NFC South: Ben Grubbs

METAIRIE, La. -- The salary cap is not the New Orleans Saints' biggest problem.

Yes, it's daunting. The Saints have more cap dollars on the books for 2015 than any team in the NFL (a whopping $161.3 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information).

But they've been in the same boat for three years, and they've proven time and again that they won't be paralyzed by the cap. Last year they signed Jairus Byrd, Jimmy Graham and Junior Galette to mega-deals under similar circumstances.

It will be relatively easy for the Saints to trim the necessary $20 million or so by restructuring deals, releasing aging veterans and working out pay cuts. They'll trim $10 million with a simple tweak to Galette's deal, for instance.

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Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe only way the Saints could bring back Marques Colston would be at a significantly-reduced rate.
And yes, that means New Orleans will have to keep “kicking the can” into future years. But it can keep doing that until Drew Brees retires -- especially since the NFL cap is expected to keep soaring.

The bigger problem for the Saints, however, is that they didn't get anywhere near the expected returns out of the players they invested those mega-millions in this season.

Byrd tops that list -- he struggled for four weeks before suffering a major knee injury. Brees, Graham, Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs, Marques Colston, Cameron Jordan and a number of younger defensive players are also on that list of underachievers.

The Saints absolutely must get bounce-back years from those guys to have any chance in 2015 and beyond.

If general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton knew they could count on those guys, then the specific roster decisions facing the team next year would be manageable. But it might be their toughest offseason yet, because for the first time they don't really know if their arrow is pointing in the right direction.

Here's a breakdown of the other major personnel decisions facing the team:

BREES' CONTRACT:

Brees' salary will soar next year to $19 million, including a workout bonus. As a result, his cap figure will be $26.4 million. In 2016, those numbers will climb to $20 million and $27.4 million.

He's still worth it. Despite Brees' struggles with turnovers this year, he still gives the Saints their best chance at building a championship contender. And I don't think the Saints will or should approach him about taking a pay cut -- especially since he played so well for so long at below-market value in the past.

However, it will be interesting to see if Brees considers following the path of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who worked out a team-friendly contract extension last year. Brady added three years to the end of his deal at an affordable total of $27 million in new money -- in exchange for more guaranteed money in the short term.

It appeared to be a win-win deal, and I could absolutely see Brees and the Saints doing something similar in the next year or two.

FREE AGENTS:

Unrestricted: RB Mark Ingram, C Jonathan Goodwin, WR Robert Meachem, QB Luke McCown, CB Patrick Robinson, S Jamarca Sanford, LB Parys Haralson, LB Ramon Humber, LB Moise Fokou, DL Brandon Deaderick, K Shayne Graham.

Restricted: DL Tyrunn Walker, RB Travaris Cadet, OT Bryce Harris.

Thoughts: This is the best news for the Saints in 2015 -- this list isn't overwhelming. They'll have to make a tough decision on Ingram, since they've never valued any one individual running back more than the rest of the NFL market. But if they do want Ingram back, his salary shouldn't escalate well beyond $4 million per year or so. Everyone else should be either affordable to re-sign or expendable.

STRONGEST POSSIBILITIES FOR RELEASE OR PAY CUTS:

WR Marques Colston (due $7 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $9.7 million)
DT Brodrick Bunkley (due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $6.1 million)
LB David Hawthorne (due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $6 million)

Thoughts: Colston's departure would be the most emotional since Deuce McAllister. But his production clearly doesn't match his salary anymore. The only way Colston would come back is at a significantly-reduced rate. The question is whether Colston would want to do that after taking such a physical pounding for nine years, or if he might even consider retirement.

Bunkley and Hawthorne will almost certainly be released if they don't agree to significant pay cuts -- though Hawthorne has played some of his best football over the past two weeks.

OTHER NOTABLE SALARIES:

G Jahri Evans (due $7.5 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $11 million)
G Ben Grubbs (due $6.6 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $9.6 million)
LB Curtis Lofton (due $7 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $9 million)
RB Pierre Thomas (due $2.15 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $2.6 million)

Thoughts: The guys on this list are tougher to predict, because they're still playing at a solid level -- and because the Saints don't have any obvious backup plans waiting in the wings. Evans and Grubbs didn't play at a Pro Bowl level, but they weren't that far off -- especially Evans. Finding one or two guards for the future has to rank as a top priority.

Lofton is having his best season yet with New Orleans, so losing him would hurt. But he's due a $4.5 million roster bonus. Chances are, the Saints will convert it to a signing bonus if they keep him.

RESTRUCTURING DEALS:

The easiest way to save cap space is to restructure a contract -- which isn't the same as an extension or a pay cut. It's a win-win proposition where the team converts a players' salary or roster bonus into a signing bonus, so the cap costs can be spread out over multiple years. The Saints do this with several players every year, and they will again this offseason with guys like Galette and possibly Lofton, among others.
METAIRIE, La. – Grantland's Bill Barnwell took a detailed look at the New Orleans Saints’ salary-cap constraints that will make it even harder for them to fight their way out of this current mess in 2015 and beyond.

