New Orleans Saints: Travaris Cadet

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' final injury report of the week was loaded with good news Saturday. Cornerback Keenan Lewis, linebacker Curtis Lofton and running backs Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet are all listed as probable for Monday night’s game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Lewis
That means all are likely to play, barring any setbacks. Lewis, who has been fighting through a nagging knee injury for two weeks, said he plans to ready.

"'Monday Night Football.' I’ll be there," Lewis said. "I definitely feel like it’s getting better every day. I’ve got two more days. And 'Monday Night Football,' here we come."

It remains unclear if Lewis will be limited, as he was last week when he only played 10 snaps against the Cincinnati Bengals. But chances are his workload will increase well past that total. He was able to practice on a limited basis both Friday and Saturday this week after practicing only once last week. The extra day of rest before a Monday game didn’t hurt.

It also remains unclear if Thomas will be limited, since he missed the past four games with shoulder and rib injuries. But the "probable" designation is a promising sign. And Thomas has been able to practice on a limited basis all week. He was in very high spirits when he met with the media Thursday -- though he refused to reveal whether he’s officially playing or not.

I addressed Saturday morning how Thomas’ return might affect running back Mark Ingram's touches. I think Ingram will still get a heavy dose of the carries and goal-line looks, with Thomas spelling him at times and playing a bigger role in the passing game. Cadet’s touches could diminish, even if he is healthy enough to play. And running back Khiry Robinson (forearm) has officially been ruled out for Monday, as expected.

Lofton was expected to play all along, so his "probable" designation comes as no surprise.

Receiver Robert Meachem remains questionable after returning to practice on a limited basis with his ankle injury. The Saints don’t need to rush him back, even after losing Brandin Cooks to a season-ending thumb injury this week, since they have experienced backups Joe Morgan and Nick Toon on the roster.

Linebacker Kyle Knox (hand) has also been ruled out. Ingram (shoulder) and offensive tackle Zach Strief (chest) are listed as probable, but they should be fine after both practiced fully all week.
METAIRIE, La. -- Cornerback Keenan Lewis returned to practice on a limited basis Friday, which is a very promising development for the New Orleans Saints.

Lewis is arguably as important as any player on the roster outside of quarterback Drew Brees. And the Saints were noticeably impaired when Lewis was limited to just 10 snaps last week because of a lingering knee injury.

Lewis
Lewis said Thursday that he was hopeful the extra day of rest would help this week since the Saints aren’t playing until Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens. Last week, Lewis practiced only once. This week it’s possible he will practice twice -- assuming he also practices on Saturday.

For the second straight season, the underrated Lewis was playing at a Pro Bowl level before suffering the injury two weeks ago. He routinely matches up against the opponent's top receiver. And FOX analyst John Lynch said on a recent broadcast that no cornerback is playing better in the entire NFL this season.

Former Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said this week in a scouting breakdown of the Saints that Lewis would be a good matchup against dynamic Ravens receiver Steve Smith. But even if Lewis’ role is limited, it’s clear that having him close to 100 percent would be huge against a Baltimore team that also features speedy threat Torrey Smith.

The rest of the Saints' cornerbacks have struggled with inconsistency this season, and now they will be making a switch at free safety, too, in the wake of veteran Rafael Bush's season-ending broken leg.

In other Saints’ injury news:
  • Running back Pierre Thomas (shoulder, rib) and receiver Robert Meachem (ankle) practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day. It appears both could be on track to return from lingering injuries this week. But it’s hard to say definitively if and how much they will play (which means fantasy owners should proceed with caution heading into a Monday night game).
  • Fellow running back Travaris Cadet returned to practice on a limited basis Friday after being held out Thursday with a hamstring injury.
  • Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton (ankle) also returned to practice on a limited basis. He has been playing through the injury and playing at a high level, so there doesn’t appear to be much concern about his status.
  • Running back Khiry Robinson (forearm) and linebacker Kyle Knox (hand) remained out.
METAIRIE, La. – I’ve written a lot this week about how the New Orleans Saints will look to replace rookie receiver Brandin Cooks’ production on offense. It remains an even bigger mystery how they’ll replace Cooks as a punt returner.

The only player on the Saints’ current roster who has ever returned a punt for them in the regular season is running back/kickoff returner Travaris Cadet. He has two career punt returns for a total of two yards, plus four fair catches. But Cadet also missed practice Thursday with a hamstring injury (the severity of which is unknown).

