NFC South: Jimmy Graham

INDIANAPOLIS -- The New Orleans Saints have gotten pretty good at these final preseason “dress rehearsals” over the years.

Their 23-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts marked the eighth consecutive year that they have won the second-to-last preseason game, which is the game where starters typically play the most.

As they usually do, the Saints took their preparation for Saturday’s game more seriously than other exhibitions, specifically game-planning against the Colts in practices during the week. And they came out sizzling, rolling to a 20-7 lead while most of the starters were still in the game.

“It’s a good thing, because we certainly come into this game saying, ‘Hey, this is like a regular-season game for that time we are in. … We usually prep for it like it’s the dress rehearsal for the season,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, whose two-touchdown performance was especially impressive considering it was also his preseason debut.

Brees was one of several key Saints veterans who made their preseason debuts Saturday after nursing a variety of injuries -- a group that also included guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Champ Bailey and receiver Kenny Stills.

“We knew coming into this we were going to bring all the guns out and see if we could put a few good drives together and then get them out,” Brees said. “Make sure everybody was ready to roll for the regular season.”

Consider that, “Mission accomplished.”

The Saints weren’t perfect -- especially when it came to penalties, a nagging problem that has plagued them throughout the preseason.

This time, New Orleans was “only” charged with 10 penalties, compared to 22 a week earlier. But eight of them came in the first half. And the Saints also had to burn at least one timeout because they didn’t have the right number of men on the field -- an issue that coach Sean Payton said was his "biggest disappointment."

But Payton was obviously more pleased than he was a week earlier, when he was fuming over the penalties in his postgame press conference.

“Pretty much what I told the players, it was good to get the win. There were a lot of positives. I thought the energy was good. I thought situationally in a lot of areas we did some good things,” Payton said in his opening statement after the game. “We are still high in the penalty count with 10. Substitutionally, that was a mess in the second half, part of it in the first half. We will get that squared away, and we need to because it cost us timeouts and just keeps showing up too often.”

Payton specifically credited the strong play by the Saints’ secondary to the high energy the team was playing with. The Saints had two interceptions and nearly two others.

There was still plenty to nitpick about, though, including a coverage breakdown that led to the Colts’ only first-half touchdown.

The consensus among most players was that they’re getting closer but not quite there yet. That’s how defensive end Cameron Jordan felt after he played outstanding, with the exception of one missed opportunity at a sack when he allowed quarterback Andrew Luck to slip from his grasp.

“The one (missed play) is always nagging at you,” Jordan said. “I feel like we’re headed in the right direction, further along the path than what we started out with.”

Tight end Jimmy Graham made a similar comment after the offense gave its smoothest first-half performance to date.

"It went well. Especially if you compare it, you can tell that we're just growing,” Graham said. “And to have No. 9 back is a big part of that. He really gets the tempo going early, and he's really looking to push the tempo. When we've been able to push the tempo, that's when we’re at our best, so all good things."

Saints’ Camp Report Day 18

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
7:45
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints got some good news on the injury front Tuesday when safety Jairus Byrd was cleared to do full-contact work. But there were still a handful of key players missing. Cornerback Keenan Lewis was held out of practice, though he did some exercises off to the side with trainers. Guard Ben Grubbs was absent after leaving with an undisclosed injury during Monday’s practice. Receiver Brandin Cooks was absent for the second straight day with a stomach virus (coach Sean Payton said he still had a fever). Cornerback Patrick Robinson, linebackers Victor Butler and Khairi Fortt and fullback Erik Lorig were also among a group of players who remained sidelined with unspecified injuries. Defensive end Akiem Hicks and cornerback Champ Bailey participated in a walk-through but didn’t do any team drills.
  • Veteran defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick replaced Hicks with the starting defense – another sign of Deaderick’s versatility and possible value to the Saints. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder spent most of the summer lining up as the Saints’ second-string nose tackle while John Jenkins recovered from a pectoral surgery, and that’s where Deaderick was lined up when he recovered a fumble in last Friday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. Deaderick, 27, spent his first three seasons with the New England Patriots and one year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s right on the roster bubble, but he’s making a strong case.
  • Speaking of that roster bubble, another undrafted rookie that belongs on your radar is outside linebacker Kasim Edebali, a German native who played at Boston College. The main reason I haven’t touted Edebali much when I do my weekly 53-man roster projections is because I feel like that position is so overcrowded that it will be tough to crack. But the 6-2, 253-pounder has flashed some impressive athleticism and pass-rush ability at times. Saints analyst Bobby Hebert was just touting Edebali on Monday. Then on Tuesday, Edebali got a ringing endorsement from fellow former undrafted linebacker Junior Galette. When asked if he’s been impressed by any undrafted guys, Galette said, “One guy I’d point out, Kasim Edebali. You know he’s not really a rookie, I feel like. He’s up there in age, 25 years old [as of Sunday]. He’s a lot more mature than I was as a rookie. And the guy gets off the ball and he can play.”
  • Some of the on-field highlights Tuesday: Rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste went up high to break up a pass from Drew Brees to Marques Colston in the end zone, one of Jean-Baptiste’s best efforts to date. … Cornerback Corey White forced a fumble against running back Khiry Robinson in seven-on-seven drills, one of White’s many nice plays in camp. … Tight end Jimmy Graham continued to serve as a go-to target in Tuesday’s practice, continuing a stellar camp. And after Graham scored a TD on Tuesday, he celebrated with an emphatic (and legal) spike. … Brees kept the ball to himself, tucking it and running it in for a score to cap a red zone drill at the end of practice.
  • The Saints will take their practice show on the road Wednesday night for a rare practice across the lake at Mandeville High School. The session, from 7-9 p.m. CT, will be free and open to the public, weather permitting. Payton said the team will be in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts instead of a fully-padded session.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees' strained oblique must have been one of those balance-in-the-universe things.

