NFC South: Jabari Greer

Former New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer is still keeping close tabs on the team, and he has agreed to join me on occasion this season to share his thoughts. I broke down Greer's first installment into two parts this week. Click here for his thoughts on the Saints' secondary.

Here are Greer's thoughts on Sunday's familiar opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, and their potent passing game:

[+] EnlargeJones & White
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe healthy tandem of Julio Jones and Roddy White is a test for any secondary.
On the Falcons: "Atlanta has a lot to prove. They have promise, and they're gonna be hungry after last year. And it's always a tough, tough game when you play the Atlanta Falcons. It usually comes down to the last possession. So I think emotionally it's going to be one of the toughest games the Saints play, because the Falcons aren't afraid of the Saints, and the Saints are definitely not afraid of the Falcons. With Atlanta's weapons coming back, Julio Jones and Roddy White being healthy, the Saints are gonna see a different receiver corps than they saw last year. This team is a pass-first team. They want to be able to create those open lanes to get Matt Ryan going. And then, when the opportunity comes, they want to be able to throw it over your head."

On White, a 10-year veteran: "He is growing as a NFL receiver, understanding that his speed is not what it was coming out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He's slowed just a step, but he has gotten much, much smarter with his zone recognition and with his route-running. He reminds me a lot of [former Saints receiver] Lance Moore, where every route he runs looks exactly the same. As a corner, if you don't have a good guess of the route he's going to run, every route on the route tree is an option. So with Roddy White, you have to be able to press, put your hands on him, disrupt his route. Then keep your eyes on his hips, being ready to break down on those intermediate routes, those 15-yard digs, the 20-yard comebacks, the 10-yard hitches. If you play off and play Roddy White's eyes, you are basically playing basketball on his court. That's exactly what he wants you to do. So you have to get into Roddy White's face and get your eyes on his hips. Then basically he becomes a less productive receiver."

On Jones: "This guy is the definition of explosive. Early in his career, he has relied a lot on his physical ability, and he has the physical tools to be dominant. It starts on the line, just like it does with Roddy. As strong and as powerful as he is, he has the ability to be disrupted at the line. Then as long as you can play on top and outside of Julio Jones, pinning him to the sideline on those deep balls, deep fades, you have a better chance of defending him than you would if you were playing off and trying to cushion him. I think what a lot of players try to do, they try to respect Julio Jones so much -- which he's due -- that they play off of him. And then once you play off of him, you're basically in a footrace with one of the fastest guys in the league. You don't want to do that. The best route-runner on the team is Roddy White, but if you give Julio Jones any space, he's gonna separate from you."

On whether Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis would likely be used to shadow Jones, rather than stay on one side of the field: "Oh, yeah, he would shadow Julio. Keenan, impressively, is one of the best-deep ball defenders in the league. That's one thing that really impressed me about Keenan Lewis. He defends the deep ball incredibly. So he would be the best option for Julio Jones."
Jabari Greer's career with the New Orleans Saints was cut short last year by a major knee injury. He's still keeping close tabs on the team, and he has agreed to join me on occasion to share his thoughts on the Saints -- unless, of course, the right opportunity lures the veteran cornerback back onto the football field.

I broke down Greer's first installment into two parts this week. First, his thoughts on the New Orleans secondary:

[+] EnlargePatrick Robinson
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsPatrick Robinson has become a focal point of the defense with the release of veteran Champ Bailey.
On what he saw this summer from Champ Bailey, who was released Saturday: "He was really, really impressive on the play where Pierre Warren got the deep interception in the end zone in the last preseason game. The receiver ran something we call a post-corner-post -- they sell you on the post, then they run a double route to the corner. As a corner, you think that is the last route he's going to run, that's the one he's going to commit to. Then they run a third route, which is a post, and that's supposed to basically discombobulate you as a corner and open up those lanes. I saw Champ stay on the up-field and outside shoulder, not letting any of those moves that the receiver did deter him from staying in his technique. So I saw a guy that still had tremendous, tremendous technique. As a 16th-year player it's easy to rely on just your mental ability, knowing that you understand the game. But he consistently got up there and pressed the receiver, challenged the receiver and relied on his physical ability. That goes to show that he still has confidence, that he can play at a high level. I just believe that just the lack of reps and the emergence of Brian Dixon playing at a tremendous level led to a business decision."