I agree with a lot of what he said about the Saints going all in for 2014 with the way they structured new deals with guys such as Jairus Byrd, Jimmy Graham and Junior Galette. And I don’t necessarily disagree with his premise that the Saints are “a team built to self-destruct upon the expiration of Drew Brees.” (They’ll have cap space then, they just won’t have a quarterback).

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Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWide receiver Marques Colston is due $7 million in salary and bonuses next season.
However, I don’t agree with Barnwell's depiction of "salary-cap hell." I don't see anything that will prevent the Saints from continuing to go “all in” as long as Brees sticks around. Especially with the NFL’s salary cap expected to keep rising significantly in future years. To use Barnwell's term, they can keep "kicking the proverbial can down the road."

The bigger question isn't the Saints' salary-cap constraints themselves. It's just how much you trust the guys that they've invested in -- and whether you think they're worth all the dollars that created the cap constraints. They need better production going forward than they'e gotten this year from many of their core players (including Brees, Graham, Byrd and young defensive building blocks such as Cameron Jordan, Kenny Vaccaro and Akiem Hicks).

The two things you fear with salary-cap constraints are that you won’t be able to add any new impact players and that you won’t be able to re-sign your own core players. But the Saints have proven under similar circumstances in recent years that they won’t stop doing those things.

They were supposed to be in salary-cap hell last year, too, and they went out and signed Byrd to a mega-deal and inked Graham and Galette to new long-term deals. In previous years they added core free agents such as Keenan Lewis, Curtis Lofton and Ben Grubbs.

The “victims” of the salary cap are the older guys who the Saints feel have diminishing value – which is why they parted ways with guys such as Darren Sproles, Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer.

As Barnwell pointed out, the only one of those guys the Saints really miss is Sproles. But as good as Sproles has been in Philadelphia, his absence has hardly been the Saints’ biggest problem this year. The run game and the short passing game are two of the few things New Orleans is doing consistently well.

I plan to examine all of the Saints’ offseason moves in more detail on Monday, to see if and where they went wrong. But in general, I doubt the Saints regret any of those moves in and of themselves.

Meanwhile, looking ahead to the moves the Saints need to make going forward, it won’t be that hard for them to get under the cap next year by restructuring current deals (as Barnwell broke down in great detail) and by releasing or demanding pay cuts from certain veterans. That group could include Brodrick Bunkley (due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses) and David Hawthorne ($4.5 million in salary and bonuses). And it will likely include receiver Marques Colston ($7 million in salary and bonuses) in one form or another – as tough as that decision will be.

Decisions also might need to be made with guards Jahri Evans ($7.5 million in salary and bonuses) and Grubbs ($6.6 million in salary and bonuses), who have big salaries and are starting to show signs of decline. But the Saints might keep both of them since they don’t have any obvious backup plan in place yet.
METAIRIE, La. -- As the New Orleans Saints' players filed back into the locker room Thursday following their second victory in five nights, coach Sean Payton was waiting to greet every one of them -- a sign of his appreciation for the grueling stretch they had just endured.

Not only did the Saints handle the extra-short turnaround between their games on Sunday night and Thursday night, they endured a brutal 2-4 start to the season that included three losses in the final two minutes that could have demoralized them.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsSaints coach Sean Payton couldn't help but feel appreciative toward his players and coaches following Thursday's win over the Panthers.
"Well, it was certainly unplanned," Payton said of his personal greeting line following the Saints' 28-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers. "It was more just, I was real proud of how they worked and how they handled a short week and some of the challenges within that week. And same way with the coaches. Shoot, by the end of three or four days I think half the staff had a cold or cough, not a lot of sleep. So I was just excited by how we responded -- going on the road and playing a division game.

"You know, a year ago we had a real tough loss there. It was just one of those things that was real gratifying. It was more about being happy for the players and happy for the coaches to get a win like that. You have to play this game with emotion, and that can carry over after wins and losses."

Now the Saints are back to 4-4 and somehow sitting alone in first place in the NFC South. And even at 4-4, they feel much better about their resilience after having weathered the storm.

Guard Ben Grubbs said a start like that is going to "make you or break you."

Asked what he was feeling after the emotional Thursday night win, Grubbs said, "I felt togetherness."

"When you go through something as tough as losing on walk-off field goals and then losing on the last possession of the game in Detroit, that does something to you," Grubbs said. "It can have a positive effect on you or a negative effect on you. One thing that Coach Payton has done is a great job with was just continuing to encourage us and tell us we're really close, we are a good team, we just have to correct the mistakes that we have."

The message now is to keep that same sense of urgency. Once again, Payton's postgame message was clear, because several players were repeating it throughout the locker room:

"I said this to them: Having been now where we've been and knowing how difficult that is, you refuse to go back," Payton said. "Hopefully you're becoming more resilient and a little bit more tougher, both mentally and physically."

The Saints feel they will be better prepared to handle any more adversity that comes their way this season. But they're also hoping that maybe they won't have to face quite as much during the next eight-game stretch.