Saunders
The Saints signed rookie receiver Jalen Saunders this week. A fourth-round draft pick out of Oklahoma, he began this season as the New York Jets’ punt returner. But he muffed two returns, which led to his surprisingly quick release. He later spent time on the Arizona Cardinals’ and Seattle Seahawks’ practice squads.

Saints coach Sean Payton said Saunders’ punt return ability was the main thing that attracted the Saints to him in the wake of Cooks’ season-ending thumb injury.

“He’s a player that we evaluated coming out of Oklahoma and had good grades on, paid attention to. So we’ll see how he does this week in competition with a couple of other guys that are already working on it,” Payton said.

Among those other candidates are receivers Joe Morgan and Kenny Stills. Although neither has returned a regular-season punt for the Saints, Morgan thrived in that role in the preseason as an undrafted rookie in 2011, highlighted by a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown. Morgan hasn’t returned a punt since the preseason of 2012, though.

Stills never even returned punts in the preseason for the Saints, but he did do it part-time in college at Oklahoma.

“We’ll probably take those guys to the Superdome one time this week to make sure they are good with catching it inside,” Payton said.

Regardless of whom they go with, the Saints need to amp up their punt-return game in general. Even with Cooks, they are averaging just 6.7 yards per punt return this year, which ranks 27th in the NFL.

Saunders’ winding road: Saunders admitted this has been a tough rookie season – one that also included a traffic accident when he experienced a seizure. “It hasn’t been my best year, to say the least,” Saunders said, via The Times-Picayune, though he added: "It's humbled me and it's made me a better player."
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday for the first time since suffering shoulder and rib injuries in Week 7.

Thomas was in great spirits while talking with the media, but he playfully refused to reveal whether he expects to play Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens.

Thomas
“You’re gonna have to find that out. You’re gonna have to wait and see,” said Thomas, who even threw in a suspenseful sound effect at one point: “Who knows when it’s gonna be? It might be Monday. Oooooh.”

“I did not think it was gonna take this long,” Thomas added. “But, hey, I had to make sure it was right, and I still have to make sure it’s right before I step out on that field so I don’t have any setbacks. Because I don’t want to put myself out here and play one game and get hit and then that’s it.

“No, I want to finish this season out and then continue on into the playoffs, too. So I want to help out my team and help myself as much as possible. I gotta be smart about my decision. That’s what I’m doing.”

Thomas’ return would be a huge lift for a Saints offense that just lost dynamic rookie receiver Brandin Cooks to a season-ending thumb injury. Thomas has always been a big part of the Saints’ passing game, especially on screen passes – an element of their offense that they’ll miss with Cooks out.

Plus, fellow pass-catching running back Travaris Cadet was held out of team drills Thursday with a hamstring injury, the severity of which was unknown.

Thomas can also help relieve running back Mark Ingram, who has carried a heavy load with 26 carries per game in the past four weeks.

Fellow running back Khiry Robinson also has been sidelined since Week 7 with an unspecified arm injury. Robinson remained absent from practice Thursday. His timetable remains unclear.

“Oh, man, he’s been holding it down. He’s been holding it down, seriously,” Thomas said when asked about Ingram, who had three straight 100-yard games before the run game was shut down last week against Cincinnati. “I mean, Mark’s been doing a job we all knew he could do; he’s just getting more reps.

“With this organization, with this team, we rotate, and it’s hard to get on a rhythm. And he was on a rhythm. He was moving the ball; he was holding it down for some of us running backs that was down. He was doing the job that he needed to do. Everybody knows that he can do the job. Everybody knows that he can step up to the challenge, and he answered. I’m proud of him.”

Other injury notes:
  • Cornerback Keenan Lewis was absent from practice Thursday as he continues to rehab a lingering knee injury. Lewis also missed two days of practice last week before practicing on Friday and playing 10 snaps – although he admitted he wasn’t as healthy as hoped. Lewis said Thursday that he’s still optimistic and getting better each day, and the extra day of rest before a Monday night game should help.
  • Linebacker Curtis Lofton (ankle) was held out of team drills, though he also was limited last week in a similar fashion before playing a full game. Linebacker Kyle Knox was held out of team drills with a hand injury.
  • Receiver Robert Meachem returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday after missing the past two games with an ankle injury. His role in the Saints’ offense could also increase if he’s healthy enough to play Monday, as he has proven ability as a deep threat (another area where they’ll miss Cooks).
  • Right tackle Zach Strief practiced fully after leaving last Sunday with a concussion – a great sign for the Saints, who will be facing two of the league’s best pass rushers Monday in Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints’ offense is a little banged up heading into a potential Sunday shootout with the Green Bay Packers. Running backs Pierre Thomas (shoulder) and Khiry Robinson (forearm) and center Jonathan Goodwin (knee) were all held out of practice Wednesday.

