NFC South: David Hawthorne

A look at the New Orleans Saints' projected defensive depth chart as it stands today:

DE1 –- Cameron Jordan, Tyrunn Walker

DE2 –- Akiem Hicks, Glenn Foster

NT –- Brodrick Bunkley, John Jenkins

OLB1 –- Junior Galette, Keyunta Dawson, Kyle Knox

OLB2 –- Parys Haralson, Victor Butler, Rufus Johnson

SILB –- Curtis Lofton, Ramon Humber

WILB –- David Hawthorne, Kevin Reddick

CB1 –- Keenan Lewis, Rod Sweeting, A.J. Davis, Trevin Wade

CB2 –- Corey White, Patrick Robinson, Terrence Frederick, Derrius Brooks

SS –- Kenny Vaccaro, Rafael Bush

FS –- Jairus Byrd

Thoughts: There aren't too many glaring holes here. I keep ranking cornerback as the Saints' top defensive need because they could use a more proven starter opposite Keenan Lewis. But they obviously have plenty of depth at the position.

Conversely, the Saints don't have much depth at safety. But if they sign a veteran corner such as Champ Bailey, they could use him as a pseudo-safety in nickel and dime packages. They could potentially do the same thing with White, who played safety in college.

The one position I really think the Saints need to address at some point in the draft is linebacker. They could use young backups who can play special teams right away and eventually push to replace veterans such as Hawthorne and Haralson.

And as coach Sean Payton said last week, teams are always on the lookout for more pass-rushing help -- though they should be improved in that area with Victor Butler returning from injury and Rufus Johnson having another year to develop.
Much has been made of how the New Orleans Saints are pushing millions of dollars in salary-cap costs into future years. And it's true -- the Saints will again be feeling the pressure of a tight cap squeeze in 2015.

But a closer look at the numbers shows the Saints will be in about the same position in 2015 that they were in this year. And the two years before that.

Not better. But not worse.

And after what we've seen over the past three offseasons, does anyone doubt the Saints' ability to live on the edge of the salary cap?

It helps quite a bit that the NFL's cap is expected to keep soaring. This year, the cap rose from $123 million to $133 million for every NFL team. And analysts project similar increases during the next two years as the revenues from recent TV deals kick in.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe cap hit for Drew Brees will increase from $18.4 million in 2014 to $26.4 million in 2015.
As of today, the Saints have a total of 39 players under contract for 2015 at a combined salary-cap cost of $124.7 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information. However, that doesn't include any figures for tight end Jimmy Graham or defensive end Cameron Jordan. Graham is expected to sign a long-term contract this offseason, while the Saints are expected to lock up Jordan later this spring with a one-year option for 2015 (see below).

Those new deals should push the Saints' 2015 cap costs closer to $140 million for 41 players. And that projection will continue to rise as the Saints sign more players or restructure more contracts. Remember, a team's salary cap figure during the offseason includes its top 51 salaries. So even 10 minimum contracts would raise that number to $145 million by the start of the 2015 league year.

So the Saints will have to find more creative solutions to get back under the cap again next offseason. But there is no sense of impending doom or disaster. Just more of what we've been seeing in recent years.

Here's a breakdown of some of the more interesting cap issues facing the Saints in 2015 and beyond:

The big leaps: Two contracts will have huge salary-cap increases in 2015 -- quarterback Drew Brees and newly-signed safety Jairus Byrd. Brees' cap cost will go from $18.4 million this year to $26.4 million next year (because his salary and bonuses will increase from $11 million to $19 million). And Byrd's cap cost will go from $3.5 million to $10.3 million (largely due to a $6 million roster bonus).

Free agents: The good news for the Saints is that most of their core players are already under contract through 2015 (once they get those new deals in place for Graham and Jordan, that is). Other than those two, the top players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next year are running back Mark Ingram, linebacker Victor Butler, safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Patrick Robinson.

Graham is expected to sign a long-term contract at some point that should average at least $10 million per year, likely with lower cap costs in the early years. (NOTE: Graham is already counting $7.05 million against the Saints' cap this year because of his franchise tag, so a new deal wouldn't affect the 2014 cap much.)

As for Jordan, the Saints are expected to exercise a fifth-year option on the Pro Bowl defensive end this spring that will likely cost somewhere between $6 and $8.5 million for a one-year deal in 2015. If they exercise that option, Jordan can't become a free agent until 2016.

