The rundown: Who has the lead in the QB battle heading into second preseason game?

Locking into a starter as soon as possible makes sense.

The Saints were always going to let Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill compete in camp to see who came out on top, and that process will take however long it needs to take, but the faster someone emerges, the better. After 18 practices and two preseason games, New Orleans hopes there will be enough information to decide on a starting quarterback.

During a recent interview, Sean Payton told Peter King that he is hoping to name a starter before next week’s game against the Arizona Cardinals. That means this game will be a huge platform for both players to make a case for why they deserve the job, and as you’ve heard for weeks, the competition between these two players remains close.

Winston will work with the starters after Hill started last week against Baltimore. The players’ starting order was part of a planned rotation set before camp began and does not indicate where the players stood on the depth chart last week or where they stand now. Still, Winston might have a little bit of an advantage since Payton said he plans to get many of the starters who sat out the first game some playing time this week. Among those who missed the first game were offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk and running back Alvin Kamara.

Hill’s start last week against the Ravens wasn’t bad. He had a stellar first drive, and then things got rocky, with an interception that wasn’t really anyone’s fault, and then another pass that nearly picked off but was dropped by a Baltimore defender. He also missed a couple of easy throws, including one to a running back coming out of the backfield.

Winston will get his opportunity with the starters, and after a strong week of practice, it feels like he has the momentum going into this game and could stake his claim to the job if he has a standout performance. He’s had more highs throughout camp and probably has four of the five best performances if you laid out every practice and compared them.

Granted, even if Winston has a lead, Hill could light it up with the second team and make it difficult for Winston to close the door. He’s had a way of raising his game all summer when it feels like Winston is trying to pull away.

Whichever direction this goes, reaching a decision now would benefit the team since it would allow the coaching staff to start tailoring the offense around one player and start getting used to preparing with that guy.

WIDE RECEIVERS NEED TO IMPROVE

Marquez Callaway made a one-handed catch during Saturday’s practice, the kind of play where you hear everyone in the room gasp and then exclaim about what they just saw.

The play was also a reminder of how rare those moments have been this training camp. Outside of the Callaway catch, only two other standout moments immediately come to mind: Juwan Johnson’s touchdown grab over Chase Hansen and a diving effort by Easop Winston on a bomb from Jameis Winston.

That’s it.

Typically, you can think back to a few highlight moments, things that stand out as unique and impressive. But this isn’t even really about that. The problem is that it feels like there are more moments when receivers are costing the quarterback plays instead of digging them out of tough moments.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise with Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith out of action. For the most part, there are players catching passes and doing what they’re supposed to do, but they aren’t often the reason a play gets made.

Weirdly enough, not having Thomas has helped the team better evaluate the quarterbacks because the cheat code the wide receiver provides has gotten removed from the offense.

“The greatest thing is they got to really make great throws because Mike Thomas is not out here,” quarterbacks coach Ronald Curry said. “So, you get back, and now you got to fully read stuff instead of, “OK Mike, that’s my guy, that’s where I’m going with the ball.”

There might be a little hidden benefit there, but getting Thomas and Smith back will make life a lot easier on the quarterbacks. The other thing that would help here is if Lil’Jordan Humphrey can step up. The 6-foot-4 receiver knows how to get open. He now needs to start running more detailed routes and stop dropping passes.

WHO MAKES IT AT WR?

How things will stack up at wide receiver will be interesting.

As things stand now, and counting Deonte Harris until news comes about his likely suspension, it looks like Callaway and Harris are locks to make the team. Smith is also a lock if he is healthy, though his current status remains unclear after he went back on the shelf after returning to practice last week.

The next four players pushing for roster spots are Chris Hogan, Humphrey, Kevin White, Kawaan Baker and Easop Winston. Right now, Hogan looks to have an edge for one spot. An unexpected battle is taking place for one of the others between Humphrey and White. White signed last week and has quickly impressed, while Humphrey hit a rough patch in practice.

The wild card here is Baker. The rookie has had a good camp and provides value on special teams. He could find his way on the roster. Winston has also played well and should at least end up on the practice squad.

