New Orleans Saints coaches like talent pool for backup safety roles
Traditionally, NFL rosters include an unheralded safety who makes the roster by dint of hustle, a play here or there, and special teams. But because that's been the case in New Orleans, the Saints may break with tradition.
New Orleans Saints safeties Isa Abdul-Quddus (42) and Jonathon Amaya (40) move into coverage as they read the formation during Saints practice Wednesday.
Last year saw the training camp and preseason emergence of Isa Abdul-Quddus, an undrafted free agent from Fordham who impressed the staff with his special teams acumen and wound up appearing in every game the Saints played with one start. Despite a rookie campaign that showed genuine promise, as evidenced by his forced fumble and two passes defended, Abdul-Quddus said his motto for his second season is Wall Street's fine print writ large: past performance is no guarantee of future results.
"I feel like I'm a rookie again," he said. "I just want to work hard. They can take my spot just as easily as I can make the team. If they're not pushing me, we're not getting better."
Similar attention to effort has been seen by all five players vying for what will likely be a pair of backup safety roles. Special teams coordinator Greg McMahon said it is possible the Saints will keep a fifth safety if a player proves indispensable on special teams, but odds are there will only be two players behind entrenched starters Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper.
Oddsmakers would probably make Abdul-Quddus, 22, and third-year man Jonathon Amaya the favorites at the moment. Those two are taking the majority of snaps at safety with the second unit on defense and both have a proven track record of special teams play in the NFL. There does not appear to be much separating the two physically: Amaya, 23, is slightly taller than the moderately heavier Abdul-Quddus.
In some respects, however, Amaya may have more to prove. Acquired through a trade with Miami prior to the 2011 campaign - the last piece of the deal that sent Reggie Bush to the Dolphins - Amaya arrived with a year of professional experience and expectations he would contribute particularly to a kick coverage unit Coach Sean Payton had singled out as needing improvement. In Miami, Amaya had led the team with 15 special teams tackles and a forced fumble.
As a Saint, Amaya notched nine special teams tackles and a forced fumble but Wednesday he readily acknowledged more is required.
"I feel like I approach camp like anyone else would," he said, pointing to the example of Jenkins and Harper he tries to emulate. "I kind of expect more out of myself. I feel like I've always got areas in which I can improve, especially on the defensive side of the ball in terms of where my reads go and things like that. So, yeah, I feel like I expect more and they expect more and I'm trying to meet those expectations this year."
For Abdul-Quddus, special teams and defense rank, "number 1 and 1A." He is starting on all four special teams units, and thus that, barring injury, his real contributions are likely to come there.
There are plenty of camp neophytes pushing behind Abdul-Quddus and Amaya for a roster spot and reps - the Saints had 14 players drilling as gunners on punts Wednesday - but three in particular have drawn attention.
One of them is a local product: Jerico Nelson of Destrehan. Even before he wound up as an SEC scholarship player at Arkansas, Nelson said he dreamed of playing one day for the Saints and, with many family members watching his every move at practices open to the public, there is a storybook patina to Nelson's shot.
He's not dwelling on that, though.
"Just remember to come here every day, ready to compete and full speed to the ball," he said when asked about his practice priorities. "I'm not taking any plays off. I'm from here; I'm a 'home-towner.' I watched them growing up since I was small and now to be a part of this organization is a great thing. I just have to make sure I finish up, keep competing and try to make the team."
Thus far, Nelson said he has gotten, "good and bad feedback," from coaches as he tries to master the playbook. With the Saints up-tempo, multi-thread offense, Nelson said there is much for a safety to process and the wrong call in coverage can quickly result in an embarrassing big play.
Like most players in NFL camps, Nelson was a starter his last two years in college and so a renewed emphasis on special teams makes his learning curve even steeper. That's not something the staff is unaware of, as McMahon said coaches guard against dismissing a player too quickly on special teams.
That's perhaps less of an issue with the player whose resume perhaps most closely resembles Abdul-Quddus, Jose Gumbs who hails from the football powerhouse, Monmouth. At 5 feet 10, 210 pounds, Gumbs is learning how difficult it is for NFL defenders to matchup against receivers like Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, but Gumbs earned tryouts with the Saints, Giants and Jets before being signed by New Orleans.
"Most definitely," Gumbs said, when asked if he saw special teams as a path to a professional career. "I played special teams all four years in college so it's nothing new to me. I'm ready to roll, pay attention to details. I've got to work on everything. I was not a first-round pick - I'm an undrafted free agent."
It is precisely that desire and understanding that can make choosing who is in and who is out so difficult, McMahon said. It helps to have veterans with the same approach - McMahon said they recently showed the rookies camp tape of a special teams drill in which Jenkins, simply filling in on the scout squad, worked meticulously to have perfect technique - but in the end it will all come down to who makes an impression in the preseason games.
In the case of Johnny Thomas, the other undrafted free agent getting perhaps the longest look in camp, he hopes the familiarity he developed with high-octane offenses at Oklahoma State will prove an advantage. On the other hand, Thomas said, the Saints do much more work with the quarterback under center, and none of the quarterbacks he's seen in his 22 years compares with Drew Brees.
"My path to make it is to try to imitate the vets because they do a good job at what they do," he said. "So I'm trying to play as hard as they play and every down try to get better. Special teams as a rookie is key, and I have to go out there every play and try to do something good enough to prove I deserve to play. I do a good job on effort, I think, and I play fast, but I think I have to improve my technique."
As the players' comments made clear, the upcoming extended road trip through Canton and Boston may prove a critical hinge in their football lives.
"It's going to be a great battle and that's about as simple as I can put it," McMahon said. "We like Gumbs, we like Nelson, we like Thomas, and certainly we feel good about Amaya and Isa. We're not going to keep five (backups) so we'll put 'em all out there. A lot of times, you put a guy out there and you can see, 'nah, he doesn't really quite fit in.' But with these guys it's hard to tell them apart which in our case is a good thing. They sure look the part, so we'll find out when the bullets arrive."
Somebody please unseat Jenkins..................PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I know that with real coaching he might get better. I just don't see it though.
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