NFC South: brandin cooks

METAIRIE, La. – Mickey Loomis reluctantly discussed some of the actual positive things that happened for the New Orleans Saints in 2014 when prodded during his season wrap-up news conference on Tuesday.

But he didn’t dwell on them.

“There was a lot of discussion about our inability to win on the road for a while and we were able to win some games on the road,” Loomis said of a Saints team that started 0-4 on the road and finished 4-0. “We beat three division winners in Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Carolina. So there are some good things. We had some individual performances -- Mark Ingram comes to mind immediately. We like the things we saw out of Brandin Cooks and some other players as well that made improvement [and] progress.

“It’s hard, though, to get too excited about that when you’re 7-9. That doesn’t feel very good. That’s the thing that we’re all focused on. We have to do better than that.”

Cooks, the Saints’ first-round draft pick in 2014, is absolutely near the top of the list of things to be excited about going forward. The rookie receiver was leading New Orleans with 53 receptions (for 550 yards and three touchdowns) when he suffered a season-ending thumb injury in Week 10. And the dynamic speedster was just starting to come on strong as a deep threat in addition to a short-yardage weapon.

Ingram’s success, however, is more of a Catch-22 because he’s due to be an unrestricted free agent. Ingram emerged as a bona fide No. 1 tailback around midseason after injuries to teammates Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas. Ingram finished with career-highs of 964 yards, nine TD runs and four 100-yard games.

The Saints probably love to see that kind of progress from a player that they developed after trading up to get him in the first round of the 2011 draft. But they rarely invest heavily in any one running back, and other teams might value him more on the open market. Or Ingram himself might prefer more of a permanent, every-down back role.

As for Loomis’ disinterest in dwelling on the positives, he insisted he would have felt similarly even if the Saints had won one more game to win the NFC South and make the playoffs.

Loomis said he’s both proud and jealous of the Carolina Panthers for winning their first-round playoff game. But he said the Saints don’t want to just be 8-8 and they would take look at their team with the same “critical eye” this offseason to figure out why that happened.

“We want to be the No. 1 seed and get into the playoffs and have a great chance, an increased chance at getting to the Super Bowl,” Loomis said. “So 8-8 is not going to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC.”
METAIRIE, La. -- It's painfully obvious that the New Orleans Saints' offseason moves haven't panned out. And when a season implodes like this, it's natural to go back and question every decision.

But breaking them down individually, it's still hard to slam a single one of them.

Here's a look at all the major moves the Saints made, and how they've impacted this 5-8 season:

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Jenkins
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsOne player who has been missed on the Saints' roster this season is safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Letting go of Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins: This is the most popular topic right now, with the Saints' veteran leaders lamenting that this team needs more maturity and professionalism.

Clearly, losing all these guys has had some intangible effect. But there's not a single player in that group whom anyone expected the Saints to keep. Greer is the one they miss most on the field, but he had to retire because of a knee injury. Jenkins is the only one still playing at a high level, but he wasn't playing at that level in recent years.

Would some of those veterans have provided a calming influence during the early turmoil? Perhaps. Then again, they were all around in 2012, when the Saints' defense went through a similar implosion.

The biggest issue with the Saints' new roster makeup is that they were counting on a lot of young, breakout players to continue to grow and develop as stars and leaders -- and they haven't.

We're seeing one of those "sophomore slump" or "Super Bowl hangover" type of seasons with the defense. Something like what veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief was alluding to when he said this team needs to learn it can't just show up and expect to win.

They all work hard and care about improving. But one of those young underachievers, safety Kenny Vaccaro, has been honest about wondering why he has regressed, saying he needs to "get that dog back" and admitting he felt like there were a "lot of individual goals" in the secondary early in the season before they started to develop better together.

I still like the core leadership going forward with Keenan Lewis, Curtis Lofton, Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette, Jairus Byrd, Vaccaro and Akiem Hicks. But as I wrote when I broke down the Saints' salary-cap constraints, they absolutely need more from some of those guys -- because they're all-in on them.

Signing Byrd: New Orleans' megadeal for the free-agent safety was their biggest, boldest move -- and it has been a colossal disappointment so far. Byrd played poorly along with the rest of the defense for four weeks, then he suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice.

The move was widely applauded when Byrd signed, despite the hefty price tag of $54 million over six years. And the reasoning behind it was sound (heck, the Saints would pay double right now for a defender who could play like Byrd was playing in Buffalo).

