NFC South: Mickey Loomis
There was no messing around and no coaches screaming at players. Instead, the Saints looked like a veteran team that is intensely focused -- more focused than last year, when chaos surrounded the entire season. Maybe even more focused than in 2009, when the Saints eventually won their first Super Bowl championship.
The quiet practices are a firm sign that coach Sean Payton is back in charge and that this team wants to put last season as far in the past as possible. The bounty scandal that led to the season-long suspension of Payton and a disappointing 7-9 record is over, and the Saints want to return to their winning ways.
“Last year was an apparition," quarterback Drew Brees said. “It was a different time with all the situations that had taken place. This year, just knowing that we’ve got everybody here, this is our team. Nobody’s missing. This is the team that can accomplish great things, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Here’s our window of time to bring it together. We know there’s going to be tough times. We know there’s going to be adversity. Build that attitude, build that chemistry, and get ready to make a run at it.”
Payton’s return alone should make a big difference. He’s one of the league’s best coaches and possesses a brilliant offensive mind. After watching his team from a distance last year, Payton had some strong critiques for his players, even the superstars.
Soon after Payton was reinstated, he called tight end Jimmy Graham and told him that a season in which he caught 85 passes but led the league in drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information, wasn’t good enough.
“First, he called me and I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t pick it up," Graham said. “He was pretty mad because it took like two or three days for me to call him back. The conversation was very serious, talking about his expectations for me and the things that I need to correct from last year and how he’s ready to be back. He’s ready to see my growth even more."
Payton needs to see growth from more than Graham. He’s made it clear that he wants to run the ball more often and that the Saints have to be substantially better on defense.
If the Saints can combine those things with Brees and the passing game, they should be right back in playoff contention.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. The defensive overhaul. Payton is an offensive guru, but the first order of business upon his reinstatement was to replace defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan. Spagnuolo’s defense never caught on in New Orleans, and the Saints finished last season ranked No. 32 in total defense.
The Saints aren’t just switching coordinators. They’re switching schemes. With Payton’s blessing, Ryan is installing a 3-4 scheme. The pass rush now will have to come from the outside linebackers, particularly Junior Galette, Will Smith and Martez Wilson, a trio of guys that previously played defensive end.
The secondary also is going through some major changes. The Saints signed free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.
The defense will look a lot different because Ryan uses a lot of exotic looks. If the results are different from last season, the Saints will be in good shape.
There really is no reason the Saints shouldn’t be able to get production from the running game. They have a good offensive line and three talented running backs -- Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.
The real wild card is Ingram. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis used a first-round pick on Ingram in 2011, but he hasn’t produced a lot in his first two years. I think Payton is going to make it a point to give Ingram more carries this season.
A new age of receivers. A few years ago, the Saints had a receiving corps as deep as any in the league, which came in handy because they use so many three- and four-receiver sets. But Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson left over the past two seasons. Joe Morgan, who had been ticketed for the third receiver spot, suffered a season-ending injury in camp.
That leaves starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore as the only sure things. Beyond them, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But the Saints hope veteran Steve Breaston, who was signed this week, and second-year pro Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season with an injury, can fill the void.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Any team that has Brees as its quarterback is going to be competitive. With weapons such as Graham, Colston and Sproles, the Saints are going to score plenty of points. It would be difficult for the defense to be any worse than last season.
If the Saints can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they can be a dangerous team.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
Ryan is an aggressive coach, and the 3-4 has had plenty of success around the league in recent years. But I’m not sure Ryan has the personnel to make this defense succeed. It could take another offseason to get this defense fully stocked.
One of the brightest spots in training camp has been the play of second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. I saw him make several big plays during my visit. Hicks is going to get his chance to shine in the regular season, and with Coleman out, it looks like he'll be a starter at defensive end.
In another sign that the Saints are serious about running the ball more, Graham has bulked up. The tight end said he now weighs about 270 pounds and that he’s focusing on becoming a better blocker.