Big decisions: Linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are both scheduled to receive big roster bonuses in 2015 that could force the Saints to make a decision on their status. Lofton has a roster bonus of $4.5 million due in 2015, plus another $2.5 million in salary and workout bonuses. If he continues at his current level, Lofton could well be worth a total of $7 million. But his contract was clearly designed for that to be a “prove it” clause. Hawthorne, likewise, is due a $2.5 million roster bonus in 2015, plus $2 million in salary.

Smaller bounces: The other cap jumps in 2015 are more modest. Marques Colston, Keenan Lewis, Zach Strief and Pierre Thomas are all scheduled for increases between $1 million and $1.4 million. No one else on the roster is scheduled to go up by more than $500,000.

Raising the dead: If you're wondering why the Saints' total cap figure for 2015 isn't higher, remember that they don't have any “dead money” counting against their 2015 cap yet. This year, the Saints have nearly $13.8 million in “dead money” counting against their cap from the pro-rated signing bonuses of veterans that were released before the end of their contracts (Will Smith, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Lance Moore, Garrett Hartley, etc.).
A position-by-position look at where the New Orleans Saints stand heading into the 2014 offseason -- ranked from 1-12 in order of the team's need for upgrades or replacements.

Current depth chart:

Lofton
Curtis Lofton. Age 27, signed through 2016. 2014 salary and bonuses: $3.2 million. 2014 salary-cap number: $5.2 million.

David Hawthorne. Age 28, signed through 2016. 2014 salary and bonuses: $2 million. 2014 salary-cap number: $3.51 million.

Parys Haralson. Age 30, unrestricted free agent.

Jonathan Vilma. Age 31, unrestricted free agent.

Ramon Humber. Age 26, unrestricted free agent.

Will Herring. Age 30, unrestricted free agent.

Kevin Reddick. Age 24, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016. 2014 salary and bonuses: $495,000. 2014 salary-cap number: $496,666.

Analysis:

As I wrote earlier, I broke down the Saints' front seven into three categories (interior linemen, edge rushers and linebackers) since they run a hybrid between a 4-3 and a 3-4. So this is essentially the group of true linebackers who play in space, rather than the pass-rushing linebackers such as Junior Galette.

This may not seem like one of the Saints' most glaring needs since Lofton and Hawthorne played so well this past season. But look how thin the list gets behind those two veterans. I think it would be especially helpful for the Saints to look at this group in the draft since they need to inject youth and athleticism -- someone who could rotate into the mix right away and develop into a future starter.

Just imagine how much more potent this defense would be with an outside linebacker like Tampa Bay's Lavonte David or Carolina's Thomas Davis roaming the flats. And I ranked this list even before Seattle outside linebacker Malcolm Smith was named Super Bowl MVP, but it seems especially fitting now.

As for the guys who are under contract, I think the Saints are set with their two starting inside linebackers, Lofton and Hawthorne. Lofton played especially well down the stretch this past season, and he has been a great addition as an every-down middle linebacker, captain and leader of the defense. What a smooth transition he has made since arriving as a free agent in 2012. Hawthorne, on the other hand, struggled when he first arrived in 2012, mostly because of injuries. But he bounced back this past year and played at a high level. Hawthorne's contract could become an issue in 2015, but for now he comes at a good rate.

Reddick will also be back, and I could see him playing a more prominent role after he earned playing time as an undrafted rookie in 2013. He played a lot on special teams and joined the defense in jumbo packages. He could have a future as an inside linebacker if he continues to deliver on his potential.

The two biggest question marks among the unrestricted free agents are Vilma and Haralson. I know the popular opinion is that Vilma will be gone after he missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, and he'll be 32 in the spring. However, if he wants to try and play this summer, the Saints would be the team most likely to give him that opportunity since he's been such a valued member of the organization. Haralson is also coming off of a season-ending pectoral injury, but I could also see him back at a minimal contract after he seemed like such a good veteran fit in a part-time role last year.

Humber and Herring are two of the Saints' most valued special teamers, so they could both be back. Humber showed promise as a backup middle linebacker in the summer, as well, so his versatility is valuable.

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

December, 18, 2013
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For the New Orleans Saints defense, Sunday's 27-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams was all about big plays. The ones they gave up -- and the ones they failed to make.