When defensive tackle Akiem Hicks was asked if the team feels like it's already gone through a full season's worth of adversity, he said, "I completely agree with that."

"I would say that if you lose a certain number of games on the last series, or the last play or the last drive or a walk-off field goal, I gotta tell you that's more than enough for me," Hicks said, "and I'm sure a lot of guys feel the same way.

"Now it's our turn."

Complaint department: Speaking of that abbreviated turnaround between their Sunday night game and Thursday night road game, Payton had a great line Friday when asked if he plans to address it with the league in the offseason.

"I'm sure they will look at it," Payton said. "But in regards to that suggestion box, I think that's on the third floor of a two-story building."

The Film Don't Lie: Saints

October, 21, 2014
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A weekly look at what the New Orleans Saints must fix:

No quarterback in the NFL has been worse while under duress this year than Drew Brees, who needs to start making better decisions under pressure when the Saints (2-4) host the Green Bay Packers (5-2) on Sunday night.

Brees now has a league-worst passer rating of 19.4 when he's either under duress or being hit, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- a number that has plummeted with three ugly interceptions over the past two games against the Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Brees has completed 20 of 47 passes for 199 yards while under pressure with zero touchdowns, four interceptions and five sacks.

The good news is Brees has been under pressure on only 20.4 percent of his dropbacks this year -- a rate that ranks sixth best among NFL teams once you throw out the sack against punter Thomas Morstead on a flopped fake punt at the Dallas Cowboys.

And, at times, Brees and the Saints' offensive line have looked outstanding, like they did during the first three-plus quarters at Detroit this past Sunday, when Brees completed 26 of 32 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns.

But then suddenly, the Saints line couldn't seem to block anyone in the Lions' stifling defensive front as they coughed up a 13-point lead in a stunning 24-23 loss. Brees threw a career-high 10 straight incomplete passes in the fourth quarter -- including a game-changing interception he admitted was too telegraphed.

Left tackle Terron Armstead got beat on that play, and he allowed at least three pressures in the fourth quarter. So did guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs. Right tackle Zach Strief allowed at least two.

Saints coach Sean Payton expressed very little concern over Brees, though, when asked if he thinks he's pressing too much.

"No, I don't," Payton said. "Obviously [you] want to have the one interception back, but I felt like his decision-making and rhythm, I felt like his week of preparation and how he played all during the practice week was outstanding. He's going to be just fine. He's the least of our worries."
The New Orleans Saints' offensive game tape from last Sunday’s 38-17 loss at Dallas was slightly more encouraging than the defensive review.

I was surprised to realize just how sharp quarterback Drew Brees was out of the gates, officially completing his first seven passes. And he made some of his best downfield throws of the season as the game went on, though he became a little more hit-and-miss once the Saints were forced to throw.

But a little bit of everything else went wrong throughout the game, especially the run-blocking, which was easily the worst it’s been all season. Throw in Brees’ tipped-pass interception, fumbles by Jimmy Graham and Travaris Cadet, dropped passes by Graham and Colston and inconsistent pass protection, as well, and you’ve got the ingredients for a blowout loss.

Here are more observations after watching the tape:

[+] EnlargeKhiry Robinson
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsMost of Khiry Robinson's 87 rushing yards against the Cowboys came on a 62-yard scamper in the fourth quarter.
Run down: Khiry Robinson had two great runs of 62 and 11 yards in the second half. And Pierre Thomas had a meaningless 8-yard run as time expired in the first half. Other than that, the Saints’ running backs combined for a total of 17 yards on their other nine carries.

Much like last year’s run struggles, it was usually a case of one block being missed on each stalled run and it was a different culprit almost every time. Replacement left tackle Bryce Harris was flagged for holding once and got blown back on another negative run. Guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, center Jonathan Goodwin and receivers Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills also either missed a block or got pushed back at the line one time each.

Robinson deserves a ton of credit for both of his big runs. He showed great vision to find a path inside of an Evans block and then outside of a block by receiver Marques Colston to spring free for the 62-yarder. Right tackle Zach Strief, Goodwin and Cooks all had good blocks on that play as well.

Brees mostly good: Surprisingly, I thought this was one of Brees’ best performances of the season -- or at least similar to the other three this year, where he was mostly sharp with a few lulls thrown in. He officially completed 14 of his first 18 passes for 159 yards with one interception (his first two throws were dropped by Graham and Colston, but they were nullified by penalties).

Brees’ 46-yard pass to Stills in the third quarter was his best play of the season. He stepped up to avoid pressure coming from end Anthony Spencer against tight end Benjamin Watson and fired a gorgeous pass 42 yards in the air, hitting Stills in stride between cornerback Brandon Carr and safety Barry Church.

Brees also threw TD passes on short throws to Graham and tight end Josh Hill during a second-half rally, fired some other nice downfield strikes to Stills and Colston and turned some negatives into positives with dump-offs under pressure to Graham and Robinson.

