Brian Allee-Walsh

These Saints players are on the bubble for spots on the 53-man roster

For the first few weeks of training camp, the Butler did it. I mean, New Orleans Saints undrafted rookie wide receiver Emmanuel Butler was killing it, using his ample 6-foot-4 frame and huge wing span to catch pass after pass from quarterbacks Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill.

In traffic, down the sideline, out route, crossing route, go route. It didn’t matter. If the ball came near him, he usually caught it.

Then, Butler got hurt. An undisclosed injury kept him off the practice field and prevented him from playing in the first preseason game, and the highlight reel catches suddenly stopped. Now, Butler is back and trying to recapture the magic but he’s running out of time to make the season-opening 53-man roster.

He’s praying for a hail mary to bail him out.

Butler isn’t the only Black and Gold player in need of a good showing in the team’s final two preseason games, the first coming Saturday night against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

With so few projected openings on the roster, Butler and a handful others on the proverbial bubble will have to make the most of their opportunities against the Jets and in the preseason finale against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

All NFL teams must be down to 53 players by 3 p.m. Aug. 31.

What seemed so close a short time ago now probably looks far away for Butler, who didn’t help matters by dropping an in-your-face pass from Hill near the end of the first half in last Sunday’s 19-17 comeback win over the San Diego Chargers. He also didn’t catch two other targeted passes in 25 offensive snaps.

Butler’s chances now are slim to be among the chosen few wide receivers on the final roster — Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr., Tre’Quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood and probably Austin Carr.

It’s possible that Coach Sean Payton might only carry four wide receivers on the final 53 because of a more pressing need at other positions, which brings other bubble players into play, most notably:

Veteran free agent cornerback/return specialist Marcus Sherels was thought to be the team’s new punt returner when he signed a a one-year, $1.02 million contract March 21. And he probably will be when all is said and done. But he’s been sidelined for undisclosed reasons since the start of camp and there’s no indication when he might return, according to Payton.

Look for Payton to carry eight offensive linemen to open the season. Second-round draft pick Erik McCoy appears to have won the center job, indicating backup spots probably will go to C/G Nick Easton, C/G Cameron Tom and either T Marshall Newhouse, G Will Clapp or T Michael Ola.

Three tight ends are locks — Jared Cook, Josh Hill and Dan Arnold. If Payton keeps a fourth, it will either be seventh-round pick Alize Mack or veteran A.J. Derby who’s making a late push.

One wildcard is undrafted rookie receiver Deonte Harris of tiny Assumption College who has made a name for himself returning kicks and punts in Sherels’ absence. Harris won’t make the team as a receiver, so it really depends on Sherels’ health and the numbers game at other positions.

In the secondary, cornerback Ken Crawley is walking on thin ice and sixth-round pick safety Saquon Hampton currently is dealing with a foot injury (walking boot). Payton may end up keeping 11 or 12 defensive backs, including fourth-round pick cornerback Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.

And in closing, Brees is expected to make his preseason debut against the Jets, meaning he’ll match wits with their first-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams played a leading role in the infamous bounty scandal while holding a similar position in New Orleans from 2009 through 2011.

Look for Brees to be on a loosely scripted snap count. Also, look for Williams to bring pressure early and often. It’s in his football DNA. He also has no love lost for Payton, who ran up the score on the Los Angeles Rams in 2016 when Williams oversaw the Rams defense.

Let’s hope Williams calls a clean game and Brees emerges in one piece.

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.
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