Saints training camp officially kicks off on July 29, which means we're nearly two weeks away. Rookies report on July 25, while veterans report on July 27. Fans will be able to get their first glimpse of the team on Friday, July 30 as part of seven open practices. We start our positional previews with special teams, an area that often gets overlooked and is underappreciated.
Set In Stone
Unless something absolutely goes crazy, the two positions you can take to the bank on special teams are at kicker and long snapper. Wil Lutz enters his sixth season after being the best gift John Harbaugh and the Ravens could ever give to the Saints. He did have a down year in 2020, posting an 82.1 field goal percentage (23-of-28). Lutz should have a big rebound season and is in a spot where he can become second in many franchise records behind the great Morten Andersen.
As for long snapper, Zach Wood's journey with the Saints started after he won out a last-minute tryout against several others in 2017 when Jon Dorenbos was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. Last March, Wood was rewarded with a four-year, $4.78 million contract extension.
It's been a long time since the days of Glenn Pakulak and a then rookie Thomas Morstead were duking it out for the Saints punter competition. Some faces have come and gone since then, but everyone knew that the job was Morstead's every season. This year features a second-year Blake Gillikin and rookie Nolan Cooney, with Gillikin getting the early nod to win the job.
Gillikin said in early June, "Trying to replace a guy like that, it comes down to being the best version of myself I can be."
He also admitted that he still watches Morstead's film. "I just kind of remind myself of how a legend punts."
Special teams coach Darren Rizzi said whoever wins out the battle should also be the team's holder, but that will obviously be an area to keep an eye on. Taysom Hill has had practice for holding duties, and it wouldn't be uncommon to see the Saints use a quarterback in that capacity (see Luke McCown).
Gunner and Jammer
When the Saints lost Justin Hardee Sr. to the Jets, it left a huge opening on special teams. New Orleans had already given J.T. Gray a two-year, $4 million contract extension. Now, the competition is up for grabs on gunner and jammer duties. Grant Haley is probably one of the Saints who has an early leg up on everyone from his experience last season, but will undoubtedly face challenges from others.
Expect players like Keith Washington, Deuce Wallace, Eric Burrell, Bryce Thompson, and Lawrence Woods to be some of the primary competition here. We've witnessed several undrafted rookies carve their way onto to the roster by shining in special teams, and this a very underrated position that matters a lot.
Return Duties Could Get Interesting
You're sure to see a lot of faces handling kicks and punts during camp, and that experience comes in handy. At various points last season, New Orleans used Tommylee Lewis, Ty Montgomery, Austin Carr, Dwayne Washington, and Alvin Kamara in return capacities.
Deonte Harris figures to be the top return man for the Saints, and it's no secret that he's really good at it. What will be interesting to see is if he gets more utilization on offense and if that could affect what he does in the return game any. New Orleans had a great backup plan last year in Marquez Callaway, and this year will also see rookie Kawaan Baker thrown into the mix.
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