Obviously, though, Brees was far from perfect. The interception wasn’t egregious, with linebacker Bruce Carter making a great play to leap and tip the ball in the air. But it was extremely costly when the Saints were still just trailing 10-0. And Brees threw a couple of other balls into tight spaces that could have been picked as well.

Later in the game, Brees had a couple downfield throws that either slightly overshot or undershot the target. But I strongly disagree with the notion that there’s anything wrong with his arm strength based on this performance.

Dropping the ball: Graham’s fumble came at the end of a catch-and-run, when linebacker Rolando McClain got down low to make the hit and wound up putting his helmet right on the ball. Graham was trying to protect it as he crouched to brace for contact, but it obviously wasn’t secure enough. Cadet’s fumble came as he was about to hit the ground while linebacker Justin Durant got his arm in the perfect spot.

Graham and Colston each had blatant drops early in the game and were bailed out by penalties. Later Colston had another drop. And Graham and Colston each had a ball stripped as they tried to secure it -- both were close to being fumbles as well but were ruled incomplete.

Pass protection: This was hit-and-miss. The Saints were actually great at picking up blitzes, even when they only had five blockers. Brees was 6 of 7, including a touchdown, when blitzed. And the only incompletion was a Colston drop.

The Saints were more inconsistent against Dallas’ four-man rush, though. Harris allowed pressure at least twice, Grubbs at least twice and Evans and Goodwin at least once.

Worth noting: The The Saints’ fake punt in the fourth quarter was a total failure, with punter Thomas Morstead being sacked -- and even worse considering Dallas had only 10 men on the field. … Carter made one of the most unique and impressive tackles I’ve ever seen against Robinson, grabbing hold of his toes and not letting go as he brought him down. … The Saints were penalized for 12 men on the field late in the game on a formation that had Cooks lined up deep in the backfield. I’m sure that only added to their frustration. … Another wide receiver screen pass to Cooks was snuffed out as defenses have clearly been on the lookout for them.

Saints’ Camp Report Day 18

August, 19, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints got some good news on the injury front Tuesday when safety Jairus Byrd was cleared to do full-contact work. But there were still a handful of key players missing. Cornerback Keenan Lewis was held out of practice, though he did some exercises off to the side with trainers. Guard Ben Grubbs was absent after leaving with an undisclosed injury during Monday’s practice. Receiver Brandin Cooks was absent for the second straight day with a stomach virus (coach Sean Payton said he still had a fever). Cornerback Patrick Robinson, linebackers Victor Butler and Khairi Fortt and fullback Erik Lorig were also among a group of players who remained sidelined with unspecified injuries. Defensive end Akiem Hicks and cornerback Champ Bailey participated in a walk-through but didn’t do any team drills.
  • Veteran defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick replaced Hicks with the starting defense – another sign of Deaderick’s versatility and possible value to the Saints. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder spent most of the summer lining up as the Saints’ second-string nose tackle while John Jenkins recovered from a pectoral surgery, and that’s where Deaderick was lined up when he recovered a fumble in last Friday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. Deaderick, 27, spent his first three seasons with the New England Patriots and one year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s right on the roster bubble, but he’s making a strong case.
  • Speaking of that roster bubble, another undrafted rookie that belongs on your radar is outside linebacker Kasim Edebali, a German native who played at Boston College. The main reason I haven’t touted Edebali much when I do my weekly 53-man roster projections is because I feel like that position is so overcrowded that it will be tough to crack. But the 6-2, 253-pounder has flashed some impressive athleticism and pass-rush ability at times. Saints analyst Bobby Hebert was just touting Edebali on Monday. Then on Tuesday, Edebali got a ringing endorsement from fellow former undrafted linebacker Junior Galette. When asked if he’s been impressed by any undrafted guys, Galette said, “One guy I’d point out, Kasim Edebali. You know he’s not really a rookie, I feel like. He’s up there in age, 25 years old [as of Sunday]. He’s a lot more mature than I was as a rookie. And the guy gets off the ball and he can play.”
  • Some of the on-field highlights Tuesday: Rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste went up high to break up a pass from Drew Brees to Marques Colston in the end zone, one of Jean-Baptiste’s best efforts to date. … Cornerback Corey White forced a fumble against running back Khiry Robinson in seven-on-seven drills, one of White’s many nice plays in camp. … Tight end Jimmy Graham continued to serve as a go-to target in Tuesday’s practice, continuing a stellar camp. And after Graham scored a TD on Tuesday, he celebrated with an emphatic (and legal) spike. … Brees kept the ball to himself, tucking it and running it in for a score to cap a red zone drill at the end of practice.
  • The Saints will take their practice show on the road Wednesday night for a rare practice across the lake at Mandeville High School. The session, from 7-9 p.m. CT, will be free and open to the public, weather permitting. Payton said the team will be in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts instead of a fully-padded session.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees took yet another small step toward returning to action Wednesday when he participated in some individual passing drills with the quarterbacks and receivers for the first time. But it still seems extremely unlikely that the New Orleans Saints quarterback will play in Friday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans.