On the choice of Patrick Robinson as the No. 2 cornerback: "He is probably one of the best athletes on the team. As far as his footwork, just as far as his potential -- he can be in the talk as one of the best cornerbacks in the league once he completes his game. But the mental aspect of overcoming adversity, trusting yourself and believing that you have everything it takes to be a dominant corner is the only question with Patrick Robinson. If he can play with the confidence of a Darrelle Revis, if he can play with the confidence of a Patrick Peterson, he can dominate. The Saints can have a tremendous duo with Keenan Lewis and Patrick Robinson. I knew he was going to win that battle, based on his health coming back from that [knee] injury."

On whether Robinson had a rough game in the preseason finale when the Ravens picked on him with short and mid-range passes, or whether he was allowing a cushion by design: "I've talked to P-Rob concerning this. As a corner, you have to play confident. And you have to play to your strengths. I believe that last preseason game, given what they've shown on film, Patrick Robinson understood they were a team that did a lot of double moves. So I believe he erred on the side of caution. As a corner, sometimes you have to understand that they are a team who likes to go for the deep ball. If he would've been extremely aggressive and broke up those five curls but given up two deep balls, we would be talking about how Patrick Robinson has lost a step, you know. I know that he was playing on the side of caution, given that it was the last preseason game. I know that going on Week 1, we will see a different Patrick Robinson, a more confident player."

On the Saints' secondary as a whole: "The secondary has tremendous talent. As talented as they've been in a very long time. But talent doesn't necessarily equal success. Communication and leadership and understanding each other's roles, working together with each other's strengths and safeties covering up the corners' weaknesses, that equals success. And that is yet to be determined. ... We didn't get to see Jairus Byrd in a lot of collective action that much with Kenny Vaccaro. But I think what we did see is tremendous closing speed. He understands the defense, communication. And we saw veteran leadership. Letting Champ Bailey go, they must think highly of Jairus Byrd's and Kenny Vaccaro's leadership. Because given the departure of the veteran leaders in the secondary, that was the big question coming into the season. So I'm interested in seeing who's taking that leadership position, how they're going to rally the troops and really how they're gonna communicate effectively."

On whether Lewis could fill that leadership role: "Keenan is in that conversation. Usually if it's a wash between the corners and the safeties as far as experience, the safeties -- being the quarterback of the defense -- are the de facto choice for leadership, because they are the ones that have to understand where the corners are going to be. And usually being a corner, you can be in your own world. You can honestly just concern yourself with what you have to do and be effective. So I definitely think that Keenan with his work ethic, with his desire to want to be the best, will lead by example. I know for a fact he'll be a leader. But that team needs that vocal leader. When times get tough, who is that person that is going to reassure you that the game plan is correct, that the work that you put in is gonna be enough to get you through that hump? Guys like myself, Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper, we were those type of guys. So that's the type of leadership that I'm interested in seeing."
video Jabari Greer hasn’t given up on a return to football yet. Not by a long shot. In fact, the former New Orleans Saints cornerback insisted that if the right opportunity comes along for him and his family and he decides to play again, “then I will be the NFL comeback player of the year.”

For now, though, Greer said the chance to focus on being a devoted husband and father has been a “life-changing” experience for him. And in that regard, Greer said the major knee injury he suffered last November has actually been “one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Greer talked about that among many other subjects while touring ESPN’s various TV, radio and podcast sets in Bristol, Connecticut, on Monday -- when he dabbled in another possible future career path as a guest analyst.

