Saints coach Sean Payton got the most out of his team’s 36-7 preseason victory against the Chargers on Saturday night in Carson, Calif.
Forget the margin of victory and even the victory itself. Payton put the 60 minutes to very good use and the outcome was merely lagniappe.
He gave added opportunities to players who might have seemed all but cut to casual observers, but who still have and deserve a chance to prove they belong on the team.
The best example is at wide receiver where Austin Carr emerged from the shadows to make three catches and Tommylee Lewis did the same by catching one passes and returning three punts.
“The depth chart is written in chalk,” Payton said. “It’s not permanent ink.”
And it should remain in chalk until 3 p.m. CDT next Saturday when the Saints and the other NFL teams are required to trim the rosters to 53 players for the start of the regular season. In fact, the chalk should be used even beyond that deadline because the waiver wire and trades could still produce players worthy of being on the roster for the start of the season Sept. 9 against Tampa Bay.
New Orleans still has a preseason finale against the Rams on Thursday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to use as a key factor in making roster decisions, and the reps in that game will go almost exclusively to players in the middle and at the bottom of the depth chart as 11th-hour opportunities to show that they belong.
Payton also took advantage of Saturday’s game to practice two-point conversions. He went for two after all four touchdowns and the Saints succeeded on three of them.
What’s the point in having Wil Lutz kick extra points when you can run a variety of two-point plays to gain additional information on 11 players at a time, see how particular two-point plays work under game conditions and give opponents more stuff to prepare for?
Payton also gave Taysom Hill another extended look at quarterback and Hill responded with a performance far better than his four-turnover mess against Arizona eight days earlier.
Tom Savage may well be the No. 2 quarterback when the season starts, or New Orleans could sign or trade for its No. 2, but Hill showed Saturday why he remains intriguing as a developmental project at quarterback while he contributes as a core special teams player.
Overall the team’s performance wasn’t as impressive as the final margin might have suggested. The Chargers got the better of the line play on both sides of the ball in the first quarter when it was mostly starters vs. starters.
“I was disappointed early in the game, particularly with our linebacker play," Payton said. "I didn't think that was very good.
“It didn't start off like we wanted. But then I thought as that first quarter continued, we were able to turn the momentum in our favor and did a lot of things that were encouraging."
The first touchdown drive needed a run by Hill out of punt formation to continue, but that ability is one of the things that make him a lock to make the team.
The improvement after the slow start, like the comeback to beat Jacksonville in the preseason opener, shows that the Saints backups are a pretty solid group, at least when compared to those of the Jaguars and the Chargers, both of whom figure to be good teams this season.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to choose the final roster. But if Payton utilizes the final 60 minutes on Thursday as well as he utilized Saturday’s game, he should have as much useful information as he could have hoped for.
And that’s really what preseason is all about.