The Saints defense had terrible breakdowns during four back-breaking big plays by the Rams (all in the first half). Meanwhile, the Saints didn't make any big plays of their own (zero turnovers for the third straight game and zero sacks).

Here are my observations after reviewing the tape:

Lowest point: The Saints' worst defensive play of the game came early -- when they gave up a 31-yard touchdown pass to tight end/fullback Cory Harkey. The whole play was a disaster. The Saints sent five or six defenders on a blitz (depending on whether outside linebacker Junior Galette was supposed to be rushing or covering Harkey -- which was hard to tell from the replay). Either way, Harkey was wide open after running into the flat from the fullback position, and quarterback Kellen Clemens threw the ball before any blitz pressure came anywhere close to him.

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Cory Harkey
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceSaints cornerback Corey White could not shove Rams fullback Cory Harky out of bounds. Harky scored from 31 yards out on the play.
Then things got worse. Linebacker Curtis Lofton and safety Malcolm Jenkins appeared to have Harkey pinned against the sideline short of the first-down marker. But Lofton got taken out with a great block by tight end Jared Cook, and Jenkins missed the open-field tackle while diving low at Harkey's waist/hips. Saints cornerback Corey White was then waiting a few yards down the field -- but he looked unprepared to make the tackle (perhaps surprised by Jenkins' miss). White didn't have much momentum behind him as he tried to shove Harkey out of bounds, and Harkey barely moved as he kept running forward. Cornerback Keenan Lewis also tried to shove Harkey out of bounds at the end of the run, but Lewis was being blocked, so it was a lost cause.

Run over: Later in the first half, the Saints gave up runs of 29 yards and 40 yards to Rams rookie running back Zac Stacy (the first one setting up a touchdown and the second one scoring a touchdown). They were also huge miscues by the defense -- but at least both of those plays should be credited to some perfectly-executed blocks by the Rams, too.

Both plays came around the right end, and both were designed to have tight end Lance Kendricks take out Saints defensive end Akiem Hicks with a crack-back block at the line of scrimmage. Then Stacy followed pulling right tackle Joe Barksdale and pulling right guard Rodger Saffold around the corner.

On the 29-yard run, Barksdale, Saffold and tight end Jared Cook all combined to flatten safety Roman Harper to the ground at the line of scrimmage. Then Saffold and Cook also knocked linebacker David Hawthorne to the side. Stacy then hurdled some of the fallen bodies while breaking into the open field. And to make matters worse, Jenkins was flagged an extra 14 yards for a late shove out of bounds at the end of the run.

On the 40-yard run, the Saints were in a different defensive front, but the Rams' blocking scheme was just as effective. Kendricks took out Hicks, Saffold took out Lofton, and Barksdale ran into outside linebacker Parys Haralson. Haralson actually did a good job fighting off the block, but then he missed the tackle against Stacy as he came around the corner. Stacy then flashed some impressive speed while shooting past Jenkins, who took too shallow of an angle at him. After that, no one had a chance to catch Stacy.

No pressure: The Saints got virtually zero pressure on Clemens all day (though he only dropped back to pass a total of 20 times). And they were burned several times when they tried to blitz. Harkey's touchdown came against a blitz. So did Clemens' 4-yard touchdown pass to Kendricks later in the first quarter. And so did Clemens' 31-yard pass to receiver Chris Givens on a third-and-5 play that kept alive another TD drive in the second quarter.

Kendricks broke wide open on his touchdown pass. It appeared to be a mistake by linebacker Will Herring, who bumped Kendricks at the line of scrimmage, then let him go as if he expected help from behind. But it also could have been a missed assignment by Lewis or Jenkins, who both followed their men on slant routes to the middle of the field.

The 31-yard pass to Givens was clearly a mistake by White, who fell down while chasing Givens on a short route across the middle of the field. After White fell, Givens had clear sailing for another 20 yards. Then to make things a little worse, safety Isa Abdul-Quddus whiffed on an open-field tackle attempt toward the end of the play.