I talked to Greer after a handful of those appearances. He said he felt nervous at first, like on a game day, but he quickly got in the groove.

Greer talked a lot about that focus he’s been able to put on his family – especially during Linda Cohn’s “Listen Closely” podcast, when he said, “Although I always said the game didn’t define me, I realized it was a larger part of me than I actually thought. So I had to relearn how to be a devoted husband, how to be a gracious and devoted father.”

Greer said it was important for him to spread that message because he said so many people feel sorry for you when you suffer an injury like he did. And he wanted to use the platform to let people know that it’s possible to turn such adversity into a positive. Greer said he researched former football star Napoleon Kaufman, whose career was cut short by a devastating injury, and was inspired to read about his life as a pastor.

As for a possible return to football, Greer said he hasn’t decided yet. He’s talked to some teams but wants to make sure he’s 100 percent healthy – and that he gets the OK from his wife.

“I want to let you know that I was ballin’ when I got injured,” Greer told Cohn. “Make no mistake. Even though I’m 32, people think that is an old age, especially for a corner. But, man, I’ve been mentored by Darrell Green, this guy played well into his 40s. I know outside perception is as a corner having this gruesome injury, you can’t overcome that. But they haven’t met me yet.”

Greer was also asked to put on his analyst hat on many topics while appearing on “First Take” and the “Football Today” podcast.

Greer said players love playing for Rob Ryan because he puts them in the best position to play to their strengths.

“He always said, ‘I’m not gonna tell you how to do that, you know how to do that. I’m just gonna put you in the right place,’” Greer explained.

And when asked about defending Jimmy Graham, Greer said Saints defensive players loved Friday practices during the season because coach Sean Payton lets the starters go against each other.

“It was the highlight of our week. When we got an opportunity to go against Jimmy, it was a celebration. We called it ‘Jimmy Graham Fridays,’” Greer said. “We loved going against guys like Jimmy and the offense, because going against guys like Drew [Brees], Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, it’s not only 'pick your poison,' but it prepared you for success on Sundays.”

Across the NFL, Greer quickly chose Tom Brady as the quarterback who drives him nuts the most, based on some painful past experiences. And he chose Darrelle Revis as the cornerback who best raises the level of the defense, though he said the debate between Revis, Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson is like asking, “Which kind of car do you want to drive?”

And when asked about the NFL’s increased focus on calling defensive pass interference and contact penalties this season, Greer said he wants to see if the league will be just as diligent with calling contact penalties against receivers like Roddy White and Julio Jones -- two of his longtime rivals with the Atlanta Falcons.
Jabari Greer said his rehab from last year’s major knee injury is “going really well.” But the former New Orleans Saints cornerback said he’s not actively pursuing any opportunities to return to the NFL right now and acknowledges that it’s probably unlikely that he’ll be able to work out for any teams in time for training camp.

“I think my pride and my body have two different things to say about that,” joked Greer, who was released by the Saints in February. “But we’ll see. I mean, God can do anything, man.”

[+] EnlargeJabari Greer
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCornerback Jabari Greer wants to be 100 percent before contemplating a return to the NFL.
The injury Greer suffered during a game against the San Francisco 49ers in November was severe. He said he tore his ACL, PCL and total posterior lateral compartment. The good news, Greer said, is that his MCL and meniscus remained “perfect.”

Greer talked openly about the details of his injury for the first time, saying it’s no longer a secret now that he’s not with a team.

Greer also freely admitted that he hasn’t decided whether he will pursue a return to the NFL at some point. Greer said that will depend on what his body and heart tell him.

“It just really depends on what God has for me," Greer said. "I think right now today, I’m very content with where I am. I’m very happy with being able to invest in my wife and children. But in the future, I’m sure that itch is gonna come, because it does for everybody. I guess it just depends if I decide to scratch it or not."

Greer still lives and trains in New Orleans, but he took three weeks off from his rehab this summer to travel to New York and San Francisco.