Byrd seemed to be exactly what a young, rising defense was missing -- a proven playmaker with a knack for forcing turnovers and forcing quarterbacks to throw elsewhere. His biggest struggle during the first four weeks was missing open-field tackles -- partly because there were too many opponents running free in the open field in the first place.

If the entire defense can get its act together, Byrd can still wind up being a building block for the future at age 28. He'd better.

Trading Darren Sproles: This was the only move I questioned at the time -- but I always understood the reasoning, with the Saints overloaded at running back. Sure enough, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson have bloomed in part because of Sproles' departure.

Sproles isn't what the Saints' offense is missing this season. The run game and the short passing game are the only things actually working for New Orleans on a consistent basis. Entering this week, they led the NFL in first downs, completion percentage and third-down conversion rate.

One other thing worth noting: As explosive as Sproles was for Philadelphia early in the season, he has gone quiet. He's averaging just 35 yards from scrimmage per game since Week 2.

Trading up for Brandin Cooks: What the Saints' offense has lacked is a dynamic downfield passing game. Receivers such as Marques Colston and Robert Meachem are showing signs of significant decline. So I applaud the decision to trade up for Cooks in the draft's first round, even more than I did at the time. It's a shame his season ended early because of a thumb injury, but I like his chances to be a big part of the offense going forward.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
AP Photo/Bill HaberSaints rookie WR Brandin Cooks had 53 receptions for 550 yards and three touchdowns this season.
Could the Saints have used a cornerback in Round 1 instead? Maybe. But you can't fill all your needs in the draft, and Cooks filled a crucial one.

Other draft picks: This has been an obvious flop so far. Second-round cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste has barely seen the field. It's too early to judge that pick since he was always painted as a raw, long-term project. But his inactivity has stood out since the Saints have had such a desperate need for help at corner this season.

Fourth-round linebacker Khairi Fortt has already been cut -- reportedly after missing two team meetings. And the jury's still out on the later-round picks and free-agent class. An aging team with salary-cap constraints needs better out of its draft class.

Re-signing Jimmy Graham: This was the biggest no-brainer of all. I considered four years and $40 million a bargain for one of the game's most productive playmakers. The Saints would have been nuts to let him go.

However, they clearly need even more than they've gotten out of him this season. Graham has had a few great moments, a few bad moments (especially last week) and a lot of in-between. His season has been a lot like Drew Brees' season -- good, but the Saints need greatness every week.

Releasing Lance Moore: Maybe the Saints could use Moore since their downfield passing game has been shaky, and he was so reliable for so long. But they have decent depth, so he would have been more like a fourth receiver -- just as he is in Pittsburgh.

Signing Champ Bailey/cutting Champ Bailey: I don't blame the Saints for signing the future Hall of Famer, since they invested extremely little on him. The bigger surprise in hindsight is that they decided they were better off without him. With Bailey, Patrick Robinson and Corey White all disappointing this season, perhaps the Saints should have invested more at cornerback instead of going all-in at safety.
METAIRIE, La. – Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks played such a versatile role for the New Orleans Saints that no one single player will be able to replace his production.

Fortunately for the Saints, they have more than a half-dozen options to help pick up the slack. Especially now that pass-catching running back Pierre Thomas and deep-threat receiver Robert Meachem are on the mend from lingering injuries.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham could get more targets after the injury to Brandin Cooks.
“Here’s the thing. Are we gonna miss him? Yeah. Is he a great player, was he really kind of coming into his own? Yes. So it’s unfortunate that he had the injury he had and he’s going to be out,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of Cooks, who was placed on injured reserve with a broken thumb. “But I’m excited by the opportunity this now poses for these young guys. And I feel like they’re gonna do a great job.”

“This has happened with us before with regards to a number of different players,” Saints coach Sean Payton added. “And it falls on the rest of the group picking up his touches. It’s the receivers, the running backs -- candidates that would be doing some of the same things.”

Mostly, I think we’ll see a slight uptick in targets for all of the Saints’ usual suspects – tight end Jimmy Graham, receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills and Thomas, who can provide a similar threat to Cooks in the screen game.

But as I wrote the other day, the area of the Saints’ offense that most concerns me is the deep passing game. That was a problem even before Cooks’ injury. But he had definitely started to emerge as their most dynamic downfield threat.

The Saints could turn to Meachem, Joe Morgan or even Stills on those routes. All have thrived in that role in the past -- we just haven't seen it consistently from any of them this year.

