New Orleans Saints: rufus johnson jr.

Most significant move: Releasing linebacker Victor Butler was a small surprise, but a huge shame. I was one of many analysts who thought the pass-rush specialist could have a huge impact when he joined the New Orleans Saints last year, following defensive coordinator Rob Ryan from Dallas. Unfortunately, Butler missed all of last season with a torn ACL, then he missed three weeks of training camp this year with an ankle injury. In the meantime, the Saints continued to develop two other breakout pass-rushers in Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. Hopefully Butler can get healthy and get another opportunity somewhere, because he’s an energetic, well-liked guy who showed a ton of promise before the injuries.

One-year wonders: I was equally surprised to see the Saints release second-year linebacker Kevin Reddick, who had been a mainstay on all of their special teams units last season and this preseason. But it goes to show how much depth the Saints have at linebacker. This probably guarantees that guys such as Keyunta Dawson and Kyle Knox will make the team and maybe open up a spot for undrafted rookie Kasim Edebali. ... Cornerback Rod Sweeting also got cut after spending all of last season on the roster as an undrafted rookie. And 2013 sixth-round pick Rufus Johnson Jr. got waived as well -- less surprising after both had fallen behind in the pecking order throughout the summer.

What’s next: Two of the most compelling battles that will be decided by week’s end are at backup quarterback (Luke McCown vs. Ryan Griffin) and kicker (Shayne Graham vs. Derek Dimke). It’s starting to look more and more like McCown will win the backup job. If that happens, the Saints will probably keep three quarterbacks since they like Griffin’s long-term potential. ... I don’t anticipate any more veteran surprises, but you can never rule them out. If I had to make my final roster projection right now, I’d have four guys battling for the last three spots (McCown, Edebali, safety Marcus Ball and defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick).

Saints' cuts: LB Victor Butler, LB Kevin Reddick, DE Rufus Johnson Jr., CB Rod Sweeting, S Ty Zimmerman, DE George Uko, WR Andy Tanner (injured), QB Logan Kilgore, TE Travis Beckum, OT Manase Foketi, OT Ty Nsekhe (injured).
A position-by-position look at the New Orleans Saints' 90-man roster heading into the start of training camp. Players report on Thursday and will hold their first practice Friday at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Current depth chart:

Defensive end: Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, Glenn Foster, Tyrunn Walker, Rufus Johnson Jr., Lawrence Virgil, George Uko

Nose tackle: Brodrick Bunkley, John Jenkins, Brandon Deaderick, Tyrone Ezell

Gone from last year: DE Tom Johnson, DE Kenyon Coleman

Key roster battles: The top six players on the line are all safe bets to stay on the roster (veteran starters Jordan, Hicks and Bunkley and young backups Jenkins, Foster and Walker). But after that, there’s still room for one or two players to make the cut.

Johnson Jr. is the most intriguing guy on the list. The Saints drafted him as a raw pass-rush specialist in the sixth round out of Tarleton State in 2013. And now they’re cross-training him as a 3-4 end after he spent most of last season on the practice squad as an outside linebacker. If Johnson can deliver on his great athletic potential, the Saints will find a spot for him.

Meanwhile, Deaderick is an experienced veteran who also has versatility in his favor. He can play end or tackle, and he has been lining up at nose tackle while Jenkins has been out with a pectoral injury this summer.

Don’t count out Virgil, Uko or Ezell, though. The Saints have kept undrafted rookies on the line in each of the past two years.
Examining the New Orleans Saints' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)
It’s not easy to cut veteran Luke McCown from this roster. He has been a great fit in the Saints locker room. But if the Saints can trust the younger Griffin in that backup role, they don’t need to keep three quarterbacks.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

I’m going out on a limb and predicting that this is the year an undrafted rookie running back doesn't make the roster (though Timothy Flanders will probably shine in the preseason). All five names on this list are virtual locks, with backup fullback Austin Johnson also a dark horse.

RECEIVERS (6)

I actually think it will be tough for all six of these guys to make the roster. But they have all shown enough in the past to earn the benefit of doubt for now. Morgan is the big wild card. His uncertain health and the addition of fellow speedster Cooks places him firmly on the bubble. But if Morgan shines in camp, he could pass up Meachem or Toon. ... The Saints have some talented undrafted rookie receivers, but the practice squad seems more likely for them.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

This is a spot where I could definitely see an undrafted rookie such as Je'Ron Hamm or Nic Jacobs cracking the roster. But the Saints went with only three tight ends last season, so I'll stick with that for now.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

The top seven seem pretty safe. After that, it's wide-open for one or two more backup spots. I'll go with the rookie Rooks for now because the Saints invested a sixth-round pick in him and like his growth potential. But former draft pick Marcel Jones and undrafted rookie Matthew Armstrong are among several other possibilities.

DEFENSIVE LINE (7)

The top six are about as safe as it gets. Johnson’s future is uncertain, but the second-year pro has great athleticism and potential. And now he’s being cross-trained as a defensive lineman, which adds versatility for the pass-rusher. Veteran Brandon Deaderick is a more experienced possibility for depth.

LINEBACKERS (9)

My most difficult cut on the defense was veteran outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson, whom the Saints really liked last season and re-signed this offseason. I also like pass-rusher Kyle Knox as a dark horse. But this is suddenly such a crowded group with the arrival of enticing rookies Fortt and Powell.

CORNERBACKS (6)

This position is even deeper. Six cornerbacks is a lot, but it’s hard to cut any one of these guys at this point. And I still had to leave off some talented candidates such as Trevin Wade, Terrence Frederick and Derrius Brooks.

SAFETIES (4)

These four seem like a pretty safe bet. But this is another spot where an undrafted rookie such as Pierre Warren or Ty Zimmerman could earn his way into the mix, especially if he shines on special teams.

SPECIALISTS (3)

The only competition is at kicker, where Graham will have to fend off young contender Derek Dimke.

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