Daniel Lasco had a tumultuous career at Cal, committing to play to a running back factory for the NFL only to watch that staff leave. He ran hard to have as quiet of a breakout season as possible, but his senior season was derailed by injuries, but he potentially redeemed himself with a monstrous Combine workout.
Ultimately, Lasco's journey led him to be a seventh-round pick by the New Orleans Saints. Does heading to the Big Easy mean it'll be easy for him to make the roster? (Oh God, I hate my writing so much sometimes and my self-loathing is so strong right now.) We checked in with two Saints bloggers—Tee Word of Canal Street Chronicles and Andrew Juge of The Saints Nation—to get Saints fans' opinions on the young running back.
1. How does the depth chart look at running back? Is there a dire need to upgrade at that position or is your team pretty stacked?
Tee Word (TW): Good question! And the answer will depend on whom you ask. There are fans who believe that the Saints do not have any quality RBs. I am not one of those people! The Saints currently have Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller, Tim Hightower, Marcus Murphy, and Travaris Cadet as holdovers from 2015 and they added Vick Ballard and now Daniel Lasco. Sean Payton has been burned by injuries at RB, so he sometimes overvalues the position and keeps guys nearby just in case. Opening day will probably reflect four RBs on the active roster—I'm predicting Ingram, Spiller, Murphy and Cadet (the latter two because they contribute in the return game). If Lasco can run tough in the preseason and outpace Cadet on special teams, he could take that final RB spot. One thing that is working against him is being practice squad–eligible, so if he and Cadet are even, he might get stashed for later use.
Andrew Juge (AJ): Right now, the Saints have Mark Ingram (the unquestioned load carrier and starter), C. J. Spiller, Tim Hightower, Travaris Cadet, and Marcus Murphy on their roster in addition to Lasco. They're pretty deep at that position. But I view Lasco as competing mostly with Spiller, Cadet and Murphy for playing time. Ingram and Hightower are between-the-tackles and every-down guys whereas the rest are receiving, special teams, and big-play specialists. If you remember the roles that Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles used to have with the Saints—that's what the plan was for Spiller. Spiller was banged-up last year and never lived up to that role's promise—we'll see if he can bounce back. But Cadet and Murphy have a similar skill set. I think the Saints keep four backs, so it would seem Lasco would battle Murphy and Cadet for a roster spot. It's definitely not in need of an upgrade and it's pretty stacked overall. I wouldn't say the Saints are elite by any means at running back, but they're deep and solid. All the guys I mentioned have promise and have done good things on the field already.
2. What kind of skill set do your coaches look for at running back?
TW: Payton hasn't shown a preference to any type of RB in my opinion. He seems to prefer a varied cast to fill different roles in his multi-set offense. At the peak of the Saints run game, around 09–11, Payton used Mike Bell ('09), Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, and Mark Ingram. As you can see, all of those players have different skill sets. In 2015, he ramped up the involvement of the RBs in the pass game and he's always been heavily reliant on the screen game. So, if I had to pick one thing a Saints RB should have, it's receiving ability.
AJ: To see the most playing time on the field, you have to be able to do everything. Blocking and catching are two huge things in Sean Payton's book. Ingram didn't see the field nearly as much until he polished up his hands and blitz pickup assignments. That's why Pierre Thomas was so successful in this system and why Hightower—even later in his career—is a good fit. Those two are some of the most balanced "do it all" versatile backs I've seen—jack of all trades, master of none types. You can also play some as a specialized role if you're a receiving back, though, again like we saw with Bush and Sproles. If you have a unique skill, Payton will find a way to utilize it.
3. What role does the running back play in the Saints' scheme?
TW: Following up on the previous question, each RB will play a role based on his strongest talent. Payton is traditional in that he uses guys for what should be their strengths. If you're fast, he's going to get you the ball in space on passes to flats or screens, which are essentially extended hand-offs. If you can thump a little, he'll run you between the tackles or off-tackle, we saw this with Chris Ivory and Khiry Robinson. But one thing all Saints fans know is that RBs will not get a high volume of carries—this hurts Mark Ingram most. If Lasco can shine at any given skill, he'll earn his fair share of touches.
AJ: Depends. If you're Ingram or Hightower, you're really seeing anything. Your assignment could be a screen, a decoy, running between the tackles, a sweep to the outside, helping in protection, being a auxiliary read in the passing game... you name it. But I think Lasco's role again would be more specialized to that receiving back we just talked about--if he does make the team and play. Payton likes to move that player around to get favorable match-ups in the passing game.
4. How have the fans or critics responded to drafting Lasco in the seventh round?
TW: Well, the Saints came into the draft with six picks, but left with five players, so there is an opinion that the front office screwed up. Here's the deal: the Saints traded a 3rd- and 4th- round pick to move back into the 2nd round—this upset many. They later moved up into the 4th by trading away a 5th this year and a 5th next year. Drafting Lasco in the 7th was actually met with a ‘meh', but it could've been worse. The biggest issue was that, though most think the Saints need better RBs, they don't think you wait until the 7th to get your guy. I can honestly say that no one seems to be upset that they grabbed Lasco as his highlights and 2014 season indicate a pretty solid player.