“Everybody kind of has the ability to be in there during those [shot plays], just depending on when they are called,” Brees said. “Did I think Brandin was doing a nice job with that stuff? Yes, I do. I also believe that the guys that we have can do a nice job as well.”

Brees and Payton were both asked if they think the loss of Cooks will hurt Graham, because defenses can now focus even more attention on the All-Pro tight end. But they both kind of shot down that notion because Graham already receives so much attention as it is.

“I would imagine everybody who we play looks at Jimmy and says, 'We've got to have a plan for this guy.' So I don't think it's really gonna change a whole lot," Brees said.

Regardless, I believe the Saints must find a way to keep Graham heavily involved in their passing game, even if Brees has to risk interceptions while force-feeding him. Brees and Graham are the two players who most make the Saints special. And they lost that special quality last week while losing a 27-10 dud to the Cincinnati Bengals. Graham had just three catches for 29 yards and no touchdowns.

Colston is another player the Saints need to resurrect after he has been so inconsistent this year, both with dropped passes and just plain lack of involvement.

I think Brees gave the best answer of all when asked specifically about Colston. Essentially Brees suggested that the biggest key to success for everyone is simply cleaning up a passing game that hasn't lived up to its usual standard all year -- even when Cooks was healthy.

"I think [Colston] is as involved as he’s ever been. I would say we haven't been hitting on all cylinders," Brees said. "We haven't been hitting all of the plays necessarily that we want to hit on."
METAIRIE, La. -- To help fill the void left by injured Brandin Cooks, the New Orleans Saints took a flier on another rookie receiver Wednesday by signing Jalen Saunders off the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad, according to ESPN NFL Insider Field Yates.

Saunders is already on his fourth team since being drafted in the fourth round by the New York Jets this year. The 5-foot-9, 165-pounder from Oklahoma began the year as the Jets’ punt returner. But he was released after he muffed two punt returns. He then spent time on the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad before landing in Seattle.

It’s unclear if the Saints envision Saunders as an immediate punt-return candidate -- a job that became vacant when Cooks was placed on injured reserve with a broken thumb. Chances are even slimmer that they would use Saunders on offense right away.

Coming out of college, Saunders was expected to be a poor man’s version of Cooks -- a speedy and elusive slot receiver/punt returner. But ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini reported that sources said he wasn’t as explosive as draft reports indicated. Maybe another change of scenery will serve him well.

Saunders, who transferred to Oklahoma from Fresno State, caught a total of 123 passes for 1,558 yards and 11 touchdowns during his two seasons with the Sooners. He returned a total of 25 punts for 396 yards and three touchdowns.

To make room on the roster, the Saints released running back Brian Leonard -- a good sign that they must be expecting either Pierre Thomas and/or Khiry Robinson back from lingering injuries this week.

Thomas also tweeted out a picture and message to his fans Wednesday insisting he’s working his way back from shoulder and rib injuries.

The Saints’ first practice (and injury report) is Thursday this week since they’re not playing until Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens.

METAIRIE, La. -- I've probably written it two dozen times over the past nine years: The New Orleans Saints' offense is deep enough to absorb the loss of any one player. I've even written that about tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles.

But for some reason, I'm less confident than ever in making that statement now with the loss of rookie receiver Brandin Cooks for the season with a broken thumb.

[+] EnlargeCooks
AP Photo/Bill HaberRookie receiver Brandin Cooks' season is over because of a broken thumb. He had 53 catches for 550 yards and three touchdowns.
It's not that Cooks was performing at such an incredible level that his production can't be replaced. But Cooks was the only player giving the Saints the kind of dynamic boost that they've needed most.

The Saints' fastest offensive weapon, Cooks had finally started to emerge as a threat on deep passes in recent weeks (catches of 50, 40 and 31 yards). He was also a pseudo-replacement for Sproles on screen passes and end-around runs designed to make defenders miss in the open field.

Last week in a 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Saints (4-6) didn't complete a pass of longer than 17 yards.

They were surprisingly efficient in the game when it came to things like completion percentage, third-down conversions and avoiding turnovers. But they were downright toothless -- a word I've never used to describe New Orleans' offense.

It put the home crowd to sleep. And worse yet, it put no fear into an opponent that had been limping into Sunday's game.

That's not the Saints' personality. And they can't afford for that to be the case going forward -- starting at home this Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens. The Saints' offense has always been at its peak in such prime-time home games, winning 14 straight by nearly 20 points per game.

