NFC South: New Orleans Saints

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees looks around the field and the locker room this summer and recognizes more new faces around him than ever before.

But Brees said as much as he misses longtime teammates like Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, he also feels rejuvenated by developing that “same trust and ESP” with new, young teammates.

Brees is certainly excited by his newest toy, rookie receiver Brandin Cooks, whom Brees has been connecting with for some big plays on almost a daily basis. But he also mentioned young receivers like Nick Toon and Kenny Stills the other day when he was asked what keeps training camp feeling fresh for him year after year.

“When you look at my eight years in New Orleans, so many of those years with our skill-position guys were Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem, right?” Brees said. “Those were the kind of big four for seven years. And now, obviously, two of those four are gone and now you have these young guys that are here to take their place. There is that period of time where they rejuvenate me, they get me excited to come to work every day. To work with these guys, to try to build that same trust and ESP as we think about this system and where we are trying to take this offense. That is the fun part for me.”

Brees said he’s especially noticed that transition this year across the field, where he was used to seeing guys like Will Smith, Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, Jonathan Vilma and Malcolm Jenkins for years.

“[They] were huge parts of this team for a really long time, certainly big influences in the locker room and that kind of thing. But that just opens up opportunities for other guys,” Brees said. “I think the thing that’s been most exciting for me is watching these young receivers develop and knowing that you’re going to get more opportunities, you’re going to get more time. They’re not just sitting back watching, they’re going with the second unit. They’re getting thrust into the action here. I’m getting a lot of time with them during practice, after practice. You can see the development and that gets you excited.”
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan already proved how much he loves to feature safeties in his versatile defense last year. The Saints spent about 75 percent of their snaps in nickel defense -- almost always using three safeties on the field at once.

Now Ryan has even more ammo to work with after the Saints added three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency to pair with returning young players Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush.

When asked how much input he had in the Saints signing Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract, Ryan said, “Uh, that is absolutely zero. But I was happy. That one came from much higher up than me, but I was ecstatic when I heard the news.”

The Saints were most attracted by Byrd’s ball skills and his ability to force turnovers. His 22 interceptions rank second in the NFL over the past five seasons.

“I think he’s got unique ball skills. If that ball hits his hands, he is going to catch it,” Ryan said. “But also with that, he is very smart. He can put himself into plays.”

I asked Ryan if Byrd “freelances” from time to time to wind up with so many picks.

“I think that one thing with turnovers in the National Football League, these are the best quarterbacks in the world. You have to play your technique. You have to be disciplined,” Ryan said. “But there comes a time and point where every turnover is made where a guy has to just go make it. And he’s been great all through his career. He’s played corner in college. I mean, he just has unique ball skills. And so did his father (longtime former NFL standout Gill Byrd).”

Ryan has always gushed with praise for second-year Saints safety Vaccaro as well. Last season, Ryan said he believed the Seattle Seahawks' Earl Thomas was the best free safety in the NFL, but Vaccaro was the best "overall safety” because of his versatility.

And Ryan also raved Tuesday about the hard-hitting Bush, who has played a big role both on defense and special-teams coverage for the past two seasons.

“Oh, he’s very important. He’s an excellent football player,” Ryan said of Bush, who was re-signed by the Saints as a restricted free agent after they matched a two-year, $4.5 million contract Bush signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

“The Falcons did us a favor by giving him such a low offer,” Ryan said. “That’s great. We got him for two years. Thanks.”
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- It’s still too early in New Orleans Saints training camp to judge exactly how they plan to split the workload among their deep running back corps.

Thomas
My best guess is that Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson will split carries pretty evenly in base packages and early downs, while Pierre Thomas lines up more with the nickel offenses (sort of the old Darren Sproles role). That would make sense, since Thomas is both the best pass-catcher and the best pass-protector of all the Saints’ running backs.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees offered some lofty praise of Thomas’ versatility Tuesday when asked if throwing the screen pass to Thomas is one of his favorite plays.

“Yes. He’s one of the best screen runners there is, ever,” Brees said. “He does such a great job of timing, setting up his blocks, just hitting those seams and hitting the sidewalk. He does a phenomenal job at it.

“You see these young guys (Ingram, Robinson and Travaris Cadet) starting to pick up on a little bit of those traits, too. Sproles was great at it. But Pierre can do everything. He’s the best all-purpose back in the league in my opinion. Run, pass, screen game, pass protection ... you name it, he can do it.”