Although the New Orleans Saints quarterback is expected to be healed in plenty of time for the start of the regular season, the injury that has kept him sidelined for the past two weeks feels like one of those yin-and-yang type of deals. Like something had to go wrong to keep the Saints' training camp from going too smoothly.

Because aside from a handful of injury issues that have crept up this summer, the Saints' camp has been as idyllic as the cool mountain air in their new West Virginia training camp site.

Breakout young talents such as rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and second-year left tackle Terron Armstead have injected some new life into an offense that needed a boost in those two position groups. Meanwhile, the Saints' defense appears to be in better shape than ever during the Sean Payton-Brees era, with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan heading into his second season with even more talent at his disposal.

No, the image of Brees throwing passes to prized free-agent safety Jairus Byrd in street clothes before the start of the preseason opener wasn't exactly an awe-inspiring sight. But if they're both back to 100 percent by the start of the real opener, this team indeed has the feel of a bona fide Super Bowl contender.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Cooks has been everything that was advertised and then some. The first-round draft pick from Oregon State has repeatedly flashed his dynamic speed in practices, in the scrimmage and in the preseason opener, when he embarrassed two St. Louis Rams defensive backs with a wicked stop-and-go move. Cooks has also caught almost every pass thrown his way, including some trickier back-shoulder throws and some balls he had to go up and get behind safeties and corners. And he has remained humble and hardworking, demonstrating that the hype isn't going to his head. Although you never want to put too much on any rookie's plate, Cooks really looks like a guy who will help fill that big-play void that started to show up for the Saints last season.

[+] EnlargeCooks
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesIn the preseason opener, Saints rookie Brandin Cooks had five receptions for 55 yards and a TD.
2. The Saints' run game looks as if it could be a legitimate strength -- or at least a decent complement to the passing game. The blockers and runners alike have hit the ground running this summer after finishing strong last season. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson thrived in the preseason opener -- and that was without Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs in the lineup because of undisclosed injuries. Armstead is emerging as a tremendous young asset. And more than anything, you can tell there is a confidence among all the players and coaches after they figured out what worked (and what didn't) last season when they transitioned to more of a zone-blocking scheme under new line coach Bret Ingalls.

3. The simple law of averages says the Saints have to force more turnovers than in 2013, when they had only four takeaways over their last 11 games, including zero in the playoffs. But they're not just counting on a change in fortune. It's been a huge point of emphasis this offseason, starting with the Byrd signing. You constantly hear players and coaches cheering turnovers on the field or chattering about the opportunities they missed. One of the highlight moments in camp came early, when the entire secondary wildly celebrated after a great team effort by Champ Bailey and Rafael Bush to force, save and recover a fumble.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Brees' injury isn't expected to linger into the start of the regular season. And, in his 14th NFL season, he of all people should be able to handle missing preseason games. But it's obviously not ideal for him to be thrown off his routine. And it's a sobering reminder of how fragile the Saints' title chances are if anything happens to their future Hall of Fame quarterback.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Chris TilleyThe Saints' offense is in good hands -- as long as QB Drew Brees is healthy and ready to lead the charge.
2. Another future Hall of Famer, cornerback Bailey, has been dealing with an undisclosed injury that leaves his future -- and the Saints' No. 2 cornerback job -- in limbo. The good news is the Saints have some other decent options, including former starters Patrick Robinson and Corey White. And Robinson, especially, has looked good in his return from a 2013 knee injury. But in general, that No. 2 cornerback job remains as big of a question mark as it was to start the offseason.