The Saints have a history of finding unheralded running backs who end up making a contribution (see Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet). They might have found another one in Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Robinson has flashed big-play ability in camp. The Saints have so much depth at running back that it might be tough for him to make the roster, but he could end up on the practice squad.
There was some thought that Jason Smith, a former first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams, could end up as the starting left tackle. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Charles Brown has been getting virtually all the first-team work. Smith has fallen to third on the depth chart and is working behind rookie Terron Armstead. It’s looking like Smith might not even make the roster.
In recent years, the Saints have brought rookie defensive backs along slowly. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson didn’t play significant roles in their first seasons. But I don’t think the Saints are going to be cautious with Vaccaro. Whether it’s at one of the safety spots or as the nickelback, Vaccaro is going to play a lot this season.
Running back Jonathan Stewart will begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list as he continues to recover from surgery on both ankles. Fantasy football players might want to go ahead and draft DeAngelo Williams, because it’s unclear how quickly the Panthers expect Stewart to be healthy. But my gut feeling is that Williams’ work load could be significant this season.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Tight end Jimmy Graham is entering the last season of his rookie contract, and the Saints don’t have a lot of salary-cap room now or in the future. But general manager Mickey Loomis said the organization has talked about Graham’s situation. Loomis is very good at managing the cap, and there are plenty of ways he can create enough space to keep Graham. That’s something the Saints have to do, because Graham soon could become the league’s top tight end.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks said he’s trying to learn from Darrelle Revis. That’s a wise move, because Revis is the best cornerback in the league. Banks is still very much in the learning process, and he’s opening camp behind Leonard Johnson on the depth chart. If Banks is going to end up starting, he needs to grasp the defense quickly.
A look at the one move each team in the NFC South needed to make but didn't.
Atlanta Falcons: There still is time to sign a veteran like Richard Seymour, but I’m surprised the Falcons didn’t do more at defensive tackle during the offseason. The team invested two draft picks in defensive ends but didn’t touch the middle of a defensive line that isn’t exactly a strength. Jonathan Babineaux is aging and heading into the final year of his contract. Corey Peters and Peria Jerry also are headed into the last year of their contracts. The Falcons stayed away from quick fixes this offseason, but they might get to training camp and realize they need another defensive tackle.
Carolina Panthers: This one is almost too easy. The Panthers went into the offseason with a glaring need at cornerback. They signed some midlevel players and have hopes for some of their young corners. But this team doesn’t have anything close to a No. 1 cornerback. In a division in which you’re going up against the likes of Roddy White, Julio Jones, Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston, that’s a scary proposition. The Panthers did put a lot of emphasis on their defensive line, which better generate a tremendous pass rush to compensate for the lack of elite talent at cornerback.
New Orleans Saints: General manager Mickey Loomis worked some minor miracles to get out of a nightmare salary-cap situation in the offseason. But the Saints, who are converting to a 3-4 defensive scheme, didn’t bring in any elite pass-rushers. They thought free agent pickup Victor Butler could blossom into something, but Butler will miss the season after suffering a knee injury during an offseason workout. That leaves the Saints looking to Will Smith, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson as their outside linebackers. Smith is aging and converting from defensive end to linebacker. Wilson and Galette have shown some potential, but neither is a proven pass-rusher.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sources have told me the Buccaneers would have given strong consideration to drafting tight end Tyler Eifert with their first-round pick if they hadn’t traded it away in the deal for cornerback Darrelle Revis. That tells me the Bucs realized they had a significant need at tight end. The shocking thing is they didn’t make some other dramatic move to improve the situation at the position. Instead, they’re going with Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree. There are indications that the Bucs think Crabtree can be a productive pass-catcher. But I wouldn’t count on the tight ends being a big part of Tampa Bay’s passing game this season.