Saints Camp Report: Day 5

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
7:00
PM ET
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • Another day, another "wow" moment for rookie Saints receiver Brandin Cooks. At some point, I'm going to have to borrow a Sean Payton term and start "de-recruiting" Cooks instead of continuing to pump him up. But that's hard to do when he keeps making eye-popping plays. This time Cooks took a screen pass from Drew Brees and shot past a couple hapless defenders for a touchdown. Cooks also showed off some receiving skills on a nifty back-shoulder catch from Brees, among other highlights. "That was awesome. ... I think that just gives you a taste of what we have in him," Brees said of the screen play. "(Some people) are straight-line fast but not real quick or they have long strides or short-area quickness but not long speed. This guy has it all. He's got short-area quickness, great transition ability and phenomenal straight-line speed."
  • Fellow receiver Nick Toon has also continued to impress throughout training camp. The third-year pro sprung free for one deep ball and went up high to pluck another pass out of the air. It was just another typical practice for Toon this summer as he has probably racked up more catches in team drills than any receiver in camp. ... Of course Toon has looked good in training camps past, and his job this year will be to prove that it can translate onto the field. But Brees, for one, sees Toon playing more "natural" with more "confidence."
  • I've said over the past couple days that 1-on-1 pass-rush drills are my favorite individual segment in camp. But I specifically like watching the daily battles between guard Jahri Evans and defensive end Akiem Hicks. They're both so strong, it's like the irresistible force vs. the immovable object. Credit Evans for holding his own so far in a drill that's designed to favor the defense, but they both look good.
  • Safety Jairus Byrd wasn't the only one back from injury Tuesday. Receiver Robert Meachem (back) and offensive tackle Tavon Rooks (back) also returned from injuries. … Among other highlights from Wednesday's session: an interception by cornerback Terrence Frederick on an overthrown deep ball by Luke McCown; a huge run block by right tackle Thomas Welch that upended safety Vinnie Sunseri; and a great pass break-up deep down the field by Corey White against QB Ryan Griffin at the end of practice.
  • No practice Wednesday. Players will have their first off-day of camp after five straight days of practice. They'll be back on the field Thursday morning.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Drew Brees said he was joking when he tweeted about how suspicious it was that he was “randomly” drug tested by the NFL twice after claiming he wants to play until he’s 45 years old.
But when it comes to those comments themselves about wanting playing for another 10 years, Brees said he was dead serious.

“I’m not delusional. I know that that’s something that would be extremely difficult to do,” Brees said. “I know it’s one year at a time and it’s, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ You have to come out each and every year, prove it, be consistent and all of those things.

“But why not push the envelope a little bit. Crazier things have happened.”

I followed up with Brees on the subject Tuesday because I suspected that he was indeed serious when he threw that lofty goal out there. And not only did he insist he was serious, but he offered a lot of insight into what makes him tick.

“Not many have done that,” Brees said. “George Blanda, he was plenty past 45. I’ve played with a couple of kickers, [John] Carney, John Kasay, of course Morten Anderson played past 45. Vinnie Testaverde was 44. It can be done. A lot of things would have to fall into place.

“I think throughout your career you hit certain milestones. I came in this league as a second-round pick to the San Diego Chargers. They signed Doug Flutie in free agency so I knew I was coming into a backup position for Doug Flutie. At that point your goal becomes, ‘You know what, I just want to become a starter in this league and earn a starting role.’ So then the minute you kind of get that, then, ‘OK, what’s the next step? I want to be a really good player. I want to be a Pro Bowl player in this league.’ Then you accomplish that, now, ‘It’s my fourth year, I think I can make it to double digits. I can play 10 years in this league.’ Then you hit that, then you are like, ‘OK, I want to play until I’m 35.’ Now I’m 35, so what’s the next thing? That is where my head is at. …

“It’s certainly not going to be easy, but I try to play this game like I am a kid and have fun like I did when I was playing it, tossing the ball down the street with my brother, buddies from school or whatever. I still have that playful mentality when it comes to it, so you enjoy coming to work every day. This is a serious business. They don’t keep you around if you aren’t playing well. You still have to play at a high level. You have to find a way to take care of your body and make good decisions in regards to that. I believe I can do that.”