On a brighter note, tight end Jimmy Graham participated in full-team drills on a limited basis while still working back from his shoulder injury.

Robinson’s injury was previously unknown, but replays show he may have been hurt while being tackled out of bounds in the fourth quarter this past Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Robinson was wearing a brace on his right arm after Wednesday’s practice but seemed optimistic when he said, “I got a little boo-boo. I’m straight, though.”

Thomas and Goodwin seem even more questionable for Sunday’s game after they both left the Lions game in obvious pain. Neither was in attendance Wednesday for the portion of practice that was open to the media.

If Thomas and Robinson are out or limited Sunday, the Saints will lean heavily on running backs Mark Ingram and Travaris Cadet – with Cadet likely being heavily involved in the passing game as he was this past week.

Graham’s limited participation on Wednesday was a continued sign of his progress. Last Wednesday he was held out of team drills before participating on a limited basis both Thursday and Friday.

Graham played 30 snaps against the Lions but didn’t catch a pass and was only targeted twice. He wasn’t completely kept out of harm’s way, though, since he did block on a few occasions. He ran mostly short routes and possibly would have been targeted more if quarterback Drew Brees wasn’t having so much success throwing the ball down the field.

“Jimmy coming off the injury, we wanted to be smart and obviously not ask him to do too much, and so it just kind of happened to work out that way,” Brees said. “But I thought we made a lot of big plays down the field with the receivers.”

The rest of the Saints’ injury report was also encouraging.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis (knee/shoulder) and nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley (concussion) returned to practice on a limited basis after leaving last Sunday’s game early. Cornerback Patrick Robinson (hamstring) practiced fully Wednesday and linebacker Ramon Humber (ankle) was limited after both were held out of last Sunday’s game.

Backup linebacker Kyle Knox remained out with an ankle injury Wednesday.
A position-by-position look at the New Orleans Saints’ roster through the Week 6 bye:

Snaps played: Pierre Thomas 147, Khiry Robinson 117, Travaris Cadet 61, Mark Ingram 40, FB Austin Johnson 87.

Thomas
Key stats: Robinson 61 carries, 304 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns; 3 receptions, 26 yards, 0 touchdowns. Ingram 24-143-3; 4-22-0. Thomas 24-120-2; 22-187-1. Cadet 3-10-0; 10-83-1. Johnson 5-16-0; 0-0-0.

My take: This is why the Saints traded away Darren Sproles. As great as Sproles has been in Philadelphia, the Saints knew that all four of their backs were suited to take on bigger and more versatile roles.

We’re seeing Ingram and Robinson run draw plays and catch screen passes, which gives them more open space to work with and makes the Saints’ offense less predictable. Last week, with Ingram still sidelined by a broken hand, all four of the Saints’ touchdowns in a 37-31 overtime victory over Tampa Bay were scored by running backs (passes to Cadet and Thomas, long runs by Thomas and Robinson).

Ingram started out as the biggest benefactor, with 143 rushing yards and three touchdown runs in the first two weeks before being sidelined for a month with a broken hand. He’s expected to be back in the lineup this week against the Detroit Lions, though he might be eased into the action since the Saints have the luxury of doing so.

As I wrote in my weekend mailbag, the timeshare will likely continue to be a frustration for fantasy owners since there are only so many touches to go around. But I think Ingram, Robinson and Thomas will all continue to have big moments since the entire Saints’ rushing offense seems to be clicking so well this season.

ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson’s take: “Running backs, I’d give an A. I think Ingram, starting at the end of last year, has been outstanding. He looks like a first-round running back. There wasn’t a huge drop-off to Robinson. I think Robinson’s a quality player that next year will probably be their lead guy (if Ingram isn’t re-signed as a free agent). I was a little worried about Thomas, because they weren’t using him so much. But then this last week he did what he did and caught a ton of passes, and he’s ultra-reliable and does everything pretty well. And then Cadet brings a little bit of that big-play spark receiver to them, too.