Most likely, the Saints will rely even more heavily on Graham and receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills going forward. Colston has been more inconsistent this year than ever before with too many dropped passes. But the Saints haven't lost faith in him. He's continued to lead them in snaps each week, and he led them with eight targets and 56 receiving yards against the Bengals.

From a fantasy standpoint, I might stubbornly give a slight nod to Colston over Stills for that reason -- though it's close, and both should see slight increases in production.

It will be interesting to see if this also opens the door for deep-threat receiver Joe Morgan, who has only caught one pass all season while being mostly inactive (and suspended for two weeks for an unspecified team issue). Morgan flashed his dazzling big-play potential with 10 catches for 379 yards and three touchdowns in 2012. But then he missed all of 2013 with a major knee injury.

It also wouldn't hurt for the Saints to get veteran deep threat Robert Meachem and pass-catching running back Pierre Thomas back from lingering injuries. Both are expected back at some point, but the specific timetables are unknown.

W2W4: Saints at Panthers

October, 30, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It’s been a rough season for the entire NFC South, but that doesn’t make tonight’s matchup between the visiting New Orleans Saints (3-4) and host Carolina Panthers (3-4-1) any less critical. The winner will take sole possession of first place as the division’s only .500 team.

The Saints are the hotter team. They just played their best game of the season four nights ago in a 44-23 rout of the Green Bay Packers, and Carolina has lost two straight. But the Saints are 0-4 on the road this season and 2-10 over their past 12 road games, including the playoffs.

That stretch includes a gut-wrenching last-minute 17-13 loss at Carolina in Week 16 of last season, which ultimately decided the NFC South title.

Here’s What 2 Watch 4 in the rematch:

Rookie receivers: Two of the NFL’s leading candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year will be on display on a national prime-time stage tonight -- New Orleans receiver Brandin Cooks and Carolina receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

Benjamin immediately emerged as Carolina's most dynamic weapon and might have had his best catch to date last week against Seattle. The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder has 38 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns. Coach Sean Payton said the thing that stands out most is Benjamin’s "catch radius."

Cornerback Keenan Lewis said, "He’s 6-forever. I call him 6-forever. He looks like he keeps growing by the week. He can go up and get the high ball, an extremely gifted athlete who runs good routes."

Cooks’ production has been a little more sporadic since he is playing in a deeper offense. But he just had his biggest performance yet against Green Bay, with six catches for 94 yards and a touchdown and a 4-yard touchdown run. The blazing-fast, 5-10, 189-pounder has added a dimension to the offense, whether he’s running deep routes, screen passes or end-around runs. He has 40 catches for 372 yards and two TDs, plus six carries for 68 yards and a score.

Exploiting the Panthers' offensive line: The Saints’ pass rush has finally started to heat up with eight sacks over the past nine quarters -- including two by Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Jordan this past Sunday. They will need that to continue against an injury-depleted Carolina offensive line that will feature undrafted rookie David Foucault in his starting debut at left tackle.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is known as a tough sack because of his combination of size and athleticism. But he’s not impossible to bring down, as the Saints proved by sacking him a total of nine times in the two meetings last season.

Keep feeding Ingram? The Saints mixed the run and pass as well as ever in the Payton-Drew Brees era on Sunday night, with Mark Ingram running for 172 yards and a touchdown, and Brees throwing for 311 yards and three touchdowns (all of them coming on play-action passes).

There is no reason for them to stop feeding Ingram against a Carolina defense that ranks last in the NFL by a wide margin this season, allowing 5.2 yards per rush. But that doesn’t mean the Saints will take the ball out of Brees’ hands.

Brees is still by far the Saints’ biggest asset. After completing 27 of 32 passes against Green Bay, he is once again leading the NFL in completion percentage at 69.5 percent. He just needs to cut down on the costly interceptions that have crept up too often on the road dating to last season. Since the start of last season, Brees has thrown 34 TD passes and 6 interceptions at home, with a 21-15 split on the road.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints re-discovered their downfield passing game last week, with receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills both gaining more than 100 receiving yards in a 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions.

 If that’s a sign of things to come, the Saints’ offense could indeed be ready to start rolling, as quarterback Drew Brees and others have suggested. That was the one missing element earlier this season, as they’ve been very efficient with the shorter passes and run game. Turnovers have obviously been a huge problem, as well, with seven interceptions and five lost fumbles. But the Saints actually lead the NFL in yards per play (6.3).

