New Orleans Saints: Rufus Johnson

The Times-Picayune's Larry Holder did some interesting research on how New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham fared last year when he was matched up against cornerbacks.

Per Holder's research, Graham caught 20 of the 38 passes thrown his way when he was matched up against cornerbacks -- a 52.6 percent success rate that Holder said would have ranked 91st out of 111 wide receivers.

As a result, Holder argued that Graham's desire to be paid like a top NFL wide receiver "doesn't fit the bill."

I don't completely agree with that thinking, though.

Holder makes a compelling argument -- and one that will likely come up during Graham's grievance hearing next week over whether he should be considered a tight end or wide receiver for franchise-tag purposes.

But as I have consistently written, while I do think Graham should be officially considered a tight end, I think he deserves to be paid like a top receiver. Right in the same ballpark as similarly-productive receivers like Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson and Brandon Marshall, who make between $10 million and $11.2 million per year (which ranks fifth through eighth among all NFL receivers)

Maybe Graham is just taking advantage of the fact he is often matched up against linebackers and safeties. And maybe Graham's lower success rate against corners should encourage teams to try and match up cornerbacks against Graham more often.

But does that make him any less valuable than any other offensive monster in the NFL who has put up the kind of numbers he's put up for three consecutive years (an average of 90 catches, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns per year)?

If Graham were on the open market, I wouldn't be surprised to see him fetch close to $12 million per year for his services.

Normally, I would project the Saints and Graham to agree on a deal worth somewhere between $10 million and $11 million per year -- and maybe they still will do that before the grievance hearing is wrapped up as a way of meeting in the middle.

However, if they play this thing out, the grievance hearing will give the winning side a ton of leverage that could push the price tag in either direction.

Also worth a click:
  • Also from Holder, Saints owner Tom Benson is heading into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame -- a very deserving honor.
  • ESPN.com fantasy analyst Eric Karabell takes an early look at what to watch on the Saints' roster for fantasy purposes this summer in this Insider piece Insider. Karabell does a great job of sifting through the deep receiver and running back groups.
  • The Times-Picayune's Katherine Terrell talked with Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans about fighting through his injury-plagued 2013 season.
  • The Advocate's Ramon Antonio Vargas talked with second-year pro Rufus Johnson Jr. about his desire to make more of an impact this year. The Saints have been using Johnson as more of a 3-4 end in camp this year instead of an outside pass rusher.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints’ OTA practice on Thursday was open to the media. Here’s my quick take on the observations that stood out most:

[+] EnlargeStanley Jean-Baptiste
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste has impressed the Saints during offseason workouts.
Crowded CB battle: It looks like the competition for jobs behind No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis will be wide open this summer. Last week, we saw Patrick Robinson working with the first-string defense. Today, both Champ Bailey and Corey White were out there with the 1s while they spent most of team drills in nickel defense. Rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste also rotated in with the first-stringers at times, while Robinson worked with the second string.

Jean-Baptiste looked pretty good out there, including a play when he stuck with speedy, small receiver Charles Hawkins deep down the field, forcing Drew Brees to throw incomplete. Jean-Baptiste will need time to develop this summer, but he hasn’t looked too raw or lost out there at all. Defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff spoke highly of his progress after practice.

Toon looks solid: Third-year receiver Nick Toon had a nice practice, including one catch he had to reach up and pluck out of the air. As I’ve written since the middle of last season, I still think the Saints are high on Toon’s potential, even though he struggled during his brief opportunity for playing time last year while filling in for injured veterans.

Coach Sean Payton stressed Thursday that the Saints still have high expectations for Toon, and he could have an opportunity to play a significant role this year.

A lot of fans seem eager for the Saints to move on from Toon and maybe replace him with undrafted rookie big man Brandon Coleman. But so far Coleman looks like he may need some time to develop. He dropped a pass Thursday, though it’s obviously an extremely small sample size so far.

Lots of Cadet: It felt like Travaris Cadet was getting the lion’s share of the workload among the Saints’ running backs Thursday, both when the Saints were doing run plays and passing plays. He stood out even more than usual since the Saints aren’t doing any live tackling in practice at this stage of the offseason, but he still showed some speed and nifty elusiveness at times.