Brees
Saints coach Sean Payton declined to say whether Brees will play. But Payton has consistently said the team will be smart and cautious with Brees, who strained his oblique on Aug. 1.

Either way, Brees definitely appears as though he’ll be healthy in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He has increased his workload on a daily basis, including a return to the lineup during the team’s afternoon walk-through on Tuesday, followed by his appearance in individual drills on Wednesday.

Plus, Brees showed some impressive agility while sliding across a makeshift slip-and-slide during his ALS ice-bucket challenge Tuesday.

In other Saints injury news:
  • Guard Ben Grubbs returned to live team drills for the first time Wednesday -- and he dove right in during a spirited set of live goal-line drills. Grubbs said it was a lower back issue that caused him to miss more than a week of training camp practices, but he feels good now and is blessed to have enough time to fully recover before the regular season.
  • Rookie linebacker Ronald Powell left the field with the trainers after hobbling off the field during a play. The details of his apparent injury are unknown. UPDATE: Powell reportedly returned to the field Wednesday afternoon and participated in walkthrough.
  • There was still no sign of fullback Erik Lorig or linebacker Victor Butler at practice. Both players have been sidelined for nearly two weeks, though the Saints have not offered any details on the severity of their injuries.
  • Guard Jahri Evans and cornerback Patrick Robinson made brief appearances on the sideline Wednesday but did not participate in practice. Also not practicing Wednesday: receiver Kenny Stills, linebacker David Hawthorne, tight end Je’Ron Hamm, offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, cornerback Rod Sweeting and safety Ty Zimmerman.
  • UPDATE: Cornerback Champ Bailey participated in individual drills and the morning walk-through during Wednesday's practice but was reportedly absent from the afternoon walk-through.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees remained sidelined when the New Orleans Saints got back on the practice field Sunday afternoon. But he continued to show progress in his recovery from a strained oblique while firing some hard passes to receiver Kenny Stills on a secondary practice field.

Brees
Though it’s unclear if Brees will return in time for the Saints’ second preseason game Friday against the Tennessee Titans, there does appear to be reason for optimism that he’ll be back in plenty of time for the regular season.

“No update,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Sunday. “I really mean it, we’ll go day-to-day. He’s making progress, and yet I just want to make sure that it’s something we don’t hurry back. Same way with Kenny (quad strain), we’ll just be smart day-to-day.”

On a positive note, Saints nose tackle John Jenkins practiced for the first time all summer after being officially taken off the PUP list (physically unable to perform). And guard Ben Grubbs returned to practice for the first time in roughly two weeks after being sidelined by an undisclosed injury.

Both players were held out of full-team drills, but they were dressed in full pads and participated in most of the individual position drills. Jenkins made a strong debut in one-on-one pass-rush drills, getting the best of center Tim Lelito at least once.

Jenkins, a promising second-year pro, missed the entire summer after having pectoral surgery.

“Being back on the roster and practicing is one thing, but we’ve got to be mindful that there’s a transition here that’s not everything right away,” Payton said. “He’s in better shape. I’d say his weight’s down (from last year). I think that’s difficult sometimes when you’re injured and you’re a big guy.

“But I thought he had a pretty solid rookie season, and I’m sure there’s some technique things. And from a snap count, he’s gonna be a guy that factors in and hopefully plays the role he did a year ago and makes improvement, like all the guys going into Year 2.”

Payton didn’t specify Jenkins’ current weight -- but he said it’s an important issue for him. Last summer, Jenkins talked about trying to get down from about 360 pounds to 340.

“His weight last year was solid, but it’s something that he’s conscientious of. And there’s a perfect weight for him, and when it gets north of that, you can see it affects his play,” Payton said. “This next week will be important for him as he transitions into what we’re doing. … But he is conscientious, and he’s someone that learns fairly quickly.”

Some other injury updates:
  • Running back Pierre Thomas remained sidelined by an undisclosed injury, though he was out on the field watching practice and doing some individual work off to the side.
  • Cornerback Patrick Robinson was absent for the second half of practice, though Payton declined to explain why.
  • Guard Jahri Evans, cornerback Champ Bailey, fullback Erik Lorig and outside linebacker Victor Butler remained absent from practice. Cornerback Rod Sweeting, who left Friday’s preseason game with an undisclosed injury, was also absent. Offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, safety Ty Zimmerman and tight end Je’Ron Hamm were present but not in pads.
  • Receiver Andy Tanner and cornerback Terrence Frederick also returned to limited work in full pads.
  • Safety Jairus Byrd continued to be held out of full-team drills, though he participated in everything else.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was held out of practice again Wednesday as he recovers from a strained left oblique. But coach Sean Payton declined to rule him out of Friday’s preseason opener at the St. Louis Rams.

It seems highly unlikely that Brees will play, considering the Saints have vowed to take a cautious approach with Brees, who strained his oblique during last Friday’s practice. There’s no reason to push him into a preseason opener.

Brees
Payton said Brees is feeling a lot better, though. Observers at practice reported that Brees seemed to increase his workload off to the side, including showing some zip on passes to receiver Kenny Stills at one point.

