AFC East: Keenan Lewis

Mickey LoomisDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMickey Loomis hasn't been afraid to make tough personnel decisions as Saints GM.
No, this isn't a fire sale you're witnessing in New Orleans.

The New Orleans Saints aren't succumbing to the salary cap.

It wouldn't even be accurate to say they're in a rebuilding mode this offseason. Because much of the new foundation is already in place.

The Saints have remained perennial Super Bowl contenders because they haven't allowed themselves to be paralyzed by their salary-cap predicament.

Instead, they've continued to aggressively spend money in free agency in recent years on new core leaders such as cornerback Keenan Lewis, linebacker Curtis Lofton and guard Ben Grubbs -- not to mention running back Darren Sproles when he arrived in 2011.

And they'll likely make one or two similar investments in free agency this year.

Of course it's difficult -- for the fan base and the organization alike -- to see the Saints part ways with so many of their all-time great players. The Saints' recent news releases have read more like the induction of a Ring of Honor class than a series of roster cuts: Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer, with Sproles reportedly next.

But the Saints haven't been forced into any of these moves. They've been tough but calculated decisions, made when the Saints feel a player's value no longer matches his salary.

And if anything, the team should be applauded for the way it has planned ahead for these departures.

I'm not saying I love every move the Saints have made. I'm especially leery about the decision to part with Sproles, who will be much harder to replace than anyone else on the list, even if he is starting to slow down at age 30.

I was equally leery about the decision to let left tackle Jermon Bushrod get away last year, since New Orleans didn't have a proven alternative in-house. But I appreciate that those decisions were value-based.

It's also worth noting that Bushrod is the only example that comes close to the Saints being burned by a decision to let go of one of their core veteran players during the tenure of general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton.

"We're always trying to improve our team," Loomis said earlier this offseason, when I asked him about the way the Saints have stayed aggressive in free agency in recent years despite their cap limitations. "I think the biggest challenge of that is that you just can't afford to make many mistakes. That your margin for error is decreased."

Every year, people tend to determine the free agency "winners" and "losers" by the size of the haul.

But the Saints deserve credit for making so many choices that have panned out in recent years despite such a slim margin for error.

"It's exceptionally hard to do," said Bill Polian, the ESPN analyst and a former longtime general manager who raved last month about the job that Loomis and Payton have done in recent years to continually reshape the roster.

"It is this kind of cap management when you're a good team, a contending team, that is most valuable. And in almost every case it goes unnoticed," Polian said. "[Teams like the Saints that] continue to add good players deserve a great deal of credit."

Polian knows of what he speaks, having previously managed the Indianapolis Colts with quarterback Peyton Manning as their high-priced centerpiece.

The Saints made quarterback Drew Brees the first NFL player to make $20 million per year in 2011. In turn, they entered each of the past two offseasons at more than $10 million over the salary cap.

And now they're poised to make free agent Jimmy Graham the highest-paid tight end in NFL history -- likely more than $10 million per year. But I still expect the Saints to keep an aggressive eye on the open market, as they have in recent years.

To do so, Loomis and his staff have had to become masters in mathematics, continually restructuring contracts and back-loading deals to push cap costs into future years.

Sure, the Saints are just delaying the inevitable. But they figure they can wait to pay those bills whenever Brees retires. Their window of opportunity to win titles is now.

[+] EnlargeDarren Sproles
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints may have a difficult time replacing Darren Sproles if they decide to cut him.
Not all NFL teams like to approach the cap that way. The Green Bay Packers, especially, have never liked to spend big in free agency. And former Packers executive Andrew Brandt, currently an NFL business analyst, has pointed to the way the Saints back-loaded Brees' contract as a reason for all of these recent veteran cuts.

"I was, and am, much more conservative," Brandt said recently. "You know, having Brett Favre all those years, I never wanted to leave the team with a big hole based on pro-ration of an old contract. ... You're always going to be either releasing veteran players and/or doing these cap restructures that put more pressure on the future. They're gonna continue to have challenges. I don't think they can continue to be aggressive.

"But they've got this window. And if they keep deleting and pushing out cap, I guess they can."

One thing both Brandt and Polian agreed on is that the Saints, led by Loomis and Payton, have been successful with recent choices made in both free agency and the draft. Player personnel director Ryan Pace, college scouting director Rick Reiprish and football administration director Khai Harley -- as well as others in the front office -- also deserve plenty of credit for that.

