New Orleans Saints: Rob Ryan

METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints linebacker Victor Butler is excited to be back out on the practice field this summer after missing all of last season with a torn ACL.

But he's also fighting through the rust -- and a little frustration -- that comes with being gone so long.

"I'm all right. It's fun to be back out there, no doubt. But it will take a little while to get back in the swing of things," Butler said last week. "Slowly but surely, I'm coming back. There's just a way everybody's used to doing certain things. You're still doing everything, it's just not what you're used to.

[+] EnlargeVictor Butler
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsVictor Butler is still shaking off the rust after missing last season with a torn ACL.
"It's like throwing your fastball, but instead of your 102 mile-per-hour fastball, it's your 95 mile-per-hour fastball. It's still fast, but not quite what you're used to."

Luckily Butler still has plenty of time to add those extra miles per hour. The only good thing about tearing his ACL so early last year (June 11 during organized team activities) is that he's had ample time to recover.

For now, Butler has been working primarily with the second-string defense as the Saints install their playbook with no live contact in practices.

Both Butler and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said they're especially looking forward to training camp and the preseason -- when both Butler's health and the action will ramp up even more.

"Victor is doing well. Victor is smart. We take care of each other out here on offense and defense, so you will see more -- obviously in training camp, when we're competing with pads and things, we will see him rush the passer more," said Ryan, who previously coached Butler with the Dallas Cowboys before they both came to New Orleans last year.

"He's a damn good pass-rusher," Ryan continued. "Right now, if you're around Drew Brees, you're doing the wrong thing. You better get away from him, or I'm going to get fired. We don't want that ... at least I don't.

"Victor can really pass rush, and you'll really see that, especially in the preseason when he gets his chance. Victor is a good player, there's no question."

Butler (6-foot-2, 245 pounds) had 11 sacks in his first four seasons with Dallas as a part-time pass-rusher behind starters DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Butler, who turns 27 next month, was expected to take the next step in a bigger role with the Saints last year. But the injury prevented him from doing so.

It will be very interesting to see if Butler's return alters Ryan's defense. Last year after veteran pass-rushers Butler and Will Smith got hurt, the Saints wound up spending about 75 percent of their snaps in nickel or dime defense, with only one pass-rushing outside linebacker in the lineup (Junior Galette).

If Butler emerges as a useful weapon this year, the Saints might feature more true 3-4 alignments in their pass defense. Or they could use Butler in a variety of creative places, like when they use their "amoeba" formation with pass-rushers standing up all over the front seven.
Champ BaileyAP Photo/Jack DempseyChamp Bailey has 52 career interceptions -- including a particularly memorable pick-six in 2005 against new Saints teammate Drew Brees.
METAIRIE, La. -- Perhaps no play has better defined Champ Bailey's remarkable career than the interception he returned 25 yards for a touchdown while with the Denver Broncos in Week 2 of the 2005 season.

And no one recalls that play more vividly than Bailey's new teammate with the New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees.

He was Bailey's victim.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," said Brees, who was with the San Diego Chargers at the time. "We were beating 'em 14-3. It was in the third quarter. And we were running this, just a hitch outside to slot, so it was across the field. And he just read it and jumped it and picked it and took it to the house."

The play itself was vintage Bailey, whose 52 career interceptions lead all active cornerbacks.

The impact of the play was huge for both teams. Denver, on the verge of an 0-2 start, went on to a 13-3 season. San Diego missed the playoffs at 9-7.

What made the moment even more symbolic of Bailey's career was the fact that he was coming off a dislocated shoulder suffered the week before while tackling Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown (the kind of physical play Bailey also has been known for throughout his career).

Brees
"He's a stud," Brees said, still shaking his head in disgust at the memory.

"You just knew every time you were going up against that guy, 'I cannot make a mistake, because he will make me pay,'" said Brees, who said Bailey's area of the field was always considered a "no-throw zone," a term reserved for only a few elite corners.

"It was just, 'Don't even think about it. It's not worth it,'" Brees said. "And whereas a lot of good cover corners have no interest in tackling, he's the exact opposite. He'll come up and hit you. He prides himself on being a good football player, not just a good cover guy. That sets him apart from the rest.

"I can't think of anybody that's done it as long as he's done it, at as high a level as he's done it."

When Bailey, 35, signed with the Saints this spring, there was naturally a lot of conversation about how much he might have left heading into his 16th NFL season. It's a fair question, considering Bailey's last season in Denver was plagued by injuries and inconsistent production.

What should not be lost is an appreciation for just how much of a "stud" Bailey has been throughout a career that has earned him 12 trips to the Pro Bowl and will one day land him in the Hall of Fame.

"I think sometimes after a year when you're injured, it's a 'What have you done for me lately?' world," said former NFL safety John Lynch, a teammate of Bailey's in Denver who is now a broadcast analyst for Fox. "But I think people forget: In my mind, Champ is one of the greatest defensive players ever to play the game."

