The New Orleans Saints begin their 2021 preseason schedule with a road battle against the Baltimore Ravens tonight.
Even though the outcome of the game doesn't matter, there are plenty of things to watch on both sides of the ball.
For the first time since 2005, the Saints have uncertainty at the quarterback position. Drew Brees has retired after 15 legendary seasons behind center for New Orleans. Battling to step into his immense shadow is Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill.
As the Saints try to surround their next quarterback with as many weapons as possible, there are some pressing issues offensively as they head towards the regular season.
All-Pro WR Michael Thomas will miss a significant portion of the year after ankle surgery. All-Pro kick returner Deonte Harris may be suspended to start the year after an offseason DUI arrest. Can second-year TE Adam Trautman be effective in a starting role?
The Saints face a stiff challenge against a physical Baltimore defense that is typically among the better units in the league.
Here is what to watch when the New Orleans offense squares off against that Ravens defense.
Many believe that the competition between Winston and Hill is still very close. Both quarterbacks will see action tonight. So will rookie fourth-round pick Ian Book, who has impressed observers so far.
All three signal callers bring different skill sets to the offense, but none are expected to have the field command or historic accuracy of Brees.
Saints coach Sean Payton has always demanded a fast pace from his offense. Pay close attention to the rhythm that this unit has with each player behind center.
With the injury to Thomas and possible suspension of Harris, who will step forward to be a reliable target for the new quarterback? Second-year wideout Marquez Callaway has had an impressive camp so far. Four-year WR Tre'Quan Smith has been injured and may not see the field tonight.
Veteran WR/RB Ty Montgomery, free-agent addition Chris Hogan, third-year wideout Lil'Jordan Humphrey, and rookies Kawaan Baker and Easop Winston figure to see extensive action this evening. They must show that they can get separation against a deep set of Baltimore cornerbacks and a pass defense that ranked sixth in the NFL.
Trautman, veteran Nick Vannett, and converted wideout Juwan Johnson head up a re-tooled tight end position. They’ll be counted on to hold up as blockers against the rugged Ravens defensive front and work the middle of the field as pass catchers.
The New Orleans running backs are one of the strengths of the team. Dynamic starter Alvin Kamara and reliable complement Latavius Murray aren't expected to see much action this evening.
Competition for the remaining running back spots will be fierce, with some players having the opportunity to separate themselves in this game.
Dwayne Washington is the most experienced of the remaining backs and has an early edge because of his special teams contributions. Former Falcons star Devonta Freeman, second-year RB Tony Jones Jr., and rookie Stevie Scott III round out the competition for the final running back spots.
The New Orleans offensive line is perhaps the league's best. While the starting five is set, there are still several reserve spots up for grabs. Veteran James Hurst will likely be the sixth lineman.
Pay attention to how this unit holds up when reserves like rookie T/G Landon Young, Derrick Kelly, Calvin Throckmorton, and Will Clapp enter the game. They’ll face a harsh test against the deep Baltimore defensive front.
Baltimore sacked opposing quarterbacks 39 times in 2020 and registered 116 QB hits. They were second in points allowed and held top-10 rankings in total yardage, pass defense, rush defense, turnovers forced, and 3rd down percentage.
The Ravens test opponents on the edge. Calais Campbell and Tyus Bowser can wreck opposing game plans. Derek Wolfe, Pernell McPhee, and Jaylon Ferguson are excellent complementary rushers who figure to be even better after the first-round selection of Odafe Oweh.
Baltimore is stout up the middle, led by veteran DT Brandon Williams and helped by Wolfe's ability to slide inside. This defense effectively crashes the pass pocket and ties up blockers for their edge rush and athletic inside linebackers.
Second-year LB Patrick Queen is a potential star. He led his team in tackles as a rookie and figures to be even more comfortable making defensive signals in 2021. Malik Harrison, a third-round choice in 2020, and steady veteran L. J. Fort provide excellent complements to Queen.
The Ravens have one of the NFL's top tandem of cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey. Capable of shutting down the league's best receivers, they have outstanding depth behind them.
Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Anthony Averett are former starters that could be pushed by promising rookie corners Brandon Stephens and Shaun Wade. An underrated safety duo of DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark make up the last line of defense for this aggressive unit.
WHAT TO WATCH
This is the perfect opening game test for a New Orleans offense breaking in a new starter at the game’s most scrutinized position. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh stays aggressive in the preseason. Even when his starters come out of the game, the Ravens have solid defensive depth at nearly every position.
Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, and Ian Book will be challenged to be efficient against the physical Baltimore defense while maintaining the rhythm that Sean Payton prefers. The quarterback that does that best will move into the lead in their position battle.
The New Orleans receivers, the unit with the biggest questions, must give their quarterbacks a reliable target against the talented Ravens secondary. Callaway and Harris are solid, but more playmakers need to emerge.
Lastly, the team's reserve offensive linemen could make life easier for the entire unit by showing that they can hold up against the talented Baltimore front seven.
The Saints don't need to win this contest against one of the better teams in the AFC. However, the ability of the offense to move the ball and convert opportunities would ease a mountain of concerns as they head towards the start of the regular season.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook and Twitter @bobbyr2613.