One thing Greer knows is that he would “definitely make sure that I was 100 percent” before working out for any teams, if that’s what he ultimately decides to do.

“Because in this league, as you know, it’s a production business,” Greer said. “And they don’t care if you’re 85 or 90 percent. If you can’t produce or perform, you just make yourself look bad. In the essence of self-preservation, I would reserve until I got 100 percent.”

For now, Greer said he can do “everything” in his rehab, just not at full speed yet.

“I’m not out there jumping hurdles yet," he said. "But I’m running [in a] straight line, I’m doing some bear crawls ... I’m cutting, I’m doing box jumps, high knees. I’m doing everything that I can do, which is amazing."

Greer also laughed at the notion that he’s 32 but his knee is only 6 months old.

“I often, whenever I get discouraged, I literally go back to the point in which I injured my leg, and I know the feeling of just being incapacitated, not being able to do anything. And now seeing that I can run, even if it’s not my fastest, seeing that I can run and cut, I just think it’s incredible, man,” Greer said. “It truly keeps me grounded.”

I brought up the triumphant return of another former Saints cornerback -- Mike McKenzie -- who re-signed with the Saints during their 2009 Super Bowl season and helped lead them to a huge win over the New England Patriots. Nearly a year after, it appeared that a major injury would end McKenzie’s career. And Greer said he just happened to be talking to McKenzie about that same subject a few days ago.

“And when I brought that up, you should’ve just seen the glow on his face,” Greer said. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I balled, didn’t I?’ and I said, ‘You did, you did.’ And he came out off the street, and he was the player of the game. It was ridiculous.”
The New Orleans Saints have 13 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on March 11, plus the three players they released this month. Here’s a breakdown on cornerback Jabari Greer:

Position: CB

Age: 32

Height: 5-11

Weight: 180

Scouting report: Greer is coming off of a major knee injury that ended his season in November -- which is part of the reason he was released in a cap-cutting move this month. Up until the injury, Greer was still playing at a high level as a starting cornerback. And he was a huge part of the Saints’ success over the past five years -- especially their 2009 Super Bowl season. But obviously his age and the injury will lead to some question marks about his future.

Greer is a former track star with great speed. And despite his stature, he has consistently held up well in man coverage against bigger receivers. Including the playoffs, Greer has 16 career interceptions (four returned for touchdowns) and 105 passes defensed in 10 years with the Saints and Buffalo Bills.

Greer began his career in Buffalo as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee in 2004. He signed with the Saints as a free agent in 2009.

Projection: If Greer hadn’t been hurt last season, I’d still consider him an above-average starter -- and he probably would still be on the Saints' roster. But the injury makes his future tough to predict.

Greer likely won’t be ready to pass a physical until later this summer, so teams might want to wait until then to bring him in for a look. But if he shows signs of being fully healthy by the start of the season, I could see him being plugged in as a “Plan B” for a team that needs a savvy veteran with proven cover ability.
METAIRIE, La. – In addition to being one of the NFL's most underrated talents during his time with the New Orleans Saints, cornerback Jabari Greer has also stood out as one of the league's deepest philosophers.

So it should come as no surprise that Greer put his release in a beautiful perspective on Wednesday night -- even though he admitted that he wasn't expecting it.

"It's been a great day, man, surprisingly, with everything going on," said Greer, who said he spent the day having a "daddy and son" day with one of his two young sons since his wife happened to have a previous engagement while everything was going on. "We popped popcorn, watched a movie. And just that whole opportunity, God used that to really refocus my mind. Just realize the truth, live in the moment, and understand that in the midst of this turmoil, that I have peace. And I'm thankful for that."

Greer said he didn't expect to be released, but "me being an older guy in this league, you can't ever be surprised." The longtime starter for the Saints and Buffalo Bills just turned 32 on Tuesday and is still rehabbing from a major knee injury suffered in November.