“That just showed we have a bright, young corps,” said Saints rookie receiver Brandin Cooks, who had a quiet game at Detroit but has quickly emerged as a big part of New Orleans’ offense. “It’s getting close to where they really start having to pick their poison because Kenny went off, Colston went off, and I’ve had a couple of good games. Jimmy [Graham] has done his thing.

“I feel like it’s getting close to us just busting out.”

Although Colston struggled early this season with a fumble, dropped passes and even a rare game where he wasn’t targeted once, there was little doubt that the Saints would continue to rely on him.

Colston once again emerged as Brees’ go-to guy at Detroit -- on a day when Graham was limited by a shoulder injury and the Saints’ run game was limited by Detroit’s stingy defensive front.

Colston caught six passes for 111 yards, his first 100-yard game since Week 1.

“He’s one of the most consistent guys I’ve ever played with, continues to be,” Brees said. “I don’t know his statistics this year, I know he’s coming off a 100-yard game. I know that I’m always looking for him. And so there may be those times where, hey, he’s not getting it as much as he has in the past or on a consistent basis as he has in the past, but it’s by no means an indication of anything.

“I can just tell you right now I look to him as much or more than I always have.”

Stills also had a big game, catching five passes for 103 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown.

The Saints would still like to hit on a few more of those “shot” plays they’ve missed on to Stills, Robert Meachem and others.

Cooks could become a factor in that department, too. Despite his blazing speed, most of his touches have come on shorter routes and run plays so far. But he showed that ability in training camp, and coach Sean Payton said some of it has just been circumstance this year.

“He’s been on some that weren’t thrown that way,” Payton said. “He’s someone that we certainly feel like has deep speed, and we can get the ball too down the field.”
METAIRIE, La. – It’s flown a bit under the radar since the New Orleans Saints have had so many other concerns during their 2-3 start. But the Saints certainly aren’t ignoring the fact that they’re ranked dead last in the NFL in punt return average.

The Saints are averaging just 2.0 yards per punt return, with a total of 10 yards on five returns by rookie receiver Brandin Cooks. The Saints also have 13 fair catches.

“It’s an area we have to be better at. We feel like we’ve got a guy that can return them. So this bye week, that’s been a real big point of emphasis,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who pinned the blame more on the overall performance of the blockers than Cooks.

“I don’t know that it’s the returner,” Payton said. “I think when I look at it – and you try to look at it closely – I think the returner’s ready. The other 10 need to be.”

Cooks, meanwhile, said he personally takes the responsibility on himself. He said he should be able to do better, “being that athlete I am.”

“I have to just trust it. Trust the scheme, trust myself,” Cooks said. “Hit it hard and make something happen.”

The Saints’ punt return average wasn’t much better the past two years with Darren Sproles, either – ranking 30th in 2013 at 6.1 yards per return and 26th in 2012 at 7.6 yards per return.

When asked if he believes the return game is one of those things where it’s hard to put a finger on the specific problems – if big returns sometimes come in bunches like turnovers – Payton said no.

“No, you can put your finger on it. It’s like defense or offensive football. It’s not just, ‘Well, it’ll come,’” Payton said. “There are things you have to do in regards to staying on your blocks, fitting, understanding the return, the scheme that’s being run and then looking closely at, ‘Hey, the scheme itself, does it fit what we’re trying to do?’ The holdup players …

“I haven’t been disappointed with the effort, but the technique and obviously the results, the production hasn’t been good.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Rookie linebacker Khairi Fortt reportedly missed two team meetings before being released by the New Orleans Saints, according to The Advocate and WWL Radio.

I have not been able to confirm how much of a factor that was in the Saints’ decision to surprisingly cut ties with their fourth-round draft pick a week before he was eligible to come off the short-term injured reserve list. Two sources did confirm, however, that it was a “football decision” and not any violation of league rules or legal issues.

Perhaps it was the Saints’ way of sending a disciplinary message to the entire roster. Regardless, the draft choice clearly has to be considered a bust for the Saints, since they didn’t deem the linebacker from Cal to be worth trying to salvage.

And Fortt is the latest in a long list of offseason moves that haven’t panned out for the Saints.

First-round draft pick Brandin Cooks and free-agent center Jonathan Goodwin have been the only major contributors among the Saints' new acquisitions.