CRAWLEY THE REAL DEAL?

The hardest thing about evaluating this camp is figuring out if what we’ve seen at cornerback is real.

If you had no preconceived notions about Ken Crawley or the players he is covering, you’d walk away thinking the team had a solid option alongside Marshon Lattimore at cornerback. But we know about Crawley’s inconsistencies and know the wide receivers who aren’t currently in Saints camp.

Still, Crawley thinks that any talk about the receivers misses the mark. He believes the team has good players at that position who present a challenge for whoever is covering them.

“Everyone always talks about our receivers like they’re not the best,” Crawley said. “They’re here for a reason. They’re in the NFL. They just come out here and compete and do the things they’re supposed to do.”

The subtext there is that Crawley knows people are downplaying his successes in camp due to who is covering. He doesn’t like that.

“Yeah, I take all of it personally,” Crawley said. “They say we’re going to be trash this year. I take that personal, too. But we know people don’t know what they’re talking about, so I don’t care.”

Crawley and rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo have been two of the bigger surprises of training camp. Both players are playing well. Adebo stood out during the preseason opener, and Crawley has done a good job breaking up passes and making plays on the ball.

Are they the answer? Hard to go there just yet. Those guys will need to make some plays during the season before anyone feels fully comfortable about how things look at cornerback. But they’re both playing how they need to play to give this group a chance with the players currently on the roster.

IAN BOOK IS GOOD

One of the more impressive performers throughout training camp has been rookie quarterback Ian Book.

His poise and ability to execute the offense have stood out. When he has time to operate, he knows how to make plays and move the offense down the field.

While this might seem a little premature since he has only been with the team for about three weeks and appeared in one preseason game, it seems pretty apparent that he has the most potential of any of the young quarterbacks who have entered this system.

Now, there is a massive leap between having promise versus actually realizing all of it. Having a good training camp doesn’t make him an NFL starter or even put him on that path, but he is off to a good start and is proving the people who said he couldn’t play at this level wrong.

Trevor Siemian is expected to start the second half of tonight’s game against the Jaguars. Payton was not clear on if Book will get an opportunity to play this week.

LINEBACKER DEPTH IS UNREAL

Mentioned this week how much depth the Saints have at linebacker. The spot is perhaps the deepest on the team, with seven players who should make the roster.

Demario Davis, Kwon Alexander, Pete Werner and Zack Baun are all locks to make the roster, and, at this point, all of them look like players who either are or eventually will be legitimate starters. Kaden Elliss is closing in on that level and looks like a legitimate starting strongside linebacker.

Things get interesting with Andrew Dowell and Chase Hansen since New Orleans typically only keeps six players at linebacker. There is no doubt that Dowell has made more plays than Hansen this camp, but the two play different positions. Dowell is a weakside player while Hansen plays middle linebacker. The team is deep on the weak side, but Elliss taking more snaps at middle linebacker could erase the numbers advantage Hansen holds.

If the Saints only keep six, deciding between Dowell and Hansen could come down to special teams, where both players serve.

RELY ON THE OFFENSIVE LINE

One thing that seems certain this season: New Orleans should have a better offensive line this season. The Saints see improved play from Cesar Ruiz, and Erik McCoy looks like he’s on the cusp of taking his game to the next level. Assuming the production of Ramczyk and Armstead remains the same, there is only one way for this group to go.

Watching this team in camp, it has become fairly obvious that the route to success comes behind the offensive line. New Orleans should lean on that group to get the screen game going, take shots down the field and run the ball. Not expecting a complete shift in philosophy on offense this year, but maybe a little reconfiguring to lean on the big guys up front makes sense.

One thing to watch this season will be how the pressure rates change. The offensive line could theoretically block better but give up more sacks and pressures than it did the last few seasons. Drew Brees got rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds for virtually his whole career. Both Winston and Hill held the ball for more than 2.7 seconds during the preseason opener. That means the line will have to block a little longer than it has in previous seasons.

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