The New Orleans Saints have had great success during the 14-year tenure of head coach Sean Payton at turning undrafted players into contributors.
Running backs Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, and Khiry Robinson, tight end Josh Hill, and wideouts Lance Moore, Willie Snead, and Brandon Coleman are among several players on both sides of the ball that entered the NFL overlooked but emerged as key factors to the team's success.
This year's New Orleans squad also has several former undrafted players that are already a key component of the team’s core. All-Pro kick returner and wideout Deonte Harris, undrafted in 2019, is one of the league's most dynamic special teamers and figures to play a big role offensively.
Second-year WR Marquez Callaway is having a dynamic training camp after showing flashes as a rookie. He is the favorite to be the team's top wideout until the return of All-Pro WR Michael Thomas from ankle surgery.
Carl Granderson, undrafted in 2019, looks primed for a breakout campaign after showing great promise over his first two years. He’ll be a big part of a deep crew of disruptive edge rushers this season.
Third-year defensive tackle Shy Tuttle was already a strong interior role player over his first two years. He’s the favorite to start alongside David Onyemata in 2021 and will be the top tackle while Onyemata serves a six-game suspension. Fellow undrafted DT Malcolm Roach (2020) is also having a solid camp and will factor into the defensive rotation.
Harris, Callaway, Tuttle, Granderson, and Roach came into training camp with spots all but assured. There are several other undrafted players who are also making a strong push for jobs on one of the NFL's most talented rosters.
JUWAN JOHNSON, TIGHT END
Johnson made the team as an undrafted rookie wide receiver from Oregon last season. He appeared sparingly in seven games, catching 4 passes for 39 yards. Johnson's blocking ability is what captured the attention of coaches and earned him offensive snaps.
Not particularly explosive as a wideout, Johnson's 6’4” and 231-pound frame caused a position switch to tight end in mini-camp. He was comfortable enough to make the complete switch to tight end for training camp and has had several standout practices.
Johnson translated good practices into game success against Baltimore on Saturday night. He had 2 receptions for a game-high 71 yards, including the longest play of the game with a 38-yard catch. Johnson also held up well as an in-line blocker against the deep Baltimore defensive front.
Second-year TE Adam Trautman is favored to be the opening day starter, with veteran Nick Vannett expected to get the number two spot. Johnson has the inside track for the third tight end role. With his receiving ability and potential to develop as an in-line blocker, he could play a big offensive role in 2021.
ANDREW DOWELL, LINEBACKER
Dowell is quickly carving out a role on what could be a deep corps of linebackers after major questions earlier this offseason. After entering the NFL undrafted in 2019 with Dallas out of Michigan State, Dowell had spent the last two years on the Saints practice squad.
Dowell has had a terrific camp, flying all over the field from both inside and outside positions. He is locked in a tight battle for perhaps the final linebacker spot with Kaden Elliss and fellow undrafted player Chase Hansen.
The Saints already had elite LB Demario Davis, then re-signed athletic veteran Kwon Alexander to complement him. Rookie second-round choice Pete Werner and the strong emergence of 2020 third-round choice Zack Baun could make this a position of strength with the continued development of Dowell and Elliss.
LIL'JORDAN HUMPHREY, WIDE RECEIVER
Humphrey was an undrafted signing by New Orleans out of Texas in 2019. He has made the team in each of the last two years, appearing in ten games and catching 4 passes for 60 yards and a touchdown.
A big-framed receiver at 6’4” and 225 pounds, Humphrey isn't explosive but is a physical receiver in traffic. He’s also an outstanding blocker at the position.
Humphrey has been getting more reps with the top unit in training camp. He earned the start against Baltimore on Saturday and had 3 receptions for 29 yards and a score.
Humphrey showed good physicality against the Ravens but also inconsistent route precision. He’s a favorite for a roster spot at this stage, but will also need to show he can be a reliable route runner.
TONY JONES JR., RUNNING BACK
Jones made the New Orleans roster as an undrafted rookie from Notre Dame in 2020. He only saw action on the active roster during the regular season finale, when he carried 3 times for 13 yards before leaving with an injury.
The 23-year-old Jones is again making a strong push for a spot in 2021. He followed a strong start to training camp by leading all rushers with 7 carries for 82 yards and a score against the Ravens.
Jones lost a fumble against Baltimore and had some issues with ball security in college. He also caught five passes for 38 yards out of the backfield, a role he was rarely used in with Notre Dame.
At 5'11" and 225 pounds., Jones has good power between the tackles and shows excellent natural vision as a runner. With the Saints expected to use star RB Alvin Kamara little this preseason, he figures to get plenty of opportunities in a crowded New Orleans backfield.
Jones will battle established veterans like Latavius Murray, Devonta Freeman, and Dwayne Washington for playing time. Sean Payton has never hesitated to keep unheralded backs like Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, or Khiry Robinson over veterans in the past.
With continued strong performances, Jones could not only earn a roster spot but also move his way up the depth chart for meaningful touches during the regular season.
True to form, the Saints may have unearthed more undrafted gems from their rookie class this year. Rookie WR Easop Winston has dazzled training camp onlookers with spectacular receptions recently. The speedster also hauled in a 35-yard reception against the Ravens.
Former University of Washington DT Josiah Bronson saw little action against Baltimore, but showed some strong interior push when in the game. He has also turned in some strong practices at camp.
Young undrafted defensive tackles Jalen Dalton, Christian Ringo, and Albert Huggins were all signed off the practice squads of other teams this offseason. All three, along with Dalton, have had solid training camps and provided strong interior play against the Ravens.
Rookie defensive backs Bryce Thompson and Eric Burrell are both making strong claims for roles in the New Orleans secondary. Burrell and Thompson combined for 7 tackles, 2 forced turnovers, and a sack against the Ravens.
The jockeying for roster spots will continue over the next two weeks of training camp and two preseason contests for New Orleans. Many jobs are already established, but former undrafted players continue to push veterans for spots on the depth chart.
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