3. Let's go with injuries one more time. It was unsettling to see both Evans and Grubbs out of the lineup for much of the past two weeks. Ideally, neither of their ailments will affect the regular season. But it's another reminder the Saints are getting older across the line -- and this coming on the heels of an inconsistent performance across the board in 2013, in part because of Evans' injuries. I still consider the Saints' line a strength. But they are counting on a healthy line since they don't have much proven depth to fall back on beyond their five starters.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Jimmy Graham remains the Saints' most potent playmaker, even though he missed all of the organized team activities and minicamp in a contract dispute. Graham had the fastest time of any player in the team's conditioning test at the start of camp. And safety Kenny Vaccaro said he thinks Graham looks faster and stronger on the field. Don't forget, Graham is now healthier after dealing with a painful foot injury for the second half of last season. Another monster season could be on the way.
  • The Saints have a lot of young defensive stars still on the rise who could be talked about in similar terms to Graham (end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis, outside linebacker Junior Galette, Vaccaro and end Akiem Hicks among them). Lewis and Galette seem to be off to the hottest starts so far among that group. But I wouldn't be surprised to see any one of them in the Pro Bowl.
  • None of the Saints' other draft picks has stood out yet. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, linebackers Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell, and safety Vinnie Sunseri have all had their moments in practice and have shown some flashes of long-term potential. But they're also still in that "thinking too much to play at full speed" mode. If I had to pick a first-year player to make an early impact other than Cooks, I might go with Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball, a safety/special-teams asset.
  • The center battle between Jonathan Goodwin and second-year pro Tim Lelito is still too close to call. But both players have looked good, for the most part, so the winner should be worthy. This doesn't feel like a significant area of concern.
  • The Saints were hoping the kicker battle wouldn't be a tough call. But veteran Shayne Graham hasn't locked down the job yet in his battle with younger hopeful Derek Dimke, thanks in part to a missed 33-yard extra point in the preseason opener.
  • Second-year quarterback Ryan Griffin has looked great so far, giving him the early edge over veteran Luke McCown in the battle to become Brees' backup. Ideally, neither one of them will see the field this season. But either should be capable of keeping the Saints' loaded offense competitive if needed in a pinch.
The New Orleans Saints have the NFL’s best offensive roster, according to Pro Football Focus. The scouting service came up with a formula Insider based on grades for every individual offensive player (requires Insider access).

As usual, quarterback Drew Brees carried the Saints to victory, since the Saints’ quarterback situation ranked as the third best in the league. Tight end Jimmy Graham didn't hurt, either.

The Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots rounded out the top five.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham touched on a handful of interesting topics when he met with the media following Wednesday’s practice. Here are the highlights:

  • Graham didn’t want to reflect too deeply on what it meant for him to sign a four-year, $40 million contract after the struggles he faced growing up, when he was abandoned by his mother into the foster care system. But it's clear that it will always be a part of who he is. “I think my background has been talked about quite a bit,” said Graham, who has spoken in-depth about the subject in the past -- including this 2011 ESPN feature -- and made it a focus of some of his charity endeavors. “For me, it was less about the money; it felt good to be wanted. It felt good to know what your future is going to be. For someone like me, that means a lot. … Sometimes you reflect, but it’s only been three weeks, I’ve been pretty busy here. But obviously I know where I came from, and I know how hard it was to get here. And so I’m going to cherish every moment of it and do everything in my power to never go back.”
  • [+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
    Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY Sports"For me, it was less about the money; it felt good to be wanted," Jimmy Graham said. "It felt good to know what your future is going to be."
    On how he has remained grounded despite rising so quickly to stardom in the NFL: “I think this offseason was a good grounding point for me, just dealing with everything by myself with only a couple of people in my corner. That will keep you real grounded, and it keeps you focused. All I did this offseason was work out and fly. I’m a simple guy. Nothing has changed. I’m still the same person I was four years ago.”
  • Graham cracked a smile while saying that people have been “knocking” his blocking in recent years. But he said it’s a part of his game he takes seriously: Yeah, the last two years, everybody’s been knocking on my blocking, I don’t know why. But you know what, I’m truly healthy now. I think that’s a big deal with that the last two years, with some major injuries that kind of limited that. And I took the time this offseason to really look at some film and analyze myself as a player. And I noticed that all of the times I was able to help the team the most was when I was blocking the best, because that helps out on play-action and it stops them from putting a corner pressed up when I’m on the line with an outside ‘backer. So it’s only going to help the team out, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
  • On how strange it was to practice without quarterback Drew Brees this past week while Brees rests his strained oblique: “Even though he’s not throwing the ball, after every route he runs up to me and tells me what he wants me to do or what I could’ve done better. He’s still getting those mental reps in. I know he’ll be just fine. He’s just taking a little time off, which he needs. It’s a long season. You’ve got 16 games and four preseason games. That’s 20, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have another three or four after that.”
  • On enjoying the amenities at the Saints’ training camp site at The Greenbrier resort, despite the floral decorations in his room: “The floral print is different, but the facilities are amazing. During the off day I had the opportunity to do the sporting clays with some of the guys and some of the Navy Seals. I just want to let it be known that I beat Drew and that I beat most of those Navy Seals. That was a good day for me.”
  • On whether it will be good to get away and play the preseason opener at the St. Louis Rams on Friday: “We’re not ready to really get away from here. The weather is beautiful, the food is good, and we’ve got great fields. I think, more or less, we’re just ready to hit somebody else. We’ve been beating up on each other for the last two weeks. Things are getting a little heated out here today, and so I think it’s time to finally hit somebody else.”
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.