So can Brees really do it? I’m not going to rule it out.

For one thing, Brees has shown no real signs of slowing down. Yes, he had some uncharacteristic struggles on the road last season, but he was as dominant as ever inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And his final numbers in almost every major passing category ranked among the three best in his tenure with the New Orleans Saints (5,162 yards, 39 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 68.6 completion percentage and 104.7 passer rating).

For another things, Brees’ game doesn’t rely on superior arm strength or athleticism as much as it does his mental game, his instincts, his quick decision-making and his accuracy.

But more than anything else, Brees is one of the most driven, determined competitors the league has ever seen. And he said the other day that he’s motivated by trying to accomplish things that have never been done before or that people consider impossible. So if nothing else, Brees may just stubbornly will himself to keep thriving for another decade.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- Safety Jairus Byrd made his practice debut with the New Orleans Saints on Tuesday after his summer was wiped out by back surgery.

Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills, was a marquee free-agent signing for the Saints this offseason. But he decided to have surgery in May to alleviate a nagging disc issue.

All along, the Saints insisted he would return for training camp and in plenty of time for the regular season.

Veteran receiver Robert Meachem (back) and rookie offensive tackle Tavon Rooks (back) also returned to practice Tuesday. Stay tuned for more details and comments following practice this afternoon.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief made a bold proclamation Monday, saying, "I think we can be as good as a running team as we have ever been."

And running back Pierre Thomas talked in a similar excited fashion about the run game the other day, saying among other things that, "We are putting in more time on the running game than I have ever seen before."

It would be natural to hear comments like that and be a little skeptical. The Saints seem to talk every summer about putting more emphasis on the run game -- but then the results have been decidedly hit and miss each season.

However, I've begun to sense one big difference while hearing folks talk about the run game this summer: Confidence.

[+] EnlargeKhiry Robinson
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints found their running groove late in the 2013 season and during their playoff win at Philadelphia.
Both Strief and coach Sean Payton sounded Monday like they were very encouraged and energized by the success the Saints started to have in the run game late last season -- especially in their playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

And they seem to genuinely expect that progress to continue in the second year under offensive line coach Bret Ingalls, who introduced more of a zone-running scheme last year.

"I think that Pierre is right," Strief said after the Saints' run blocking was particularly impressive during Monday's practice session. "I think that last year there was kind of a renewed focus, and yet there was a big change that happened last year. I think going into this year there is a lot more understanding, a much better consistent understanding from linemen, tight ends, backs, on what exactly we are doing.

"There's that same emphasis that we had last year. (But) there's a little bit of success early, and I think there is a lot more confidence in it right now. And I think guys are really excited in that part of the practice."

Payton, meanwhile, has consistently talked about how he wants to do a better job of "controlling" the final four minutes of close games -- whether that's running the ball or stopping the run. The Saints struggled at times in both areas last year before improving late in the season.

When asked if the Saints need to counteract the dominant teams in the NFC like Seattle and San Francisco, Payton said, "Well, we think we're one of those teams."

"We played that way in our first playoff game against Philadelphia and really approached the second playoff game (at Seattle) much the same way," Payton said. "Now, do we want to improve in that area? Yes. But we feel like that's going to be important for us, and we feel like we're one of those teams."

The Saints certainly have the talent to do it. They have a deep running back corps led by Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson (who continued to impress in Monday's practice). And they have proven veteran blockers like Strief, Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and tight end Benjamin Watson, among others.

The Saints also have shown an ability to run the ball efficiently in the past, especially in their two most prolific offensive seasons of 2009 and 2011 (when they twice had the No. 6-ranked rushing attack in the NFL).

And that's the blueprint here. Nobody is talking about the Saints changing their offensive identity.

They're talking about being more efficient when they run -- and being able to consistently make teams pay for trying to sit back in coverage like Philadelphia or New England did last year.

The Saints would have no problem with a repeat of 2011, when they threw for more than 5,300 yards and still ran for more than 2,100.

"We have one of the best quarterbacks (Drew Brees) in the history of the NFL, and we are going to throw the football," Strief said. "But when we get a chance to run it, I know we want five (yards) a carry. I know that we want to be efficient. And if you look back at the years that we have been successful, I think that is really where the importance is. ...

