Young new faces for Saints bring needed talent to key positions

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The New Orleans Saints conducted their rookie orientation and minicamp this weekend, designed to allow draft choices, undrafted free agents along with a handful of veteran players a chance to show what they can do.

Most of the Saints faithful are keenly interested in how the team’s 2017 draft choices fared.

Running back Alvin Kamara signed with Alabama in the 2013 recruiting class after rushing for 2,264 yards and 26 touchdowns at Norcross High in Georgia. He was named Georgia’s Mr. Football in 2012.

amara found the Crimson Tide backfield crowded with future NFL backs Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake already in place.  Off the field issues led to his eventual dismissal from the squad by Nick Saban. It was a wake up call.

“(The move) definitely helped. It taught me to have to learn my role and grind through it,” Kamara explained.

Following his career at Tennessee after transfer, he was targeted in the draft by the Saints who relinquished their 2018 2nd round pick and this year’s 7th rounder in a trade with Bears to grab him in the early 3rd round. Head coach Sean Payton held him in much higher regard then his draft position.

Kamara scored highest among all running backs in the Wonderlic Test (24 out of 50). His learning curve at the pro level is not quite as steep.

“I know what I can do,” Kamara said. “Staying with the playbook. I do what I have to do on the field. If I have a question, I’ll ask them.”

Kamara possesses good balance, lateral quickness and active feet following contact. He has admired the style of former NFL runners Priest Holmes and Clinton Portis, perennial 1,000 yard rushers who were deadly in space. His versatility is a bonus. He had 40 grabs in 2016 .

“I think I can catch the ball well. I can run out of the backfield. He is only the 2nd player in Tennessee Vol history to rush for 100 yards and record 100 yards receiving in one game.  He posted a school record 312 all purpose yards against Texas A&M.  He excelled on special teams averaging 16 yards per kick return and 10.9 yards per punt return.

Payton sees Kamara as similar to former Saints explosive backs. “He is a player  that we are familiar with, having had a chance to work him out at Tennessee in a private workout. He’s built differently than Reggie (Bush) and ( Darren ) Sproles. We think he’s got versatility as a runner and as well as a receiver. We try to do things that these guys do best and I think his skill set is that of a RB, but it is also someone that can catch it well. I see him having versatility and that’s some of the things that attracted us to drafting him.”

Perhaps Kamara best resembles retired running back Pierre Thomas in skill set.

“Yes, there are some similarities (to Thomas) and yet I would say our vision (for Kamara is) a little different. Pierre played a lot of 3rd down, played a lot in our base, and (Alvin) has got those abilities as well, but I also think there are some things he can do differently in the passing game,” Payton said.

Wisconsin ‘s Ryan Ramczyk was the top rated tackle by many in this past draft. The Saints snared him with their final pick in the 1st round. Some scouts compared him to 2016 rookie Jack Conklin, now a Titans starter.

Ramcyzk fires out of his stance. He is a good drive blocker, technically sound with good footwork. He shows super awareness of opponents counter moves following the snap.

The young prospect likens his style to the 49ers left tackle Joe Staley, a 10 year pro with 143 career starts and five Pro Bowls to his credit.

“I’m a versatile player, I can run block very well and can pass block very well, too,” Ramcyzk said. “I think that I can be an asset to this team.”

Ramcyzk fared very well against high profile pass rushing opponents this past season including a Cowboys first rounder, Michigan’s Taco Charlton, and a pair of projected top round picks in the ’18 draft class, LSU’s Arden Key and Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard.

Saints’ 12 year veteran Zach  Streif will help Ramcyzk transition this season. The rookie is willing and open to receive all advice on ways to getting better. “There are a ton of things I can improve on. In the run game ( on my) pad level and my hands. In the pass game, staying square in my sets and pad level there too.”

The Saints also checked off a few boxes on the defensive side of the ball during the draft.

Free safety Marcus Williams has tremendous upside as a second round pick. He recorded impressive numbers between the stripes including 11 career interceptions and 188 tackles while maintaining a 4.0 GPA in the classroom.

Instincts and intelligence make Williams a noted ball hawk.

“Any ball in the air, I feel like its; mine,” said Williams. “I try to be like a receiver back there. I take opportunities given to me. It’s all about being a being a team player.”

Williams’ cerebral approach is vital in the center field role within a secondary.

“It’s important to learn the system quickly , getting better each day.”

Smooth in transition, Williams is a sure tackler if not a big knock-out hitter.  He does widen his feet for a wider tackling stance at appropriate times. Also, not to be overlooked, he doe not turn 21 until the first week of September.

