New Orleans Saints: Will Smith

METAIRIE, La. -- Junior Galette clearly doesn't feel like any of the New Orleans Saints' defensive problems this season stem from the longtime veterans they let go this offseason.

"The guys that replaced them are better than the guys we had. It's not even close. Across the board," Galette said of departed veterans Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins (he didn't mention Jabari Greer).

The subject came up because Galette was talking about how much the Saints' upcoming opponent, the Carolina Panthers, miss receiver Steve Smith's leadership and toughness. He said it made "no sense" for Carolina to let Smith go in the offseason.

But when asked about the Saints doing the same thing with so many of their longtime leaders this offseason, Galette sang a much different tune.

"C'mon, who are you talking about?" Galette said with a laugh. "Each player that you could name, it's not even close. I'll take Kenny Vaccaro any day over any safety. And I'll take Cameron [Jordan] over any defensive end. Jairus Byrd over any safety. And [Curtis] Lofton is putting up numbers Vilma never put up. So it is what it is."

When asked to clarify whether he meant the way those players were playing at the end of their time in New Orleans or in their prime, Galette said, "Compared to any stage. I feel like, [Smith] has never been a better player than me, regardless from whatever stage he was at. Or Cam."

"I feel like we have the leaders we have here now are just better than the leaders we had in the past. You know, I've been here [since 2010]. It is what it is," Galette said. "Yeah, they won a Super Bowl. But we're young, and we'll get through it."

Some of the players Galette mentioned weighed in later on Twitter:

Galette's comments came as a surprise -- at least the passion of the comments -- especially at a time when the Saints' defense is struggling so badly. They're ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed, last in third-down percentage and last -- by a large margin -- in the defensive efficiency formula created by ESPN Stats and Information (minus-8.96 expected points added per game).

That's even worse than 2012 (minus-7.0) when the Saints set the NFL record for most yards allowed in a season.

If I'm playing amateur psychologist, I'd say Galette might be overly defensive about the criticism that the Saints' defense and Rob Ryan have received this seson, with many analysts wondering how much they miss the guys who left.

It's fair to say the Saints haven't missed those guys based on the way their careers had started to tail off over the past two years (except for Greer, who was still playing at a high level before he suffered a career-ending knee injury).

But those former veterans were better in their primes than Galette gave them credit for, especially Smith and Vilma.

Saints morning report: Dead money

February, 20, 2014
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As ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert broke down, the New Orleans Saints rank fourth in the NFL in "dead money" on their 2014 salary cap. They have $10.45 million in leftover signing-bonus charges from players no longer with the team.

That’s not surprising, considering the Saints just released three of their highest-priced veterans last week (Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer), who account for a combined $8.7 million of that total. Kicker Garrett Hartley, who was released late last season, counts for another $1 million. And former linebacker Chris Chamberlain counts for $400,000, among several other small charges.

That’s not ideal, obviously. As former NFL executive and current NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt said, “Dead money catches up to you. Because you’re not playing on a level playing field if the cap is $128 million, and you’re only playing with $115 million.”

That being said, it doesn’t mean the Saints were wrong to part ways with those veterans at this stage of their careers. They saved millions more in cap space -- and in real money -- by cutting their large salaries. And next year, that dead money will be off the books, which will give the Saints some wiggle room to sign free agents into future years.