I think Cadet clearly ranks fourth in the pecking order at running back behind Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. But he could indeed play a much greater role in this offense now that Darren Sproles has been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Goodwin’s return: Veteran center Jonathan Goodwin was back on the field after signing his contract earlier this week. He was working with the second-team offense, while Tim Lelito remained with the first string. But Payton said it will be an open competition for the job this summer.

Goodwin is obviously thrilled to be back in New Orleans, where he played from 2006-10 before leaving for a more lucrative deal with the San Francisco 49ers. Goodwin said he considers New Orleans his second home and that leaving was one of the toughest decisions he’s ever made. He said he even changed his mind twice at the time, telling the 49ers he was coming, then telling them he wasn’t, then switching back.

Other depth chart notes: Quarterback Ryan Griffin worked with the second-string offense throughout practice, but neither he nor Luke McCown stood out much, for better or for worse. The secondary had a nice practice, in general, denying anything from being completed deep. But the practice was mostly filled with run plays and shorter passes.

Second-year outside linebacker Rufus Johnson appeared to be working as a 3-4 defensive end for much of the practice, signaling either a possible position change or a versatile role.

Kenny Stills, Hawkins and running back Derrick Strozier took turns fielding punts, but it was more of a punt-coverage drill than a return drill, so it’s still unclear what the pecking order will be there. Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks is expected to be the No. 1 guy there when he returns to practice later this month. Cooks is not allowed to practice yet since his school, Oregon State, is still in session.

Injuries/roll call: Safety Jairus Byrd was watching from the sideline after having back surgery last week. Payton said he’s still expected to be ready for the start of training camp this summer. Defensive tackles John Jenkins and Tyrunn Walker remain sidelined with an undisclosed ailment. Receiver Joe Morgan was still working off to the side as he rehabs from last year’s knee injury.

Also not participating for undisclosed reasons: Receiver Steve Hull, linebacker Cheta Ozougwu and nose tackle Moses McCray.

And as expected, tight end Jimmy Graham was not present since he is still unsigned.
The New Orleans Saints entered the next stage of offseason workouts with the start of OTAs on Tuesday. Over the course of four weeks, they’re scheduled to have a total of 15 full-team practice sessions during OTAs and minicamp.

The media will have access to eight of those sessions, starting with Thursday’s OTA practice. Click here for a breakdown of the early camp battles I’m most interested in watching on offense.

Here are the top battles to watch on defense:

1. Cornerback: This will be the most fascinating position to watch on the entire roster this summer. Keenan Lewis is entrenched as the No. 1 guy. Then there are a number of intriguing options battling for the other starting job and backup roles.

Bailey
As I mentioned in Wednesday’s buzz video, I’m looking forward to seeing future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey in action – especially matching wits with a fellow super-duper-star like quarterback Drew Brees.

I’m also very curious to see how Patrick Robinson bounces back after missing all of last season with a knee injury. I think Corey White is being overlooked as a serious contender for the other starting job now that he has some experience under his belt. Likewise, I think second-year pro Rod Sweeting is being even more overlooked in this crowded field of contenders. And rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste is an interesting project because of his rare size for the position.

Even the next tier of contenders is filled with some solid roster candidates (Trevin Wade, Terrence Frederick, A.J. Davis, Derrius Brooks). Here’s how I handicapped the field following the draft.

2. Outside linebacker: Junior Galette is also entrenched as the Saints’ top outside linebacker/edge rusher. But there are more intriguing contenders for the other starting spot and backup jobs now than there were a year ago.

Veteran Parys Haralson should resume his part-time starting role as a proven run defender. But it’s possible the Saints will feature more true 3-4 alignments this year now that they have some more pass rushers at their disposal.

Veteran Victor Butler is back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL, and hopes were very high for him last summer. Second-year pro Rufus Johnson spent most of last year on the practice squad but has a year of experience under his belt now. Rookie Ronald Powell may take time to develop, but he has great athletic potential. A few new undrafted rookies will also challenge for roster spots, along with returning backups Keyunta Dawson and Kyle Knox.

We won’t get a great feel for these guys until we start to see full contact in the preseason and some training camp drills. But we’ll at least get a glimpse of how and where they line up in practices.

3. Inside linebackers: Veterans Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are set as the starters, and veteran Ramon Humber is a good bet to make the roster as backup and special teams standout. But I’m interested to see if the young guys push for some early playing time. Second-year pro Kevin Reddick, fourth-round draft pick Khairi Fortt and Powell (at the strong-side outside linebacker spot) all could be dynamic enough to force their way into the rotation sooner than later.

