As the New Orleans Saints returned to their home on Airline Drive on Monday, they were also returning to familiar habits. The defense again dominated the day. Star players like defensive back CJ Gardner-Johnson and linebacker Demario Davis made plays and barked loudly and consistently on offense throughout practice. The intensity of the day was driven by this unit. Here are our top takeaways from Monday’s practice, including the standout defensive moments, but a very important step forward for quarterback Jameis Winston’s offense.
1 Bigger Story: James Winston Returns To Team Drills
A very important landmark for the Saints quarterback finally arrived on Monday. After not participating in the 11-on-11 drills for over a week, Winston finally got back into the mix. He led the team’s first offense in the red zone team drills and the standard team drill, but did not run with the attack on two-minute simulations.
Head coach Dennis Allen said he would be comfortable if Winston’s health deteriorated so he wouldn’t see his first shot before the regular season debut on Sept. 11 in Atlanta. To some extent, it almost feels like expectation at this point. But as far as Winston is concerned, it makes sense that he would want to be there at least for practice Friday against the Los Angeles Chargers. We’ll see how this week goes.
Winston went just 1/3 with an interception in his return to team drills. The pick was the first he tossed all camp at 11-on-11. After knocking off some rust, a better performance is likely on the way Tuesday.
2 Game of the Day: CJ Gardner-Johnson’s One-Handed Interception
The only interception Winston threw in team drills throughout camp came at the hands (or hand) of safety Gardner-Johnson. While covering for veteran receiver Jarvis Landry, the former Florida Gator gained ground on a cross road, got his right hand up just in time and had a one-handed interception. The defense erupted as Gardner-Johnson also completed a well-deserved victory lap after the impressive play. The No.22 had a solid practice Monday with the rest of the defence.
3 A return to habits: the defense wins
Apart from an entertaining scrum from Andy Dalton when there was no option on a play action deployment, the Saints defense didn’t miss a single touchdown in team drills. They were physical, with Quenton Meeks earning back-to-back fade attempts in the back of the end zone, Adebo adding to his growing roster of pass breakups, and linebackers Davis and Kaden Elliss wreaking havoc in the backfield. The Saints defense continues to show they can not only impact games, but also win them if necessary. Allen should be very pleased with what he saw from this unit.
4 more first-team reps for Nephi Sewell
For the second day in a row, the undrafted free agency rookie linebacker took snaps with the first team during 7-on-7 and most team drills. The only exception was red-zone work where the Saints deployed larger linebacker Eric Wilson instead. Sewell earned himself some shout-outs from the coaching staff for his play in the running game. It’s clear though that his size can be a concern when he’s covering. Especially when lined up with one of the Saints dominating tight ends.
5 Kirk Merritt Meets With The Running Backs
From what I could tell, Merritt spent his entire day with the running backs. He did positional drills with them, stood with them when not in action, and took at least 4/5 of the shots out of the backfield as opposed to wide. After practice, Merritt mentioned enjoying the transition, which the Saints approached him about over the weekend.
Merritt said the biggest hurdle is getting used to protecting, which he detailed as more than just pass blocking. He also mentioned understanding the protections that awaited him as a runner, reading linebackers and more important elements of a successful running game. He played a few running backs at Destrehan High School, but hasn’t taken many, if any, transfers since then. Despite the newness of the role, he seems to have embraced the idea of showing Allen, Pete Carmichael and the rest of the coaching staff what he can do in multiple areas of the pitch.
6 Attendance: big names in injury management
Players who were not scouted during training:
TE Taysom Hill WR Michael Thomas WR Kevin White CB Marshon Lattimore RB Dwayne Washington DB PJ Williams LB Chase Hansen OG Cesar Ruiz DE Taco Charlton OT Landon Young OL James Hurst TE Adam Trautman
Players who worked on the side during training:
LB Pete Werner CB Alontae Taylor
Another daunting list of names on Monday. Allen further clarified that it’s this time of the offseason that players face “little nicks and bruises” that need to be dealt with. But having starters like Thomas, Lattimore, Hill, Ruiz and Hurst missing so close to the season is understandably of concern to fans.
Nothing has been said to indicate anyone is currently dealing with a serious injury, but no one knows for sure outside of the organization. For now, we just have to wait and see how things progress over this week and for some, probably into the next.
By Nick Underhill of New Orleans. Soccer, White’s injury is minor. Can hope the same for Thomas. Lattimore walked off the field during open practice at the Superdome on Sunday, unsure whether it was injury-related or rest-related. Looks like we have our answer now.
7 Other Practical Notes: For Erik McCoy, No News Is Good News
I asked Allen what he thought of starting center McCoy. The former Texas A&M Aggie hasn’t really been talked about this offseason. And as if reading my mind, Allen offered a great answer. “I would say the best thing is probably, you know, nobody really talked about him,” the head coach said. “And that’s generally a good thing if you’re an offensive lineman. Usually when you’re an offensive lineman and you’re talked about a lot, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
It was a rare difficult practice for Landry today. The veteran wide receiver bounced a few passes off his hands, not always thrown in the most optimal catching window granted. But he ended his day with a nice grip in the two-minute drills to finish the workout. He did, as the Saints expect him to do in the 2022 season, shifted the shackles of offense with his efforts. Showing the loose youngsters on the roster the importance of responding and bouncing back the next day would be an important lesson for them. We will expect that response on Tuesday.
Elliss flashes incredibly well as a pass rusher. Ever since Allen complimented the linebacker as having some of the “strongest hands on the team,” I’ve noticed more and more of Elliss as a passing thrower. The No. 55 shows that even if the Saints don’t play a ton of three-linebacker sets, he can contribute at a high level when he’s on the court. Perhaps that changes how the Saints roll out those base sets this year.