Here’s a roundup of some of the other top Saints-related links around the web this week:
  • Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan said he wants to carry on the tradition that was started by those great defensive leaders who were released, according to Alex Restrepo of NewOrleansSaints.com.
  • The Advocate’s Ramon Antonio Vargas caught up with Smith, who said he’s not ready to call it quits yet, even though he was able to enjoy some rare family time while rehabbing from injury last year.
  • Saints punter Thomas Morstead is encouraging fans to donate blood on Friday -- inspired by his relationship with a local girl battling leukemia.
  • With the NFC South-rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers set to unveil another uniform re-design, The Times-Picayune’s Jeff Duncan wrote that he loves the way the Saints have always clung to tradition with their classic unis. But he believes an alternate black helmet could be wildly popular once a year.
  • Make sure to check out ESPN.com’s coverage of the NFL scouting combine over the next week. Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan did an excellent job of looking at some of the cornerback prospects and some of the safety prospects who might be available late in Round 1. Those just happen to be two of the Saints’ biggest needs, as well.
  • And this post by Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas on Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier also caught my eye. Shazier compared himself to Tampa star Lavonte David -- exactly the style of player I think the Saints could use in their linebacking corps.
  • Last but not least, some shameless self-promotion. With the combine kicking off, it’s a good time to go back and read a column I really enjoyed writing and researching last year -- a detailed look at how the Saints scouted first-round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro from beginning to end.

Free-agent spotlight: DE Will Smith

February, 19, 2014
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Smith
The New Orleans Saints have 13 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on March 11, plus the three players they released last week. Here’s a breakdown on defensive end Will Smith:

Position: DE
Age: 32
Height: 6-3
Weight: 282

Scouting report: Smith is on a very short list of the greatest defensive players in Saints' history -- fourth on the team’s career chart with 67.5 sacks and third with 20 forced fumbles. But the Saints decided last week to part ways with Smith after 10 years together -- in large part because he was due $11.55 million in salary and bonuses this year.

Smith is also coming off of a torn ACL that sidelined him for the entire 2013 season. But he said recently that his rehab is going well. So he should still get an opportunity to land elsewhere.

The former first-round pick out of Ohio State has always been more of a power rusher than a pure speed rusher. And his sack numbers have waned in recent years (after having a career-high 13 sacks in 2009, he hasn’t had more than 6.5 since).

But I’ve always found Smith’s skill set to be underrated -- especially in recent years -- because he makes offensive tackles work hard on every snap by using his physicality to shrink the pocket. He still racked up plenty of quarterback hits and hurries in recent years. And he is also a very good run defender.

Projection: Smith’s options may be limited since he’s 32 years old and coming off of a knee injury. But I still like his chances of hooking up with another team, even if it’s in a rotational role in base defensive packages (something like the Saints’ additions of Kenyon Coleman and Parys Haralson last year).

Smith has spent most of his career as a 4-3 end, which is where he would likely fit best for another team. His leadership will also be valued as a five-time defensive captain coming from a team with so much winning experience.
The New Orleans Saints are now an estimated $2.6 million under the salary cap, according to ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton, after the release of veteran defensive players Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer were officially processed.

It appears none of them were designated as “post-June 1” releases, which means all of their remaining signing bonus money should count against the Saints’ salary cap this year.

Smith and Greer were listed as “failed physical,” which is not surprising since both are rehabbing season-ending knee injuries they suffered last season. I’m not sure if either will require an injury settlement that could later affect the Saints’ cap number. Smith should definitely be healthy in time for offseason camps if he signs elsewhere. Greer’s recovery could last longer into the summer since his injury came in November.

Also this week, the Saints re-signed exclusive rights free agent cornerback Trevin Wade to a $570,000 contract. Wade, 24, joined the Saints late last season and appeared in four games, including the playoffs.
The New Orleans Saints' team website posted a short-but-sweet video tribute to the fantastic foursome of defensive players they let go on Wednesday: Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer. Check it out here.

Together, that group made an awful lot of plays in a combined 29 years with the team. By my count, they racked up a total of 94 sacks, 29 interceptions and 42 forced fumbles, including the playoffs.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints will be just fine. In fact, their defense is arguably in a better place now than it has ever been in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, with new young leaders emerging during an excellent 2013 season.

However, it seems impossible -- almost disrespectful, in fact -- to suggest such a thing after the Saints released four of the greatest defensive players in franchise history Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeCameron Jordan
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesThe Saints have already relied on young players like Cameron Jordan to step in to play.
The greatest chapters in Saints history couldn't be written without Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer. And to some degree, I feel like all four of them were underrated -- especially in recent years -- as supporting actors alongside New Orleans' high-powered offense.