Greer said the rehab is going well, and he had a target date in mind to try and return to the field. But now that he doesn't know for certain if or when the next opportunity might come, he said he has "the luxury" to take time to rehab and spend more time than usual with his family.

Greer said he also wanted to properly thank the Saints' fans for their support over the past five years. But, not surprisingly, he couldn't find the way to properly express himself in just 140-character snippets on Twitter.

"I've been sitting on Twitter with a blank screen, and I was trying to write something truly from my heart that's not cliché and doesn't seem rehearsed," Greer said. "And my thank you note was playing with passion on Sundays. And I truly believe that the best thank you note I can give to those who supported me is a life well lived."
METAIRIE, La. – In addition to being one of the NFL's most underrated talents during his time with the New Orleans Saints, cornerback Jabari Greer has also stood out as one of the league's deepest philosophers.

So it should come as no surprise that Greer put his release in a beautiful perspective on Wednesday night -- even though he admitted that he wasn't expecting it.

"It's been a great day, man, surprisingly, with everything going on," said Greer, who said he spent the day having a "daddy and son" day with one of his two young sons since his wife happened to have a previous engagement while everything was going on. "We popped popcorn, watched a movie. And just that whole opportunity, God used that to really refocus my mind. Just realize the truth, live in the moment, and understand that in the midst of this turmoil, that I have peace. And I'm thankful for that."

Greer said he didn't expect to be released, but "me being an older guy in this league, you can't ever be surprised." The longtime starter for the Saints and Buffalo Bills just turned 32 on Tuesday and is still rehabbing from a major knee injury suffered in November.

Greer said the rehab is going well, and he had a target date in mind to try and return to the field. But now that he doesn't know for certain if or when the next opportunity might come, he said he has "the luxury" to take time to rehab and spend more time than usual with his family.

Greer said he also wanted to properly thank the Saints' fans for their support over the past five years. But, not surprisingly, he couldn't find the way to properly express himself in just 140-character snippets on Twitter.

"I've been sitting on Twitter with a blank screen, and I was trying to write something truly from my heart that's not cliché and doesn't seem rehearsed," Greer said. "And my thank you note was playing with passion on Sundays. And I truly believe that the best thank you note I can give to those who supported me is a life well lived."
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints will be just fine. In fact, their defense is arguably in a better place now than it has ever been in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, with new young leaders emerging during an excellent 2013 season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that will probably be the case again this time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locker Room Buzz: New Orleans Saints

November, 17, 2013
NEW ORLEANS – Observed in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers:

Rewarding win: After the Saints beat the 49ers for the first time in three years, some players admitted it mean a lot for them to prove they could win a physical matchup like this. Others insisted they treated it just like any other big game. But everyone agreed that the way this game played out – overcoming adversity to win in the final minutes – was even more rewarding than a game like last week’s 49-17 rout of Dallas, when they were nearly flawless. “This game means more,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “These are the ones that just sharpen you.”

Rewarding kicks: Saints kicker Garrett Hartley certainly admitted that his two field goals in the final 2:06 were more rewarding than most after the personal adversity he faced in recent weeks, missing four of his last six kicks. He said he had just been talking to mentor and former Saints kicker John Carney on the way to the game about blocking everything else out and doing his job.

Colston’s record: Naturally, Saints receiver Marques Colston didn’t overplay the significance of setting the franchise record for receiving yards and yards from scrimmage. He said he’ll probably take time to reflect on it after the season. “Obviously there were more important things going on at the time,” Colston said.

Greer’s injury: Saints coach Sean Payton said cornerback Jabari Greer’s knee injury looks serious, but added that the team was awaiting tests to get the final diagnosis.

Halftime report: Saints 14, 49ers 10

November, 17, 2013
NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints lead the San Francisco 49ers 14-10 at halftime, thanks to a dominant defensive performance. But there have been a series of big moments that have kept the game close.