Al-Quadin Muhammad’s arrival raised eyebrows due to his checkered past. After excelling at prestigious Don Bosco Prep where he was recognized as the third best edge rusher in the country his senior year, he landed at Miami.

In 2015, he had 54 tackles, 8.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and five sacks sandwiched between two lost seasons filled with off the field issues.

Muhammad was suspended for the ’14 campaign after being involved in an altercation with his roommate following the spring game.  He was finally dismissed from the program in 2016 after receiving illegal benefits in a luxury car rental deal.

The edge pass rush role has been a dire need for the Saints, and Muhammad has the physical gifts to help fill it. He has explosive hips, sets the edge well and comes toward the ball with great force as a collision tackler. He can bull rush. The physical skills are there, but Muhammed is a raw talent who needs some fine tuning.

Muhammad has been adamant about being a much better person since his dismissal. He could end up being a late round bargain for the team.

“(Suspension) helped me because now playing at this level, I won’t make the same mistakes. I’m really a mature player now. I understand what not to do. I can move on and have a great career in the NFL,” Muhammad explained.

Confident in his abilities, Muhammad compares himself to one of the NFL’s premiere sack artists. I like Khalil Mack because of his motor. I feel like I play with a motor and run to the ball no matter what. Whether I make a mistake or not, I run to the ball. That’s really important.”

The Saints ‘ second pick in round three (76th overall) caused mixed reviews but not due to lack of talent. Alex Anzalone possesses the skills to man all three linebacker positions. He currently lines up on the weakside for the Saints.

“I’m a guy that can play all positions,” Anzalone said. “I’m comfortable in all three. I can drop or rush. I’m comfortable.”

The ex.-Florida Gator can flip his hips and turn in space. He closes quickly, is an aggressive downhill tackler with great size  and is a reckless style player. He shows acceleration to the ball and willingly takes on blockers. He’s athletically gifted enough to cover tight ends as well as runner out of the backfield.

Anzalone is very active, evidenced by his 12 tackles against high-flying Tennessee this past season. He had 53 stops and 3 sacks in only eight games due to breaking his arm.

“I have versatility and ability to go sideline to sideline and to cover for my size. There are so many techniques here, taking on blocks, tackling and attention to detail ( in the NFL).”

Anzalone chose the Gators after being highly recruited out of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, rebuking offers from Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, USC, UCLA, Pittsburgh, Stanford and Florida State because he wanted to compete against the top players in the SEC.

“It’s big time. You play against the best in the country week in and week out. The pace of the game is similar. The SEC is about as close as you’re going to get to the NFL pace.  It’s helped me a lot having played at that level, gaining confidence in my own play.”

One game that  always stood out on the Florda schedule was the LSU Tigers. “This past year was huge for ( Florida win).  It’s always a big game. I’m in LSU territory now, so I  have to watch what I say,” he joked.

Speaking of local interests, former Helen Cox and Tulane defender Royce LaFrance is trying to make it with the Saints as an overlooked talent.

Although he’s been on and off the roster a few times since 2016, LaFrance has demonstrated resiliency  and has seemed to find a way back to the Saints. Now on a tryout basis after being released less than a week ago, he has added 20 pounds to fill out to 270 and understands the inner working of defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s scheme.

“I’m bigger, faster, stronger. I started focusing on my technique and playing with raw talent,” said LaFrance.

Third all time on the Tulane charts with 20 career sacks, he hopes to help fill whatever roles the Saints ask.

“Now ( all players on defense) have to know everyone’s job and not just yours so we will understand why they are calling a specific defense.”
It is also comforting for LaFrance seeing a familiar face , his former Tulane head coach Curtis Johnson, now Saints receivers coach.

“It feels good. I talk to him everyday. He’s always a high motor guy, very energetic.”

The fresh faces come from all walks of life in the NFL, and the Saints are hoping their newcomers help provide answers and a return to winning ways.

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Rene Nadeau

Rene Nadeau

Fox Sports/ESPN/WHNO/WFAN

Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Rene Nadeau has been involved in sports ever since his earliest memories. Rene played basketball, wrestled, ran track, and was an All-District running back in football at John F. Kennedy High School. He went on to be a member of the LSU football program, developing a passion for the game in even greater fashion while in Baton Rouge. Nadeau played semi-pro football for two seasons with the New Orleans Blue Knights. He has been a prominent sports figure in the New Orleans area for 29 years. Nadeau currently serves as a color…

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