All four of them will almost certainly wind up in the Saints Hall of Fame -- and at least some of them in the newly-formed Ring of Honor. And I could make a strong case that the Saints don't win a Super Bowl without each of them, who were in their absolute primes during that unforgettable 2009 season.

Plus, on a personal note, they've been great guys to work with. I've covered the Saints since 2005 (Smith was the only player left who outdated me). And these were all "go-to" guys in the locker room who gave honest insight into the team -- not to mention passionate rants about their alma maters (or jazz music, in Greer's case). As I'm sure everyone inside the organization would attest, the locker room will feel emptier without them inside.

So I don't want to dismiss any of these moves quickly or quietly. But I guess that's the cold, harsh reality of the NFL's short life span. The Saints now have just nine players left from that Super Bowl roster, and they may wind up parting ways with even more of them in the coming weeks.

These moves are always tough -- but they're usually the right moves. Look at the Saints' recent history. It was also tough for them to let go of former Pro Bowlers and leaders like Deuce McAllister, Jon Stinchcomb, Carl Nicks, Jermon Bushrod, Jonathan Goodwin, Scott Fujita, Tracy Porter and Darren Sharper. But few of those moves ever came back to bite them.

And that will probably be the case again this time.

All four veterans played limited roles last year (Smith missed the entire year with a knee injury, Vilma played in only one game, Greer suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, and Harper played a backup role while missing half the season with a knee injury).

Of the four, I think Greer will be the hardest to replace. He was the only one of the group that was an every-down starter last year, and he was playing very well for the first 10 weeks last season before he suffered the major knee injury. Then after he left, young backup Corey White suffered through some growing pains as his replacement.

But it's not like the Saints had much of a choice. Even if they kept Greer, his injury might have limited him into the summer and beyond.

The bright side for the Saints is that they were actually able to rebuild their defense while the old leaders were still in the building -- something that's hard for most teams to pull off.

The Saints are now led by younger versions of all these guys -- defensive end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis, safety Kenny Vaccaro and linebackers Junior Galette and Curtis Lofton.

Jordan was a Pro Bowler last year. Lewis should have been a Pro Bowler. ESPN Scouting Insider Matt Williamson recently suggested that Vaccaro could wind up being an eight- to 10-time Pro Bowler. Galette had 12 sacks. And Lofton, a captain and signal-caller, has racked up 248 tackles over the past two years.

Young linemen Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins could soon emerge as standout players, as well. And they all appear to be in great hands under the direction of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Last year, the Saints made an astounding turnaround from 32nd to fourth in the NFL in yards allowed. They were also fourth in points allowed and second in pass defense.

So while Wednesday's moves were a bit ground-shaking, they weren't earth-shattering -- at least in a pure football sense.

As for what the future holds for Smith, Vilma, Harper and Greer, it's tough to say.

I think Smith, 32, and Harper, 31, have the best chance of catching on with another team right away. Smith missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but it came in the summer, so he's had ample time to recover. And while his pass rushing production had started to dip in recent years, I always thought he was underrated as a power pass-rusher and standout run defender. I could still see him in a rotational role with a defense that could use that physical presence and veteran leadership.

Harper, too, will have to find the right fit. He's always been better as a blitzer and run defender than in deep pass coverage. But he played well in spurts when healthy last year -- especially in the season-ending playoff loss at Seattle.

Vilma and Greer will probably need to prove they can get back closer to 100 percent health for a team to bring them in. Vilma has said he still wants to play, but he's been battling a nagging knee injury for the last three years now.

All of them could bring that combination of championship experience and veteran leadership that many young locker rooms crave, however -- a combination that will be missed in New Orleans.
METAIRIE, La. -- In one sense, the New Orleans Saints have been through this already in recent years -- needing to trim more than $20 million from their salary cap by the start of the league year March 11. However, this next month will likely be the most emotionally challenging yet in the era of general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton.

