On more than one occasion since training camp started back on July 25, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has talked about getting “the right 53.”
If you’re an NFL player in anyone’s camp right now, you don’t have to ask the significance of that number. You know that on Aug. 31, the difference between No. 53 and 54 will be much greater than a skinny single digit.
With two preseason games in the books and two remaining, the Saints and every other NFL team are starting to form opinions that will trim their 90-man training camp roster to the regular-season limit of 53.
That’s why the number 53 was more important to Payton than Friday night’s 28-20 win against the Oakland Raiders. It was obvious that after his starters went to the bench in the second half, there was a lot of angst among Payton and his coaching staff — when a 23-0 first-half lead nearly evaporated.
“It’s important that we get a good evaluation on these players, and the right 53 is the most important thing that we have to do right now,” Payton said. “It’s not getting all our calls in on defense or offense or getting all our different returns in.
“It’s getting the right 53 that we’re going into the season with. In order to do that, you want to get a lot of looks for these guys, and you want to see them do well.”
While some evaluations will continue, Payton noted it was evident that some players may have helped their chances — while some may have hurt their chances.
“We talked about that very topic two or three days ago,” he said. “We talked about where we’re kind of at in this juncture of training camp and where we are at with the roster.
“There are a number of spots — a lot, double digits — that are being won or lost right now, and they understand that. This was an important game for a lot of guys, but the evaluation process is ongoing for a number of players.”
With that in mind, here’s a guess at what the Saints’ 53-man roster may look like on the evening of Aug. 31:
QUARTERBACK (2): Drew Brees, Luke McCown.
Notable: Seneca Wallace may have turned his chances over on Friday night, while Ryan Griffin is ticketed for the practice squad.
RUNNING BACK (5): Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Travaris Cadet, Jed Collins (fullback).
Notable: Cadet hangs on even though he fumbled twice against the Raiders, losing one.
WIDE RECEIVER (6): Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Nick Toon, Kenny Stills, Preston Parker, Courtney Roby.
Notable: A lot of this depends on the health of Colston and Roby, who are both out with injuries, but Toon, Stills and Parker have earned their spots. Roby stays because of his special teams skills.
TIGHT END (2): Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson.
Notable: Payton often keeps only two tight ends on the roster so he can give a little help to another area of the team — like linebacker or defensive back.
OFFENSIVE LINE (9): Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs, Brian de la Puente, Zach Strief, Charles Brown, Terron Armstead, Bryce Harris, Eric Olsen, Marcel Jones.
Notable: The key here after the five starters is the ability to play more than one position. That’s what keeps Olsen, who is a guard and center, and Jones, who has played some guard even though his primary spot is tackle.
DEFENSIVE LINE (7): Akiem Hicks, Brodrick Bunkley, Cameron Jordan, John Jenkins, Tom Johnson, Tyrunn Walker, Glenn Foster.
Notable: They’re very young here as only Bunkley has more than two years of experience, and it wouldn’t be a shock if they tried to add another veteran to the mix.
LINEBACKER (9): Curtis Lofton, Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Junior Galette, David Hawthorne, Ramon Humber, Martez Wilson, Jay Richardson, Rufus Johnson.
Notable: This area is a mess right now with injuries to Lofton, Vilma, Galette, Wilson and Chris Chamberlain, so anything could happen — including undrafted free agent Eric Martin making it.
DEFENSIVE BACK (10): Jabari Greer, Keenan Lewis, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, Kenny Vaccaro, Patrick Robinson, Rafael Bush, Corey White, Isa Abdul-Quddus, Rod Sweeting.
Notable: Sweeting, an undrafted free agent, has been working with the second team at cornerback all training camp and surprises by beating out Chris Carr for the final spot.
SPECIALISTS (3): Garrett Hartley, Thomas Morstead, Justin Drescher.
Notable: Hartley’s competition was released early in training camp, but he’s had a good camp anyway, so there are no surprises here.