New Orleans Saints: derrius brooks

Of all the position battles on the New Orleans Saints' roster, I think the cornerback free-for-all is the hardest to project -- and the most fascinating.

Starter Keenan Lewis is a lock. The only question mark with him is whether he’ll break through for his first Pro Bowl in 2015.

After that: tons of question marks. Guys with high ceilings and low floors.

Champ Bailey, Corey White, Patrick Robinson, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Rod Sweeting could all wind up being significant contributors this year. And the guys behind them aren’t exactly slouches (Terrence Frederick, Trevin Wade, A.J. Davis and Derrius Brooks).

Here’s how I rank their chances of making the roster, though I’ll admit it’s still very early in the evaluation process:

1. Keenan Lewis. No explanation needed

2. Stanley Jean-Baptiste. I DO NOT expect him to win the other starting job starting in Week 1. But he’s the only other guy on this list that I’m 100 percent sure will make the 53-man roster since the Saints invested a second-round pick in him and his upside is so high.

I actually think Jean-Baptiste will be fourth or fifth in the pecking order to start the season since I think the other guys on this list could all have nice bounce-back years in 2014. He’s got a ton of potential, though, with his big, long frame – as all of the pre-draft comparisons to Seattle’s Richard Sherman suggest.

3. Champ Bailey. No, he’s not in his prime anymore. But you’ve got to give some benefit of doubt to the Saints and assume they have a solid vision for him. The Saints cut ties with a lot of their own aging veterans this offseason, making cold but calculated decisions about whether they could still help. The fact that they went out and added Bailey speaks volumes.

Bailey is still good in press coverage and still good at contesting passes in the air. The Saints probably plan to use him in a specific role in their defense, which often features five or six defensive backs on the field at once.

4. Corey White. White had some highs and lows down the stretch last year after he took over as the Saints’ No. 2 starter when Jabri Greer got hurt. But I didn’t think the lows were ever disastrous. White lost some tough jump balls against the Seahawks and gave up a series of short, underneath throws at Atlanta in two of his more high-profile struggles. I think both can be corrected with more experience and confidence.

I don’t think the Saints are ready to give up on White just yet. But he’ll need to have an excellent camp to remain in a prominent role.

5. Patrick Robinson. The Saints have already proven that they aren’t ready to give up on Robinson yet after they decided to keep his $1.3 million salary on the books despite their salary-cap limitations. Robinson struggled mightily in 2012 then missed all of last season with a knee injury. But New Orleans is hoping he can deliver on the promise he showed in 2011.

That faith makes sense. Robinson’s one bad year came in 2012 when the Saints’ entire defense struggled miserably. He’s a former first-round pick with terrific speed. If he can show signs that he’s playing with confidence and running strong on that knee, he could leap-frog everyone on this list other than Lewis.

However, if Robinson looks ordinary, that salary could be a factor in whether or not he makes the final cut.

6. Rod Sweeting. One of the Saints’ standout undrafted free agents last year, Sweeting looked great in training camp but didn’t play much on defense during the regular season. He seems buried on the depth chart for now, but Year 2 is when players often take their biggest leap. So it’s entirely possible Sweeting could outshine some of the veterans higher on this list. He’s probably the most underrated of an underrated bunch.

7-10. Frederick, Wade, Davis and Brooks. Frederick and Wade made cameo appearances on the roster late last year because of the Saints’ injury issues. The Saints obviously like Davis’ potential since they keep inviting him back to training camp. Brooks has an impressive body of work in the Canadian Football League. All of them are long shots for the active roster, though, barring injuries. (I believe all of them besides Wade are eligible for the practice squad).
A look at the New Orleans Saints' projected defensive depth chart as it stands today:

DE1 –- Cameron Jordan, Tyrunn Walker

DE2 –- Akiem Hicks, Glenn Foster

NT –- Brodrick Bunkley, John Jenkins

OLB1 –- Junior Galette, Keyunta Dawson, Kyle Knox

OLB2 –- Parys Haralson, Victor Butler, Rufus Johnson

SILB –- Curtis Lofton, Ramon Humber

WILB –- David Hawthorne, Kevin Reddick

CB1 –- Keenan Lewis, Rod Sweeting, A.J. Davis, Trevin Wade

CB2 –- Corey White, Patrick Robinson, Terrence Frederick, Derrius Brooks

SS –- Kenny Vaccaro, Rafael Bush

FS –- Jairus Byrd

Thoughts: There aren't too many glaring holes here. I keep ranking cornerback as the Saints' top defensive need because they could use a more proven starter opposite Keenan Lewis. But they obviously have plenty of depth at the position.