'A real legend'

That appreciation certainly isn't lost on Brees or Saints coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who have also fallen victim to Bailey.

It's also not lost on a room full of young Saints defensive backs, all of whom have been gushing with admiration for their new teammate. Asked about Bailey, they were practically shouting over each other.

"He's the reason I wear No. 24," Corey White said.

"He's the reason I switched to defense," A.J. Davis said.

Rod Sweeting said it's still "overwhelming and exciting" to be around Bailey, whom he ranked alongside Deion Sanders as the corners he most revered growing up.

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
AP Photo/Bill HaberChamp Bailey may no longer have the skills of a shut-down cornerback, but he's a significant asset in the Saints locker room.
Keenan Lewis has made similar comments, including posting a picture of himself with Bailey in April on Instagram, with the caption, "My dream was to always meet this guy and I finally did. Amen God and thankyou. A real legend Champ Bailey."

A strong argument could be made for Bailey as one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history since he has thrived in an era in which the passing game has exploded because of rules changes and more sophisticated schemes.

Bailey began his career with the Washington Redskins in 1999 before being traded to Denver for running back Clinton Portis in 2004. He thrived for both teams.

Both Lynch's and Bailey's former coach, Mike Shanahan, said in the past that Bailey was even better than Sanders because he was more of a complete player. Former Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer once insisted Bailey was the best he had seen in nearly 50 years of coaching.

"What stands out most is how he has really tailored his game to the years that have gone by," said ESPN analyst Herm Edwards, a former coach and defensive back. "When Champ came into the league 15 years ago, it was a little different. Now, it's more wide open with the formations, and he's been able to adapt to all that. It says a lot about him."

NFL analyst Matt Bowen -- a former safety who played with Bailey in Washington -- agreed that Bailey is in a select group with Charles Woodson and Darrelle Revis as the best in the modern passing era.

"In the early 2000s, he was the best cornerback, maybe the best defensive player in the league, to be honest," said Bowen, who writes for Bleacher Report, among other outlets. "I mean, there were times during practice, in one-on-ones, he just looked like he was dancing with the receiver step for step.

"I've played with a lot of good defensive backs, guys who had great reaction time, great ball skills. But Champ had everything, I mean everything. He could've played offense if he wanted to. Could've played wide receiver, slot receiver. He was just that talented. Guys like him don't come around that often."

Bailey was a two-way star in college at Georgia, and Lynch said it was "rumored" that Bailey could run the 40-yard dash in 4.2 seconds.

But Lynch was just as impressed by Bailey's physicality. One of his greatest memories of Bailey was the first time they practiced together at the Pro Bowl, and Bailey was flying in to make tackles.

"He could play bump [coverage]. He could play off. He took the ball away. He took sides of the field away," Lynch said. "He's just a complete football player."

Another of Lynch's fondest memories was a play against the Oakland Raiders on which Bailey caught up to receiver Randy Moss from across the field to tip the ball away in the end zone.

"Everybody was like, 'What just happened?'" Lynch said. "'Champ just happened.'"

Not done yet

Edwards, Lynch and Bowen all immediately brought up the same word while describing what makes Bailey great: professionalism.

They raved not only about Bailey's great character and class -- he never has been a "diva" or self-promoter -- but also his relentless work ethic and dedication to technique and recognition of opponents' tendencies.

Early in his career, Bailey was arguably the best bump-and-run corner in the game. Then, he began to shift and play more off coverage because his defensive backs coach, Bob Slowik, felt like he could see the field well enough to do even more than just shut down one top receiver.

After that, Bailey became deadlier.

He finished 2005 with eight interceptions in the regular season -- followed by a 100-yard interception return against Tom Brady in a playoff victory over the New England Patriots.

Then, in 2006, Bailey had one of the most dominant seasons ever by a defensive back. Based on varying accounts, he was targeted only 35 of 39 times in man coverage, with a total of 10 interceptions and only four completions.

ESPN scouting insider K.C. Joyner said Bailey was especially dominant against deep passes that season and said his 2006 season ranked with Revis' 2009 as the best he's seen in 11 years of breaking down tape.

"When he's on his game, Bailey can completely shut down a receiver's vertical game," Joyner said. "Even last year, he gave up only 50 yards on nine vertical pass attempts."

Bowen said the Saints' young defensive backs would be cheating themselves if they don't try to absorb as much knowledge as possible from Bailey, who said he's more than happy to fill that role.

"My first thing is to lead by example, show how hard I can work and try to lead that way," Bailey said. "I know I have a lot of experience and I'm not going to shy away from telling them things I think they need to hear and making sure I'm there for them when they have questions."

But that's not the only reason the Saints brought in Bailey.

Although they aren't counting on him to be a shut-down cornerback anymore, they still believe those unparalleled ball skills can be a big asset.

Bailey already forced one interception with a pass breakup during the first organized team activities practice session that was open to the media last week.