It’s entirely possible the Saints could part ways with up to nine of the 13 players remaining from their Super Bowl roster.

Four are unrestricted free agents (safety Malcolm Jenkins, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, offensive tackle Zach Strief and receiver Robert Meachem). Five others could become salary-cap casualties (defensive end Will Smith, cornerback Jabari Greer, safety Roman Harper, receiver Lance Moore and running back Pierre Thomas).

[+] EnlargeWill Smith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWill Smith has been a Saint for 10 years. An 11th season in New Orleans will be possible only if he takes a pay cut.
The four Super Bowl vets who are most likely to stay on the roster are quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans, receiver Marques Colston and punter Thomas Morstead.

It’s not exactly the end of an era. The Saints are still bona fide Super Bowl contenders, led by Payton and Brees, and have done a great job of continually reshaping a talented roster. But it’s awfully close.

Payton made a point to emphasize some of the tough decisions that are looming when he was asked about the pending contract negotiations with free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham on Fox Sports 1 last week.

"The most challenging part of your job as a coach, and I share that with Mickey or anyone that has been with an organization as long as we have been, going on Year 9, is some of the tough decisions that have to be made with regards to your cap with the ability that you possibly can sign Jimmy Graham," Payton said. "It's very easy to say, 'You are certainly going to get this done.' But you have to understand there is a budget here. That's the challenging part.

"You are going to read these names that have already come across the ticker from Atlanta last week [the release of cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas], and we will be no different."

The Saints are currently projected to be around $13 million to $15 million over the salary cap. If they use the franchise tag on Graham, as expected, they’ll need to carve out about $6.5 million more (a figure that will vault closer to $11 million if Graham is later deemed to be a receiver instead of a tight end). Plus, the Saints will want to clear even more space off the books to sign other free agents and send out restricted-free-agent tenders.

Loomis and the Saints’ front office have proved capable of handling similar circumstances in recent years while remaining fairly aggressive in adding free agents from other teams.

In the process, the Saints have had to let some core players go, such as guard Carl Nicks and offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod. They’ve also restructured several contracts and agreed to pay cuts with some longtime veterans. We’ll certainly see a combination of all three again this offseason.

Smith and Harper are the most obvious cap-casualty candidates. Smith, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is due to receive $11.55 million in salary and bonuses, and Harper is due $3.15 million. Both players could conceivably come back -- but only if they agree to drastic pay cuts, probably closer to $1 million.

I hate to add Greer’s name to that list, since I think he’s been possibly the Saints’ most underrated core player since 2009. But Greer is due $4.5 million and is rehabbing from a major knee injury suffered in November. So chances are he’ll have to agree to a pay cut to stay in New Orleans.

The next wave of possibilities includes Moore ($3.8 million), Thomas ($2.9 million) and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley ($4.5 million). Moore and Thomas have been in that same category with Greer over the years -- underrated core players and fan favorites. Thomas, in particular, may have just had his best season to date in 2013. However, all three veterans in this group play part-time roles now, which doesn’t match their lofty salaries.

Then there are the free agents. Again, it’s possible the Saints could bring back longtime starters like Strief and Jenkins -- but only if the price tag is extremely palatable. If any other team wants to outbid the Saints for their services, they probably will let them go. Strief, in particular, could be in high demand elsewhere after one of his strongest seasons. Meachem and Vilma could be back at veteran minimum salaries, but the Saints need to add youth at both positions.

Here’s the full list of Saints scheduled to become free agents next month:

Unrestricted free agent starters: TE Jimmy Graham, RT Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente, S Malcolm Jenkins, OLB Parys Haralson, K Shayne Graham

Unrestricted free-agent reserves: WR Robert Meachem, OT Charles Brown, QB Luke McCown, LB Jonathan Vilma, LB Will Herring, LB Ramon Humber, LB Keyunta Dawson, DE Kenyon Coleman, S Jordan Pugh

Restricted free agents: FB Jed Collins, WR Joe Morgan, S Rafael Bush, DL Tom Johnson
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.