4. Special teams: Those guys mentioned above could also make their mark on special teams. The same goes for the guys fighting for backup safety spots like rookie Vinnie Sunseri and Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball.

And that’s not to mention this year’s crop of undrafted rookies, who will undoubtedly use special teams as their best path to the big leagues. You may have noticed that the Saints aren’t afraid to give undrafted rookies a serious shot at cracking the roster.

5. Nose tackle: This is only mildly interesting since I figure veteran Brodrick Bunkley and second-year pro John Jenkins will split snaps pretty equally this year at a position where the Saints like to rotate players and keep them fresh. But it will be noteworthy to see if Jenkins pushes Bunkley enough to become “1A” in that rotation this summer.

The rest of the defensive line roles seem pretty clear with Cam Jordan and Akiem Hicks as the starting ends and Glenn Foster and Tyrunn Walker as the top backups. But an undrafted rookie or two could certainly fight their way into the rotation, as well.
A position-by-position look at the New Orleans Saints' draft needs, ranked in order of importance from 1-12:

Current depth chart:

Junior Galette, signed through 2015
Parys Haralson, signed through 2014
Victor Butler, signed through 2014
Keyunta Dawson, signed through 2014
Rufus Johnson, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016
Kyle Knox, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016

Draft possibilities: The Saints have a decent amount of depth here. But they could always find a way to make room for another dynamic pass-rusher. Players like Missouri's Kony Ealy, Auburn's Dee Ford and Boise State's Demarcus Lawrence could be intriguing possibilities in Round 1.

The Saints spent most of last season playing with a four-man front, with Galette and defensive end Cameron Jordan manning the edges. Haralson was used as more of a run-defending outside linebacker than a pass-rusher. However, the Saints will have more pass-rushing options this year with Butler returning from injury and Johnson having another year to develop after spending most of last season on the practice squad.

It will be very intriguing to see how Butler fits into the Saints defense. Hopes were high for the athletic pass-rusher last year when the Saints signed him in free agency after he had previously played under coordinator Rob Ryan with the Dallas Cowboys. But Butler missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in organized team activities.

Previous entries:

No. 12 Kicker/punter

No. 11 Quarterback

No. 10 Running back/fullback

No. 9 Safety

No. 8 Defensive line

No. 7 Tight end

No. 6 Offensive tackle

No. 5 Inside linebacker
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. – Thanks for all of your New Orleans Saints questions on Twitter this week. Send ‘em my way anytime @MikeTriplett:

 
A position-by-position look at where the New Orleans Saints stand heading into the 2014 offseason – ranked from 1-12 in order of the team’s need for upgrades or replacements.

Current depth chart:

Cameron Jordan. Age 24, signed through 2014, with team option for 2015. 2014 salary and bonuses: $1.43 million. 2014 salary-cap number: $2.46 million.

Junior Galette. Age 25, signed through 2015. 2014 salary and bonuses: $2 million. 2014 salary-cap number: $2.9 million.

Will Smith. Age 32, signed through 2014. 2014 salary and bonuses: $11.55 million. 2014 salary-cap number: $13.9 million.

Victor Butler. Age 26, signed through 2014. 2014 salary and bonuses: $1.5 million. 2014 salary-cap number: $1.875 million.

Keyunta Dawson. Age 28, unrestricted free agent.

Rufus Johnson. Age 23, scheduled to become restricted free agent after three accrued seasons.

Kyle Knox. Age 24, scheduled to become restricted free agent after three accrued seasons.

Analysis:

As I explained earlier on this list, since the Saints run a hybrid between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, I decided to break up their front seven into three categories: Interior defensive linemen, edge rushers and linebackers.

I probably could have ranked the edge rushers even lower on the Saints’ list of needs, since this position was arguably the strength of the defense in 2013 with Jordan and Galette both having breakout years, each with 12-plus sacks. Plus, the depth could improve even more this year if Butler comes back strong from a torn ACL. Of everyone on this list, I actually thought Butler would be the guy who had the breakout year in 2013 after the Saints signed him as a free agent from the Dallas Cowboys.

But the reason I still ranked this position so high is because you can never have enough explosive pass-rushers in the NFL, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is creative and versatile enough to rotate a lot of guys into the mix. It’s not a “must-fill” position, but the Saints could certainly pounce on a dynamic, young athlete early in the draft if they have a high grade on him.