"I'm telling you, he looks great out here. He's got a lot of life, he's got young legs and he's fun to watch," Ryan said. "I don't know what happened [last year when Bailey struggled], but I've seen him up close and personal, intercepting balls against us when I was in Oakland [during the 2000s]. … The way he has been able to cover people over the years and still make plays on the football, that's unique.

"He'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and we're fortunate to have him. It's awesome to add a great player like him."
METAIRIE, La. -- It was one year ago at this time that we were first introduced to the New Orleans Saints' animated new outside linebacker, Victor Butler, a pass-rush specialist who followed defensive coordinator Rob Ryan from the Dallas Cowboys in free agency.

Butler was more fired up than anyone on the Saints' roster to kick off organized team activities (OTAs) last year. He raved about the defense's potential and even drew chuckles from the media as he proclaimed, "I wouldn't be surprised if we were the No. 1 defense in all categories next year."

We shouldn't have laughed. The Saints went from the NFL's 32nd-ranked defense in 2012 to the No. 4-ranked defense last year in both yards allowed and points allowed.

[+] EnlargeVictor Butler
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter missing last season due to injury, Victor Butler has to prove he belongs back out on the field.
However, they did it without Butler, who suffered a torn ACL during the final week of OTAs last summer.

So you can imagine how amped Butler is now that he's back on the field again.

"It's tremendous," Butler said Thursday. "First of all I'm just happy to be out there with a helmet playing football again. Missing a whole year was heartbreaking. It's like an alcoholic not being able to drink. A fish out of water. I was feeling horrible.

"But the great thing is you get to watch great guys out there make a playoff run, and now coming back you get to be a part of that."

Butler joked that he was doing anything he could to simulate football back home before the Saints' offseason conditioning program kicked off last month.

"I've been doing OTAs personally," Butler said. "I have a brother that I've been working out with. He's 360 pounds, so there wasn't much coverage, but I've been doing OTAs since I've been able to run again."

And when asked about his bold prediction that came true last offseason, Butler said, "Last year wasn't even really a prediction. It was just you get in here and you look at these guys, just like when you go outside and you know the sky is blue.

"When you get in this locker room and you look at these guys, I knew they were going to be a top-10 defense, period. You just know," Butler continued. "This year is the same thing."

Butler was working with the second-string defense on Thursday during the practice that was open to the media.

It will probably take him a little while to get back in the groove. But eventually, he should have a good opportunity to play a prominent role this season as a second edge rusher to complement outside linebacker Junior Galette.

It's probably not accurate to say that Butler is competing with veteran Parys Haralson for a starting job since they'll likely rotate based on situations. Butler is more of a pass-rush specialist, while Haralson is more of an asset in run packages.

"It's great to get him back out there. He looks healthy; I can't wait," Ryan said. "Right now, our tempo is that we're working on our scheme, our communication on our scheme, and how we operate. This isn't a full-contact camp. So that's when I think Victor will really show up where he's off his injury and things."

Last year, I figured Butler would be the Saints' top pass-rusher after he had shown glimpses of his athletic potential as a backup with the Cowboys for four years behind studs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.

But now Butler will have to prove he belongs on the field. Last year, the Saints essentially played a 4-2 front for most of the season, and it worked great with Galette (12 sacks) and defensive end Cameron Jordan (12.5 sacks) both having breakout seasons.

Both of those guys should be full-time players. So Butler will need to prove to Ryan that he needs to either switch back to more of a regular 3-4 alignment or find creative ways to rotate Butler into the mix.

Butler, who turns 27 in July, will also have to fend off younger athletes like Rufus Johnson, Khairi Fortt, Ronald Powell and Kyle Knox for playing time.

"My role is to get out there and make this defense, which was to me the No. 1 defense in the league, even better," Butler said. "Whether that's coming off the bench or coming out the tunnel first, you feel like you get out there in OTAS and minicamps and training camp and let your play do the talking for you. You go out there and make plays, make mistakes and you earn the trust and confidence of your teammates. And the rest of it just starts to follow."
METAIRIE, La. -- There were a ton of interesting off-the-field notes coming out of New Orleans Saints camp on Thursday, when the media had its first access to the full team this offseason during organized team activities. Here are some of the highlights:

Graham moonlighting: Jimmy Graham hasn’t been with the team this offseason since he remains unsigned. But he was putting himself to good use on Thursday, helping to win a sailing race in New York to raise $10,000 for his chosen charity, Angel Flight.

Graham used his muscle to help Team Hugo Boss win the pro-am event as part of the IMOCA NYC to Barcelona transatlantic race.

“I am definitely hooked on the sailing now. It is going to be another obsession of mine -- which is good and bad!” said Graham in a press release from the event.

Quarterback Drew Brees was asked if he expected Graham to catch any flak for tweeting out pictures of himself enjoying himself on a boat while the rest of the team was at work on the practice field. But Brees, who went through the same experience while under the franchise tag in 2012, laughed off the idea.