Here are a few thoughts on the action so far:

Greer injured: The Saints' defense got off to a great start but suffered a big blow when cornerback Jabari Greer was carted off with a left knee injury in the first quarter. The exact injury has not been reported, but it looked significant. He required an air cast on the field. … Greer has been a solid veteran presence for the Saints' resurgent defense this year, so he'll be missed quite a bit. Second-year pro Corey White is a solid backup, though, and he did intercept a pass in the second quarter (before fumbling it through the end zone).

Big mistakes: White's fumble took seven potential points off the board for the Saints. After a 43-yard interception return, he got greedy and tried to extend the ball over the goal line. Even more costly was Saints receiver Lance Moore's fumbled punt return in the second quarter that gave San Francisco the ball at New Orleans' 11-yard line and led to the 49ers' only touchdown. Moore also dropped a third-down pass in the first quarter -- uncharacteristic mistakes for the veteran.

Big makeup: The Saints' special teams evened things out with an 82-yard kickoff return by Travaris Cadet in the second quarter that led to a touchdown. That's an area where the Saints haven't generated much this year. But it came at the right time.

Saints creative ‘D': Other than the 11-yard TD drive, the Saints' defense was excellent in the first half. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan showed off his creativity more than ever before. He started the game in a 3-5 alignment with only three defensive backs on the field. Later, he had only two true defensive linemen on the field with end Keyunta Dawson and outside linebacker Parys Haralson lining up as defensive tackles. The Saints also had six DBs on the field at times.

Saints' balanced offense: The Saints haven't run the ball a ton, but they've been effective when they have run it (46 yards and a touchdown on nine carries). They aren't lighting up the scoreboard, but they're doing enough to win (and the margin would be greater if not for those miscues).

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

November, 12, 2013
Some observations on the New Orleans Saints’ defense after reviewing the tape of the team’s 49-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 10:

Lewis jams Bryant: Click here for my extended look at Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis’ standout performance against dangerous Dallas receiver Dez Bryant – one of the biggest keys to New Orleans’ success.

Amoeba stands tall: The Saints had great success when they rolled out the “amoeba” defensive front that coordinator Rob Ryan likes to use from time to time – with all 11 defenders standing up before the snap. On the two snaps where all 11 men were standing up, the Saints were able to create pressure with just a four-man rush. The first time, outside linebacker Junior Galette and end Glenn Foster pressured Tony Romo into a throwaway on third-and-8. The second time, Foster broke through the line to bat away a pass on first-and-10.

Later, the Saints used a similar formation on two more snaps, with just one player with his hand in the ground. The first time, ends Cameron Jordan and Tom Johnson forced an intentional-grounding penalty on second-and-10. The second time, Romo threw an incomplete check-down pass, though he wasn’t under heavy pressure, on third-and-21.

More heat: Foster, Johnson and outside linebacker Parys Haralson all had sacks in the second half – all of them coming on four-man rushes (the Saints didn't blitz often Sunday). Johnson’s was the most impressive individual achievement. He used a spin move to get around right tackle Doug Free on second-and-8. Haralson and end Keyunta Dawson both collapsed the pocket on the very next play for Haralson’s sack on third-and-18. Foster also got an assist on his sack from Jordan, who flushed Romo out of the pocket on a third-and-9.

In the first quarter, Jordan also forced a holding penalty in the red zone on third-and-6 that was declined after Romo threw incomplete.

‘Signature’ coverage: There were plenty of third-down stops in this game, since the Cowboys went 0-for-9 on third down. Another one came in the third quarter, on third-and-5 when cornerback Jabari Greer nearly intercepted a pass intended for Jason Witten. Greer started on the outside but snuck over to jump the route, and Romo never saw him coming. NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth described the play as “signature Rob Ryan coverage.”

Humber, White stand out: I was repeatedly impressed by linebacker Ramon Humber, who played more than usual with starter David Hawthorne limited by injury. Humber made two big-time stops on the Cowboys’ first two plays – stopping running back DeMarco Murray for a 1-yard loss and sticking tight end James Hanna in the open field. He later stopped Hanna for a 1-yard loss on a screen pass. And he was part of a wall that stopped Murray for a 1-yard loss, along with defensive linemen Brodrick Bunkley and Akiem Hicks.