"I don't think that we need to be the 49ers where we are running the ball 50 times a game, because I think that we have different pieces in place to be effective in the passing game. But I think the mindset of this camp is that we have to be a lot more efficient than we have been. I think we are off to a good start with it."

Saints Camp Report: Day 4

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
6:30
PM ET
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:


  • Cornerback Keenan Lewis created his own no-fly zone during one set of team drills Monday, rejecting passes intended for Marques Colston, Andy Tanner and Joe Morgan (the last two on back-to-back plays). As I've written many times, Lewis should have been a Pro Bowler last year and was as important as anyone to the Saints’ defensive revival. So far, he looks primed for a repeat. … Overall, it was a good day for the secondary, with Pierre Warren diving for an interception and Kenny Vaccaro and Patrick Robinson also providing highlights.
  • The offensive highlight was a long run by tailback Khiry Robinson that included a sweet cutback – a play that coach Sean Payton later singled out. But just as impressive for Robinson was a terrific blitz pickup when he had to absorb a big impact from Vaccaro. Robinson said that’s one element of his game he’s really trying to improve in his second NFL season, which he called “night and day” compared to his rookie year out of West Texas A&M. … Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said as Robinson continues to add knowledge and confidence to his impressive ability, “You are kind of unleashing a lot of potential there.”
  • It was another physical practice in full pads Monday. The offensive line definitely got the better of the defense in early 9-on-7 run drills, though Strief admitted they’re at an advantage when the defense doesn’t have any safeties to help fill gaps. “There is good competition there. I tried to give (defensive end Akiem) Hicks a high-five after the period, and he told me no. There is definitely competitiveness, and that is part of training camp.” … Strief had another strong performance in one-on-one pass-rush drills. Others who stood out in that drill included center Jonathan Goodwin, defensive end Glenn Foster and outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson.
  • The Saints turned up the volume on Monday’s practice, blasting some music through the stretching period and a few drills – something they started doing before the playoffs last year when they mixed up the daily routine (along with the new Gatorade flavors and sweatsuits). It wasn’t just for entertainment purposes. Payton said it also helps players learn to focus through the noise.
  • Guard Ben Grubbs (undisclosed injury) and receiver Robert Meachem (back) remained sidelined Monday. Payton said both should be back within a day or so but declined to offer any specifics on the injuries. Safety Jairus Byrd, defensive tackle John Jenkins, receiver Kenny Stills and offensive tackle Tavon Rooks also remained sidelined.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Undrafted rookie safety Pierre Warren continued to “flash” on the New Orleans Saints' practice field Monday morning -- this time diving to intercept a pass that was dropped by receiver Brandon Coleman in full-team drills.

Earlier in camp, Warren also forced and recovered a fumble against running back Derrick Strozier. The former Jacksonville State standout has also made a handful of nice pass break-ups over the past few days.

And the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder clearly showed coaches something they liked long before this week -- because he spent all of organized team activities and minicamp working with the second-string defense (taking advantage of starter Jairus Byrd's injury absence).

Obviously it’s way too early to grant Warren a spot on the 53-man roster based on a handful of highlights. He’s probably had his share of low moments, too, that aren’t always visible to the naked eye. (For instance, Warren was involved in a secondary breakdown Sunday that left a receiver wide open, but it was unclear who missed the assignment).

But the Saints do have a history of giving opportunities to undrafted rookies who shine in training camp. And it certainly won’t hurt Warren to keep showing up on the practice field like he has so far.

Warren, who turned pro after his junior year, led the Gamecocks last season with five interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and finished second on the team with 76 tackles.

So far he has been working alongside fifth-round draft pick Vinnie Sunseri with the second string, ahead of Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball and fellow undrafted rookie Ty Zimmerman.

Coach Sean Payton said he took note of Warren’s nice play Monday. However, Payton quickly stressed that for all of those roster hopefuls, it is what they do on special teams this summer that will likely make the biggest impact.

“I just finished talking about this with the whole team: when you’re looking at the safety position, linebacker, tight end ... all of these players that are trying to make an impression are having a chance to do that now,” Payton said. “Certainly they’re going to have to do that when we start the preseason games. Every year there are going to be two guys that make it because of the kicking game. Either they cover kicks, they block a kick, they’re smart and know where to be. He’s a player that would fall into that category.