“I do follow him on twitter but I haven't seen that one today,” Brees said. “I stay in touch with Jimmy (Graham) and there’s no doubt in my mind that a deal will get done at some point. He knows it’s part of the process and we’ve had conversations about that. I know that he’ll be ready when it’s time to come, but I’m not worried about Jimmy at this point. I’m confident that he is going to be just fine once he gets here.”

Ryan love-fest continues: Once again, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was caught on camera living it up in his new adopted home of New Orleans last week during the 41st annual Greek Festival -- joining the crowd with his wife in some traditional Greek dances. Ryan, who has also taken part in a Mardi Gras parade and the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day parade this offseason, has spent the past year in a mutual love affair with New Orleans.

He has become beloved for turning around the Saints defense on the field and mingling with the people off the field -- even buying drinks for fans as part of an impromptu postgame tradition at a local bar.

“Yeah, well I’m quite the soft-shoe,” Ryan joked when asked about the Greek festival. “My wife is Greek and honestly she was the best dancer out there. You can look it up, she was dominating out there. I was trying to follow. It’s a lot of fun.

“We love this town, and we plan on doing something special here. We want to be a little tiny part of our success, and I think the town will like us even more this year.”

Brees’ packed schedule: Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan sparked a fascinating conversation with Brees about his jam-packed offseason schedule on Thursday after the media swarm dissipated. Brees seems to be 10 places at once, from his devoted family life (with a fourth child on the way this year) to his countless endorsement appearances to his charity work to his growing Jimmy John’s franchise enterprise to his passing academy -- and the list goes on.

In the past couple weeks alone, he was spotted on a New Orleans balcony with film star and charity partner Matthew McConaughey, speaking at multiple graduation ceremonies and leading the Saints’ contingent to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office in Baton Rouge.

Brees talked about how he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to try and pack in as much as he can before the kids wake up, and he pulled out his monthly calendar, loaded with activities. But he smiled throughout the discussion.

"That's really my personality," Brees said. "If I were just sitting around doing nothing I'd go nuts. That's kind of the way I'm programmed."

Check out Duncan’s full column here.
METAIRIE, La. -- The only thing that stood out as much as Jairus Byrd’s absence from New Orleans Saints practice on Thursday was the presence of cornerback Patrick Robinson on the starting defense.

Robinson, who missed most of last season with a torn patellar tendon, was considered by many analysts to be on the bubble this offseason because of his rising salary and inconsistent production over the past two years. But the Saints have clearly remained committed to their former first-round pick.

It's far too early to rank the contenders for the No. 2 cornerback job with veteran Champ Bailey and third-year pro Corey White also heavily in the mix.

[+] EnlargePatrick Robinson
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsPatrick Robinson is battling Champ Bailey and Corey White for a starting spot opposite Keenan Lewis.
But it was good to see that Robinson will have a bona fide opportunity to get his career back on track.

"Look, he’s still a young player that we’ve seen develop,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Robinson, who turns 27 in September. “He’s someone that can run, that we think has good instincts. So I’m sure he’s just as anxious as we are to get out here healthy.

“We felt last offseason he did a lot of good things. So he’s right there as one of the guys competing for playing time and for a spot at that corner position.”

Robinson, a first-round pick out of Florida State in 2010, showed promise early in his career. But he’s had a rough stretch over the past two seasons.

He struggled in 2012 in his first year as a full-time starter -- though the entire defense struggled in that disastrous season in which the Saints set a NFL record for yards allowed under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Then last year, Robinson suffered a minor knee injury early in the summer that wiped out most of his preseason, followed by the season-ending injury in Week 2. He missed out on his chance to be part of the Saints’ stunning revival under new coordinator Rob Ryan.

“He’s been through a lot,” said Ryan, who said Robinson was looking great last summer before the injuries crept up. “He’s a special athlete, a unique guy that can bend. For such a big corner, he’s got natural bend. We’re going to have competition all over, but we think Patrick is going to be great for us, and we know he will be.

“It’s unique. We have competition everywhere on this team, and whoever lines up first out of the tunnel, I’m sure the other guys will be playing plenty. We’re going to put our best players out there. That’s what Sean [Payton] hired me to do, and I think I’m pretty good at identifying that and playing to our players’ strengths. That’s what we’ll do, and we’re going to be damn good at it.”

Robinson (5-foot-11, 191 pounds) has always stood out because of his speed and his knack for snagging interceptions. His seven picks from 2011-12 led the team over that two-year stretch.

He’s struggled more in press coverage -- something he’ll have to improve to fit in Ryan’s defense. And his confidence was an issue when he first started with the Saints, which is something he’ll have to regain quickly after such a long hiatus.

Robinson wasn't available for interviews Thursday, but Payton said he’s been impressed by his attitude.

“He is moving around well, and there is some rust I’m sure he is working through,” Payton said. “His rehab has been real good. He has worked real hard at it and he seems to be moving pretty fluidly. I am sure as he continues to do that and gets more comfortable with football movements, that’ll help. But he has had a good offseason with regards to his injury and how he has approached it.”