Cornerback Corey White also had a nice game. He batted away passes on back-to-back plays in the second quarter. And the Saints trusted him to fill in on coverage against Bryant when Lewis was out for a series in the third quarter.

Big mistakes: It wasn’t a perfect day for the Saints’ defense. They gave up three explosive plays that allowed Dallas to score twice.

Early in the game, the Cowboys burned the Saints with the run, including a 35-yard run, a 12-yard run and a 7-yard touchdown run by Murray on the same drive. The 35-yard run was mostly due to great blocking by tight ends Hanna and Witten on the left side. They chipped Jordan and Humber off the line, and then finished with strong blocks against Humber and safety Kenny Vaccaro.

The touchdown run (a draw play out of a passing formation) was also well blocked – including a lunging block by Free to stop linebacker Curtis Lofton from making a tackle in the backfield. Then linebacker Will Herring missed a chance at a tackle after Murray turned the corner. The good news on those runs is that safety Rafael Bush made open-field stops on the first two – an improvement after he took some poor angles on Chris Ivory’s long runs for the New York Jets the previous week.

The other two explosive plays were back-to-back passes of 44 and 21 yards in the third quarter. On the first one, Bryant beat Lewis for his only catch of the day by pushing away from Lewis’ attempted jam at the line of scrimmage. On the second one, receiver Terrance Williams badly burned Greer on a double move to get wide open in the end zone.

Not special: The Saints had two miscues on special teams. First, linebacker Kevin Reddick got away with a shove against Dwayne Harris as he was running out of bounds on a kick return that easily could have been called a penalty (it was close, but not worth the risk). Then in the third quarter, the Cowboys recovered a surprise onside kick. Saints safety Isa Abdul-Quddus was the first player to the ball, but he overran it. Reddick got clobbered by a block, and Herring tried to pounce on the loose ball but couldn’t hang on.

Midseason Report: New Orleans Saints

November, 6, 2013

If you're only as good as your last performance, the New Orleans Saints (6-2) are in trouble. They had their sloppiest game of the season in a 26-20 road loss to the New York Jets this past Sunday, with breakdowns on offense, defense and special teams.

Overall, however, there were many more positives than negatives during the first half of the season for New Orleans, which still leads the NFC South by a game over the Carolina Panthers.

If the Saints have any hopes of returning to New York for the Super Bowl in February, they need to prove that their first trip was an anomaly. But the schedule doesn't get any easier in the second half of the season -- including two more outdoor games, at Seattle and Carolina in December.

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

October, 30, 2013
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).
With so many highs and lows from the New Orleans Saints defense in their 30-27 loss to the New England Patriots in Week 6, I broke this week’s defensive film study into two parts. Click here for a play-by-play review of the Patriots’ game-winning drive.

Here are some observations from the first 58 minutes of the game:

Almost game-winners: How many times did you hear the Saints lament after the loss that “you can’t give Tom Brady three chances at a game-winning drive?” Well, the main reason Brady got three chances is because the Saints shut him down so quickly the first two times.

[+] EnlargeKeenan Lewis
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesKeenan Lewis collected an easy interception off Tom Brady in the fourth quarter.
First, the Patriots took over at their own 20-yard line with 3:29 remaining, and Brady only completed one of four pass attempts. (He actually completed zero, but the refs and the Saints both missed the fact that tight end Michael Hoomanawanui’s four-yard reception bounced off the turf.) Karma must have noticed, because running back Brandon Bolden dropped a pass on the next play that would have easily gone for a first down. … On third-and-6, cornerback Jabari Greer made a nice pass breakup when Brady fired quickly under blitz pressure. And on fourth-and-6, receiver Aaron Dobson dropped a pass while being hit by Greer and trying to extend his body an extra yard or two for the first down.