[+] EnlargeJairus Byrd
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints couldn't rely on key free-agent pickup Jairus Byrd, who missed most of the season with a knee injury.
Cooks, a receiver from Oregon State, has immediately become a huge part of the Saints’ offense, ranking second on the team with 32 catches for 255 yards and a touchdown -- plus five carries for 64 yards. Goodwin has started every game and played well when healthy, though he's been battling a variety of nagging injuries lately.

No other draft picks have made a significant contribution yet, with sixth-round offensive tackle Tavon Rooks being relegated to the practice squad and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, safety Vinnie Sunseri and linebacker Ronald Powell being relegated to special-teams roles.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said the plan was to use Jean-Baptiste in a red zone package for the first time this past week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Tampa’s offensive alignments made the Saints shift Jean-Baptiste off the field.

Free agency has been an even bigger bust so far, largely because of safety Jairus Byrd’s season-ending knee injury last week. Big things are still expected in future years from the Saints’ blockbuster free-agent signing, despite the fact that he showed inconsistency in the first four weeks. But obviously Byrd won’t help for the remainder of the 2014 season.

The other big-name signing was cornerback Champ Bailey, who didn’t make the roster coming out of training camp.

And fullback Erik Lorig also hasn’t played yet because of an ankle injury suffered early in training camp, though the Saints are clearly still expecting a possible impact since they kept a roster spot devoted to him.

The later additions of Goodwin and defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick have produced more fruit so far.

It also doesn’t help matters that two of the players the Saints let go (running back Darren Sproles via trade and safety Malcolm Jenkins via free agency) are off to great starts with the Philadelphia Eagles.

I don’t believe that all of these moves bundled together signal the need for any sort of rethinking or retooling in the front office. I agreed with most of the Saints’ decisions at the time, including the Byrd signing. I was more hesitant on letting go of Sproles, though I understood it since the Saints were loaded at the running back position. And sure enough, all three remaining running backs have been thriving so far this year.

Clearly, though, it’s not an exact science. And so far, the 2014 season is rivaling 2007 as the best evidence of that fact. That was the year the Saints added Jason David, Brian Simmons and Kevin Kaesviharn, among others, and wound up essentially redshirting first-round choice Robert Meachem. They also cut their fourth-round pick that year, running back Antonio Pittman, though he had a better excuse since he got beat out by undrafted rookie Pierre Thomas.
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.
ATLANTA -- It seemed impossible that New Orleans Saints rookie receiver Brandin Cooks could live up to the lofty hype that surrounded him heading into his NFL debut.

And he didn't. He exceeded it.

The Saints' dynamic new weapon did a little bit of everything -- at least during the first half -- of New Orleans' 37-34 overtime loss at the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Cooks finished with seven catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, plus one run for 18 yards and two forced penalties against the defense for holding or interference.

However, Cooks was the first to point out that it felt a little hollow.

"To be honest, I had an all right day. But at the end of the day you want the win," Cooks said. "I would rather have zero catches with a 'W' than what I did."

Cooks was especially down after he had only one catch for nine yards in the second half. And quarterback Drew Brees threw just slightly behind Cooks in the end zone for a costly interception in the third quarter.

“That’s the one that really bugs me,” Brees said after the game. “If I put that thing one more foot in front of Cooks, it’s a touchdown.”

However, Brees has to be feeling very good about the possibilities with his new weapon -- who is as diverse as he is dynamic.

The Saints found about a half-dozen different ways to put the ball in Cooks' hands -- continuing the trend we saw in training camp. He caught a deep ball in traffic for 32 yards on the second play of the game. He later had the end-around run, a screen pass and a slant, showing off his combination of blazing speed, impressive hands and toughness.

As advertised, the 5-foot-10, 189-pounder gives the Saints yet another unique matchup problem that coach Sean Payton and Brees can exploit.

“He looked sharp,” Payton said. “I thought he made some good plays in space, hung onto the football. And the thing with him is he’s prepared. And it's nothing we haven’t seen and that you (in the media) have seen in practice. He looked very comfortable.”

Because the Saints spread the ball around so much to so many different weapons, it’s hard to predict whether Cooks can put up similar numbers on a weekly basis.

But he is obviously a big play waiting to happen. And he is more than ready to burn defenses when they pay too much attention to tight end Jimmy Graham or receiver Marques Colston or the run game.

“Guys were doubling Jimmy, Colston. The run game was (working),” Cooks said. “In an offense like this, someone’s gonna be open.”

