Familiarity for several Saints when they play Vikings

Published 9:47 pm Thursday, August 8, 2019

If they get on the field Friday night — and most of them are expected to play — a handful of former Vikings and current Saints will see some familiar faces on the other side.

The Saints have punt returner Marcus Sherels, center Nick Easton, fullback Zach Line, running back Latavius Murray and, of course, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. This will be the first time Bridgewater has played against the Vikings, who drafted him in the first round in 2014 and let him leave as a free agent two years ago after his massive knee injury altered plans to build their offense around him.

“I’m proud of him, for him to be able to come back from the type of injury that he had to still be playing in the NFL,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of Bridgewater, who is competing to be Drew Brees’ backup. “It was a pretty bleak outlook for him, but that’s the kind of kid he is.

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“He’ll try and stick it to us, just like we’re going to stick it to him.”

Saints coach Sean Payton said Bridgewater is “certainly going to play a lot” in the preseason opener.

“I think that a second year into what we’re doing has benefited him and he brings all those other intangibles that allow you to win that are necessary at that position,” Payton said.

A priority for the Saints is replacing retired three-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger. Top candidates include rookie Erik McCoy, a second-round draft choice out of Texas A&M; Easton, signed this year as a free agent; and Cameron Tom, a third-year pro who began his NFL career in New Orleans as an undrafted rookie and who has played sparingly as a reserve interior lineman. The stakes are high for Easton, who has a four-year contract worth up to $22.5 million — if he can play well enough to stick around at that price. He also is trying to come back from a neck injury that wiped out his 2018 season.

Since Mark Ingram left for Baltimore in free agency, the Saints have been looking for a strong inside rusher who can also catch the ball to complement star running back Alvin Kamara. Murray was signed to potentially fill that role. Returning reserve running back Dwayne Washington is also in the mix.

The Vikings will get their first chance to test their new scheme directed by offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and influenced by offensive adviser Gary Kubiak. Rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. will likely see significant playing time on his 21st birthday in his hometown, where his father, Irv Smith Sr., once played tight end for the Saints.

“He’s swimming, because we’re asking a lot of him right now,” Kubiak said, adding: “But that’s the way it should be. That’s why he’s here.”

Friday’s other game pits Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh.

The Buccaneers make their preseason debut under Bruce Arians, the latest coach to take a crack at ending the team’s long playoff drought. The Bucs have missed the playoffs 11 consecutive seasons, the second-longest stretch in the league. Part of Arians’ mission is to determine once and for all if Jameis Winston is Tampa Bay’s long-term answer at quarterback. The fifth-year pro enters the final season of his rookie deal making $20.9 million. He will play against the Steelers, though not much.

Besides a win, what is Arians hoping to take away from the team’s debut?

“Just look like we know what we’re doing,” said Arians, who retired as coach of the Arizona Cardinals after the 2017 season, then felt the itch to get back on the sideline.

Three projected starters — LB Lavonte David, DT Vita Vea and S Justin Evans — and three 2019 draft picks — CB Jamel Dean, WR Scotty Miller and LB Anthony Nelson — are among the players who won’t make the trip to Pittsburgh because of injuries.

Pittsburgh will get its first look at how quickly first-round pick Devin Bush has come along when he makes his NFL debut.

The Steelers traded up to grab the speedy if undersized Bush with the 10th overall selection. The last player Pittsburgh moved up to grab? Safety Troy Polamalu in 2003. No pressure or anything.

Bush, however, doesn’t have to worry about a roster spot regardless of how he plays. The same can’t be said for kicker Chris Boswell, who is in the midst of a camp battle with Matthew Wright.

Boswell, who slumped badly in 2018 after being a Pro Bowler in 2017, has kicked well during practice, but it’s just that — practice.

“He’s been solid but we haven’t done anything yet,” Tomlin said. “We’re stepping into a stadium for the first time and that’s exciting. We put him in some situations out here, but we’re just beginning to unfold the storyline in terms of consistency there.”