Saints mailbag: Is Graham worth it?

January, 18, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. -- Thanks for all of your New Orleans Saints questions on Twitter this week. Send 'em my way anytime to @MikeTriplett, and I'll try to put a mailbag together each weekend:
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Saints mailbag: Cap casualties?

December, 28, 2013
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Thanks for submitting your questions to me on Twitter this week. I’ll put together a New Orleans Saints mailbag every weekend and occasionally sprinkle some questions into my morning report. So send ‘em my way anytime @MikeTriplett.

 

Saints mailbag: Better without vets?

September, 29, 2013
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Thanks for submitting your questions to me on Twitter this week. I’ll put together a New Orleans Saints mailbag every weekend, and occasionally I’ll sprinkle some questions into my morning report. So send ‘em my way anytime @MikeTriplett.

@Sarcasm_FTW: Do you think the d would be this effective w Vilma, Smith, etc?

@TattooedSaint1: Is it safe to say that the better the defense plays without Vilma and W. Smith, the more expendable they are?

@MikeTriplett: First of all, I do think the Saints defense would be effective with Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma in the lineup. I think both guys might have evolved into more complementary players, but both still have enough talent when healthy to be assets in the same mold as their replacements Parys Haralson and David Hawthorne.

Although I wrote this week about how new young leaders have emerged in the wake of so many veteran injuries, I think that could have happened either way. And I think the main keys to the Saints’ success (Rob Ryan’s approach, the breakout play of guys like Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, the improved play of the secondary) would have been the same either way.

I don’t think Smith would have taken many snaps away from Galette, especially since the Saints have spent 75 percent of the time in nickel and dime defenses. If anything, Smith would have become a hybrid linebacker/lineman, replacing Haralson in base and moving inside in some of those nickel and dime packages. … Perhaps you could argue that Hawthorne is playing better than Vilma would have played, but we don’t know that for sure.

As to whether or not Smith and Vilma will be more expendable in the future, there’s probably some truth to that. But I think either guy could be back next year in part-time roles as long as they’re willing to play for very minimal salaries. (For example, Smith could sign the type of deal that veteran end Kenyon Coleman signed this past offseason). Of course, their health will play a big part in those decisions. Vilma will have a chance to prove his worth when he comes back off the injured-reserve list around midseason.

@JBenton: Given injuries & personnel, do you think the defense will be primarily in a 4-3 the rest of the year, or will the 3-4 return?

@MikeTriplett: I addressed this topic in my Sunday morning breakdown of the fronts and alignments the Saints have used so far this season (they haven’t exactly been in a “4-3” this season, but they’ve played a ton of nickel and dime defense with four-man fronts). And, yes, I do think we’ll continue to see more of the same for the rest of the season. … Maybe things would have been a little different if outside linebacker Victor Butler would have stayed healthy, since the Saints would have wanted him and Galette both on the field a lot as pass-rushers. But I think they were going to use a lot of nickel and dime packages regardless.

@chefcdb: the Dolphins have been both efficient & explosive in RedZone. How do Saints make them kick FG, and is Hartline our #1 worry?

@MikeTriplett: The Dolphins have been outstanding in the red zone so far this year (seven touchdowns in eight trips inside the 20 -- best in the NFL). But those stats have a way of balancing out over time. I don’t think they’re especially dangerous in that area for any particular reason. They’ve just been an efficient passing offense, in general. I think the Saints’ biggest worry against Miami will be making sure they don’t give up any big plays in the passing game against receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline (something the Saints have been great at all season). The Saints always want to make their opponents work for touchdowns. They’ll live with long TD drives like the 11-play drive they gave up last week against the Arizona Cardinals.