W2W4: Saints at Falcons

September, 6, 2014
METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints will be looking to reverse one trend but keep another going as they open the season on the road against their biggest rival.

The Saints need to be better on the road, where they’ve gone 3-5 in each of the past two years. But they want to continue their dominance over the Atlanta Falcons, whom they’ve beaten 13 out of the past 16 times, including a sweep last year.

Sunday’s game is scheduled for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff in the Georgia Dome. Here’s what to watch for:

Dynamic receivers? Get used to it: The Saints’ secondary has become one their greatest strengths over the past two years, with breakout performances by cornerback Keenan Lewis and safety Kenny Vaccaro in 2013 and the arrival of free agent safety Jairus Byrd in 2014. But they will be tested – early and often.

The Falcons feature one of the most dynamic receiving duos in the NFL in Julio Jones and Roddy White (not to mention the depth they have with Harry Douglas and Devin Hester). But this will become an almost weekly ritual as the Saints are scheduled to face eight of the top 10 receivers on ESPN’s preseason fantasy football rankings (Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, Jones, Jordy Nelson, Alshon Jeffery and Randall Cobb).

When asked about that, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan playfully pretended to throw up. But then he said, “They’re all great in this league. … Every team has one. They all have great quarterbacks. You just have to be prepared.”

And many players said they relish the challenge.

“I look at all of it,” Vaccaro said, rattling off a list of names. “I’ve been looking ahead a little bit. You can’t hide in this league. It’s a challenge and it shows the type of player you are. You compete with those guys, you’ll get the recognition you want.”

Bringing the heat: The matchup that most clearly favors the Saints is their loaded defensive front (Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks) against Atlanta's unproven offensive line. The Falcons' line was a question mark even before they lost veteran left tackle Sam Baker to injury this summer. Afterward, they moved rookie first-round draft pick Jake Matthews to left tackle and re-inserted Lamar Holmes into the starting lineup at right tackle.

[+] EnlargeCameron Jordan
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints' Cameron Jordan is eager to see if Atlanta's offensive line has improved.
Earlier this offseason, the Saints’ Jordan took some shots at Atlanta’s offensive line, saying, "I don’t know if you could call that an O-line last year. Road blocks. Speed bumps.” Jordan was much more diplomatic, however, when discussing the matchup Friday.

“I’m sort of looking forward to this game, just because it’s the first game of the season and also because anytime you see some newer names at tackle, you get a little excited,” Jordan said. “I’ll let Junior talk about what he wants to do to tackles. I’m here to say our D-line has to penetrate their offensive line and put pressure on (quarterback Matt) Ryan and make him uncomfortable."

Saints' new weapons: I’m very excited to see what the Saints’ offense looks like now that they’ve added even more dynamic weapons to their group of receivers with the arrival of rookie Brandin Cooks and Joe Morgan’s return from injury. Combine them with a healthy Drew Brees, a healthy Jimmy Graham, a healthy Marques Colston, a healthy Mark Ingram and a running game that looks much improved – and this Saints offense could be as loaded as ever.

I’m not the only one fired up to see how it all fits together. Graham talked about it Friday, as did Cooks.

“I’m excited just to see how our offense works, period, in the game,” Cooks said. “To see how special this offense can be, like I’ve seen in years past.”