The biggest question mark in this group is Smith. Obviously he won’t be back at his current monster salary. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that he agrees to a significant pay cut to stay in New Orleans like he did last year. He’d probably have to agree to play for close to the veteran minimum since he’s 32 years old and coming off of a torn ACL. But the Saints value Smith as a veteran leader who has always been solid as both a pass-rusher and run defender. He could still be a good fit as part of the front-seven rotation if he comes back strong from the injury.

Johnson (a sixth-round draft pick last year) and Knox were both added to the active roster late in the season, mostly to help on special teams. But it’s possible both of them could work their way up in the rotation with an impressive offseason.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints placed linebacker Parys Haralson on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle and released backup safety Isa Abdul-Quddus on Tuesday. They officially announced the addition of veteran safety Jordan Pugh. And they also promoted rookie linebacker Rufus Johnson from the practice squad.

Haralson will be missed -- especially in run defense against the Seattle Seahawks. The veteran has been a solid addition as a part-time starter since the Saints acquired him in a preseason trade with the San Francisco 49ers, with 30 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Veteran Will Herring is his primary backup, though backup Ramon Humber could also see playing time. Or the Saints could spend more time in their three-safety package, which they feature often.

Abdul-Quddus has been a backup safety for three years, with four career starts, and a core special teams player. His role diminished this year with the emergence of young safeties like Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush, and he was inactive the last two weeks.

Veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins said it was tough for Abdul-Quddus’ longtime teammates to see him go after he had been part of the “room” for so long. But Jenkins said everyone understands the business side of the game.

The Saints replaced Abdul-Quddus with Pugh, a fourth-year veteran who has played a similar role with the Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers.

Johnson, a sixth-round pick from Tarleton State, showed impressive athleticism as a pass rusher in training camp. He could potentially contribute on special teams Saturday.

The Saints added linebacker Vic So'oto to the practice squad to replace Johnson.
Most significant move: The fact the Saints didn’t release or put Jonathan Vilma on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list is a very strong sign that the veteran linebacker is expected to be healthy early in the season. That’s very significant. Vilma may be nearing the end of his career, but he still is the emotional leader of this defense and his mere presence makes this unit stronger.

Going in a different direction: Courtney Roby had been a fixture on special teams since his arrival in 2008. But the Saints have some younger, more athletic guys, like Rafael Bush, they want to get involved on special teams. Roby’s value also was hurt by the fact he brought little as a wide receiver. The team elected to keep Andy Tanner over Roby because Tanner has some upside as a receiver.

What’s next: After losing outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler to injuries, the Saints could look at the waiver wire to add some more help for the pass rush.

Saints moves: Released WR Courtney Roby, DE Jay Richardson, CB Chris Carr, S Jim Leonhard. Waived QB Ryan Griffin, WR Preston Parker, FB Austin Johnson, WR, Saalim Hakim, G Elliott Mealer, TE Keavon Milton, TE Michael Higgins, G Andrew Tiller, C Jeremiah Warren, LB Ray Shipman, LB Rufus Johnson, DT Isaako Aaitui, S Jerico Nelson, LB Baraka Atkins, T Marcel Jones, CB Korey Lindsey and CB Jumal Rolle. Placed C Eric Olsen on injured reserve.

Saints running out of healthy LBs

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
3:14
PM ET
At a time when they’re switching their defensive scheme to include an extra linebacker, the New Orleans Saints are running out of players to play the position.

Outside linebacker Will Smith reportedly will miss the season after injuring his knee in Sunday’s preseason game with Houston.

That comes after the Saints lost Victor Butler, a projected starter at the other outside linebacker position, to injury in June. Outside linebackers Martez Wilson (elbow) and Junior Galette (leg) also have missed significant time in the preseason. Inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma also has been sidelined after having knee surgery. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman also is out for the season with a pectoral injury.

Vilma’s space is being filled by David Hawthorne. But the outside linebacker positions are a bigger concern. The Saints are hoping Wilson and Galette can get healthy. Veteran backup Jay Richardson could be in the mix for more playing time. Rookies Rufus Johnson and Eric Martin have done some good things in the preseason, but I’m not sure they’re ready to be starters.

The Saints might have to comb the waiver wire for linebacker help in the coming days.

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