the team’s deep defensive tackle rotation for the rest of the season.
MARQUEZ CALLAWAY, WR (UNDRAFTED)
An undrafted rookie from Tennessee, Callaway earned praise from Sean Payton and Drew Brees several times during training camp, eventually fighting his way onto the active roster. After being inactive the first week, Callaway has had an increased role in each game since on both offense and special teams. He has caught 5 of 7 targets for 50 yards so far, including 4 receptions for 34 yards on 52 offensive snaps against the Chargers last week. Callaway took over return duties for injured All-Pro Deonte Harris against Los Angeles, averaging 11.5 yards on six punt returns and having two long returns called back because of questionable penalties.
The 6’2” 204-Lb Callaway has outstanding speed, has shown capable of making a tough catch in traffic, and has showcased good blocking skills in the run game. He won't supplant the explosive Harris as the primary kick returner but has given the Saints an excellent second option. As a receiver, Callaway already has a good grasp of the offense and has earned the trust of both his quarterback and head coach. Callaway should be an even bigger complementary weapon for a receiving corps that already has All-Pro Michael Thomas, Pro Bowler Emmanuel Sanders, and Tre'Quan Smith.
Outside of Cesar Ruiz, most did not expect the Saints rookies to have a major impact on the 2020 season. These five rookies have shown glimpses of what they can do early this season and have shown that they will indeed have a say in how the 2020 New Orleans Saints will result.