“He has good ball skills and it appears to be good reactions and someone who’s beginning to pick up what we’re doing. We just keep giving him reps, giving all these guys work. He’s one of those players, though, where the kicking game is going to be important.”

At least one young player has certainly received Payton’s message loud and clear.

As I was walking away from Payton at the podium, I came across fifth-round draft pick Ronald Powell in mid-sentence in a separate interview, and he was saying:

“... a lot of things I don’t know. But one thing I do know is that special teams is very important.”
Examining the New Orleans Saints' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)
As I said during my first roster projection, it’s not easy to cut veteran Luke McCown, who has been a great fit in the Saints locker room. And it's still a neck-and-neck battle for the backup job so far. But McCown will have to clearly outshine Griffin in the preseason, since Griffin is younger, has more long-term potential and would allow the Saints the luxury of only keeping two quarterbacks.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

No changes here. It's gonna be very difficult for undrafted rookies Timothy Flanders and Derrick Strozier to crack the roster since the Saints are so deep. I'll never say never, though, when it comes to the Saints and undrafted rookie running backs. ... Backup fullback Austin Johnson is also a dark horse possibility.

RECEIVERS (6)

I still think it will be tough for all six of these guys to make the roster since the Saints typically keep only four receivers active on game days. But they have all shown enough in the past to earn the benefit of doubt for now. Morgan has been competing as a punt and kickoff returner (along with fellow receivers Cooks, Andy Tanner and Charles Hawkins). That's another possible path to the roster. ... Undrafted rookie Brandon Coleman is a possibility to crack the roster in a "redshirt" capacity. He's off to a nice start in camp after struggling in organized team activities and minicamp.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

I was very tempted to add undrafted rookie Nic Jacobs to my latest 53-man roster projection since I think the Saints could have room for a fourth tight end (they've kept four often in the past). And Jacobs has turned my head by showing some athleticism to go with his massive 6-5, 269-pound frame. But I haven't seen or heard enough yet to know how the coaches feel about him -- or if he's ahead of fellow undrafted rookie Je'Ron Hamm at this point.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

Rooks, a sixth-round draft pick, hasn't practiced yet because of a minor back issue. Obviously he'll have to get back on the field soon to keep from getting passed over. But his potential gives him the edge over several other candidates for those last one or two backup jobs for now. I'll also be keeping an eye on young guys like third-year guard Marcel Jones and undrafted rookie center Matt Armstrong, among others. ... I think the top seven on this list are pretty safe.

DEFENSIVE LINE (7)

Johnson is the biggest question mark on this list, but the second-year pro has shown some versatility to go with his athletic potential after being moved to defensive end this year. Veteran Brandon Deaderick is a more experienced possibility who has shown his own versatility by lining up as the second-string nose tackle while Jenkins is out with an injury.

LINEBACKERS (10)

This is the one change I made from the previous projection -- adding in veteran outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson (and cutting cornerback Rod Sweeting). It will be very difficult for 10 linebackers to make the roster. But Dawson, who impressed the Saints as a backup last year, hasn't done anything to deserve the axe. He has continued to make plays with the second-string defense during camp. ... I also like pass-rusher Kyle Knox as a dark horse. But this is such a crowded group with the return of Butler from injury and the arrival of enticing rookies Fortt and Powell.

CORNERBACKS (5)

I hate to cut Sweeting, who showed potential last year as an undrafted rookie and stuck with the team all year. But he's been buried on the depth chart so far in camp, and the Saints have a lot of depth now with the additions of Bailey and Jean-Baptiste and Robinson coming back strong from a knee injury. Another possibility is Trevin Wade, who joined the Saints last year and has actually lined up ahead of Sweeting so far in the practice rotation.

SAFETIES (4)

This is another spot where I was very tempted to add undrafted rookie Pierre Warren, who has made some big plays already during training camp (including a forced fumble and a handful of pass break-ups). Warren has lined up with the second-string unit all summer (next to Sunseri) while Byrd has been out with injury. So obviously the Saints have seen something they like from the Jacksonville State product. ... A ton of people have asked me about former CFL standout Marcus Ball. He remains a possibility, too, and made a nice play on Sunday. But he's been behind Sunseri and Warren in the pecking order so far this summer.