Payton also declined to give updates on the rest of the Saints’ injuries. According to reports from practice, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, receivers Stills and Andy Tanner, cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Terrence Frederick, linebacker Victor Butler, defensive tackle John Jenkins, fullback Erik Lorig, tight end Je'Ron Hamm and offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe remained sidelined or absent from practice.

Both Grubbs and Jenkins reportedly appeared to increase their workload off to the side, however.

Meanwhile, receiver Joe Morgan and cornerback Derrius Brooks returned to practice.

Payton is not scheduled to address the media again before Friday's game at St. Louis. The Saints will hold a walk-through at their training camp site in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on Wednesday afternoon. They will travel to St. Louis on Thursday.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ debut as a general manager went smoothly Tuesday night as he helped select his own Pro Bowl roster as a co-captain of “Team Rice,” led by Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. Brees selected Saints guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs to join his team as part of the new format for the annual All-Star game, which chooses sides based on a “schoolyard draft.”

The draft, which began Tuesday night and will conclude on Wednesday night, was broken up by positions. When it came time to select the guards, Team Rice had the first choice, and fellow captains Rice and St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn deferred to Brees to make the pick.

Brees said it was a coin flip for him, but he naturally went with Evans, a five-time Pro Bowler who has been his teammate since 2006. After “Team Sanders” chose Baltimore Ravens guard Marshal Yanda, Brees quickly selected Grubbs, calling it the “quickest [decision] yet.” Grubbs, a two-time Pro Bowler, has been with the Saints since 2012.

On Wednesday night, Brees will have the chance to select two more teammates – tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive end Cameron Jordan. Those choices will be more interesting, since it would be odd for Brees to see his favorite target, Graham, playing for the opposition, and it would be even more unusual to see Jordan lined up across from Brees, trying to hit him – at least half-heartedly. The game will be played in Hawaii on Sunday night.
NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Just like it played out in the NFC South standings this season, it was a neck-and-neck battle for supremacy between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers when it came to ESPN.com’s All-NFC South team. Ultimately, the Panthers edged the Saints with 10 representatives, compared to New Orleans’ nine.

I don’t have many arguments with the list. The two Saints I would add are safety Kenny Vaccaro and guard Ben Grubbs, but I understand why it was a close call with both players. I think the safety position was the hardest to judge by far, with four candidates in a virtual deadlock for two spots (Vaccaro, Tampa Bay’s Mark Barron, Carolina’s Mike Mitchell and Atlanta’s William Moore). The outside linebacker position was also ridiculously stacked, with the Saints’ Junior Galette missing out only because Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David and Carolina’s Thomas Davis were so sensational. Galette was easily a top-10 defensive player in the division, but he played the wrong position.

I was glad to see that Saints end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton received proper recognition for the Saints’ remarkable defensive performance this year -- especially since the defense overall was much more stacked than the offense in the NFC South this year (with a total of 12 players to account for various fronts).

I was pretty stunned at the lack of dominant skill-position players this season. Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams was the division’s leading rusher with just 843 rushing yards. The Saints who made the list on offense -- quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, receiver Marques Colston, right tackle Zach Strief and guard Jahri Evans -- were all worthy selections. The same for punter Thomas Morstead.

METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints were well represented with five Pro Bowl selections: quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Jordan is the only first-timer of the bunch, and his selection was well-deserved during a breakout season. The third-year pro has 12.5 sacks, which ranks fourth in the NFL. And he has arguably been the MVP of the defense, which has undergone a remarkable makeover this year.

Earlier Friday, Jordan admitted he was excited about the idea of being selected to his first Pro Bowl – but said he’d rather skip it in favor of a trip to his first Super Bowl.

“To make it would be a pretty good thing -- I can't lie. It'd be a nice thing to say I popped into Hawaii,” Jordan said. “But the ideal situation is I'd rather be freezing in New York than being lei'd in Hawaii."

The biggest snub on the list, in my opinion, is cornerback Keenan Lewis, who has been every bit as important to the defensive resurgence as Jordan. Lewis, who arrived as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been a true No. 1 corner, being matched up weekly against the opponent’s top receiver in man coverage. And he’s a huge reason why the Saints have gone from 31st in the NFL in pass defense last year to second this year.

As I wrote earlier, however, it wasn’t a huge surprise to see Lewis left out since he hasn’t gotten much national recognition this year, and since there are so many big names at the position. The same goes for outside linebacker Junior Galette, who also missed the cut despite 10 sacks this year.

Brees and Graham are no-brainer selections, putting up monster numbers as usual this season.

Evans and Grubbs were bigger question marks heading into Friday’s announcement, since they both battled some inconsistency during the first half of the season for an offensive line that is having a down year overall. But they are both well-established veterans and former Pro Bowlers who get to flash a lot of versatility for one of the NFL’s top offenses. They’re excellent in pass protection, athletic enough to get out in front of screen passes and solid as run blockers.