AJ: I think it's been mostly negative just because fans don't really understand why the Saints would take a running back in the draft at all. They simply don't really need one and is this really a huge upgrade over Cadet and/or Murphy? Murphy ran a punt back for a touchdown last year, looked good in preseason, and was drafted in the seventh round too last season. Cadet has been with the team off and on for a long time now, does a decent job on kick returns, and is excellent receiving the ball out of the backfield. I'm not saying Lasco can't beat those two out, but this roster has a lot of needs. Personally, I would have preferred to see the Saints draft a guard or a defensive player. The undrafted rookie class was very good, though, and the Saints picked up G Landon Turner and C/G Jack Allen. So I think most people who wanted a guard in the seventh round and panicked when Lasco was the pick have calmed down now that the guys they wanted at that pick ended up coming to the Saints after the draft.
5. Are the fans/coaches/media concerned about Lasco's injury derailing his senior season? Any word if the decision to draft him was based on his breakout junior season or his insane combine performance?
TW: Payton is usually pretty hush-hush on injuries or injury concerns, so we'd never know for sure. What we do know is that the Saints are not shy about drafting players who have been injured in college (Lasco makes three years straight if I'm not mistaken). No one has come out and said if it was the combine or his junior season, but I'd believe that it's a combination of both.
AJ: The seventh round is always a gamble, so I think fans understand that. If the guy were a can't-miss prospect, he'd be drafted on the first day. Based on that, once you reach the seventh round you're always taking a guy who either has been injured; is supremely talented, but has character concerns; or has limited skill. So this goes with the territory. I think the Saints loved the value with Lasco in the seventh round and he was so high on their board at that point that they took him even though they didn't need a player at his position. I definitely think his play in 2014 was the driving force behind that eval and his combine performance suggested his injuries were behind him.
6. What is your evaluation of Lasco?
TW: Daniel seems explosive and has nice hands out of the backfield. It looks like he doesn't have great field vision, but he's fast enough to outrun guys who have an angle on him. I don't see him as a thumper-type, but his frame lends to him being tough to bring down at the 3rd level. Based on what I've seen, he's not very shifty, but he is decisive as a runner—one cut and go.
AJ: The thing I like the most is his ability to change direction very quickly in tight spaces. That's something a lot of "fast 40 time" players don't have. Sproles could cut on a dime like no one I've ever seen and Lasco has a little bit of that same ability. I don't view him as a guy who can run between the tackles at all in the NFL... so his chance at making it would be excelling in the specialized role we discussed above.
7. Is there any early indication or do you have a guess if Lasco has a chance at making the Saints' roster? Would it help his chances if he can contribute significantly on special teams coverage? He had some highlight-reel plays on special teams during his senior year!
TW: Yes, Lasco has a legitimate chance to make the roster and it will be directly related to his ability to contribute on special teams. As I stated earlier though, he's head to head with Cadet at this point due to their similarities. With Lasco being PS-eligible, he may have to wait there until an opportunity comes up due to injury or other circumstances. My personal take is that he needs to come to camp fit, healthy, and highly motivated to be active on opening day. It is not far-fetched for a late round draft pick to become a key Saints player. In fact, Pierre Thomas was an undrafted free agent and is now legendary in Saints lore!
AJ: I really think the Saints keep four backs and Ingram, Hightower, and Spiller are virtual locks. The last spot will go to Murphy, Cadet, or Lasco—he absolutely has a shot. And honestly, Murphy or Lasco could end up on the practice squad, too. But one thing that is undeniable is that whoever of the three is best on special teams will be the one who wins the job. Murphy ran back a punt for a TD last year, but had fumbling issues and Cadet has had a few big kickoff returns too. So they are not slouches—the competition between those three might be one of the most underrated in training camp. Lasco will make or miss this 53 man roster based on how he does on special teams. I'd say that is crucial. And yeah, that's a strong suit in his game, so I think he has a good shot. But he's going up against two guys who have very similar traits.
8. What are your current feelings on D-lineman (and friend of CGB) Cam Jordan?
TW: Man, I love Killa-Cam! He's such a cool dude and his game is intense. Every season he's improved and I can see him dominating in 2016 with the addition of Nick Fairley and Sheldon Rankins. They also have a LB/DE named Hau'oli Kikaha to pair with Cam in the pass rush department. I'm actually expecting double-digit sacks and national recognition for Cam. He plays with fire and you can see his desire to be the best. Also, his post-sack "Level-Up" celebration is awesome!
AJ: Love him. Definitely a fan favorite. The defense has been 31st in the league the last two years and it would definitely be 32nd if it weren't for Cam. We feel bad for him. He's a really good player on a horrible defense. I hope he'll get a chance to enjoy more success this season because he works really hard and deserves it. He's an eccentric personality and a fun-loving guy. I'd say he isn't a dominant explosive pass rusher, but he's just really solid. He's a really well-rounded defensive end who is good in all phases, which allows you to play him regardless of down and distance. He's equally solid rushing the passer as he is playing the run. His versatility allows you to move him around depending on the situation, too. The Saints signed him to a major contract extension before the start of last season and I think fans are universally please with that, especially considering the solid season he just put in that landed him a Pro Bowl spot.