Saints Camp Report: Day 8

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2
6:50
PM ET
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints weren’t keeping score in Saturday’s scrimmage. But it was a clear victory for the offense – especially considering Drew Brees was sidelined by an oblique strain. Backup QB Ryan Griffin was particularly impressive, but he and Luke McCown both had some highlights. I already broke down the big performances from receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Jimmy Graham. The Saints’ run game was equally productive. And the defense was even flagged for 12 men on the field at one point, which led to some very vocal disappointment from coordinator Rob Ryan. ... There were a few high points for the defense (some Keenan Lewis pass breakups in the red zone, safety Marcus Ball's interception and Junior Galette's pass rushes). But they still walked away with a salty taste in their mouths. “I think the No. 1 thing for us as a defense is that you don’t want to give up big plays, and you’ve got to tackle. We gave up a few big plays and didn’t tackle too well,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “You’re going to get that in your first live tackling and stuff, but as a defense we’ve just got to get better.”
  • I was especially impressed with the Saints’ run game, which has looked strong throughout the first eight days of camp. Mark Ingram had several nice runs, including a sharp cutback for a touchdown between blockers Tim Lelito and Terron Armstead (both of whom stood out more than once). Khiry Robinson showed some great burst during a long gain on a screen pass. And Travaris Cadet tore up the third-string defense a couple times.
  • There hasn’t been much buzz around Ball this summer since he has been running with the third string. And Galette said he knew Ball was disappointed by his start in OTAs. But the former Canadian Football League standout stepped up in his biggest audition yet. He showed great instincts on the interception, shooting in front of Cooks to pick off McCown. He also had a sack on a blitz and a nice run stop. Ball even got the crowd involved, turning and yelling to the “Who Dats!” “The one thing I would say based on the film study was his ability to tackle in the open field, and he has really good football instincts. The interception he had today was a good example of that,” said head coach Sean Payton, who credited player personnel director Ryan Pace and the scouts. “The ball kind of finds him, and it did a lot when we watched the tape. He was very, very productive in the CFL, and I think he has a chance to be a real good special teams player.”
  • There was an intense moment when Kenny Vaccaro tackled Graham from behind by grabbing him up near the shoulder pads. It was nearly a horse-collar tackle, and Graham wasn’t happy. He shoved Vaccaro after the play. … Vaccaro was obviously fired up for the live scrimmage. He also laid a big hit on running back Robinson at one point.
  • The Saints will be off the field until Monday at 4 p.m. ET. Players will have Sunday off, then they’ll come back and watch film of the scrimmage Monday before weightlifting, meetings and the afternoon practice.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – The play of the day at New Orleans Saints camp Saturday was provided by tight end Jimmy Graham, who outleaped safety Vinnie Sunseri, reeled in a pass with one hand from quarterback Ryan Griffin and took it to the house before dunking over the goal post (which remains legal in training camp!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get used to seeing a lot more of it this year.
video
Right about now, both Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints should be spiking footballs over the goalpost.

This is how it was always supposed to end, with the two sides finding a way to keep Graham where he belongs.

I'm sure one side or the other might feel like it got the better end of the deal. From where I sit, the Saints got a bit of a bargain by having to pay Graham "only" $10 million per season over four years, with $21 million in guarantees, according to ESPN Insider Adam Schefter.

But obviously Graham won't be sulking after becoming the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. And the four-year deal will give him a chance at another huge payday when he's just 31 years old.

Graham sure seemed happy (on Twitter, anyway) when he was the one who actually broke the news Tuesday morning with this declaration:


Is he a tight end? A wide receiver? Who cares? Graham gets to stay in a Sean Payton offense that has proved it can exploit him as one of the biggest matchup nightmares in the NFL.