Caught off guard: The Saints' special teams were also caught off guard for a big play -- the Rams' surprise onside kick in the first quarter. The kick was about as perfectly-executed as you'll ever see. Kicker Greg Zuerlein's kick sailed high into the air, and receiver Stedman Bailey went up and caught it at its highest point as if it was a pass. Saints linebacker Ramon Humber was actually in position to take a swipe at the ball in the air, but he lost the jump ball to Bailey. Meanwhile, Hawthorne and running back Travaris Cadet weren't in position to make a play after initially running away from the play (though it's unclear if they could have made a difference regardless).

Crying foul: The Saints made things worse on themselves with three personal-foul penalties in the first quarter. I thought the first two were a little iffy (Lofton hitting Clemens a tad late when Clemens slid at the end of a read-option keeper, then Jenkins' late hit against Stacy). Although Jenkins clearly shoved Stacy after he was already out of bounds, Stacy also might have gotten away with a stiff-arm against Jenkins' face mask leading up to it.

The last penalty, however, was clearly a bad call. Jenkins was flagged for launching into receiver Austin Pettis, but Pettis got hit in the shoulders, and Jenkins made the hit with his hands and shoulder. There was no helmet contact from either player.

Something good: Aside from those game-breaking runs by Stacy, the Saints' run defense actually played well for much of the game. The Rams had a total of 13 runs and two short passes that gained 1 yard or less -- five that went for negative yards. Hawthorne was particular good, making several open-field tackles on run plays and short passes (finishing with 10 solo tackles). Lofton, Hicks and safety Kenny Vaccaro also had one or two nice solo run stuffs as well.
METAIRE, La. -- Only two players missed practice for the New Orleans Saints on Friday. But one of them was new to the list – linebacker Curtis Lofton, who was sidelined by an ankle injury. That leaves both of the Saints’ starting inside linebackers in jeopardy of missing Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, since David Hawthorne also missed practice for the third straight day with a toe injury.

It’s unclear when Lofton was injured or how severe the injury is, since the Saints’ injury report came out after Friday’s media access. So it’s hard to predict whether he’ll be available for Sunday’s game.

If the Saints have to play without both of their starting inside linebackers, they’ll lean on backups Ramon Humber, Will Herring and Kevin Reddick – and possibly on outside linebacker Parys Haralson. Mostly they’ll lean on defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s creativity, with different alignments and formations.

The Saints offense appears to be in good shape heading into Sunday’s game. Tight end Jimmy Graham, receiver Marques Colston and guard Jahri Evans are officially listed as questionable. But they all practiced on a limited basis again Friday – the latest encouraging sign that they’ll be good to go.

Graham smiled as he sidestepped questions about his lingering foot injury and the new elbow injury he suffered during last Sunday’s game at the New York Jets. He finished that game without showing any noticeable limitations. And he has practiced on a limited basis the past two days. So chances are, he’ll be fine Sunday.

“The elbow’s the elbow. It’s still connected. It’s still there, so I’m going to keep using it,” Graham said.

Graham later added, “The foot is what it is. And it's going to be what it is. And I'm going to keep playing the way I play, and doing what I can to be healthy and be out there Sundays. That's the best I can do."

Colston’s status is a little more ambiguous since he was held out of last Sunday’s game with a knee injury. But it’s likely he will return after practicing on a limited basis every day this week. Colston declined to comment Friday.

The Saints’ defense, meanwhile, is littered with injury question marks.

A total of seven defensive players are listed as questionable – including Lofton and Hawthorne. End Cameron Jordan (ankle) and safety Malcolm Jenkins (knee) both returned to practice on a limited basis Friday for the first time this week. Jordan is more likely to play, since he’s been playing through the nagging ankle injury for the last two weeks. Jenkins is harder to predict, since he just returned to practice for the first time Friday after missing nearly two weeks with the knee injury.

Fellow safety Roman Harper (knee) is in the same boat, even though he practiced fully all week. Harper has been out since Week 2, and coach Sean Payton said it might take longer for him to get up to speed than some of the others on the list.

Defensive linemen Tom Johnson (hip) and Tyrunn Walker (knee) are listed as questionable, but they should be good to go after practicing fully all week.

Saints injuries: Graham, Evans return

November, 7, 2013
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METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints offense should be fully intact for Sunday night’s game against the Dallas Cowboys. Tight end Jimmy Graham (elbow/foot) and guard Jahri Evans (hip) returned to practice on a limited basis for the Saints on Thursday. Receiver Marques Colston (knee) practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day.