@PatrickORly: The defense has been performing well so far, but what weakness do you still see?

@MikeTriplett: I wouldn’t say I’ve seen “weaknesses.” But I would definitely expect some regression and some highs and lows still to come. It would be hard for any defense to keep up this level of play all year long. They’ll have some days where they give up some big rushing yards (especially when they start facing some mobile quarterbacks). They’ll eventually start giving up some big plays in the passing game, here and there. And they’ll have some games where the four-man rush simply isn’t getting to the quarterback. But I like them to be a solid unit all year long that’s capable of coming up big in some big moments.

I think the most legitimate area of improvement is in the secondary, where Rob Ryan’s scheme is much more suited to the players’ strengths. I would especially trust veteran corners Keenan Lewis and Jabari Greer to remain solid. … I also think the pass rush we’ve seen from young risers like Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks is pretty bona fide. That’s by far the biggest difference from years past.

@rrhodeswriter: Will Nick Toon's picture come off of milk cartons this week?

@MikeTriplett: This was a popular question this week. But I wouldn’t expect too much from second-year receiver Nick Toon even if Lance Moore is inactive Monday night. As much as I like Toon’s potential as a big, physical receiver with great hands and deceptive speed, he’s just stuck far down in the pecking order in a deep Saints’ passing attack. (Remember, Toon was active in Week 1 while Robert Meachem was still inactive, and he didn’t have any catches). ... It is possible that Toon will get a couple balls thrown his way Monday -- and you never know when the Saints will sneak in a TD pass to any player on the field. But I’d expect more targets for Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, Meachem, Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson and Darren Sproles.

@BrannonBourque: What other recent NFL defensive rookie has played every snap and 5 different defensive positions like Vacarro has?

@MikeTriplett: Apparently it’s not very common. A few analysts have compared the way the Saints are using safety Kenny Vaccaro to the way the Pittsburgh Steelers use Troy Polamalu. But longtime NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell just pointed out this week that Polamalu had trouble getting on the field as a rookie and that the Vaccaro’s volume of assignments has been rare.
METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints didn't plan to start a youth movement or some kind of extreme roster makeover on their defense this season. In fact, they worked hard to restructure the contracts of core veterans such as Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Roman Harper because they wanted them to be part of their revitalized defense.

But the Saints and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have been forced to continually adapt as six projected starters have gone down with injuries.

[+] EnlargeJunior Galette and Cameron Jordan
AP Photo/Bill FeigYoung players such as Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan, with five sacks between them, have emerged to help turn around the Saints defense.
The result? The Saints are 3-0, and a defense that last season set the NFL record for most yards allowed now ranks as the fourth-toughest in the league (295.7 yards allowed per game).

Although no one around Saints camp is claiming they’re better off without those missing veterans, there is obviously some sort of mojo that has developed while dynamic young playmakers such as linemen Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette and safety Kenny Vaccaro have started to emerge.

“I gotta start by saying it’s very unfortunate that we had so many pivotal parts of our defense go down. One guy that sits right next to me in this locker is Will Smith, and that’s something that can’t be replaced,” Hicks said. “But there’s definitely an energy, and we can use that. So it’s been working out.”

The Saints lost three projected starters to season-ending injuries this summer – outside linebackers Smith and Victor Butler and end Kenyon Coleman. Then inside linebacker Vilma was placed on short-term injured reserve after he had minor knee surgery in training camp (he could return at midseason). And in recent weeks, safety Harper and tackle Brodrick Bunkley have been sidelined by injuries, and nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2.

Yet none of those injuries has seemed to faze the Saints. If anything, the circumstances have empowered some of the young players who are stepping into more prominent roles.

Coach Sean Payton said that kind of injection of youth and energy can benefit a team – but only if the players “earned those positions.”

“In other words, I don’t think by design you go out and say, ‘We’re going to keep all these young players and cut the veterans,’” Payton said. “One thing that we try to do is just keep the best players. And the young players that earned spots we felt like were players that earned spots. And the veteran players that made the roster we felt like earned those spots. So, like you said [when the question was posed], it wasn’t by design.”