SPECIALISTS (3)

I still like Graham over younger kicker Derek Dimke -- especially after coach Sean Payton spoke highly of Graham on Sunday. Neither one has done anything to win or lose the job yet, though.

Saints Camp Report: Day 3

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
6:18
PM ET
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints held their first padded practice -- which always has a bit of that Christmas-morning feel for the linemen. Not surprisingly, no one was more exuberant than linebacker Junior Galette, who made several big plays. The first came just two plays into the first 9-on-7 contact drill, when Galette blew up a run play then trash-talked fullback Erik Lorig by yelling, "Block me!" Right tackle Zach Strief then gave Galette a shove as they walked back to the line. But that was the only time any real feistiness broke out.
  • Sunday also marked the debut of my favorite individual drill in camp -- 1-on-1 pass-rush. The drill is designed to favor pass-rushers, so it's often a "win" for the blockers just to hold their man at bay. The guys who stood out most to me were Strief (for holding strong against Cameron Jordan), end Akiem Hicks (for his raw power), linebacker Keyunta Dawson (who beat tackle Bryce Harris twice) and end Glenn Foster. But obviously that's a small sample size. … The battles between Strief-Jordan, Jahri Evans-Hicks and Terron Armstead-Galette were all pretty even.
  • The "old" guys stood out Sunday in a number of the most competitive roster battles: I wrote earlier about how cornerback Champ Bailey made the play of the day. … Quarterback Luke McCown outshined Ryan Griffin. That battle is still wide open, but it was worth pointing out since Griffin has gotten more attention so far. … Kickers Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke both made all their field-goal attempts, but coach Sean Payton gave Graham a vote of confidence by saying he'll be "tough to beat out." … Payton also singled out an intecerption made by backup linebacker Ramon Humber in 7-on-7 drills as "exceptional." … And center Jonathan Goodwin got his first snaps with the first team ahead of Tim Lelito this camp. Then Lelito and McCown fumbled an exchange during team drills.
  • Payton was right. The Saints don't get bad weather. They had beautiful conditions for most of Sunday's practice, squeezing it in before a downpour started. Everyone got drenched, however, during post-practice interviews.
  • Receiver Robert Meachem missed practice after his back locked up Sunday morning, but he shouldn't be out long. Meachem tweeted that he went to the hospital to get checked out but hopes to be back on the field soon. Jairus Byrd, John Jenkins, Kenny Stills and Tavon Rooks remained sidelined. And guard Ben Grubbs sat out for part of practice, but he's been getting a lot of scheduled rest throughout the summer.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The other day, Champ Bailey was talking about how he’s had to adjust to things like new teammates, coaches and playbook nuances with the New Orleans Saints after spending the past 10 years with the Denver Broncos.

 “But as far as football, football is football,” Bailey said. “You either got it or you don’t. And I think I still got it.”

Bailey certainly demonstrated that on Sunday. The 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback showed off his veteran savvy and nose for the ball while teaming with safety Rafael Bush to make the play of the day during full-team drills.

Bailey stripped the ball away from fullback Erik Lorig after a swing pass. Then Bush made a sensational effort to pop the ball up in the air before it bounced out of bounds. And Bailey snagged it out of the air.

“I kind of take it personal when a guy sticks his hand in my face,” said Bailey, who was pretty animated after forcing the turnover. “He tried to stiff-arm me. I’m not gonna hurt him, I don’t know why he did that. So I just had to make him pay somehow. And the best way is to get the ball from him.”

Bailey, who joined the Saints this offseason at age 36, has looked good all summer while competing for the No. 2 starting cornerback job with Patrick Robinson and Corey White. Bailey still looks plenty fast and fluid and -- most importantly -- said he feels great after a foot injury derailed his 2013 season in Denver.

Obviously Bailey isn’t as fast or fluid as he was in his prime with the Broncos and Washington Redskins. But the Saints didn’t bring him here because of his superior athleticism. They want that veteran savvy and ball skills and instincts that he displayed on Sunday’s play.

As coach Sean Payton said when describing Bailey the other day, they don’t need to see it every day, they just need to see it once in a while.

As for what Bailey himself is looking for this year, well, it’s the same thing he’s been seeking throughout his stellar 16-year career.