The Saints' success with personnel decisions was never more evident than last month, when they bid farewell to longtime defensive greats Smith, Vilma, Greer and Harper. Those moves didn't hurt too much, because their replacements -- Lewis, Lofton and recent first-round draft picks Cameron Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro -- are already in-house.

Now the Saints are hoping that emerging young offense playmakers such as Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Kenny Stills can help fill the voids left by Sproles and Moore.

Perhaps they're playing with fire. But that's not the same thing as a fire sale.
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The New England Patriots are coming off their first loss of the season, and questions are mounting about the team’s revamped offense. There are no such questions right now for the New Orleans Saints, who are 5-0 and have looked like one of the NFL’s best teams.

That sets the stage for Sunday's highly anticipated matchup between these teams at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

“They’re a good solid football team all the way around. They’ve been impressive,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the Saints. “We’re going to have to play a good 60-minute football game on Sunday; that’s what it is going to take.”

In some ways, the Patriots will see a mirror image of themselves when looking at the Saints.

“I’ve said this before, when we started in 2006, we tried to look closely at the franchises that were having a lot of success and study closely what they were doing. New England was one of the main ones we looked at,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “These guys have been to five Super Bowls and won three [under Belichick]. That is pretty amazing.”

Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break it down:

Reiss: Let’s start at the top with this one, Mike, and focus on the coaches. Patriots followers know they have one of the best coaches in the history of the game. Now in his 14th season, Belichick has the Patriots consistently contending. For the Saints, what stands out from here is what a difference it’s been to have Payton back on the sideline this season. What is it about Payton that makes him one of the NFL’s best coaches, and how has this turnaround from last year’s disappointment unfolded?

Triplett: You’re right to start there. It’s remarkable how much of an impact Payton’s return (and his absence last year) has made on this team. Earlier this season, I would've answer that question by talking more about intangibles. Having Payton in charge clearly gives the Saints a confidence and puts them in a comfort zone that was lost last year. I think that helped them win two early games that came down to the wire. But lately, it’s Payton’s offensive genius that has been making the biggest impact. He’s always stood out as arguably the best schemer and playcaller in the NFL. And that’s been on full display the past two weeks – first when the Saints picked apart the Miami Dolphins at home on a Monday night, then when they won last week at Chicago with a patient, ball-control game plan. Giving Payton toys like Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles in recent years – not to mention quarterback Drew Brees – has been almost unfair to the rest of the league.

Since we’re on the subject, can you try telling me, in this brief format, what makes Belichick special? The Patriots seem to keep winning even while switching out 50 players on their roster over the years. I know that’s something the Saints have always admired and tried to emulate.

Reiss: Mike, I think the foundation of Belichick’s success has been what we remember from the start of Super Bowl XXXVI, in the Superdome, prior to the Patriots’ upset victory over the Rams in the 2001 season. The Patriots were introduced as a team before that game, as we all remember. There are obviously a lot of reasons for Belichick’s success, and books have been written about it, so it’s nearly impossible to narrow it down in a few sentences. But that’s where I’d start – the focus on the complete team in a salary-cap era that makes it hard to remain competitive year in, year out. There are many layers to that, and it obviously helps to have a quarterback like Tom Brady, but Belichick is also a teacher at heart. So team-first, where the 53rd player has a similar level of importance as a player in the 1-10 range. Then the fact he's a teacher with an incredible knowledge of football.

This week, there has been plenty of teaching as it relates to how they might be able to slow down the Saints’ offense. What has been the most effective approach you’ve seen teams employ against Graham and Sproles?

Triplett: There haven’t been many effective approaches against Graham. The Chicago Bears last week followed the formula that has worked best against the Saints over the years – a lot of Cover 2 zone defense that forced the Saints to settle for checkdown passes. But the Saints did a better job than I can ever remember of staying patient, settling for those short throws and avoiding turnovers. And Brees still completed 10 passes for 135 yards to Graham. Tampa Bay’s defense rattled the Saints in Week 2 by hitting Brees a lot with a good rush from their front four. But Graham still caught 10 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. And if a team wants to totally take Graham away, like Miami did in Week 4, the Saints are happy to exploit that, too. Sproles had seven catches for 114 yards in that game before Graham caught a single pass. And Graham still finished with four catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns.

So how do you think the Patriots might approach it? They do have a better defense than most of the ones the Saints have faced this season.