It hasn't just been young players stepping up to fill the void. Veteran linebacker David Hawthorne has played well as a replacement for Vilma. And the Saints traded for veteran linebacker Parys Haralson to help replace Smith.

And the most important change the Saints made to their defense this offseason came on the coaching staff -- which was by design. Payton fired former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo after just one year on the job and replaced him with Ryan -- whose versatile schemes and energetic personality clearly have resonated much better with Saints players.

“Anything but the old defense, I would have got excited regardless,” said Galette, who has never been shy about voicing his displeasure with Spagnuolo’s system, which he felt was too rigid and reactive rather than unpredictable and aggressive. “But Rob, just meeting him as a person off the field, his character and his personality just kind of sinks in with everybody else, and he still feels like he’s young and he brings a lot of energy himself.

“Anything but Spags would’ve been great. But Rob is just a plus.”

The players have been feeding off of each other as well. As veteran inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said, that amped-up energy level is especially noticeable along the defensive front, where young guys such as Jordan, Galette, Hicks, Martez Wilson, Tyrunn Walker, John Jenkins and Glenn Foster have taken turns rising to the challenge – and cranking up friendly rivalries among themselves.

For instance, when Galette (two sacks) was asked who’s having the better season so far between him and Jordan (three sacks), he said, “C’mon, are you serious right now? That’s not a serious question. Who do you think?”

“There’s no days off. We get to the film room, and it’s like, 'OK, I got off the ball faster than you.' You’re competing. And that’s that competitive nature that I feel like we lacked in past years,” Galette said – though he was quick to point out that he doesn't think the Saints are better off without their injured veterans.

“Obviously it would help if Will and Victor were here. But we can’t worry about that right now,” Galette said. “This is who we have right now, and this is what we’re gonna keep rolling with.”

It may not be how the Saints drew it up in the playbook, but sometimes the best thing a team can do is call an audible.

Saints' surging defense is the truth

September, 22, 2013
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Cameron JordanStacy Revere/Getty ImagesCameron Jordan notched two of the Saints' four sacks Sunday versus Arizona.
NEW ORLEANS -- At some point, we've got to stop asking whether or not what we're seeing from the New Orleans Saints' defense is for real.

The defense has been the driving force behind all three victories by the unbeaten Saints, including a dominant 31-7 win against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. New Orleans has already blown open a two-game lead in the NFC South.

How much more real does it have to get?

"It's nothing to get super excited about, other than the fact that we show a lot of promise, and that's what we've got to keep doing," cautioned defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has been the breakout individual player of the bunch with a team-high three sacks so far, including two on Sunday.

"You always want to have that hungry attitude of just straight grinding and building on each game," Jordan added. "I don't ever want to be like, 'This is the defense that we are.' I just want to keep going and keep getting better."

After a disastrous defensive performance last season, in which they set the NFL record for yards allowed in a season (7,042), the idea was that the Saints could get back to being playoff contenders if they could just find some way to get their defense back to being a "middle-of-the-pack" unit.

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer and Junior Galette
AP Photo/Bill FeigJunior Galette and the Saints kept pressure on Carson Palmer all game long.
Consider that goal already surpassed.

Of course, the Saints' defense is still a work in progress after making drastic changes this offseason -- both intended (hiring coordinator Rob Ryan, signing free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafting safety Kenny Vaccaro) and unintended (losing veterans Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Victor Butler and Kenyon Coleman to summer injuries).

But they've been thriving behind a youth movement, especially on the defensive front. Jordan, 24, and pass-rush specialist Junior Galette, 25, have been terrific on the edges, while Akiem Hicks, Tyrunn Walker, Glenn Foster and John Jenkins -- all first- or second-year pros -- have taken turns doing damage up the middle.