“Getting a ring. That’s it,” said Bailey, who signed an incentive-laden two-year deal worth between $3.75 million and $6.75 million. “There’s nothing else keeping me out here. It’s not like they’re paying me a boatload of money around here.”
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Outside linebacker Junior Galette and defensive end Akiem Hicks were two of the most underrated driving forces behind the New Orleans Saints' breakout defense last year.

Hicks
Galette
But neither one of them is complaining about flying under the radar -- for different reasons.

The exuberant Galette has never made any secret about his desire to crack the Pro Bowl, pop up on lists like the NFL Network’s top 100 or even amp up his rating on the Madden video game.

Galette said when he heard that fellow Saints pass rusher Cameron Jordan said his goal was to get one sack per game this year, Galette’s goal became to get two sacks per game.

“It might sound unrealistic, but it pushes me,” Galette said. “If I don’t get two a game, I might end up getting one a game. We just keep pushing each other. That’s what I do. I just set almost unrealistic goals and just land halfway and it’s pretty dominant.”

However, Galette admitted Saturday that it can only help him and Jordan if anyone is still underestimating them after they became the only duo in the NFL with 12 sacks apiece last season.

“If (people aren’t talking about us), then it’s better for us. You’re coming to surprise,” Galette said, though he quickly added: “If they don’t know now, then they will know next year.”

Hicks, meanwhile, was more soft-spoken when asked about his perception and reputation on Saturday.

I am one of many analysts who have been touting Hicks as this year’s Galette-like breakout candidate on New Orleans’ roster. But Hicks said he can’t let himself worry about such lofty praise or expectations.

“That’s just the way it goes. They pick a guy out that they think is going to do good. But as a player, you can’t focus on that because you are never as good as they say you are and you are never as bad as they say you are,” said Hicks, who added that his No. 1 focus heading into his third season is to improve his consistency.

However, when asked how he feels about being described as “underrated,” Hicks said, “It is better than being overrated, right?”

“I’m just ready to work hard,” Hicks said. “That’s just my personality. I just want to do well. I just want to be consistent. I just want to work hard. And I want my teammates to respect me for it.”

Saints Camp Report: Day 2

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
6:40
PM ET
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • Robinson rising: Cornerback Patrick Robinson had two nifty pass break-ups on back-to-back plays Saturday – another sign that he’s back to playing aggressively with confidence after a tough two-year stretch. Robinson struggled as a full-time starter in 2012, then he missed most of last season with a knee injury. But the former first-round pick clearly is energized by the chance to get back into a prominent role. For now, Champ Bailey has received the most looks as the Saints’ No. 2 cornerback, but Robinson has rotated in at times. “He’s looking great,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “He’s always looked smooth. He’s a unique guy. He’s a tall guy that can bend, and those guys are really rare.”
  • Offense wins: The defensive highlights were few and far between on Saturday, however. Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Ryan Griffin took advantage of some breakdowns in the secondary to complete several deep balls (with Jimmy Graham, Nick Toon and Brandin Cooks among the beneficiaries). “Today wasn’t our best,” Ryan said. “Whooo, that offense was rolling.”
  • Break out the pads: Players on both sides are fired up about Sunday’s practice, which will be the first padded session of the offseason. Typically they don’t tackle all the way to the ground. But they will finally get to do some real hitting. “Oh, definitely (excited), especially for the offensive and defensive linemen,” defensive end Akiem Hicks said. “That is something that we look forward to all year. We get to run around in our pajamas for most of the year, but when the pads come on, you get to hit that guy that was talking a little trash earlier in the year.”
  • Weather concerns? Sunday’s practice could be affected by a projected storm, as there are no indoor facilities at the Saints’ new training camp site. Coach Sean Payton joked, “We don’t get bad weather” – referencing the uncanny way the Saints avoided the rain for years in past camps in Jackson, Miss. But he said the Saints will be flexible if they need to wait out any lightning.
  • White at safety? Cornerback Corey White, who is competing with Bailey and Robinson, spent part of practice as the deep safety in nickel packages while safety Kenny Vaccaro moved up into the slot. It might be a moot point when safety Jairus Byrd returns from injury. But it was another example of Ryan’s creative use of the personnel at his disposal. “He’s another smart guy that’s got a lot of talent, so he can play multiple spots for us,” Ryan said.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – The play of the day at New Orleans Saints camp Saturday was provided by tight end Jimmy Graham, who outleaped safety Vinnie Sunseri, reeled in a pass with one hand from quarterback Ryan Griffin and took it to the house before dunking over the goal post (which remains legal in training camp!)