Reiss: In a flip of the script that we had mostly seen from 2007 to 2012, the Patriots’ defense is carrying the team right now. The Patriots rank second in the NFL in points allowed per game (14.0 avg.), and that includes a Week 1 touchdown the Bills scored on a long fumble return. The key, from this view, has been the Pro Bowl-level play of cornerback Aqib Talib. As for this specific matchup, I’ve wondered about the possibility of Talib on Graham, similar to how we saw him almost exclusively cover Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson (Week 3) and Bengals receiver A.J. Green (Week 5). Usually you don’t see a cornerback matched up against a tight end, but maybe that outside-the-box thought is something the Patriots consider this week. Regardless, I expect the Patriots to be in their sub defense for most of this game. Their big linebackers don’t look like a good matchup against Sproles, so it’s imperative to get more speed on the field. I could see their top draft choice, speedy and athletic linebacker Jamie Collins, used more this week with Sproles in mind.

Speaking of defense, tell us more about how the Saints are getting it done on that side of the ball.

Triplett: Obviously a ton of credit goes to new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. He’s been pushing all the right buttons as a schemer and a motivator. Players have loved playing for him for both reasons. It’s reminiscent of the years when Gregg Williams was here, when they played with a ton of confidence. And he mixes up formations quite a bit – blitzing on occasion, but also rushing only two or three guys at times. Last week he caught the Bears off-guard early with some blitzes he hadn’t shown much yet. Just as key, though, has been the emergence of young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. Jordan is a power-rushing 3-4 end, and Galette a speed-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker. But they’ve mostly lined up on the edges of a four-man rush. When teams can count on their four-man front as much as the Saints have this season, any scheme will be successful. The talent in the secondary is also solid across the board, especially now that they added veteran corner Keenan Lewis and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro.

So what will they be facing in Brady this week? I know he hasn’t looked like himself at times, but I’m still expecting him to hold his own in this high-profile duel with Brees.

Reiss: The Saints will see a frustrated Brady, and that’s often a dangerous Brady. The Patriots scored just six points in Sunday’s loss to the Bengals, and Brady’s streak of 52 straight games with at least one touchdown pass was snapped. That had a Saints tie-in, of course, as Brees holds the record at 54 straight games. Brady is obviously still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and is as competitive as they come. I’m sure he’s aware that in three previous games in which he’s squared off against teams led by Brees, he’s 0-3. Brees has thrown eight touchdowns in those games, compared with three for Brady. Furthermore, Brady has thrown three interceptions in those games, while Brees hasn’t thrown a single pick. Obviously, the quarterbacks don’t face off against each other, but knowing Brady’s competitiveness that still doesn’t sit well with him. Expect his best, and the potential return of tight end Rob Gronkowski would obviously help.

I was curious about your thoughts on how the Saints might look different, if at all, when playing outdoors. Obviously they are awfully tough in the Superdome, but last week’s game in Chicago didn’t seem to affect them.

Triplett: The Saints have definitely had a few off-days outdoors over the years, especially in colder weather or rain (playoff losses at Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco come to mind). They’ve had a lot of good days in those elements, too, though. They have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (23-11, one more win than the Patriots). And they’ve got two outdoor wins this season (the Chicago game and an ugly 16-14 win on a rainy day at Tampa Bay). So I don’t think it will be some sort of mental hurdle, and it’s not like they’re lost when they’re outside of the Superdome. But it will certainly be a hurdle they have to overcome. They’re definitely even more dangerous at home.

I was stunned to see how dominant New England has been at home, by the way (31-3 since 2009). Brees rattled off that statistic Wednesday – obviously it’s one that’s been drilled into players this week. What makes the Patriots so good at home?

Reiss: When I think of decisive home-field advantages, with the crowd truly dictating aspects of the game such as false-start penalties, I wouldn’t put Gillette Stadium in the same category as a place like Seattle. But like you said, home has been good to the Patriots, and I think the comforts of being in that environment, coupled with having good teams, getting better as the weather gets colder, acing critical situations and playing in a division where the other three teams have fallen on some hard times in recent years has contributed to that as well. I’m guessing that Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, who grew up in nearby Medway, Mass., might agree with the thought that Sunday has all the elements for what can make this a special time of year in New England for fans of the game: crisp but comfortable fall weather and two talented, well-coached teams playing at a high level going head-to-head. I’m excited for it, Mike. What about the matchup are you most looking forward to?

Triplett: Easy. Brees vs. Brady. I’m sure I could give a more “under the radar” answer. But watching two of the best quarterbacks of all time going head-to-head is as good as it gets. And I think both of them will be fired up for this one for different reasons. Should be an intense fourth quarter.

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Jets at Steelers inactives

December, 19, 2010
12/19/10
3:11
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- The lineup scratches from Sunday's high-profile matchup between the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field:

New York Jets
Pittsburgh Steelers

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