Remember when Graham said he wanted to retire whenever Drew Brees retires, so he wouldn't have to play with any other quarterback? Sure, he was probably at least half-joking, but that's how Graham should feel. There's not a better combination of coach, quarterback and unique offensive weapon in the league than Payton, Brees and Graham. Now they can get back to the business of piling up touchdowns, adding to Graham's league-leading total of 36 touchdown catches over the past three years.

And they can start working together toward winning a Super Bowl -- a goal that just became more doable.

It would be easy to sit here and say the two sides should have signed this deal six months ago. Or a year ago. Because it always felt inevitable that they would find a way to get it done before the July 15 deadline.

However, I don't blame Graham's camp for trying to maximize his earning potential through the franchise-tag grievance he filed, trying to be declared a receiver instead of a tight end. Neither will the Saints. They understand the business, and this was a unique deal with a groundbreaking type of player.

I'm not sure if Graham will feel any lingering resentment toward the Saints for aggressively shooting down that grievance, with both Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis testifying against him. But he shouldn't, for the same reasons. That's what they had to do to keep his price tag from soaring above $12 million per year.

In the end, it was up to both sides to make sure they didn't stretch their leverage too far. It was up to both sides to make sure they were flexible enough to get this deal done and try to make everyone happy. And this one seems to fit the bill.

For that, both sides should be congratulated.
Tight end Benjamin Watson is confident there won’t be any lingering animosity between teammate Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints once they finally get their contract negotiations resolved.

Watson, who visited ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Connecticut, on Friday to serve as a guest analyst on a variety of programs, admitted Graham’s negotiations have been more public than most because of his franchise-tag grievance hearing. But he said it’s really no different than typical contract situations, which can also get heated at times.

[+] EnlargeBenjamin Watson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBenjamin Watson, 82, says he expects no lingering issues in the wake of Saints teammate Jimmy Graham's contract negotiations.
“I’m very confident that it’ll be resolved the right way and guys can move forward,” Watson said during a break between his on-air appearances. “Obviously it’s always tough when you go through litigation with somebody, and it can probably get heated. And I’m sure there are emotions on both sides. But that is the business side of the game.

“And it’s unfortunate that it came to that and that it was so public. But I really think -- I know, I don’t think -- I know that Jimmy loves New Orleans and I know that he loves our team and the organization and he loves playing here. And we love him, everybody wants him here, coaches included. So when it comes down to contract situations, that’s just a necessary evil. ... Not even evil, but just a necessary progression of getting a player here.”

Watson was asked specifically by host Robert Flores on the Football Today podcast about the unique situation where Saints coach Sean Payton essentially testified against Graham during Graham’s grievance hearing. And Watson admitted that he found that interesting, but he still classified it as part of the business side of the game.

“Welcome to the business side of football,” Watson said. “And a lot of times we don’t see this part because rarely does a situation make it all the way to arbitration. But that’s the business side of football. And it’s kind of no different than a contract situation where there’s a heated discussion over contracts, things are said back and forth. And in the end, both sides are able to amicably move on and back to the business of football once there’s an agreement in place.

“But I’m with you. I was thinking much the same thing when I heard that Coach Payton was having to testify, and I don’t know if he was testifying on his own accord or was being forced to, and I also don’t know what conversations he’s had with Jimmy since then and where their relationship stands. But I do know that if and when Jimmy makes it back, and hopefully sooner than later, things will be smoothed over and we'll get to trying to play Saints football and winning championships.”

Graham and the Saints have until Tuesday to work out a long-term contract agreement. Otherwise, Graham can only sign a one-year deal this season under the league's franchise-tag rules. If a long-term deal is not reached by Tuesday, the "business" could get even uglier since it could lead to a lengthy training camp holdout. But many times, deals get done at the 11th hour before these mid-July deadlines -- as was the case with the Saints and Drew Brees in 2012.

As for how the grievance hearing played out -- with arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruling that Graham is, in fact, a tight end instead of a wide receiver -- Watson said he always thought it would be a 50-50 proposition. But he thinks it will be important for the NFL and NFLPA to better clarify things in the future since the new breed of hybrid tight/end receiver is only growing around the league.

“You can even see with the decision, he kind of just had to make a line of demarcation when he talked about the four yards away from the tackle. So it’s still kind of vague,” Watson said of Burbank’s ruling. “I think that Jimmy is somewhat of a pioneer in that area because it got all the way to arbitration, but I think it’s going to come up again with other tight ends, especially because so many tight ends are coming up and being used as more traditional wide receivers, kind of in that in-between area. The NFL goes through change a lot and things evolve. And as the game changes and as players change, there has to be different conversations.”