“It’s a pretty good group. If you can lose Ingram, as well as he’s playing, and still not lose all that much, that’s saying a lot. I think their running backs are exceptional. ... I don’t think they miss Sproles at all. He’s a good player, but I don’t think that’s the problem with the offense.”

RBs less predictable, more successful

September, 10, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. -- Both of Mark Ingram's touchdown runs Sunday for the New Orleans Saints came when he was the only back in a shotgun formation, with four receivers/tight ends split wide.

That's a new wrinkle for Ingram, who was often pigeonholed in power running formations in years past. Ingram has made no secret about how he wants to be used more as a versatile, every-down back. And he's been showing why.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
AP Photo/David GoldmanMark Ingram, like his fellow Saints running backs, did well in unaccustomed roles against the Falcons.
It started last year when Ingram had an outstanding playoff performance when Pierre Thomas was injured. It has continued this summer after the Saints traded away runner/receiver Darren Sproles.

Ingram had 13 carries for 60 yards in Sunday's 37-34 overtime loss at the Atlanta Falcons, including the pair of 3-yard TD runs in the fourth quarter. Ingram also caught one pass for 1 yard -- another area where his role is expected to expand this season.

However, none of that means that Ingram will emerge as the No. 1 back for the Saints. As expected, the Saints split the workload pretty evenly between Ingram, Thomas and Khiry Robinson in Week 1.

As hoped, all three thrived in less-predictable roles.

Thomas was exceptional as both a runner (seven carries for 31 yards) and receiver (six receptions for 58 yards). On four different occasions, Thomas made a defender miss in the open field to allow him to convert a first down – twice on third-down plays.

Thomas is expected to take over most of Sproles' old nickelback role on third downs. But he wasn't used exclusively in that role Sunday, as he played by far the most snaps of any running back.

Thomas was in for 34 snaps, Ingram 20 and Robinson 12. Travaris Cadet also played 12 snaps, including his only reception for 5 yards on the first play of the game.

Robinson carried the ball six times for 28 yards, including the first touchdown run of 2 yards. It's worth noting that Robinson was the runner both times the Saints were in their goal-line package (he lost 2 yards on the other run). That may continue going forward, though it's obviously not guaranteed.

The Saints' running back timeshare will probably remain as frustrating as ever to fantasy owners. But the good news is that all three backs should be able to sustain this kind of success in small doses this year -- especially if New Orleans' offensive line keeps playing as well as it did Sunday.

Saints on Hard Knocks, emergency QB

September, 5, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. – This was a jam-packed week for New Orleans Saints news. So I wanted to make sure some of the week’s interesting notes and quotes didn’t get left on the cutting-room floor. Here’s some of the best of the rest:

Scouting Hard Knocks? Since the Week 1 opponent Atlanta Falcons were featured on HBO’s training camp documentary “Hard Knocks” this summer, a handful of players were asked if they watched to try and gain any scouting advantage. I know a lot of them were watching, based on their tweets during the opening episode. But I didn’t find any who said they gleaned any scouing tips from it.

Quarterback Drew Brees, a thorough guy who typically turns over every stone, said he simply didn’t have time. (I guess the combination of preparing for the season, recovering from an oblique strain and bringing a new baby into the world adds up to a good excuse.)

Coach Sean Payton, however, did say that the Saints made sure to keep tabs on the all-access show.

“Typically, I would never have the time to watch it,” Payton said, adding, “I don’t even know what channel it’s on.”

“But,” Payton continued, “in this case what you will do is have people that have the time right now maybe scan through the episodes to see if there is something that you might gain from it. You would look to see if there was anything cadence-related, anything personnel-related. Look, there is that conflict that always exists with what they are looking for is not always in the best interest of the team they are covering, despite what they say. I think that our personnel people would pay attention to it and bring something to our attention.”

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees, Travaris Cadet and Jimmy Graham
AP Photo/Steven SenneTravaris Cadet would likely be the Saints' emergency quarterback this season.
Cadet the third QB: With longtime former receiver and emergency third quarterback Lance Moore now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New Orleans Saints need a new backup backup plan. Payton said they would go with running back Travaris Cadet if needed in a pinch.

“We took out stats and did a study here last week, and the two guys that have played the most amount of quarterback would be Travaris Cadet and Jairus Byrd,” Payton explained. “Now, Jairus Byrd’s numbers were better, but Travaris played in college. So Travaris would probably be someone to handle that role.