METAIRIE, La. -- It's hard to picture any back surgery being "minor." Especially when the guy going under the knife is such a major part of the New Orleans Saints' plans.

But Saints coach Sean Payton sounded confident that safety Jairus Byrd will be fully healed in time for training camp and the start of the regular season -- stressing that they wouldn't have done the surgery if they didn't think the timetable made sense.

Hopefully that's the case, for the Saints' sake. Because Byrd is the centerpiece of their biggest push on defense this offseason -- to force more turnovers.

The Saints signed Byrd to a six-year, $54 million deal on the first day of free agency because of his prowess as a ball hawk. Byrd's 22 interceptions over the past five years with the Buffalo Bills ranked second in the NFL. And the three-time Pro Bowler also forced 11 fumbles during that stretch.

The Saints' defense was outstanding last year under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, ranking fourth in the NFL in yards allowed and points allowed and second in pass defense. However, they came up virtually empty when it came to forcing turnovers.

The Saints forced only four turnovers over the final 11 games of last season, including zero in two playoff games.

"That was a glaring weakness last year on our defense," Ryan said. "I think the effort was outstanding, our players are outstanding, we did pretty decent as a unit. But we want to be great. And to be great, you have to take the ball away."

It's been a huge priority for the Saints this offseason -- starting with the acquisition of players like Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey. And it has clearly carried over to the practice field.

Defensive players were constantly trying to strip the ball away during Thursday's OTA session that was open to the media. Safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste each forced a fumble by knocking the ball away from receivers during full-team drills. And Bailey forced an interception by batting the ball free from receiver Kenny Stills and into the arms of linebacker Kyle Knox.

Ryan said coaches have been showing players highlight reels of longtime Chicago Bears standout defensive back Charles "Peanut" Tillman -- one of the best in the league at forcing turnovers over the past decade.

"He was a Ragin' Cajun, wasn't he [at Louisiana-Lafayette]? I like that there," Ryan said of Tillman. "He's great to watch, so we've been trying to imitate him. Imitation is the biggest form of flattery.

"So we enjoy doing that. We're working hard on that. We know we have to improve on that. Seattle won the Super Bowl; they took the ball away more than anybody. They raised the bar, so we have to match it."

Saints outside linebacker Victor Butler -- another new weapon at their disposal now that he has returned from a knee injury that kept him out all of last season -- said players are fired up about forcing turnovers.

"That's the great thing about Coach Ryan and about the guys here," said Butler, who followed Ryan from the Dallas Cowboys to New Orleans. "When Coach Ryan says something is important, guys take it to heart. We've had guys attacking the ball, punching the ball out, ripping the ball out, stripping it, going up for interceptions, picking up loose balls on the ground.

"If you emphasize it that much in OTAs and camps and stuff like that, when it gets to the season, now it's second nature. Guys are going for the ball, guys are creating those turnovers and getting Drew Brees and that offense as many opportunities to score points as we can."
METAIRIE, La. – The first thing that stood out about cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste on the practice field during the New Orleans Saints’ rookie minicamp?

His size.

Duh.

[+] EnlargeStanley Jean-Baptiste
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesThe Saints love the versatility of second-round choice Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
Jean-Baptiste’s size was well-dissected before and after the draft. At 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, he has the height and length that NFL teams have started to crave more than ever in this age of bigger receivers – especially since the Seattle Seahawks dominated last year with an arsenal of big defensive backs.

But after talking with coaches Sean Payton and Rob Ryan and Jean-Baptiste on Saturday, it’s another trait that stands out most with the second-round draft pick from Nebraska:

His upside.

“This young guy, we’re getting a piece of clay. And (defensive backs coach) Wesley McGriff’s gonna mold him into something special,” Ryan said of Jean-Baptiste, who began his career at Nebraska as a wide receiver -- after first bouncing through a prep academy and a junior college.

“He’s a tremendous athlete. So he doesn’t just have size, he’s got everything,” Ryan said “He’s just green for the position. But for us, he’s the perfect guy.”

Jean-Baptiste officially became a Saint on Saturday when he signed his four-year contract -- becoming the fourth of New Orleans’ six draft picks to sign. Terms were not disclosed.

Jean-Baptiste will get a chance to compete for playing time opposite starter Keenan Lewis -- competing with veteran candidates like Champ Bailey, Corey White and Patrick Robinson. At the very least, the Saints may start out by using Jean-Baptiste in a specific role where they can take advantage of his press-coverage ability.

“I think he’s doing well,” Payton said Saturday. “I think there’s certain elements to his game that he’s further along at. He’s certainly comfortable at the line of scrimmage in a press technique because of his size. And that being said, because of his size, when you play more off-coverage, that transition becomes a little bit tougher.

“But so far, we really like what we’ve seen from him. He’s athletic, he’s got good ball skills, he played receiver, and he seems to be real smart.”

Jean-Baptiste also pointed to those ball skills when asked to describe his greatest strength at this stage.