Graham
The defense has more uncertainty, however. End Cameron Jordan (ankle), linebacker David Hawthorne (toe) and safety Malcolm Jenkins (knee) were held out of team drills for the second straight day.

Jordan has been able to play through the ankle injury during the past two games, despite being limited in practice. So it’s tough to predict his status. The same goes for Hawthorne, who played the entire game last week.

Jenkins seems like more of a long shot since he’s been sidelined for nearly two weeks now. But he was suited up for practice Thursday and did a little individual work for the first time since suffering his injury.

“I’m getting there. Taking it day by day. I got out there and ran around a little bit,” Jenkins said. “So we’ll see what happens.”

It will help the Saints’ depth at safety if veteran Roman Harper is able to return from his own lingering knee injury that has kept him out since Week 2. Harper has practiced fully this week after returning on a limited basis last week. Coach Sean Payton, however, stressed that Harper was facing a longer rehab period than most because he missed so much time.

Graham and Evans should both be OK to play Sunday since they played through the same injuries last week -- though it will increase their odds if they’re able to come back out and practice again on Friday. The same goes for Colston. He was held out of last Sunday’s game with the knee injury after he was only able to practice once last week.

Everyone else on the Saints’ roster practiced fully Thursday.

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

October, 30, 2013
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Some observations on the New Orleans Saints' defense after reviewing the tape of the team's 35-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Week 8:

Galette everywhere: Outside linebacker Junior Galette had an outstanding performance -- one that was much more appreciated from watching the tape than from reading the stat sheet. His biggest play of the day was a sack and forced fumble in the second quarter when he beat tight end Scott Chandler with a speed move during a blitz (the Bills recovered, though). But Galette did much more that may have gone unnoticed.

He forced a critical holding penalty against Chandler to nullify a 55-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. And he pressured quarterback Thad Lewis into at least one other incomplete pass. Galette was equally impressive against the run, helping to stop tailback Fred Jackson for a 3-yard loss and a zero-yard gain. And at least twice, Galette helped set up his teammates for big plays.

On the game's first play, the Bills ran the read-option with Lewis faking a handoff to Jackson. Lewis looked as though he might run to the right, but Galette did a great job of staying home and blocking his path. So Lewis ran left instead and got clobbered by linebacker David Hawthorne, who forced a fumble with a vicious hit. Later in the fourth quarter, Galette helped flush Lewis out of the pocket to set up teammate Glenn Foster for a 1-yard sack.

Hawthorne's hot start: Hawthorne also sacked Lewis on the Bills' third play of the game when the Saints sent seven men on a blitz. Hawthorne has continued to play well this season now that he's healthy.

Bringing blitzes: This was probably the most the Saints blitzed all season. They were officially credited with 15 blitzes on passing plays by ESPN Stats & Information -- one fewer than their previous season-high against New England. But they also blitzed on several run plays and on at least three other pass plays that were nullified by penalty.

The Saints blitzed a lot on that second drive to make sure Lewis didn't get comfortable inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. They got caught over-pursuing on a 15-yard run by Jackson but eventually forced Buffalo to settle for a missed 50-yard field goal. They sprinkled several more blitzes throughout the game -- including a few more with seven rushers.

Jordan un-tucked: Defensive end Cameron Jordan's sack and forced fumble in the first quarter came on a four-man rush. It was all him. He beat right tackle Erick Pears with a power move to the inside, popped the ball loose from Lewis with a big hit and recovered the ball himself.

Jordan was lucky that the NFL changed its "tuck rule" before this season, though. Lewis was in the act of trying to tuck the ball down when he got hit.

Run D highs, lows: The Saints' run defense was a little shaky early, with the 15-yard gain by Jackson and a 20-yard gain by Tashard Choice, which also caught the Saints over-pursuing on a blitz. But the Saints did a good job of shutting down the run for most of the game. They held Buffalo to 53 rushing yards on 23 other runs and a total of 13 yards on nine carries in the second half. Galette, defensive end Akiem Hicks and safety Kenny Vaccaro all had standout days against the run. Vaccaro had two tackles for loss.

Greer bailed out: If not for the holding call mentioned above, Saints cornerback Jabari Greer would have been burned for the 55-yard TD pass to receiver T.J. Graham. Greer tried to jump the route but misjudged the ball by several yards. It was a rare gamble by Greer, who is usually solid in deep coverage.