Conversely, the Saints don't have much depth at safety. But if they sign a veteran corner such as Champ Bailey, they could use him as a pseudo-safety in nickel and dime packages. They could potentially do the same thing with White, who played safety in college.

The one position I really think the Saints need to address at some point in the draft is linebacker. They could use young backups who can play special teams right away and eventually push to replace veterans such as Hawthorne and Haralson.

And as coach Sean Payton said last week, teams are always on the lookout for more pass-rushing help -- though they should be improved in that area with Victor Butler returning from injury and Rufus Johnson having another year to develop.
METAIRIE, La. -- Once again, the New Orleans Saints passing offense made NFL history this year.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Saints became the first team ever to have four players with at least 70 receptions (tight end Jimmy Graham 86, running back Pierre Thomas 77, receiver Marques Colston 75, Darren Sproles 71).

Quarterback Drew Brees said he wasn't aware of the accomplishment -- but he was excited to hear it.

“Spread the wealth,” Brees said with a smile.

That's pretty much been the Saints' offensive mantra ever since Brees and coach Sean Payton arrived in New Orleans in 2006.They throw the ball a lot -- but instead of just targeting any one or two guys, they throw to whomever is open.

That's really the combination that's necessary to record such an achievement.

This year was a little unique, since the Saints targeted their two running backs so often. Last year, they had four players with 65 receptions, but the fourth was receiver Lance Moore.

Brees' 446 completions and 5,162 passing yards this year both ranked fifth in NFL history. And in both categories, Brees holds three of the top five spots in the all-time rankings.

Future signings: The New Orleans Saints have inked two players to reserve/futures contracts as teams around the league start to put together their expanded offseason rosters: cornerback Derrius Brooks and kicker Derek Dimke.

The Saints plucked Brooks from the Canadian Football League's Calgary Stampeders -- the same place they found defensive lineman Tom Johnson three years ago. The speedy 5-foot-10, 195-pounder, who played in college at Western Kentucky, had five interceptions over the past two years for Calgary.

The Saints have a good relationship with the Stampeders' assistant general manager John Murphy, who is based out of Metairie.

“(Brooks) has been a versatile defender for us and has exceptional speed,” said Murphy, who said five or six teams were interested in him. “He runs in the 4.3 range and showed the ability to man cover some of the best wide receivers in our league.”

Dimke is a second-year kicker out of Illinois who has spent time with the Detroit Lions, New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the past two offseasons. He has made 8-of-9 field goal attempts over the past two preseasons, but he hasn't made an active roster yet.

Motivational fuel: Payton pulled out one of his old motivational ploys on Thursday -- one of many that he stole from mentor Bill Parcells -- when he distributed gas cans to the older veterans on the team. The message is essentially to make sure they have enough gas in the tank this late in the season (presumably even more important in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who run a fast-tempo offense that leads to more snaps than typical games).

“It depends on how you look at it,” Saints linebacker Parys Haralson said when asked to describe the message. “But it's a ‘don't-run-out-of-gas' league.”

Worth noting:
  • The final tally for the Saints' remarkable defensive turnaround this year was an improvement of 134.4 yards per game allowed (from 440.1 to 305.7). According to ESPN Stats & Information, that is by far the largest drop since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. The next closest was 97.9 yards by the 1998 Oakland Raiders.
  • Also from ESPN Stats & Info: The Eagles ranked second in the NFL this year with 51 offensive touchdowns, while the Saints were third with 49. (Neither came close to the Denver Broncos, who led the league with 71).
Worth a click:
  • Two Saints cracked ESPN's John Clayton's 2013 All-Pro team -- tight end Jimmy Graham and right tackle Zach Strief. Good to see Strief getting some love at a position that usually operates in the shadows. As I said when the Pro Bowl announcements were made, he would have had a great shot at his first trip to Hawaii if they specifically designated spots for right tackles. He was very steady all year for an offense that demands versatility from its linemen.
  • Grantland.com analyst Bill Barnwell takes the most extensive look you'll see anywhere at the Saints' and Brees' history in road games and various weather conditions -- and finds a lot of conflicting patterns.
  • ESPN.com Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan and I joined ESPN's Robert Flores and Matt Williamson to break down Saturday's matchup in this playoff preview podcast.
  • The Eagles were the more popular pick among ESPN's panel of analysts this week.

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