He had a career-best four interceptions and 12 pass break-ups last year, finishing his three-year stint at Nebraska with seven interceptions and 22 break-ups.

“Well, a lot of people say my press. But I think it’s my ball skills. So that’s what I’m gonna go with,” said Jean-Baptiste, who said he doesn’t feel like he’s raw as a cornerback -- but admitted he still has plenty to learn at the next level.

“I feel pretty comfortable (as a defensive back). But knowing that I’m playing with different people now, there’s always something I can fix, my technique, get smarter,” Jean-Baptiste said. “With Coach ‘Crime Dog’ (McGriff), Coach Ryan, Sean Payton, they’ll help me out. So I’ll be alright.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks said he is “beyond excited” to join the New Orleans Saints’ versatile, creative offense. And Saints coach Sean Payton is obviously fired up about having such a dynamic and versatile new athlete to work with.

But they’re not the only ones who are intrigued by the possibilities.

Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said he’s also looking forward to watching what happens from across the field – especially since he won’t have to worry about defending it when it counts.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Matt Cohen/Icon SMIReceiver Brandin Cooks' potential has the Saints excited -- defensive coordinator Rob Ryan included. "This guy opens your eyes," Ryan said.
“Anytime a player is hand picked by Sean Payton to play offense at receiver, you’d better believe he’s gonna be something,” Ryan said between practice sessions at the Saints’ rookie minicamp Saturday. “So I’m anxious to see him. I’m out here watching and it’s like, ‘Oooh.’ This guy opens your eyes.

“You can feel his speed. It’s something that [the late Raiders owner] Al Davis used to say. ‘Can you feel his speed?’ You can feel his speed. So I’m looking forward to seeing him. Because I know how Sean … they’re gonna create roles to get this guy involved, and it’s gonna be awesome.”

For now, the Saints’ first-round draft pick is simply lining up at the X receiver position while they install their playbook – which is typical for all players at this stage of the offseason.

But once New Orleans gets into training camp and the preseason in July and August, Payton will no doubt find a lot of creative uses for the 5-foot-10, 189-pound receiver, who ran the fastest 40-yard dash (4.33 seconds) of any receiver at the NFL combine.

That’s certainly what former NFL coach Mike Riley did with Cooks in a pro-style offensive system at Oregon State, where Cooks led the nation with 128 catches for 1,730 yards last year with a combination of deep balls, slants and screens, among others. He also ran the ball at times and returned punts.

“He is versatile,” Payton said. “He’s obviously a receiver [first and foremost]. And I think we can line him up in the slot, line him up outside. [He has a] very good skill set with regards to acceleration, speed, catches the ball well. And I like his toughness.”

Cooks obviously couldn’t have hand picked a better offense for his skill set. Cooks said that’s both because of Payton’s creativity and quarterback Drew Brees’ penchant for spreading the ball around to whomever is open – something he said he appreciated from watching the Saints over the years.

“No doubt. When Coach Payton called [on draft] night and talked about some of the things we talked about, and how excited he was to use me in this offense …,” Cooks said. “And you look at Drew Brees’ stats, he’s getting the ball to all of his wide receivers. In the backfield, Kenny [Stills], Jimmy [Graham], [Marques] Colston, he’s getting the ball to everyone. So as a receiver when you see that, you get excited.”

Cooks said he feels like he’s been absorbing the playbook well so far, and he said it helps that a lot of the concepts and terminology are similar to the offense he ran at Oregon State.

Unfortunately, he’ll have to miss a chunk of OTAs over the next month since Oregon State is on a quarters system, and rookies can’t participate in OTAs until their school’s academic year has finished. But Cooks doesn’t think it will slow him down.

“[This weekend is] very important, to show that I can get comfortable with the playbook, I can pick up on things easily, and I can study. These five practices are extremely important to me,” Cooks said. “They drafted me for a reason, so I’ve gotta prove ‘em right now.”

NOTE: Stay tuned for more updates over the coming days from the Saints’ three-day rookie minicamp. Most sessions were closed to the media, but a portion of Saturday’s practice was open, followed by interviews.
HARAHAN, La. -- Jairus Byrd has been in New Orleans for a week now. And the new New Orleans Saints safety said defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is already living up to his reputation as an inventive, exciting schemer.

"Yeah, definitely," Byrd said with a laugh. "Look, he has some stuff in his head that he's gonna get out one way or the other."

Byrd said he's been at the Saints' facility almost every day since he arrived in town last week, working out and talking with coaches and some new teammates like fellow defensive backs Kenny Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis. Before that, he said he talked and texted with Ryan, as well.

Byrd said he didn't want to get into any specifics about how the Saints plan to use him. But clearly both sides are excited about the possibilities of adding someone with his ability to create turnovers to a young Saints defense that was already on the rise last year.

"To have that ability with an offense that's gonna put up points and a stingy defense like that and exotic in the way Coach Ryan calls things, it's unorthodox, it's gonna keep people guessing," Byrd said when asked what attracted him to New Orleans in free agency. "That combination right there was enough."

Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills, is also getting familiar with his new community. He met with the media while visiting Harahan Elementary School on Wednesday to talk to kids about the importance of reading and education.

Byrd said he's already noticed signs of the passion of the Saints' fan base around town. And he's also heard of the reputation of the Who Dat Nation from Lewis, a New Orleans-area native.

"I hear it's really like a family atmosphere," Byrd said. "How he talks about it, and just being out a little bit, I've seen ... the love the city has for the team."
As you might expect, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan delivered a presentation that was both informative and entertaining as a guest speaker at the LSU coaches clinic on Thursday.

Among Ryan’s most noteworthy comments, according to recaps from The Times-Picayune and The Advocate: "Sean Payton is the best coach I've ever coached for, and I've coached for Bill Belichik."

Ryan also injected plenty of his deadpan humor, as well as sharing some of the philosophies he swears by ("Keep it learnable and likeable" and "We're going to have fun at somebody else's expense.")
I broke down several of the most noteworthy nuggets from Sean Payton’s media session at the NFL owners meetings throughout the past two days. But there was plenty more from the New Orleans Saints coach’s hour-long interview. Here are some of the leftovers:

On whether it’s tougher to reach the first Super Bowl or to get back again: “I think they’re equally difficult. I think when you win that first one there’s that sense of excitement. You kind of caught the chicken proverbially, and then you let it go and you start chasing it again. I think they’re both challenging. I know this, though, once you’ve tasted it and had a chance to experience it, you recognize how special it is and how much it’s worth it in the journey.

“You kind of remember it a little bit. You think you do. But this is an entirely different team. It’s unique. It’s not just us. It’s the entire league how quickly in five years how a roster just moves. I don’t know what the average attrition is every season. I mentioned earlier there aren’t any players on defense now from that team (2009), and there’s probably half a dozen left in its entirety. It happens quickly.”

(NOTE: He’s correct. Only six Saints remain from that team – Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief, Pierre Thomas and Thomas Morstead. Receiver Robert Meachem remains unsigned as a free agent).

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
AP Photo/Bill HaberCoach Sean Payton said Rob Ryan's new defensive scheme helped rejuvenate the Saints in 2013.
On the speech given during the meetings by former NFL player Wade Davis, who later came out as gay: “It was outstanding. Some people have a unique command in a room and he’s one of those speakers. I think it’s a difficult group to speak to your first time when you look at all of the owners in our league, general managers and head coaches. But he was very confident, very honest. ... It’s probably one of the most meaningful or productive portions of this week here."

On former Saints player Jonathan Vilma expressing concerns about how some players might feel about having a gay teammate: “[Bill] Parcells said it best last year. He said winning teams and winning locker rooms open to players of all diversity. They really do. It can help them win. Their doors are wide open. They tend to push out those players they feel like can’t help them win. I mentioned to Troy Vincent after he spoke yesterday to really go back and grab Bill’s speech. I really thought it was one of the better Hall of Fame speeches that I’ve heard. Not just because I’m close with Bill. I thought it was outstanding. As an organization and as a locker room, we look at diversity to include a gay football player. I just know how our locker room is, and it’s something we spend time on. The respect of others and the mission statement being winning. And if those things are pointed in the right direction, then the other stuff is not that important really.”

On moving training camp to the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia (up until the second preseason game): “I do like the idea that it's a change. We've been in Jackson [Miss.]; we've been in Oxnard [Calif.]; the team's been to Wisconsin for a number of years. I think the climate is very conducive to training, and the facility that's being built is amazing. The opportunity to have everything right there, two grass fields, artificial surface field, locker rooms, meeting rooms, cafeteria, right across the street from the hotel. … It'll give us a good balance of heat. I don't want to say optimum conditions because it's pretty warm anywhere you're at, it's just a little cooler than the humidity we might get for the full five weeks in Metairie.”

On the Saints’ track record with small-school draft picks: “I think players in our league can come from all different shapes and sizes when it comes to school size. They come from the East Coast, the West Coast. There’s more that come from the bigger schools than the smaller schools. There’s more that come from the SEC than some small conferences. That’s just statistically fact. And yet two things: you don’t want to bias yourself against a small school player and yet you don’t want to create what you think is a small-school gem.

“So the challenges when it comes to evaluating a player like Jahri Evans is, ‘Ahhh, that was an amazing block, but who was he blocking and what’s that guy doing now?’ ... So that process is difficult when one is playing Iowa or Illinois, Michigan and the other one is playing Shippensburg or whoever they play. …

“We’ve been fortunate with our guys and our roster where we’ve had a lot of guys from smaller schools, and yet we don’t specifically target them. We just acknowledge that they exist and a good football player can come from anywhere.”

On re-signing right tackle Zach Strief in free agency: “Number one, we felt like he had his best season of his career. He’s a leader in that room. He’s was awfully productive. He probably graded out as high as any right tackle in the league last year. He’s a player that our locker room respects greatly. He’s smart. There’s a physical presence that comes with him. His strength and all of his skill sets, we put a high value and premium [on]. … That was an important sign for us.”