Overall, the Saints' pass defense was good. Fellow cornerback Keenan Lewis intercepted a pass by Lewis in the fourth quarter that was so off-target that it was hard to tell who was the intended receiver. Cornerback Chris Carr also prevented a touchdown with blanket coverage on Chandler in the second quarter (that flirted with being pass interference).

Chandler did get too wide open a couple times on a field goal drive, though. And Vaccaro got burned by receiver Stevie Johnson on a 13-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter when Vaccaro failed to jam him off the line.

White's penalties: Cornerback Corey White was flagged twice for roughing the passer with head shots on Lewis while blitzing. The first one looked like a tough break. White appeared to be aiming for Lewis' midsection, but Lewis lowered his head as he crouched to absorb the hit. The second time, White went too high, almost bear-hugging Lewis as their heads hit. Afterward, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was seen on the sideline offering pointers to White.

White's aggressive play did pay off a couple of times, though. He snuffed out a quick out-pass to Johnson for a 2-yard loss in the second quarter. And he shot down the field to force a fumble on a punt return by Leodis McKelvin in the fourth (though Buffalo recovered).

Saints not all bad in 35-17 victory

October, 28, 2013
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METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was hard on his team after an imperfect 35-17 victory against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. And players eagerly agreed with the message that the sloppy mistakes they made could get them beat down the road.

Naturally, however, there were plenty of good things to like about New Orleans’ performance. And Payton reiterated one of his favorite expressions Monday that the tape is never as good or bad as you think the next day.

Payton
Payton
Payton twice emphasized how good the Saints’ defensive line played, both containing the run and disrupting quarterback Thad Lewis. He singled out end Akiem Hicks, whose performance might have gone more under the radar than those of pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, who both forced fumbles on sacks. The Saints had four sacks total, and Payton said they wound up with more total pressures and hurries than the Bills’ vaunted defensive line.

Payton also singled out linebacker David Hawthorne, who made a huge play on the first snap of the game, hitting Lewis hard on a read-option run and forcing a fumble. He mentioned cornerback Keenan Lewis, who helped clinch the game with a fourth-quarter interception. He talked about the big plays made by the offense, describing quarterback Drew Brees as "very sharp" during his five-touchdown performance and complimenting tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Kenny Stills.

“I think that Kenny Stills continues to really play well at a high level and at a consistent level where he’s made some big plays for us,” Payton said of the rookie, who has six catches for 193 yards and three touchdowns over the past two games.

The players who were present in the Saints’ locker room Monday morning said much of the same things -- acknowledging both the things they did well and the things that need to be cleaned up.

“You really want to bug coach? Don’t put enough guys on the field," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said of an issue that crept up on both offense and defense Sunday. "Have a procedural, a pre-snap kind of deal. Those types of things drive him nuts, and it looks sloppy. It doesn’t look good. At the end of the day, when we get into the part of the season that we hope to be in, towards the end of the year where you’re playing for seeding and you’re in playoff games -- places we want to go -- those teams will beat you because of those things. And those are things that you can fix.

"But a lot of times you can’t fix them unless they’re brought up and emphasized. And that’s a time that he has everyone’s ears and everyone is listening, and I think those messages can kind of stick in those moments."
The New Orleans Saints have used six undrafted rookies in their lineup this season after defensive end Glenn Foster and tailback Khiry Robinson made their debuts last Sunday. (The others are guard Tim Lelito, tight end Josh Hill, linebacker Kevin Reddick and cornerback Rod Sweeting.) According to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s tied, with Cleveland, for the most in the NFL.

But that’s nothing new around New Orleans during the Sean Payton era. The Saints have never been shy about throwing undrafted rookies into the mix – including two of their longtime offensive stars, receiver Lance Moore (began with the Browns before joining the Saints in 2006) and tailback Pierre Thomas (signed by the Saints after the draft in 2007). As Payton likes to say, the Saints don’t care where their players came from. They go by what they see on the field.

The Saints currently have 23 players on their 53-man roster who were undrafted when they came into the NFL, including veteran starters such as cornerback Jabari Greer and linebacker David Hawthorne who played for other teams before joining the Saints.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints have used a total of 64 undrafted players since 2006, the third most in the NFL. The league average is 47 during that span. And dating back to 2008, the Saints have had undrafted players take 22.3 percent of all offensive or defensive snaps, the fifth most in the NFL.