“We just recently did that and talked about it. Same thing with the snapper, the punter and the kicker. We’ll have a period tomorrow, just an ‘Are you ready?’ period where hypothetically the long snapper is down, hypothetically the punter is down, hypothetically the kicker is down, and just take a snap. You hope you go through the season and it doesn’t come up, you just have to be prepared if it does.”

Play-calling mystery: Payton, however, did not reveal who will be calling plays for the Saints’ offense this season, joking that, “We’ll probably see how the coin toss goes.” Payton said this summer that he might consider turning those duties back over to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., who handled them for most of 2011 and 2012. Either way, both coaches have stressed it will be a collaborative effort. And since they’ve been together since 2006, the offense wouldn’t change much either way.

Worth repeating: When asked what it’s like to face the Falcons without retired tight end Tony Gonzalez, Payton talked for a while about Gonzalez’s great skill set. Then he said, “We sent him his retirement card.”

Worth watching: Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan moonlighted as an actor on FXX’s “The League” this week. He joined Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron on the episode, which had some fun with their easily-mixed-up names.

Worth a click: If you want to scout the enemy this week, check out ESPN’s Falcons team page here. And follow ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure on Twitter @vxmcclure23.

Twelve out of 13 ESPN analysts picked the Saints over the Falcons in Week 1. Make it 14 of 15 if you include Vaughn and myself.

ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter talks about the Saints being at the forefront of the growing trend toward investing more in safeties in the NFL.
A position-by-position look at the New Orleans Saints' 90-man roster heading into the start of training camp. Players report on Thursday and will hold their first practice Friday at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Current depth chart: Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson, Travaris Cadet, Timothy Flanders, Derrick Strozier

Gone from last year: Darren Sproles

Key roster battles: The top four guys on this list are all pretty safe. Unfortunately, to the chagrin of fantasy players everywhere, I don't expect any of them to emerge as a true leading back in the rotation during the preseason. If anything, the picture might get even cloudier if Cadet thrives against backup defenses -- as he has in past summers.

The only real intrigue is whether the Saints will continue their remarkable run of success with undrafted rookie running backs. You have to consider Flanders and Strozier as long shots since they're buried so far down on the depth chart. But the Saints' recent history bodes well for long-shot running backs.
METAIRIE, La. -- It's hard to imagine running back Travaris Cadet playing a huge role for the New Orleans Saints this year because he's stuck in such a deep position group.

But then again, it's hard to ignore how many opportunities the third-year pro has been getting so far in offseason practices -- and how well he's taking advantage of them.

Cadet has been showing off his speed and elusiveness while both running the football and catching passes out of the backfield.

If he keeps this up throughout training camp and the preseason, Cadet may indeed get a chance to take over a big chunk of that runner/receiver role that Darren Sproles played in New Orleans' offense before being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees, Travaris Cadet and Jimmy Graham
AP Photo/Steven SenneTravaris Cadet wants to be "a complete player in all areas, not being a master of a few things but a master of everything."
"I feel like it's a great opportunity. You know, Sproles is gone now and that's in the past. But I learned a lot from Sproles while he was here," said Cadet, who said he's been trying to prove he can run the football as well as catch passes and return kickoffs.

"(I want to be) a complete player in all areas, not being a master of a few things but a master of everything. I want to be a mastermind of every position they ask me to play," Cadet said. "This is an opportunity that comes around once in a lifetime. I'm going to do my best to take advantage of the opportunity. And just take it one day at a time, keep working."

Even with Sproles gone, Cadet is still behind running backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson in the current hierarchy -- and the Saints would probably love to find more touches for all three of those guys, as well.

Plus, rookie receiver Brandin Cooks is expected to be used in some of the same ways Sproles was at times, catching screens and possibly running the ball on occasion to take advantage of his speed in open space.

But you can never doubt Saints coach Sean Payton's ability to find creative uses for talented offensive weapons like Cadet, who could be yet another mismatch in New Orleans' diverse offense.

And the Saints have clearly been high enough on Cadet to keep him around the last two years, when the backfield was just as crowded.

Cadet had no rushing attempts last year and just two catches for 5 yards -- though one of them was a 3-yard touchdown catch at New England. As a rookie in 2011, Cadet had five catches for 44 yards and one rush for 5 yards.

His role expanded even more last year as a kickoff returner, where he projects to be the No. 1 guy this year. Cadet returned nine kickoffs last season for an average of 26.6 yards and 26 kickoffs in 2012 for an average of 26.5 yards.

