Ladies and gentlemen, the pads are officially on.
While players didn’t tackle to the ground, there was no denying the increased enthusiasm from the fans observing the practice. And the energy level extended to the players, especially during 11-on-11 sessions.
“We get to be a little bit more physical,” cornerback P.J. Williams said after practice. “Just getting hands on guys and putting pads on guys, you got to make sure you keep your pad level low. Also, it’s better for us when we cover receivers. We got bigger targets, so we definitely like to get up there and jam receives with pads on.”
Here are observations from Day 3:
Linebacker A.J. Klein returned to practice after not being absent Saturday for undisclosed reasons. Running back Javorius “Buck” Allen and wide receiver Michael Thomas were not observed on the field for a third straight day. Thomas’ absences are tied to his contract situation, but it remains unclear why Allen hasn’t been at practice.
BUTLER DOES IT AGAIN
Let’s get the obvious out of the way because through three days of training camp it has become hard to ignore rookie wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, who joined the Saints in May as an undrafted free agent.
Butler, who made our observation list the previous two days during unpadded practices, once again turned heads during 11-on-11 drill with a leaping catch on a pass from Taysom Hill down the left sideline with veteran cornerback Kayvon Webster in coverage.
Coach Sean Payton has now fielded questions specific to Bulter in two of three post-practice news conferences, signaling other media members have taken notice. Butler, who wasn’t originally scheduled to talk to the media Sunday, was made available after practice at the podium given the buzz he’s generating at training camp.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Butler has the size that Payton enjoys, and the rookie wideout is showing his talent. The key for Butler going forward is to remain healthy and consistent as he looks to make the 53-player roster.
After emphasizing the run during team drills in Saturday’s practice before moving indoors, the Saints offense turned it up a notch Sunday with plenty of passes among quarterback Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill and J.T. Barrett.
The pass-heavy morning also allowed the quarterbacks to show off their arms as they took deep shots down the field. Bridgewater had a nice completion of 20-plus yards to wide receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr., who made a fully extended diving catch behind the safety.
Brees appeared to use the opportunity as a teaching tool for the team’s group of young pass catchers, as he was observed instructing rookie tight end Alize Mack and wide receiver Emmanuel Butler how to run a specific route.
With passes filling the air, the opportunities to make plays on the ball were certainly present for the defensive backs and they took full advantage.
Sure, some defensive backs were beat deep, but the group had their fair share of plays.
Cornerback Eli Apple made a couple of nice pass breakups, showing anticipation on a pass in the flat and the speed to close on the receiver to knock the pass away. Cornerback Justin Hardee, who contributed mostly on special teams the past two seasons, showed he can also play his position with at least two observed pass breakups during team drills. Rookie safety Saquan Hampton also made a nice play to break up a pass.
The top defensive play, though, goes to safety Marcus Williams, who showed his ability to come across the field and help out a teammate. Second-year wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith beat P.J. Williams off the line of scrimmage and was streaking down the middle of the field when Drew Brees launched the pass. But Marcus Williams made a nice break on the ball and rapidly closed the distance before leaping in the air to knock the ball away.
Linebacker Kaden Elliss didn’t let the defensive backs get the full spotlight, as he recorded an interception after rookie safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson tipped Taysom Hill’s pass.
PUNT RETURNER ROTATION
The Saints rotated Marcus Sherels, Austin Carr, Cyril Grayson Jr. and rookie Deonte Harris for punt returns during special team drills. For the most part, Sherels took the first reps with the remaining reps rotating among Harris, Grayson and Carr.
Carr totaled just seven special snaps over the past two seasons, so he’ll need to make an impact on special teams given the heated competition at wide receiver.
PLAY OF THE DAY
There was little doubt Brees and tight end Jared Cook were building chemistry in training camp, and Sunday provided yet another example of their connection.
During an 11-on-11 drill, Cook got between linebacker A.J. Klein and safety Vonn Bell down the right sideline. Brees spotted Cook coming open and threw the ball high in a tight window where only Cook could get it. Cook made the jump as Klein and Bell attempted to defend and secured the ball with both hands before falling to the crowd between Klein and Bell.
When Brees has full trust in his receivers, he can anticipate where his receiver will be and make the throws like he did with Cook.