Here’s the complete list of players on the Saints’ 53-man roster who were not drafted (* denotes a starter):

Offense

*WR Lance Moore, *RB Pierre Thomas, *C Brian de la Puente, *FB Jed Collins, RB Travaris Cadet, RB Khiry Robinson, G Tim Lelito, T Bryce Harris, TE Josh Hill

Defense

*CB Jabari Greer, *LB David Hawthorne, *LB Junior Galette, S Rafael Bush, S Isa Abdul-Quddus, CB Chris Carr, LB Ramon Humber, DE Tom Johnson, DE Tyrunn Walker, DE Glenn Foster, LB Kevin Reddick, CB Rod Sweeting

Special teams

*K Garrett Hartley, *LS Justin Drescher

Around the NFC South

September, 5, 2013
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Let's take a run through some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

The team is looking about as healthy as it can. Receiver Roddy White (ankle), linebacker Stephen Nicholas (quadriceps), cornerback Asante Samuel (quadriceps) and kicker Matt Bryant (back) all practiced on Wednesday.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Despite some spotty play in the preseason, general manager Dave Gettleman said he’s confident the offensive line can get the job done. He better be right because this is a unit that could make or break the Panthers’ season.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Mike Triplett writes that linebacker David Hawthorne could end up being an upgrade over the injured Jonathan Vilma. Hawthorne didn’t do much last year, his first season with the Saints, due to injuries. But he has talent and could help solidify a linebacker corps that has been hit hard by injuries.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Despite a lackluster preseason performance, coordinator Mike Sullivan said he has confidence in quarterback Josh Freeman and the offense. The preseason play was unimpressive, but Sullivan said he’s happy with the progress he’s seen in practices.

Reports: Jonathan Vilma headed to IR

September, 3, 2013
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The news that wide receiver Robert Meachem is returning to the New Orleans Saints could have a downside to it.

To make room for Meachem on the roster, the Saints reportedly are placing linebacker Jonathan Vilma on injured reserve and designating him to return. Vilma will be eligible to return after six weeks.

Vilma had knee surgery in August and has been bothered by knee problems in recent seasons. David Hawthorne is expected to take Vilma’s place at inside linebacker.

Saints running out of healthy LBs

August, 26, 2013
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At a time when they’re switching their defensive scheme to include an extra linebacker, the New Orleans Saints are running out of players to play the position.

Outside linebacker Will Smith reportedly will miss the season after injuring his knee in Sunday’s preseason game with Houston.

That comes after the Saints lost Victor Butler, a projected starter at the other outside linebacker position, to injury in June. Outside linebackers Martez Wilson (elbow) and Junior Galette (leg) also have missed significant time in the preseason. Inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma also has been sidelined after having knee surgery. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman also is out for the season with a pectoral injury.

Vilma’s space is being filled by David Hawthorne. But the outside linebacker positions are a bigger concern. The Saints are hoping Wilson and Galette can get healthy. Veteran backup Jay Richardson could be in the mix for more playing time. Rookies Rufus Johnson and Eric Martin have done some good things in the preseason, but I’m not sure they’re ready to be starters.

The Saints might have to comb the waiver wire for linebacker help in the coming days.

Observation deck: Saints-Texans

August, 25, 2013
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There is reason for concern for the New Orleans Saints’ defense. There also is reason for hope.

Evidence of both was on display in Sunday’s 31-23 preseason victory.

Let’s start with the concern. New Orleans fans know all too well that the Saints had the league’s worst defense last season. The Saints have changed coordinators and schemes, but it looked as if nothing had changed early on.

The Texans gained 164 yards of total offense in the first quarter and the New Orleans defense struggled in all areas. But, even with Houston’s offensive starters remaining in through the end of the first half, some signs of hope emerged.

Cameron Jordan, who I think will excel as a 3-4 defensive end, came up with a sack and a quarterback pressure. Undrafted rookie Glenn Foster came up with his fourth sack of the preseason. Linebacker David Hawthorne, playing in place of the injured Jonathan Vilma, showed signs he can hold up in pass coverage. Cornerback Patrick Robinson, who struggled all of last season, had great coverage on a deep pass in the second quarter.