Payton seemed impressed by Cadet's overall progress when asked if he could basically take over some of Sproles' plays in the Saints' offense.

"I think a year ago, I don't know that I would have been able to tell you that," Payton said. "The focus for him was the running game per se. Even when he came here in 2012, he was with the receivers (some). That element with regards to running routes and catching the football, he would be further ahead. But we saw him last year as a guy who transitioned that we handed the ball to. That's something he's worked hard on.

"He's a guy with good hands, he's sudden with a good change of direction. And I think that is one of the things we'll look for in this upcoming training camp. He's been able to do a lot of the things we've asked Darren to do in the passing game. You just keep building on that. He's a good young talent."
METAIRIE, La. -- Once again, the two players who stood out most to me during the New Orleans Saints' minicamp practice on Tuesday were receiver Nick Toon and running back Travaris Cadet.

Toon
Cadet
Toon did drop one pass, but he made a series of nice catches throughout the day -- including a deep ball from Drew Brees when Toon got behind cornerback Rod Sweeting.

Cadet, meanwhile, showed an impressive combination of speed and elusiveness while being used as both a runner and receiver out of the backfield.

Two disclaimers must be added when it comes to both of these players. For one thing, this is the stage of camp where there is still no live contact or tackling allowed, so it's easier for them to shine. For another thing, both of these players have stood out similarly during the past two offseasons without yet making significant contributions in the regular season.

However, it's noteworthy that both players are still being given a lot of opportunities to work their way into the Saints' rotation -- and so far, they're both taking advantage.

Open competitions:
  • Center Jonathan Goodwin took some snaps with the first-string offense at one point during full-team drills, though Tim Lelito spent most of the practice in that role. That's expected to be an open competition lasting deep into training camp.
  • Cornerback Patrick Robinson again spent some time with the first-string defense in certain drills. Champ Bailey and Corey White also spent time with the first string. All three will get looks at the No. 2 cornerback job across from No. 1 corner Keenan Lewis.
  • I consider veteran Shayne Graham to be a strong front-runner for the kicker job. But he'll have to out-duel young challenger Derek Dimke, who has performed well in the past two preseasons without cracking a roster yet. The media consensus was that Graham went 2-for-3 and Dimke 3-for-3 on filed-goal attempts Tuesday. That battle will likely be based heavily on how they perform in preseason games.
Other highlights:
  • Receiver Kenny Stills made the play of the day, reeling in a pass from Brees with one hand while being blanketed in coverage by safety Kenny Vaccaro. Brees might have been sacked on the play if it was a real game situation. But in this case, he was able to throw the ball up for grabs, and Stills came down with it.
  • The defense won its share of battles, too. Safety Rafael Bush intercepted Brees during 7-on-7 passing drills. The way Bush shot up toward the ball uncontested in the middle of the field, it almost looked like he was the intended receiver. … Vaccaro and Lewis also aggressively broke up passes by Brees.
  • Second-year quarterback Ryan Griffin had some highs and lows as the backup quarterback competition appears to be wide open between him and veteran Luke McCown. Griffin connected on three consecutive TD passes in those 7-on-7 drills. Later, however, he overthrew a pass that was intercepted by safety Marcus Ball in full-team drills.
  • Fullback Erik Lorig looked fluid while running out of the backfield, catching a pass in the flat and turning upfield. That's something fullbacks have always done in the Saints' offense, and Lorig looks like he'll continue that trend -- especially with his bigger size at 6-foot-4.
  • Rookie receiver Brandon Coleman continued to show some inconsistency with at least two drops Tuesday. But he did make his most impressive catch that I've seen yet when he reached to reel in a deep ball near the sideline. It wasn't clear if the ball had sailed too far out of bounds, though.
Thanks for all of your New Orleans Saints questions on Twitter this week. Send 'em my way anytime @MikeTriplett:

 
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 have entered the next stage of offseason workouts with the start of organized team activities (OTAs) on Tuesday. Over the next 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. Here’s a breakdown of the early camp battles I’m most interested in watching on offense:

1. Fourth/fifth wide receivers: This might not be the most important camp battle on offense. But it’s the most jam-packed with bona fide candidates. And it’s always one of the most compelling position groups to watch at this time of year when players aren’t in pads or doing any live-contact drills yet.