Watson also talked about topics ranging from Brees to LeBron James on ESPN’s “First Take.” However, James’ signing began to dominate the news as the day went on, cutting short some of Watson’s appearance schedule.

This was the second time Watson has gone through the ESPN “Car Wash” during his 11-year NFL career. He has also served as a guest analyst frequently on the NFL Network and previously did some local TV work while with the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots.

Watson, who took part in the NFL’s “Broadcast Boot Camp” last year, said he “definitely” has an interest in broadcasting as a post-football career and just wanted to get in some “reps” during the offseason.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted safety Mark Barron specifically to help them defend New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, according to testimony from former Buccaneers assistant coach Butch Davis.

ProFootballTalk unearthed that interesting nugget after obtaining a portion of the testimony from Graham’s recent franchise-tag grievance hearing.

“We took Mark Barron in the first round simply because of Jimmy Graham,” said Davis, who served as a special assistant to the head coach.

Davis was testifying on behalf of the position that Graham was a wide receiver. But as PFT pointed out, the testimony was actually turned against Davis on cross examination by the NFL, when Davis admitted that the Buccaneers didn’t draft a cornerback to cover Graham and that they would never have drafted a safety to cover Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson.

You won’t find a much better perspective -- or stronger commentary -- on Jimmy Graham's contract negotiations with the New Orleans Saints than the column Tony Gonzalez wrote for CBSSports.com.

Gonzalez is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history, and he was the same kind of hybrid receiver/tight end that Graham is now. Gonzalez agreed that Graham is not, in fact, a wide receiver. And Gonzalez even suggested a great term for their shared role: “Tighty Widey.”

On a much more serious note, however, Gonzalez expressed his own past frustrations with how tight ends get shortchanged when it comes to contract negotiations – even going so far as to label it as “discrimination.”

Gonzalez went into detail about his past contract negotiations with the Kansas City Chiefs, who twice made him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. Gonzalez said that of course he was thrilled with both deals. But at the same time, he said he was frustrated with how he was always paid according to his roster position instead of his actual production.
“The Chiefs' GM at the time was Carl Peterson, and his battle cry during the lengthy negotiation was, ‘you're not a receiver so I can't pay you like one,’” Gonzalez wrote. “It didn't seem fair that no matter how many passes I caught or how many touchdowns I scored, I was considered a ‘lowly tight end’ and would never be paid anywhere close to a salary as high as the elite wide receivers.”

Gonzalez argued that the NFL is the only major professional sports league that slots players' salaries by position. And he said changing the system should be a top priority for the NFL Players Association going forward.

“I can think of a few terms to describe what's going on in the NFL like ‘backward,’ ‘lack of common sense’ or ‘behind the times’ but the one that makes the most sense is ‘discrimination,’” Gonzalez wrote. “Salaries should be set based on production and contributions, not positions.”
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The New Orleans Saints won big on Wednesday. But now they need to do right by Jimmy Graham.

The Saints still need to offer Graham what he's worth -- at least $10 million per year, no matter if you consider him a wide receiver, a tight end or a hybrid.

This thing still can -- and should -- turn into a win-win proposition, with the sides reaching a new deal before the July 15 deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign long-term contracts.

Graham
It should play out just like the dragged-out Drew Brees contract negotiations two years ago, when the Saints ultimately made Brees the NFL's first $20 million-per-year player before that same mid-July deadline.

It’s all contingent on the Saints' paying Graham what he deserves. I believe they will -- even though the team now has a lot more leverage following a groundbreaking ruling by arbitrator Stephen Burbank on Wednesday.

In fact, I think it's even more likely that a long-term deal will get done by July 15 after Burbank ruled that Graham is officially considered a tight end for franchise-tag purposes.

If Graham had been declared a wide receiver, he might have been priced out of New Orleans. The Saints' one-year, franchise-tag tender would have vaulted from $7.053 million to $12.13 million. And it would have been impossible for the Saints to sign Graham to a long-term deal worth less than $12 million per year.

Graham still has some leverage -- namely the fact that he is hugely important to the Saints' success. The Saints don't want to risk losing Graham to a holdout. And there's no reason for them to try to shortchange the guy who has emerged as the second-best player on their roster, behind Brees.

Despite their haggling over whether Graham should be declared a tight end or wide receiver for franchise-tag purposes, this is still one of the best marriages in the NFL. No matter what you want to call his position, Graham is a groundbreaking matchup nightmare who is even more potent in an offense led by Saints coach Sean Payton and Brees, two of the best at exploiting matchups.