Oh, and one other thing besides all that -- you can bet that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was holding back on a lot of things that the Atlanta Falcons will see in the season opener.

Some other quick observations on the Saints:
  • The Saints already have had some injury problems at linebacker and, now, they may have another one. Will Smith limped off the field in the second quarter and didn’t return. Trainers appeared to be looking at his right knee.
  • If rookie Kenny Stills hadn’t already won the third receiver job, I think he might have accomplished that Sunday. Stills had a great catch despite strong coverage on a deep sideline route. He followed that up with a touchdown catch.
  • Backup quarterback Luke McCown had another strong performance. McCown completed 10 of 14 for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Reserve running back Travaris Cadet, who had some problems with fumbles earlier in the preseason, made a couple of nice catches out of the backfield. Cadet is in a competition with rookie Khiry Robinson for what is likely to be the final running back spot on the roster.
  • Receiver Andy Tanner stayed in the competition for a roster spot by making two touchdown catches.

Around the NFC South

August, 16, 2013
8/16/13
9:37
AM ET
Time for our morning run through the news and notes from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Roddy White, who left Thursday night’s game with an ankle injury, gave a thumbs up on Twitter. But coach Mike Smith wasn’t ready to address any injuries.

Dominique Davis showed huge improvement in the second preseason game. Davis might have done enough to wrap up the backup job behind Matt Ryan.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Linebacker Chase Blackburn had to leave Thursday night’s game with a back injury. After the game, Blackburn said he had a back spasm and that he should be all right in a day or two.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

We’ll get a much better idea of where things stand in the backup quarterback competition Friday night. Seneca Wallace is scheduled to play after Drew Brees. Wallace didn’t play in the preseason opener as he recovered from a groin injury. Luke McCown turned in a solid performance in the opener, and Wallace will have to turn in a strong showing if he’s going to beat out McCown.

Coach Sean Payton confirmed that Jonathan Vilma had knee surgery, but wouldn’t give any more details or a time frame for the linebacker to return. Given Vilma’s age and injury history, I’d say the Saints better make sure David Hawthorne is ready to start if needed.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Scott Reynolds writes that defensive end Da’Quan Bowers needs to answer the wake-up call that coach Greg Schiano has been sending. Schiano has repeatedly made it clear Bowers needs to play more consistently if he’s going to be an every-down defensive end. The ability is there, but Bowers needs to step things up to solidify his role.

The Bucs will have one half of their guard tandem playing in Friday night’s preseason game. Carl Nicks, who missed half of last season with a toe injury, is expected to make his debut. But Davin Joseph, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, will sit this one out.

NFC South quick hits

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
4:02
PM ET
As we get ready for Thursday night’s preseason games involving the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons (I’ll be back with observations on both games soon after they end), let’s take a look at some news and notes from around the division:
  • With Mike Johnson out for the season with an injury, the Falcons are giving Lamar Holmes the first shot at the right tackle job. Holmes faces a big challenge Thursday night when he goes against Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, a pair of strong pass-rushers. If Holmes holds up well against the Ravens, he’s likely to get the nod as the starter.
  • Jonathan Jones tops his list of five players to watch in Carolina’s game with Philadelphia with wide receiver David Gettis, who appears to be competing with Joe Adams and Kealoha Pilares for the final receiver spot. Gettis, who has been plagued by injuries the past two years, showed a little burst in the preseason opener. He’ll need to continue that to secure a roster spot.
  • In this Insider piece , Matt Williamson ranks Carolina’s linebacker corps among the best in the league. Can’t argue with that, but I think you have to attach the caveat that Jon Beason and Thomas Davis need to stay healthy for this group to truly be elite.
  • With linebacker Jonathan Vilma having another knee surgery, Bradley Handwerger writes that this is an opportunity for David Hawthorne to step up. Hawthorne was signed to a decent contract last year but hasn’t done a lot for the Saints. Vilma’s age and history of knee problems leave questions about his durability. Hawthorne could put himself in line for a lot of playing time with a good performance over the next few weeks.
  • Ross Tucker writes that the comments by Carl Nicks, in which the Tampa Bay guard said he’ll have to play through pain for the rest of his career, didn’t draw as much attention as they should have. Tucker, a former player, says that toe injuries can’t be taken lightly. But Nicks and the Bucs think he still can play at a high level.

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