Toon
Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks are all locked into the roster (though we unfortunately won’t get to see Cooks in action until mid-June because of NFL rules regarding rookies whose colleges are still in session).

That leaves Robert Meachem, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Andy Tanner, Brandon Coleman and others fighting for two to three roster spots. I broke down the battle at length recently, when I gave a slight edge to Toon for the fourth spot.

2. Center: This is the most important job still up for grabs, but it will more difficult to evaluate at this stage of the offseason. For now, second-year pro Tim Lelito should take all of the snaps with the first unit, which is huge for his growth and development as he works on his timing and play recognition, etc., with the first-string unit.

Lelito
I still expect veteran Jonathan Goodwin to be signed at some point for competition/insurance. And I’m curious to see how the Saints rotate the snaps among the backups. Undrafted rookie Matt Armstrong is the most experienced option at center. But the Saints will also want to cross-train guys fighting for the backup guard/center job like Senio Kelemete and Mike Golic Jr.

3. Punt returner: I’ll lump this in with the offense since the Saints need a playmaker to emerge here after parting ways with both Darren Sproles and Lance Moore. The leading contenders for the job are probably Cooks, running back Travaris Cadet and Morgan. I’m curious to see if any of the young newcomers get long looks here, too.

Both Cadet and Morgan have excelled as punt returners in the preseason in recent years, but neither has gotten much experience there in the regular season. Cadet is also the front-runner for the leading kickoff return job, which he has handled well in the regular season in small doses over the past two years.

4. Backup quarterback: Another one that’s both compelling and easy to monitor. Second-year pro Ryan Griffin will try to prove he’s taken enough of a Year 2 leap to supplant longtime NFL backup Luke McCown this summer. That battle won’t truly play out until the preseason games, though.

And let’s not rule out this year’s undrafted rookie Logan Kilgore, who will try to beat out Griffin for the role of future developmental prospect.

5. Backup left tackle: Frankly, I have no idea who will line up as the second-string left tackle behind Terron Armstead -- which speaks to Armstead’s impressive job security. The Saints have an experienced backup swing tackle in Bryce Harris, whom they trust. But Harris projects as more of a right tackle. The same goes for young roster hopefuls such as Marcel Jones and Tavon Rooks.

I’m less certain of how the Saints project some of the new guys they’ve signed this offseason, including guys with a bit of NFL experience (Thomas Welch, Ty Nsekhe and Manase Foketi).
New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said there was no surprise and there were no hard feelings over Jimmy Graham's decision to fight his franchise tag designation.

Graham
Loomis said he wasn't exactly sure why Graham waited so long to file the grievance, asking to be considered a wide receiver instead of a tight end. But it was a move the Saints have anticipated for a while, and he said Graham's camp let him know it was coming last week.

"It's a negotiation," Loomis said during WWL Radio's pre-draft show. "Jimmy and his camp are trying to use every tool they can to get the best deal possible. No one should have hard feelings. It's the nature of these types of things. ...

"As I've said before, we love Jimmy Graham, we love what he's done for us. We want him to be part of our team. And hopefully we'll get something resolved sooner than later."

Other highlights from WWL's annual pre-draft show, which involves interviews with much of the coaching and scouting staffs:
  • Loomis talked more about the different philosophies when it comes to trading up or down in the draft. He was asked about the theory that teams that trade down are better off because the draft is a crapshoot and they get more rolls of the dice.

    "I don't necessarily subscribe to that," Loomis said, explaining that when you're trading up, it's for a specific player that you feel strongly about.

    He said when you sit back and wait to see what comes to you, it can be even more of a crapshoot.

  • Coach Sean Payton was asked about ESPN's Chris Mortensen speculation that the Saints might be interested in drafting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from his alma mater, Eastern Illinois, in the third round. Payton shot it down, saying it's "completely false." He stressed that he likes Garoppolo as a prospect, though.

  • Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was asked about Jadeveon Clowney and cracked, "I hope he falls to us."

  • Player personnel director Ryan Pace was asked about the possibility of being surprised by how much talent remains on the board at the start of Day 3 since this is such a deep class. And he said, "For us, that was Kenny Stills last year."

  • Special teams coordinator Greg McMahon was asked if the team has candidates to replace Darren Sproles in the return game. He said he hates to use the word "replace" since Sproles is such a special player. But he stressed that the team is excited about third-year pro Travaris Cadet, who already showed himself to be an asset as a kickoff returner over his first two seasons.

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