This year’s Pro Bowl was the first under a new format where players are selected regardless of their conference. And teams will be picked via a “schoolyard” draft by team captains in January. That means Jordan might be trying to get past Evans and Grubbs to sack Brees in the game -- assuming they’re not all in New York together that week.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.

Know the enemy: Saints on Johnson/Hardy

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
11:00
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METAIRIE, La. -- For the fourth week in a row, the New Orleans Saints will be facing a dynamic duo of pass-rushing defensive ends when they face the Carolina Panthers and ends Charles Johnson an Greg Hardy on Sunday.

Obviously the Saints didn’t hold up well in pass protection last week at St. Louis. But they did do an excellent job against this same Carolina duo in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome two weeks ago, holding them to a combined 0.5 sacks in a 31-13 Saints victory.

[+] EnlargeGreg Hardy and Charles Johnson
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsCarolina defensive ends Greg Hardy, left, and Charles Johnson, center, have combined to make 17 sacks on the season.
The Saints won’t be in that same comfort zone Sunday, however. Not only are they playing on the road, but they’ve inserted untested rookie left tackle Terron Armstead into the starting lineup. Armstead will mostly face Hardy, though the versatile 6-foot-4, 290-pounder often moves inside on passing downs. Hardy has eight sacks and is tied with St. Louis’ Robert Quinn for third in the NFL with 20 quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus.

Hardy is also a fascinating personality who introduced himself during that "Sunday Night Football" game as "Kraken" from "Hogwarts."

Johnson (6-2, 285) has nine sacks and eight quarterback hits, according to PFF. Here’s what the Saints have been saying about them this week:

Coach Sean Payton: “They’ve got very good burst and quickness. When you combine that with power … the elite rushers have that edge speed, but they also can convert it to power. Then you find yourself setting for speed and then having to deal with the transitional rush. Both of those guys do that extremely well. And so when you look at their hurry and sack totals, they combine both of those elements as well as the inside rush. It’s different when you do one of those two things well, but when they do both of them well like these guys do, it becomes problematic.”

Guard Ben Grubbs: “They each have their own game. Hardy’s tall and long, long arms. And Johnson’s a big, strong, stout rusher. He’s able to turn the corner as well. But I also think those guys in the middle occupy the guards and kind of leave the tackles 1-on-1. So they’ve got a good defense. And, you know, we were able to contain them for the most part the first time we played them. But of course they’re probably gonna bring something different to see if they can get to Drew [Brees] more. …

“I went up against (first-round draft pick defensive tackle Star Lotulelei) some. But on third downs, Hardy came in as the three technique. And that’s another thing they use to their advantage. You know, a lot of guards are not used to guys that athletic in the middle. But I think Jahri [Evans] and myself did OK. But we’ll look to correct some of the mistakes we made and hopefully come out this week, on the road, with the best road game we’ve played thus far.”

Left tackle Terron Armstead: “[Hardy is] a high-motor guy. Ability to change direction. A really good player. [When they switch to nickel packages], [Mario] Addison comes, Wes Horton comes, Frank Alexander comes. All of those guys have a high motor. They work together well. They’ve got good depth. Those other guys come in and play with the same type of motor.”
Pro Football Focus broke down its picks for the weakest link in the starting lineup Insider of the NFL’s top contenders. For the Saints, they went with inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, harping on the fact that they have him credited for 14 missed tackles (tied for the league lead at his position).

My first instinct was to disagree with the choice. Although I don’t think Lofton is having a standout season, I think he's been solid. He leads the Saints with 67 tackles. He's a captain and signal-caller who has played almost every snap for an immensely successful defense. And he certainly hasn’t stood out for costing the Saints any games.

Obviously the run defense struggled last week in a 26-20 loss to the New York Jets. But while reviewing the tape of that game, I actually noted that Lofton might have had one of his best performances of the season. I don’t blame Lofton for any of Chris Ivory’s three breakaway runs. Although it looked bad when Ivory broke through Lofton’s attempted arm tackle on his 52-yard run in the second quarter, Lofton was being blocked on that play by pulling guard Brian Winters and got about as close as he could to stopping Ivory.

The problem with sticking up for Lofton, however, is trying to come up with an alternative. No other defensive starter is struggling this season.

I’d probably point to the Saints’ interior offensive linemen. Center Brian de la Puente and guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans have been too inconsistent in both their run blocking and pass protection. None of them have been "weaknesses"; although quarterback Drew Brees has taken more hits than usual, he's still been comfortable enough in the pocket to put up more monster numbers. But those big men up front certainly aren’t playing up to their usual lofty standard.

The Football Outsiders produced a similar article, identifying weak areas Insider for top contenders. They went with the Saints’ rushing offense, and I strongly agree with that.

