The New Orleans Saints are concluding a three-day minicamp on Thursday with three former Alabama players seeking to define their roles on the team for the 2014 season. Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, is competing at running back with five players who started their NFL lives as undrafted free agents. Vinnie Sunseri is practicing as a second-team safety after being selected in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick has been busier at minicamp than would be expected for a player signed by the Saints last week.
With 359-pound nose tackle John Jenkins standing on the sidelines or riding a stationary bike after pectoral surgery, Deaderick has been helping Brodrick Bunkley handle the nose tackle spot in Jenkins’ absence. Deaderick’s weight is listed on the Saints’ roster as 305 pounds. He’s been a defensive end with defensive tackle size for most of his NFL career.
“Bunkley is going be there,” New Orleans defensive end Cameron Jordan said of the Saints’ plans with Jenkins out. “Deaderick is going to be whatever they decide. Honestly, in our defense you see so many guys rotate through, who knows? Heck, you’ll see me or Akiem (Hicks) be there.”
Deaderick signed with the Saints on June 3. He spent last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, making one start and nine tackles. His season ended a game early when he suffered a dislocated elbow on Dec. 22. Deaderick was a 2010 seventh-round pick who earned a spot on the New England Patriots, starting 14 games in his three seasons with the Pats. He also started five postseason games for New England. The day after the Patriots waived him in 2013, he signed with the Jaguars. The wait to find a team was longer this time after Jacksonville declined to re-sign him after the 2013 season.
“I’m just trying to learn everything, the defense, how things go with the team,” Deaderick said. “Things like that. Just regular system stuff.”
In three seasons with the Saints, Ingram has rushed for 1,462 yards and 11 touchdowns. He missed five games last year with a toe injury. But he ran for 145 yards on 14 carries against the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 10 for the first 100-yard game of his career. After carrying the ball just 27 times over the next five games, he came up with 83 yards on 13 carries against the Carolina Panthers on Dec. 22 and had 97 yards on 18 carries against the Philadelphia Eagles in New Orleans’ playoff win.
“I just want to continue where I left off,” Ingram said. “I was able to get some touches, get into a rhythm toward the end of the year, so I just want to keep going.”
New Orleans coach Sean Payton noted Ingram’s improved production in the closing stages of the 2013 season.
“The thing with Mark, he has been in a program that is very similar to the attention that we get and the fanfare, the criticism and the compliments when you are doing well,” Payton said at minicamp. “He understands that, and if you are not careful, it can affect your play.
“To his credit, a year ago, he did a good job tuning out some of the noise and then when the opportunities came when he got healthy, you saw him play a lot better.”
Last year, Pierre Thomas led the Saints with 147 rushing attempts for 549 yards. In Ingram’s three NFL seasons, no Saint has rushed for more than 603 yards (Darren Sproles in 2011) or carried the ball more than 156 times (Ingram in 2012, when he gained 602 yards) in one campaign. Last year, four Saints ran for at least 220 yards and carried the ball at least 50 times.
“I don’t know what (my role) is going to be,” Ingram said. “Hopefully, I’m taking on more of a role, but I’m just out here worrying about getting better every day, improving every day and that’s pretty much it. Taking it one day at a time. …
“I think whenever I have an opportunity to get into a rhythm and get touches, I think I can be effective. Toward the end of the year, I was able to get a lot of touches, get into a rhythm and show what I can do. Hopefully, it continues.”
Although a rookie, Sunseri is no stranger to the NFL. His father, Sal Sunseri, spent seven seasons as an assistant coach for the Carolina Panthers.
“Film study and work ethic is what I gathered from my dad,” Sunseri said. “Being out there around certain guys, watching guys like Mike Minter, he used to play at Carolina, Julius Peppers and Brentson Buckner, who my dad coached. Those are really smart guys who played a long time because they’re smart. … They took what they learned in the meetings to the practice field and watched film constantly.”
What Sunseri is putting into practice at minicamp is the ability to diagnose the offense’s intentions by its formation.
“Pre-snap stuff is really key at this level, I’ve noticed,” Sunseri, said. “That’s what they’ve been trying to get me to learn — pre-snap stuff. Then after the play we talk about how I can get better and what I can improve on. …
“Pre-snap here is more what kind of routes they can run from those positions and what kind of stuff they like to do out of certain formations, so it was just learning a lot more.”
Sunseri has been setting coverages in the secondary with New Orleans’ second-team defense during practice.
“He’ll turn around and be like, ‘Yeah, I got that right that time,’” secondary coach Wes McGriff said.
Sunseri has been a full participant after a knee injury limited him to seven games at Alabama last season and kept him out of the NFL Scouting Combine.
He’s one of seven safeties at minicamp. The starting positions are set with Kenny Vaccaro returning for his second season at strong safety and former Buffalo Bill Jairus Byrd at free safety after signing a six-year contract with the Saints in March. New Orleans matched the Atlanta Falcons’ contract offer to Rafael Bush to keep him on the team. Sunseri appears to be competing with CFL-import Marcus Ball to back up Vaccaro. Jacksonville State rookie Pierre Warren also is among the Saints’ safeties.