Saints Camp Report: Day 20

August, 21, 2014
METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints transitioned out of "camp mode" on Thursday with a glorified walk-through practice that was mostly dedicated to preparation for Saturday night's preseason game at the Indianapolis Colts. This is the one and only preseason game that will get that kind of treatment, since it's the one game where the starters play about a full half. The Saints had a scout team impersonating the Colt, and it was interesting to note that the one Colts offensive player they singled out was up-and-coming receiver T.Y. Hilton (with a player wearing a red No. 13 jersey). "I think when you look at this team, we were talking about this the other day, there are a lot of new faces, guys that are very impressive, that can run. Obviously we know the quarterback (Andrew Luck) has turned into the real good football player. He's got the arm to make all the throws. I think the offensive line has played well. When you put that together with the defense, you are seeing a young roster that has played well, and I'm sure they have high expectations."
  • Since the Saints' offensive and defensive units weren't really going full-speed against each other Thursday, there weren't a ton of highlight moments that stood out. But sure enough, cornerback Corey White managed to squeeze in another big play (almost a daily ritual in camp) with an interception against quarterback Ryan Griffin. Although White probably won't begin the season as a starter with Champ Bailey and Patrick Robinson now returning from injuries, he's certainly taken advantage of his increased practice opportunities. And he'll likely make his way onto the field in certain packages. "All of the reps have been good for me just to show the coaches what I can do on a constant, consistent basis," White said.
  • Receiver Brandin Cooks was back in practice on a limited basis Thursday after missing the three previous days with a stomach virus/fever. When asked if Cooks will play against the Colts, coach Sean Payton said, "We'll see. … We'll see where he's at tonight and tomorrow. (The focus is) really just keeping him hydrated and getting his body weight up a little bit." … Guard Ben Grubbs was also back in practice after missing the past two and a half days with an undisclosed injury. The only other change from Wednesday's practice participation was the absence of safety Marcus Ball, which Payton declined to elaborate on. … Also noteworthy: linebacker Victor Butler and cornerback Rod Sweeting were doing more conditioning work with trainers off to the side of practice than we've seen yet.
  • Quarterback Drew Brees was asked Thursday about safety Jairus Byrd's standout performance in Wednesday night's practice -- particularly Byrd's impressive and deceptive interception against Brees in 7-on-7 drills. "Oh man, it was a ridiculous play," Brees said. "I didn't throw it exactly where I wanted to; I was trying to throw it to Nick Toon in the back, kind of retracing on a route, and Jairus was underneath it. No. 1, I didn't feel like he would really reach it, but he did. To actually come down with it was a whole (different) story. Usually that ball just gets tipped and goes out of the back of the end zone, but it was an impressive play."
  • The Saints don't have a full practice scheduled for Friday. They'll have a brief walk-through, and they'll also take part in an annual fan luncheon before traveling to Indianapolis. Saturday's game at 8 p.m. ET will be nationally-televised by CBS.

Saints’ Camp Report Day 18

August, 19, 2014
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.

Saints Camp Report: Day 15

August, 13, 2014
A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The defense dominated a set of live goal-line drills Wednesday -- easily one of the most physical and spirited sessions to date throughout all of training camp. The first-string offense scored only twice on six attempts inside the 3-yard line (or maybe only once; see below). And the second-string offense got shut out on all four of its attempts, including a fumbled snap between center Tim Lelito and quarterback Luke McCown. The two running backs who scored were Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet -- both times around the left side. It's hard to pinpoint too many individual standouts in that type of drill without the benefit of replay. But among those who came up big at least twice were defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley with the first-string defense, end Glenn Foster and cornerback Corey White with the second-string defense and left tackle Terron Armstead with the first-string offense.
  • The players themselves wish they had a replay challenge at their disposal since no one could agree whether Cadet scored. Players debated on the field, in postgame interviews and even on Twitter after's Lyons Yellin posted a video of the play from an inconclusive angle. What was conclusive on that video is that Armstead laid a great block on linebacker Kyle Knox -- who then recovered to make an outstanding hit on Cadet just as he approached the goal line. For what it's worth, I was watching from a direct sideline angle and thought the ball crossed the plane.
  • Nobody needed replay to see rookie receiver Brandin Cooks put on another dazzling display later in team drills. Cooks reeled in a touchdown pass of more than 50 yards from McCown by leaping up and outdueling safety Pierre Warren for the ball. He later ran free behind the third-string defense to catch another deep ball from QB Logan Kilgore. As I've said many times, we really aren't overhyping Cooks. He simply keeps makes the biggest highlights on an almost-daily basis. I didn't think he'd be in a position to catch the deep ball against Warren, but sure enough, he rose to the challenge.
  • The secondary had a few highlights of its own in team drills. Safety Rafael Bush intercepted quarterback Ryan Griffin after linebacker Kevin Reddick popped the ball up (Reddick should've caught it himself). Cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Stanley Jean-Baptiste each had nice pass break-ups in the end zone during a red-zone drill.
  • Kicker Derek Dimke had a rough day, missing two of his three field-goal attempts. Shayne Graham was a little better, going 3-of-4, including one from 50-plus. But Graham did doink one off the right upright. I still say Graham has the edge if he can show stability throughout the rest of the preseason. The Saints just need to have faith that he can be a solid 80-percent kicker. But Graham hasn't locked down the job yet, and he's competing with both Dimke and kickers who will get cut around the league.
  • The Saints are now done with training camp at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. They won't practice Thursday as they fly home to New Orleans before Friday's preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. Then they'll remain home for the rest of camp.