Graham has been a monster on the field for the past three seasons, leading the NFL with 36 touchdown catches and averaging 90 catches and 1,169 yards. He has also been a model player, playing through injuries and developing a close bond with his quarterback.

I had no problem with the Saints or Graham fighting over whether he should be declared a tight end or wide receiver, because there were millions of dollars and a lot of negotiating leverage at stake. As Brees and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis have both said, that is just the nature of the business.

But the way teams and players avoid letting these things turn into lasting problems is by ultimately finding the price tag that makes everyone happy.

For Graham, I say that's at least $10 million per year. If he were free to test the open market, I think he would be paid like a top-five receiver, somewhere around $12 million annually.

Even if you want to base Graham's salary off other tight ends, you would have to agree he should raise the bar significantly from the previous high contract -- the $9 million per year Rob Gronkowski received from the New England Patriots in 2012, when Gronk was just two years into his rookie deal and had even less leverage.

As I've written countless times this offseason, I think it's impossible to diminish the numbers Graham has produced over the past three seasons, even though he hasn't been as productive when matched up against cornerbacks and was held quiet in the playoffs.

I strongly dispute the notion that Graham comes up small in big games. He had a combined 11 catches for 131 yards and three touchdowns in two pivotal December showdowns against the Carolina Panthers last season and was huge in the 2011 postseason.

He's the second-most-valuable player on the Saints' roster and one of the biggest reasons they have a bona fide chance to compete for the Super Bowl this season and for years to come after that.

Graham might be "just" a tight end. But he's the most valuable one the NFL has ever seen. And the Saints need to pay him accordingly.
Jimmy GrahamChris Graythen/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham, regardless of where he lined up, has produced big numbers for the Saints.
It’s probably fair to paint Jimmy Graham as the underdog in his long-awaited grievance hearing, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

However, I think it’s the New Orleans Saints that stand to lose the most.

That’s why the best play for both sides is to come together and strike a long-term contract agreement on their own, before an arbitrator ever makes a ruling on whether Graham is officially deemed a tight end or a wide receiver for franchise-tag purposes.

They should find common ground somewhere between $10 million and $11 million per year -- which I absolutely believe Graham is worth, regardless of what position he plays.

I can understand why the Saints and general manager Mickey Loomis would feel confident that Graham’s request to be declared a wide receiver will be denied. I agree with them that Graham is a tight end, even though he lined up 67 percent of the time either in the slot or out wide last year. Tight ends have always been a hybrid between receivers and blockers.

However, there’s no way they can feel completely certain of how an independent arbitrator will rule.

And if the arbitrator rules in Graham’s favor, it would open up a huge can of worms for the Saints.

They would have to increase their one-year franchise-tag tender from $7.035 million to $12.3 million. That would immediately require New Orleans to carve out more than $3 million in salary cap space. New Orleans could do this by restructuring some current contracts.

More importantly, it would become extremely difficult for the Saints to convince Graham to accept a long-term deal worth less than $12 million per year. Graham could choose to play out his one-year deal at $12.3 million, then hit the open market next year. And a training camp holdout would become likely under that scenario.

There’s even a remote possibility the Saints would consider removing the franchise tag altogether if they don’t feel Graham is worth a one-year, $12.3 million deal.

However, that’s not to say the Saints should panic.

Most observers seem to agree that Graham is more likely to be declared a tight end than a receiver. And if that happens, Graham and agent Jimmy Sexton would also lose a great deal of leverage in their long-term contract negotiations with the Saints.

If Graham’s grievance is denied, the Saints could lock him up for two straight years with the franchise tag at costs of $7.035 million in 2014 and $8.44 million in 2015. And the Saints, therefore, wouldn’t have much incentive to offer Graham more than $10 million per year.

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, now an analyst for ESPN, offered some insight into what the Saints might be thinking as the hearing approaches.

Dominik believes Graham is a tight end. “My gut is that’s the way the grievance is going to go, because that’s really the position he does play.”

However, Dominik said the Saints will have to at least consider the idea of working out a long-term deal before the grievance is decided.

“I think you would like to get a deal done, just because you want to get a deal done for your organization, for your franchise, for peace of mind,” Dominik said. “But I also think there is that bit in the back of your mind that says if you win the arbitration, then his number is probably a little bit lower than what they want to be.

“Because they're probably trying [to make Graham] the highest-paid tight end, but below the $10 [million] to $13 million the receivers are getting right now. And if you win the arbitration, it gives you a little bit more leverage. But Jimmy’s represented by very good agents, and they’re gonna try to maximize it.”

As nice as the idea sounds, it’s obviously easier said than done for the Saints and Graham to agree on the value of a long-term contract.