Just in case anyone forgot, it was a vintage Graham moment. And we will continue to see plenty more of them now that the Saints have locked him up with a four-year, $40 million contract.

The notion that defenses somehow “figured out” how to stop Graham last year is misplaced.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesA couple teams figured out how to stop Jimmy Graham last season, but it's not a plan that many teams can pull off.
Yes, Graham was silenced by the Seattle Seahawks in the Saints’ season-ending playoff loss, thanks to frequent double-teams and some heavy attention from All-Pro safety Earl Thomas. Yes, Graham was silenced by the New England Patriots earlier in the season when they made the rare choice to shadow him with physical Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib.

And yes, Graham and Saints coach Sean Payton, among others, will have to figure out ways to adjust to all the new wrinkles that they continue to see from opposing defenses.

But it’s not like either the Seahawks or the Patriots provided a blueprint that other teams can easily follow.

Both of their plans required some of the best defensive players in the league, and they required the depth to also successfully cover the rest of the Saints’ dynamic offensive weapons.

New England’s successful use of a cornerback against Graham became a hot topic during the offseason debate about whether Graham should be considered a wide receiver or tight end. But there wasn’t another team before or after the New England game that simply decided to put a cornerback on Graham and take him out of the game.

“(New England and Seattle) were two different scenarios,” Payton said. “No. 1, New England put one of their bigger best defensive backs on him. Credit Bill (Belichick). You know, Aqib is bigger than their safeties. So he was able to play effectively. …

“But each week it varies what teams are doing. We see different plans to handle him. Obviously when you sit in on a meeting Tuesday night and you’re beginning to defend a player like him, you’re gonna account for him.”

Graham said he went back and looked at the film of that Patriots game at the time but honestly couldn’t see anything he could have done differently with the way they chose to attack him with a combination of Talib’s man coverage and zone coverage behind him.

“Talking with some of the Patriots this offseason, they had a big game plan. That’s just how it is sometimes,” Graham said. “Sean and Drew [Brees], they’re so good at dissecting the game and figuring things out. When it’s not my night, it’s just not my night. We’ve got so many young receivers on this team, we’ve got (Marques) Colston, (Robert Meachem). Somebody else is going to get a ton of balls, and I know they’re going to be making plays.

“For me, my biggest (focus heading into this season) is really staying healthy. Toward the latter part of the season, it was tough. That’s what I’m focused on. I’m going to rehab every day, even though I don’t have to.”

Since Graham emerged as a threat in 2010, the Saints’ offense has been a pick-your-poison attack. If a defense wants to sell out to try and shut down Graham, the Saints will usually make them pay in other ways.

The Philadelphia Eagles, for instance, made it their clear focus to harass Graham by bumping him at the line of scrimmage and double-teaming him through each level of the defense in their wild-card playoff matchup.

And it sort of worked – Graham caught just three passes for 44 yards. But the Saints made Philly’s defense pay by running 36 times for 185 yards in that game.

The Saints also started running the ball effectively against the Patriots in that Week 6 matchup. But they waited a little too long to adjust their game plan (and Brees made a poor decision at one point to try and force the ball to Graham, throwing an interception).

“Yeah, I think it was just one of those games where offensively we weren’t very effective, especially in the first half, then got some things going in the second half,” Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said. “Obviously we’ve always been an offense where Drew’s gonna find the open guy. And give credit to New England for what they did. Obviously they did a good job of taking (Graham) away from what we want to try to accomplish.

“But like I said, our offense is not built around any one guy. We’re gonna find the open receiver, and that’s what Drew does such a great job of.”

More often than not, Graham will continue to be that open receiver.

Every team the Saints faced last year probably went into those game-planning meetings with a desire to shut down Graham. But that plan failed for most of them as Graham racked up 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.

The Carolina Panthers, for example, had one of the NFL’s best pass defenses last year. But in two critical December showdowns against Carolina, Graham combined to catch 11 passes for 131 yards and three touchdowns.

Graham has only been back on the Saints’ practice field for two days since signing his new contract. But he already stood out as Brees’ go-to guy again on several passes in team drills and 7-on-7 drills Saturday.

Get used to seeing a lot more of it this year.

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