Worth a click:
  • ESPN.com’s Jets reporter Rich Cimini offered some great detail on how the Jets stymied Brees in his weekly film study.
  • Here’s the always-insightful film study from The Times-Picayune’s Larry Holder.
  • The Saints’ team website put together a cool package of video highlights and radio calls from the top 10 plays of the first half of this season.
  • The Times-Picayune’s Peter Finney wrote that the Saints are so hard to figure out this season, they could win or lose every game remaining on the schedule.
  • The Advocate’s Ramon Antonio Vargas shined a spotlight on receiver Robert Meachem’s big performance, which may have gone unnoticed in the loss at New York.
  • Last but not least, Saints owner Tom Benson’s wife, Gayle, was also clutch during the Jets game – finding a reporter’s missing engagement ring in the bathroom.

Film study: Reviewing Saints offense

November, 5, 2013
11/05/13
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Some observations on the New Orleans Saints' offense after reviewing the tape of the team's 26-20 loss to the New York Jets in Week 9:

Dropping the ball: Without question, this was the No. 1 issue that plagued the Saints' offense. By my count, the Saints dropped at least six catchable balls -- many of which were huge momentum-changers.

When I reviewed the tape, I was actually surprised by how good the Saints' offense looked for the first 40 minutes or so. The pass protection wasn't a problem until late in the third quarter. Quarterback Drew Brees had time to throw, and receivers were getting open down the field. It was understandable why coach Sean Payton elected to keep throwing the ball so often.

But dropped passes repeatedly derailed drives.

Late in the first quarter, a Saints drive stalled near midfield when receivers Lance Moore and Nick Toon each dropped passes. Toon's came on a deep ball that could have resulted in a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Nick Toon
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsNick Toon could not hold onto this pass against the Jets.
Even more costly was a ball that bounced off Toon's hands in the second quarter and wound up getting intercepted by Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie. The ball snuck up on Toon too quickly on a timing route as he turned to make the catch.

In the fourth quarter, fullback Jed Collins dropped a pass on third-and-1 that would have easily resulted in a first down.

Then on the next drive, tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Robert Meachem both dropped passes that weren't perfectly on target but did hit them in the hands. Meachem's came on third-and-7 and forced the Saints to settle for a field goal.

Tip drill: One more pass that derailed the Saints early in the game was Brees' first interception in the first quarter. He threw the ball too far behind tight end Benjamin Watson on a crossing route. The ball got batted up by safety Dawan Landry, then linebacker DeMario Davis made a great effort to dive and catch it.

Successful throws: Despite those two batted interceptions and all those drops, Brees still threw for 230 yards in the first half -- including a 60-yard bomb to Meachem, a 51-yard touchdown to Graham, a 10-yard touchdown to Graham and a 25-yard strike to Moore.

The Jets stole a page from the New England Patriots' playbook a few times, matching cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Dee Milliner up with Graham, but it wasn't nearly as effective. Graham torched single coverage on both of his touchdowns. First, he used a double move to beat safety Jaiquawn Jarrett on the deep ball (and dragged Jarrett the last eight yards into the end zone). Then he used his size mismatch to box out Cromartie for the 10-yarder.

Protection breakdown: The Saints' offensive line definitely deserves its share of the blame for this performance. They started to take a beating over the final 20 minutes. Late in the third quarter, Jets end Muhammad Wilkerson beat guard Ben Grubbs with a swim move and ran between Grubbs and left tackle Charles Brown to sack Brees. And Grubbs, guard Jahri Evans and center Brian de la Puente all got flagged for holding or illegal use of hands when they lost one-on-one battles up front.

But like I said above, the Saints' line wasn't being harassed all day long. Brees was hit or hurried a few times in the first 40 minutes -- but it was often because blitz pressure forced a quick throw or because he held the ball too long searching for an open receiver.

That was the case when Brees took his two hardest shots of the day in the second half. On one of those plays, the Jets blitzed, and linebacker Quinton Coples eventually found a free path to Brees after twisting into the middle of the line. On another, Brees got nailed by safety Josh Bush when Graham let Bush loose to run out for a late pass route.

Brees' other sack also appeared to be a blown assignment by Graham (or maybe tight end Benjamin Watson). They were both lined up on the right side of the Saints' line, but neither one of them attempted to block outside linebacker Calvin Pace, who ran free at Brees.

Fourth-and-1 fail: The Saints' failed trick play on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter looked like a massive failure when tight end Josh Hill was stopped by Coples for an 8-yard loss on an end-around run. However, you could tell by watching the tape how it was supposed to work. Everyone else besides Coples either bit on the play-action fake to running back Pierre Thomas or got blocked out of the way. If Coples hadn't stayed home, the play might have resulted in a big gain. ... But Coples never budged. He kept his eyes on Brees and Hill the whole time and made an easy tackle.

Solid runs: Payton was right. The Saints didn't run the ball often, but their run plays were pretty effective when they did. Evans, Grubbs and Collins each had at least one standout block on some of the Saints' longer gains.

Sproles imitation: Runner/receiver Darren Sproles left the game with a concussion early in the first quarter, and he was certainly missed. But Thomas did a great job filling in for Sproles on at least one play -- making a diving catch for a first down on fourth-and-2 in the fourth quarter.

Thomas was also effective as usual on screen passes, catching a total of seven passes for 66 yards.

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