Graham will certainly surpass the $9 million per year that the New England Patriots gave Rob Gronkowski in a 2012 extension, the previous high for a tight end.

But how much higher will the Saints be willing to go?

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsTeams have had success slowing Jimmy Graham when assigning a cornerback to coverage.
Personally, I think Graham is worth more than $10 million per year. Graham has led the NFL, regardless of position, with 36 touchdown catches over the past three seasons. He has averaged 90 receptions, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns per season in that span.

That kind of consistent production can’t be dismissed by dissecting where he lines up or whom he lines up against. The business side of these negotiations shouldn't make anyone lose sight of the fact that the Saints and Graham are one of the best marriages in the NFL. He’s been a model player for them on and off the field. He’s a perfect fit with Sean Payton and Drew Brees in an offense that thrives on exploiting mismatches. And he has consistently fought through injuries and continued to produce.

I think Graham belongs in the same class as receivers like Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson and Brandon Marshall, whose deals range from $10 million to $11.2 million per year, the fifth- through eighth-highest salaries among receivers.

Dominik, however, feels there is a distinction between Graham and those top-flight receivers -- something that was exposed last year when teams like the New England Patriots quieted Graham by putting their top cornerback, Aqib Talib, against him.

That’s why Dominik said he would lean more toward basing Graham’s contract off the top tight end deals rather than those second-tier receiver deals.

“I think he’s at the highest point of the tight end market, which is why I think he’s gonna break through and be the highest-paid tight end when his deal is done,” Dominik said. “But I do think the position is gonna be suppressed a little bit in terms of not being a Brandon Marshall or a Vincent Jackson, just in terms of what happened with Aqib Talib and a little bit of that.

“There are a lot of mismatches you can create [with Graham], but there are things that are limitations for him in the run game or when he’s manned up against a very good corner.”

One thing Dominik and I wholeheartedly agree on, however, is this: “It will be extremely fascinating to watch it play out.”
METAIRIE, La. – For the second time in three years, Drew Brees and his favorite target will be split apart as the New Orleans Saints kick off their summer OTA sessions next week.

Only this time, it’s Jimmy Graham who is holding out while unsigned under the franchise tag. In 2012, it was Brees who missed all of the Saints’ summer practice sessions and workouts.

[+] EnlargeBrees/Graham
Ron Antonelli/Getty ImagesSaints QB Drew Brees, No. 9, said he's confident that star TE Jimmy Graham will be ready to roll when his contract issues with the team are finalized.
Brees, who ultimately signed a new long-term contract in July of that year, said it can certainly be a frustrating process. But he said he and Graham’s teammates understand that it’s the nature of the business – and he’s made sure that Graham knows that, too.

“Yeah, I mean, I didn’t like having to miss. As you’re going through it, you’re like, ‘Gosh, it should be much easier than this, right?'” Brees said Wednesday night while participating in teammate Ben Grubbs’ charity softball game (Graham, not surprisingly, was not in attendance).

“But listen, that’s part of the process,” Brees continued. “It’s a leverage game and it’s back and forth. And the team has a job to do and the player has a job to do in regards to their contract. And so you just understand that that’s the way it is, and you live with it. And when he’s here, I know he’ll be ready to play. I know he’ll be staying in good shape and all those things. I’m not worried about Jimmy Graham. When he comes back, he’ll be ready.”

Graham’s situation is even further complicated by the fact that he was officially franchised as a tight end – and he filed a grievance through the NFL Players Association asking to be declared a wide receiver instead, based on how he’s used in the Saints’ offense.

That grievance hearing is scheduled for June 17-18. And based on the decision from a neutral third-party arbitrator, the difference in Graham’s mandatory one-year salary under the franchise tag would be $7.035 million or $12.3 million.

Or the Saints and Graham’s camp could just split the difference on their own at any point in the meantime. Most likely, Graham will eventually sign a new long-term contract worth at least $10 million per year, making him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history.

The deadline for franchised players to sign a long-term contract extension is July 15. After that, they are only allowed to sign a one-year deal.

“We’ve been in contact,” Brees said. “Just checking on him, making sure he’s doing alright and he’s not getting frustrated, you know, disappointed or taking things personal. It’s easy to do that, especially as a young player. You look at your contributions to the team, and [think], ‘Here I am, drafted in the third round, been pretty much playing for minimum here over the last four years. And now this is my opportunity to get compensated based on my production.’

“It’s what every young player hopes that they have the opportunity to go through or get is that second contract. And I know he wants to be a Saint for the rest of his career. I know I want him to be a Saint for the rest of my career. Hopefully we can go at it for another five, six, seven years together and then go out champions together. But I’m confident it will all get worked out when it’s supposed to.”

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