Saints facing untimely depth challenges at positions in flux

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Juwan Johnson, a former practice squad receiver who was moved to tight end this year, lined up during Saints training camp on Thursday as the No. 1 player at his position.

That was in large part because of who wasn’t healthy enough to practice — and the situation was similar at some key spots on the other side of the line of scrimmage as well.

Reduced numbers of experienced defensive tackles and cornerbacks at practice this week have coach Sean Payton foreshadowing the likelihood that the Saints will snap up some players cut by other teams at Tuesday’s deadline for NFL clubs to trim rosters to the regular-season maximum of 53.

“Having a good handle on the other teams and what might become available will be important,” Payton said. “We’ll pay close attention to it.”

The injuries are mounting at an inopportune time and at positions that were already in flux because of offseason moves designed to reduce player payroll in response to the NFL salary cap.

During the offseason, the Saints let go of Jared Cook and Josh Hill, their top two tight ends from 2020. Hill then decided to retire.

New Orleans also let starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins leave in free agency, and traded another top defensive tackle, Malcom Brown.

Now players who were in line to help fill those spots are hurt as New Orleans heads into its preseason finale against Arizona on Saturday night.

Tight end Adam Trautman, a 2020 third-round pick whose production picked up late last season, and veteran tight end Nick Vannett, who signed during free agency, have not practiced since leaving Monday night’s preseason victory over Jacksonville with unspecified injuries.

Payton also lamented the loss of Jalen Dalton, whom the Saints placed on injured reserve Tuesday.

“That’s a tough preseason injury for us because Jalen was doing some good things,” Payton said.

Also absent from practice was defensive lineman Malcolm Roach, who entered training camp as a potential Week 1 starter because of veteran David Onyemata's six-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancers.

Veteran defensive back Brian Poole, signed shortly before training camp began to shore up depth in the secondary, also was placed on injured reserve this week.

And veteran cornerback Ken Crawley, who was competing to be New Orleans’ No. 2 cornerback since the retirement of Patrick Robinson earlier this month, had an undisclosed injury during Monday night’s game and has not practiced this week.

“We’re a little thin at corner,” Payton said. “The defensive backs were gassed by the end of (Monday’s) game.”

With Crawley out, rookie Paulson Adebo, a third-round draft choice out of Stanford who opted out of his final college season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was taking first-team snaps at practice on Thursday with top Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

“I feel like I’m getting more comfortable, getting more experience,” Adebo said.

The Saints may need him to be very comfortable by the regular-season opener Sept. 12 against Green Bay, particularly if the NFL decides to suspend Lattimore for his offseason arrest on a gun possession charge.

Johnson, too, is sensing he needs to be ready for an expanded role.

“You kind of pray for just a larger role,” Johnson said. “It's not something I'm scared of or afraid of anything. This is something that I've worked for, worked hard on. So, all it is is getting after it and getting the work done.”

NOTES: The Saints also waived Bryce Thompson, an undrafted rookie out of Tennessee, because of an injury in Monday night's game, but got another defensive back — KeiVrarae Russell — back from the COVID-19 reserve list.

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More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Brett Martel, The Associated Press

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