METAIRIE, La. -- This year’s New Orleans Saints training camp feels more like a job fair than it has in the last 15 years.
Not only do the Saints need to identify a new starting quarterback following Drew Brees' retirement, they should also have a staggering total of 10 new starters in Week 1 because of an offseason salary-cap purge, receiver Michael Thomas' ankle surgery and defensive tackle David Onyemata's six-game suspension.
Here’s a look at how things are shaping up through nine practices:
Neither Jameis Winston nor Taysom Hill has done enough to win or lose the job yet while taking turns with the first-string offense. Winston has had the higher highs, but both have been mostly solid. Each quarterback has mixed in a couple uninspiring days, but the all-important turnover statistic has been a positive (only two interceptions for Winston, one for Hill).
The most notable development is that Winston’s decision-making seems to have improved a bit. Although he had an ugly interception in red zone drills Saturday, Winston has shown impressive efficiency while mixing in quick throws and smart checkdowns along with deep shots down the field.
If he can keep that up, I give a slight edge to Winston because he is younger (27 vs. Hill being 30), he arguably has more upside as a former No. 1 pick and, if Winston is the QB, Hill can continue to be used in his RB/TE/WR role.
However, the Saints trust Hill quite a bit. So they won’t hesitate to go with Hill if Winston doesn’t truly earn the job. And we have yet to see Hill showcase his best asset -- his running ability -- since he has the luxury of staying in the pocket without getting hit in practices.
The Saints will actually have two new starters until Thomas returns. They also released veteran Emmanuel Sanders this offseason, leaving the cupboard extremely bare.
Fourth-year pro Tre'Quan Smith is the projected No. 1 for now. But he has been sidelined since Tuesday with an unspecified injury that coach Sean Payton said he doesn’t expect to be a long-term issue. In the meantime, second-year undrafted receiver Marquez Callaway has been one of the most impressive players in camp while serving as a go-to guy for both Hill and Winston.
“Quez is one of those guys that when he’s had the opportunity … he steps up to it,” said Hill, who threw a third-down TD to Callaway during Saturday’s red zone drill.
It’s hard to label either Smith or Callaway as a fantasy breakout. However, both should be considered deep sleepers since they’ll play big roles.
Third-year receiver/kick returner Deonte Harris has shown flashes of his big-play ability and his rapport with Winston, so his offensive role could finally expand. Newly signed veteran Chris Hogan and third-year pro Lil’Jordan Humphrey seem to have an early edge on the rest of the pack, but it’s still wide open for the fourth and fifth spots.
Payton said at the start of camp that the No. 2 outside cornerback position remains a “must” after the Saints released Janoris Jenkins and were unable to trade up for a top draft prospect. And it could become an even bigger priority if No. 1 starter Marshon Lattimore winds up being suspended for an arrest on a stolen gun charge -- though it’s unclear if he will. So it wouldn’t be shocking to see New Orleans make another move before the season.
In the meantime, veteran Patrick Robinson has spent the most time in that role in camp -- and has performed well. Robinson has played sparingly in recent years, and he has been much more effective in the slot than on the outside in the past. But defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said Robinson earned this opportunity by stepping up as an injury replacement last year.
Veteran Ken Crawley is a sleeper contender after impressing during the first nine practices. Veteran Prince Amukamara is also trying to revive his career after signing with the Saints last week. And rookie third-round pick Paulson Adebo has shown flashes early. But it’s too soon to tell if any will emerge.
While wide receiver and corner remain big concerns, I feel a lot better about the defensive line depth than I did two weeks ago -- despite the Saints losing Onyemata for six games and parting ways with starting DE Trey Hendrickson, starting nose tackle Malcom Brown and veteran DT Sheldon Rankins.
Fourth-year DE Marcus Davenport has had a couple of standout days and should finally have his best season as the starter opposite DE Cameron Jordan if he can stay healthy. Rookie first-round pick Payton Turner has impressed at end and should be an asset as both a pass-rusher and run-defender. Davenport, Turner and newly signed veteran DE Tanoh Kpassagnon could all move inside in pass-rushing packages. And third-year DE Carl Granderson continues to make strides as an edge-rusher.
Meanwhile, young DT contenders Malcolm Roach, Jalen Dalton, Shy Tuttle, Christian Ringo, Albert Huggins and Josiah Bronson have all shown promise at a position where New Orleans should do a ton of rotating.
Second-year pro Adam Trautman is a breakout candidate for good reason, despite catching just 15 passes as a rookie. He may not live up to the enormous fantasy buzz he is generating, but the opportunity will definitely be there.
The third-round pick earned the Saints’ trust as both a pass-catcher and blocker while coming on strong at the end of last season. That’s a big reason why they felt comfortable releasing veterans Jared Cook and Josh Hill. They also signed veteran Nick Vannett, who should contribute as a blocking specialist and occasional pass-catcher.
This has suddenly become an overcrowded position, with veteran Kwon Alexander re-signing after his impressive recovery from a torn Achilles in December. Alexander might come along slowly, and the Saints need to replace former starter Alex Anzalone. But they have plenty of depth with All-Pro starter Demario Davis, rookie second-round pick Pete Werner, second-year pro Zack Baun and others. Werner has looked good in pass coverage and has drawn praise from coaches for his intelligence.
Future Saints Hall of Famer Thomas Morstead left big shoes to fill when he was released. But everyone, including Morstead, has expressed confidence that second-year pro Blake Gillikin will thrive. And Gillikin has looked terrific in camp, giving him the edge over rookie Nolan Cooney.