Their performance up front has gone hand in hand with improved play on the back end, where veteran cornerbacks Lewis and Jabari Greer have done an outstanding job against top receivers like Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, Atlanta's Julio Jones and Roddy White and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.

"I think that's the bright side of our defense is that we really don't have any stars, if you talk about big-name guys. We've just got a lot of young guys with talent who are building confidence not only in themselves, but in each other," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "So we really don't know how good we are or how good we can be. It's just all about going to work every day and getting better.

"Obviously, with each win and each performance, we gain more confidence. But we really don't know where the ceiling is for this defense, so we go to work every week and treat every week like it was Week 1 versus Atlanta."

The Saints had a total of four sacks Sunday (two by Jordan and one each by Galette and Foster). Everyone on the Saints' defensive front took turns abusing a suspect offensive line to hit and hurry Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer throughout the afternoon. They eventually forced interceptions by Vaccaro and Lewis in the fourth quarter.

After the Cardinals opened the game with an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, they punted on their next eight possessions and threw interceptions on the final two.

"They can rush the passer," Palmer said. "There's two very good pass-rushers that people don't know a whole lot about. You hear a lot [about] Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, but Cameron Jordan is really good. He showed that today. Junior Galette is really good. They're physical guys. They stop the run, and they rush the passer. A really good combination of strength and speed."

Jordan is starting to get that respect around the country. Pro Football Focus highlighted him this past week, pointing out that his 12 quarterback disruptions led all 3-4 ends through two weeks (though, to be fair, the versatile Jordan is lining up as a traditional 4-3 end in many pass-rushing situations).

More importantly, Jordan is making his mom proud. He said she gave him grief after he went sackless in Week 1.

She wasn't the only one, though. The Saints' defensive line is clearly a competitive group.

While Jordan was talking to a group of reporters Sunday, Walker yelled over that he stole one of his sacks. After Week 1, Jordan was beside himself that he didn't have any sacks against the Falcons while Hicks already had one.

And while crediting Galette for having tremendous speed on Sunday, Jordan admitted that he is more of a "power" guy. But he said that makes for an interesting race between the two to get to the quarterback.

"I've been claiming the strength of our D-line is just how much youth and talent is on the D-line. It definitely showed today," Jordan said Sunday. "From the outside to the interior, I was highly pleased. Whether it be Tyrunn Walker or big Akiem or Glenn Foster, it was all just pressure everywhere. You couldn't really locate just one spot where we were getting pressure.

"And when you're part of a D-line like that, it's a party."

Report: Jonathan Vilma to miss opener

September, 3, 2013
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The injury news at linebacker continues to get worse for the New Orleans Saints.

FOX Sports’ Mike Garafolo reports that Jonathan Vilma is likely to miss at least a few games as he continues to recover from knee surgery. Vilma’s age and injury history makes you wonder if he’ll ever be the same player he was when he was the unquestioned leader of the New Orleans defense.

The Saints can get by at inside linebacker because they have Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne. But the team is dangerously thin at outside linebacker, where Victor Butler and Will Smith are out with injuries.

Martez Wilson and Junior Galette are expected to be the starters at outside linebacker.

Observation deck: Saints-Dolphins

August, 29, 2013
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Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints24-21 loss to Miami on Thursday night:

What it means: The Saints came up a little short of a perfect preseason, finishing 3-1. But they are far from a perfect team. They head into the regular season needing to replace three guys (defensive end Kenyon Coleman and linebackers Victor Butler and Will Smith) who were expected to be starters but have been lost to injuries.

Ingram’s role? Running back Mark Ingram had a nice 8-yard touchdown run. But the mere fact Ingram was getting nine carries in the final preseason game makes me wonder if he’s bound to spend another year buried on the depth chart behind Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. Rookie running back Khiry Robinson got mop-up duty, but finished with 165 yards of total offense. Robinson isn’t a lock to make the roster, though, because he fumbled twice.

What’s next: The Saints open the regular season against Atlanta on Sept. 8 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

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