On backup linebacker Ramon Humber, whom the Saints re-signed in free agency: “He probably had in our opinion his best training camp last year. Not just as a special teams player, but he was running and tackling and hitting as well I had seen in a while. He is a good teammate, very good durability and position flexibility. He can run and hit. He’ll play in team and sub-packages. He’s a guy that’s really fit with us and done a nice job.”

On the defensive turnaround under Rob Ryan: “I know our players welcomed the change with open arms. There was that anticipation and excitement of putting in a package that was different. Obviously the year prior stung a lot of guys, hurt a lot of guys. That wasn’t just one coach. You have a season like that, and there are a lot of dirty hands. That’s just a fact. I think that anticipation of a new defensive package and someone that was added to our organization that I feel like is a real good assistant and someone that works well in the office with his peers and gets along with everyone, is loyal. Those things were important.”
METAIRIE, La. – Thanks for all of your New Orleans Saints questions on Twitter this week. Send ‘em my way anytime @MikeTriplett:

 

Saints aim high; target S Byrd

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
6:45
PM ET
The New Orleans Saints certainly are not letting their salary cap constraints slow them down in free agency. The Saints have lined up a visit with one of the top free agents on the market -- Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, a league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Byrd
Byrd, 27, is a three-time Pro Bowl selection with 22 interceptions in his five-year career. Last year, he played under the Bills’ franchise tag. But they elected not to franchise him again this year at a rate of $8.4 million.

It’s possible Byrd could be seeking a long-term deal in that price range. Byrd reportedly is seeking at least $9 million per year, according to ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter James Walker. But that could be on the high end after two other top safeties, Donte Whitner and T.J. Ward, reportedly agreed to deals Tuesday worth $7 million and $5.5 million per year, respectively.

The Saints don’t have a ton of salary cap space to work with. But they’ll be at least $6 million under the cap after cutting ties with running back Darren Sproles (which still has not officially happened yet). And they could carve out millions more by restructuring some of their current contracts if they so choose.

Signing Byrd would be an extreme example of what I wrote about Tuesday morning -- the way the Saints have remained selectively aggressive in free agency in recent years to keep an eye on the future. They have never allowed themselves to be paralyzed by their salary-cap constraints.

Even though they’ve decided to part ways with a number of longtime veterans this year (including longtime starting safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins), they have continued to add new core players through free agency in recent years. That’s why they’ve remained bona fide Super Bowl contenders for so long.

Byrd (5-10, 203 pounds) is known as a ball-hawking free safety with excellent instincts. He battled plantar fasciitis in his foot last season, and there have always been some concerns about his speed since he entered the league as a second-round draft pick in 2009. But they obviously haven't kept him from making an impact on the field.

He also has 356 career tackles, 11 forced fumbles, three sacks and 33 pass defenses.

Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan values safeties in his defense. He would often feature three of them in a rotation at once last year -- led by breakout rookie Kenny Vaccaro.

And now, the Saints need more safety help since Vaccaro is the only safety remaining on the roster. They also expect part-time starter Rafael Bush back after making a one-year qualifying offer to him as a restricted free agent.

The Saints released Harper last month. And they allowed Jenkins to get away as a free agent when he agreed to a three-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday (three years, $16.25 million, according to Schefter).

That move wasn’t surprising since the Saints seemed prepared to let Jenkins get away, especially at that price.

Longtime readers of mine know I’ve always been high on Jenkins' potential in New Orleans. He seemed to flash his big-play potential every year with one or two game-changing plays. And he was a smart, hard-working player that was respected by coaches and teammates alike. He was elected as a defensive captain in each of the past two years.

But Jenkins never consistently lived up to his potential in New Orleans. And the Saints obviously have an eye on upgrading.

Jenkins, by the way, is the sixth member of the Saints' Super Bowl roster that the team has parted ways with this offseason. They now have zero defensive players remaining from that 2009 season and only seven total players left on the roster (including free agent offensive tackle Zach Strief and receiver Robert Meachem).
Members of the New Orleans Saints have been staying busy during their "down time" this offseason -- including tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Graham is spending the week visiting troops in the Middle East, along with Miami Dolphins kicker Brandon Fields and Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon. You can see photos from his trip here at NewOrleansSaints.com.

Said Graham: "This experience for me has truly been life-changing. The personal connection I've been able to make is something that will be with me forever. I grew up in a military home and this just makes me more of a patriot. I have more of an appreciation for the little things we have back home each and every day."

Meanwhile, Ryan served as the grand marshal of the Krewe of Argus’ Mardi Gras parade in Metairie on Tuesday. Ryan, who donned a Drew Brees jersey, braved the wet and windy conditions to enhance his reputation as a man of the people in New Orleans.
METAIRIE, La. -- Thanks for all of your New Orleans Saints questions on Twitter this week. Send 'em my way anytime @MikeTriplett:
 

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