Patriots

5 Saints players to watch against the Patriots

The Patriots can't afford to lose sight of versatile Saints running back Alvin Kamara on Sunday, plus other players to watch.

Alvin Kamara Saints Patriots
New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara. AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman
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Naturally, it’s hard to ignore that the Patriots’ big tussle with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Gillette Stadium is looming in only 10 days, what with Brady’s camp already lobbing figurative grenades this way through media and all.

But before the Patriots can start worrying about that game, they have to take care of business against another NFC South team: the New Orleans Saints.

The 1-1 Saints surprised the league in Week 1 by smashing Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers only to fall precipitously back to Earth in a drubbing by the 2-0 Carolina Panthers.

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Which team will show up in Foxborough — and which version of starting quarterback Jameis Winston will stand and deliver — against the Patriots on Sunday remains to be seen.

But one thing doesn’t require a whole lot of thought: the list of New Orleans Saints players to have on your radar this weekend begins and ends with one man.

Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints rushes for yardage during the game against the Green Bay Packers.

Alvin Kamara

The Saints’ offense lines up 11 players each snap just like everyone else.

But the first question the Patriots’ defense will ask itself every down on Sunday will be this: where is No. 41?

In a league where running backs seem to matter less and less as the seasons pass, Kamara is the first, last and almost only thing that matters on the Saints offense without wide receiver Michael Thomas in the lineup.

“If you were to build a perfect back, he has everything you need,” said Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower of Kamara on Wednesday.

“He does everything well,” coach Bill Belichick added. “Very good in the passing game. His production has been phenomenal…He’s a guy you got to keep your eye on at all times.”

While Kamara didn’t do much against the Panthers last week, his body of work speaks for itself.

Since entering the league in 2017, he’s only failed to crack the top 10 in scrimmage yards once and posted the third-highest scrimmage yards total in the NFL last year (1,688) behind only 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry (2,141) and Dalvin Cook (1,918). He’s never averaged fewer than 4.6 yards a carry over a full season and has been targeted as a receiver fewer than 100 times only once (97 times in 2019).

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Kamara might be the best back the Patriots face all year, which is notable because New England just allowed 154 yards rushing to a stable of no-name Jets running backs last weekend and got gashed on occasion in Week 1 by the Dolphins.

He’ll also stress the likes of Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and the linebacking corps as a receiver.

The Saints don’t have many offensive skill players that scare teams on offense. But they do have one, and he’s plenty scary on his own.

New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan in action against the Carolina Panthers during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Cam Jordan

Jordan leads an intriguing group of edge defenders against a Patriots offensive line still looking for its rhythm early in the season.

Though he’s getting up there in years — he’s currently 32 — you still have to circle him on your white boards during coaching meetings.

The veteran defender leads the Saints with six pressures and four quarterback hurries already through two games and has added three run stops for good measure.

And as David Andrews noted Wednesday, Jordan primarily lines up on the offense’s right side, putting an additional spotlight on Trent Brown’s health this week.

Edge defenders that have gone up against backup Patriots right tackles Yasir Durant and Justin Herron this year have registered five quarterback pressures and two sacks.

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Isaiah Wynn, who’s also struggled to start the year, will have his own hands full on the opposite side with Carl Granderson. But Jordan’s experience and skill could be a big problem if he’s going against a Patriots tackle not named Trent Brown.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold is sacked by New Orleans Saints’ Bradley Roby during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

Bradley Roby

Whether Marshon Lattimore, the Saints’ top quarterback, plays Sunday or not (thumb surgery), Roby figures to get some work this week.

Roby just came to New Orleans via trade from Houston before the start of the 2021 season but had to miss Week 1 while serving a six-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy.

When he and Lattimore are on the field together, the former Ohio State Buckeyes represent a formidable 1-2 punch at cornerback. But with Lattimore out last week, Roby became the team’s de facto No. 1 cornerback.

His track record as an outside corner is a pretty solid one: quarterbacks have only achieved a passer rating of 100 once over a full season of targeting him.

The veteran cornerback has 4.39 speed, meaning he can run with the likes of Nelson Agholor if the Patriots finally try to get aggressive down the field, and can hold his own in the slot against the likes of Jakobi Meyers as well.

But with the Saints coming into this game as one of the best run defenses in the league — they’re only giving up 2.8 yards per carry on the ground — the Patriots will have to test Roby and the New Orleans secondary.

Especially if Lattimore — a playmaker with shutdown-corner potential — does play on Sunday, New England could look Roby’s way a good amount.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill runs with the ball against the Carolina Panthers during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

Taysom Hill

Winston might be the Saints’ starting quarterback at the moment, but that doesn’t mean you can forget all about Hill.

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New Orleans’ ultra-athletic backup quarterback is one of the most interesting non-starters in football and simply does a little bit of everything for the team.

In addition to five snaps at quarterback this year, he’s lined up as a running back (three snaps), tight end (13 snaps), slot receiver (five snaps), wide receiver (seven snaps) and even covers punts.

Then, of course, you can’t sleep on him as a passer when he’s in the game. In four 2020 starts in relief of Drew Brees, Hill completed more than 72 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ran for 457 yards and eight touchdowns in addition to catching a touchdown pass last season.

“He’s a pretty special athlete and a special player,” Belichick said of the Saints’ Swiss Army Knife. “He’s smart enough to do all those things. He has enough technique or skill at each of the positions to do them…and I think that says quite a bit about the player and his versatility and his skills. Not too many guys can do that.”

Hill’s presence on the field offers an element of unpredictability Saints coach Sean Payton has learned to wield over the years. Though he doesn’t play all that much, his raw ability always makes him a threat.

Whenever he sets foot on the field, expect to see the Patriots pointing him out and marking wherever he goes.

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Deonte Harris runs against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

Deonte Harris

Preparing for the Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle in Week 1 should give the Patriots a head start on how figuring out how to contain Harris, the Saints’ uber-explosive wide receiver and kick/punt returner.

After Harris led the league in punt returns and punt return yardage as a rookie in 2019, teams quickly got wise and started kicking away from him in that phase of the game.

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The Patriots have an All-Pro punter in Jake Bailey who’s adept at keeping the ball away from good return men. But special teams captain Matthew Slater knows New England can’t afford to be unprepared if Harris does get his hands on the ball with room to run.

“I don’t really like comparing guys, because every guy is unique in his own way, but he’s Darren Sproles,” Slater said of Harris Thursday morning.

What’s more, the Saints showed they can use Harris’s game-breaking speed as a weapon in the passing game against the Packers. Winston’s arm strength means burners like Harris require much more attention than they did with the more vertically challenged Brees at quarterback.

If the Patriots continue to give receivers space at the line of scrimmage, Harris might have chances to make plays just as Waddle did in Week 1.

Bonus: Alvin Kamara

That “begins and ends” line wasn’t a joke. Seriously, stop this man.

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