The Patriots then got the ball back on their own 20-yard line with 2:24 remaining, and Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis intercepted a deep ball by Brady on the first play. Brady had plenty of time to throw and step up in the pocket against a four-man rush by the Saints. But he underthrew it, and Lewis turned and waited for an easy pick while receiver Julian Edelman couldn’t locate the ball in the air.

Blitz heavy: The Saints blitzed more Sunday than they had all season (18 times, by my unofficial count, including plays that were nullified by penalties). ESPN Stats & Information credited the Saints for 16 blitzes that counted, one more than they had in Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons.

The blitzes were effective for the most part. They led to three of the Saints’ five sacks and a few other key incompletions (including one on the final game-winning drive). And until that last drive, Brady didn’t have a great day. During the first 58 minutes, Brady completed just 20 passes for 199 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception (though he was definitely hurt by dropped balls from several receivers).

Lucky break: Brady was off the mark himself a few times -- including an overthrown deep ball in the third quarter when receiver Danny Amendola broke wide open behind safety Kenny Vaccaro. That play (which came on third-and-13) easily could have resulted in an 83-yard touchdown pass and a 24-10 Patriots lead.

Bad breaks: Safety Malcolm Jenkins’ 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty in the third quarter was a tough break for the Saints. He crouched as he lowered his shoulder into receiver Kenbrell Thompkins to break up a pass on second-and-6. But it appeared that his shoulder hit Thompkins’ facemask, causing Thompkins’ helmet to whip to the side. Although it wasn’t a blatant helmet-to-helmet hit, it wasn’t a surprise to see the flag since Thompkins was a “defenseless receiver” in the open field. Jenkins’ hit wasn’t dirty, but it’s a risk anytime a defender goes near the head area.

Also, Lewis’ pass interference penalty in the end zone on third-and-2 in the second quarter wasn’t egregious. But he did get a little too handsy -- and he didn’t need to, since Brady’s pass appeared to be out of Dobson’s reach. That gave the Patriots new life and an eventual touchdown.

Big plays: The Saints had five sacks (1.5 by safety Jenkins on blitzes, the other 0.5 by linebacker Ramon Humber, and one each by linebacker Curtis Lofton and ends Cameron Jordan and Tom Johnson). … Also, outside linebacker Junior Galette had two run stuffs inside the Saints’ 10-yard line that were just as good as sacks. He stuffed running back LeGarrette Blount for a loss in the first quarter and disrupted a Bolden run in the fourth quarter -- both times forcing New England to settle for a field goal.

Linebacker David Hawthorne made a similar play for a 4-yard loss by Blount in the second quarter. … Linebacker Will Herring made a huge play in punt coverage in the first quarter, blowing up Edelman while he was attempting a toss across the field to Aqib Talib. The Patriots recovered the fumble, but Herring at least sent them backward and prevented a big gain. … Greer recovered for a touchdown-saving pass breakup against Thompkins in the end zone in the third quarter.

Big runs: The Saints had more breakdowns than usual against the run -- perhaps a product of them spending so much time on the field Sunday. Stevan Ridley broke off gains of 18 and 19 yards, and Bolden broke off a 12-yard gain (a combination of the Saints’ big men getting pushed aside up front and linebackers taking poor angles on a couple plays). Vaccaro also whiffed on a tackle attempt during Ridley’s 4-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

Worth noting: The Saints started out in a 3-3 front that they haven’t used much this season, with Humber as a third linebacker and no nose tackle on the field. They spent much of the game in that formation. … The Patriots spent most of the game in a no-huddle offense (something they hadn’t shown much this year, and something the Saints’ defense hadn’t encountered much). It certainly seemed to work in the Patriots’ favor early in the game, when they rattled off three long drives (one field goal and two touchdowns in the first 23 minutes). But the Saints' defense held tough after that, keeping New England out of the end zone over the next eight possessions.