According to the latest numbers I’ve obtained, the Saints have a league-high $143.4 million committed toward a 2014 cap that’s expected to be slightly more than $120 million. The Saints, Dallas Cowboys ($141 million) and Detroit Lions ($137 million) are the only teams with more than $130 million committed toward the 2014 cap.
The Carolina Panthers are fourth at $128.2 million. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have $118.5 million committed toward next year’s cap, but that number could face many variables. If quarterback Josh Freeman has a big season, the Bucs will have to sign him to a hefty new contract. But Tampa Bay currently is more than $18 million under this year’s cap, and should be able to carryover a substantial part of that to create room under next year’s cap.
The Atlanta Falcons are in the best cap shape for 2014 of any NFC South team, with $101.8 million currently committed. But that’s only a temporary number. The Falcons are likely to sign quarterback Matt Ryan to a contract extension sometime this offseason, which will shrink their 2014 cap room significantly.
In his final mock draft, D. Orlando Ledbetter has the Falcons taking cornerback Desmond Trufant at No. 30. I think that’s entirely possible. The Falcons could attempt to trade up for Dee Milliner and maybe even Xavier Rhodes. If they stay put, I see them taking Trufant or Boise State’s Jamar Taylor. I have a tough time seeing the Falcons address any position other than cornerback in the first round.
Charlotte Observer writers Joseph Person and Jonathan Jones are divided on the first pick for the Panthers. Person has Carolina taking defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and Jones has them taking defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. I think Lotulelei would be the priority, but I’m not sure he’ll make it until No. 14. I think safety Kenny Vaccaro also could be a possibility.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Bradley Handwerger points out that the Saints never have traded down in the first round since Mickey Loomis has been the general manager. I think there’s a decent chance that could change this year. The Saints, who are sitting at No. 15, could use an extra pick or two.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Roy Cummings writes that general manager Mark Dominik has the resources to move back into the first round even after giving up the No. 13 pick in the Darrelle Revis trade. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that happens. Dominik hopped back into last year’s first round to get Doug Martin and I can see him making a similar move this year.
“It’s changed, there is no question, because we are looking for different things and we are still trying to understand completely what [new defensive coordinator] Rob [Ryan] is looking for in a defensive player,’’ Loomis said. “It’s really the front seven that we are talking about here, but I think we have a really good handle on the type of player that he is looking for. We brought in a couple of guys from his team in Dallas in free agency and we have spent a lot of time talking to him about each of these college players that are draft eligible and how they would fit into our system.”
Loomis and coach Sean Payton have a history of drafting the best available player and that doesn’t always coincide with needs. But I think this draft could be different.
Even with their free-agent signings the Saints still need more players to fit Ryan’s scheme as he tries to overhaul a defense that ranked last in the NFL last season.
“We could line up and play today if we had to play, with a few practices,’’ Loomis said. “We’re just trying to add to that and improve. This draft is part of that process and, obviously, free agency was part of that process too, bringing in Victor Butler, Kenyon Coleman and Keenan Lewis. We’ve got some elements. We have some expectations of some guys that we drafted last year, Akiem Hicks in particular, and then we are looking for good seasons from some of our veteran guys.”
There’s no question the Saints already have put some parts in place. But this defense is far from a finished product and this draft will be crucial. Even if there’s an offensive player the Saints really like at No. 15, I think they need to pass and get a defensive player who has a chance to be a difference maker.
Quarterback Matt Ryan said he’s not concerned about a possible contract extension. Ryan said he’s focusing on the team’s offseason program and is confident everything else will take care of itself. But it’s likely talks will pick up shortly as Ryan’s agent and the Atlanta front office are expected to attempt to work on the deal after the draft.
General manager Dave Gettleman said defensive line, defensive back and offensive line might be the three deepest areas in this year’s draft. That’s a good thing for Gettleman because the Panthers need help in all three areas.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
It has been reported widely that the New York Jets are interested in trading for running back Chris Ivory. General manager Mickey Loomis confirmed that, but also said several other teams are showing interest. Smart move by Loomis to make it known that more than one team is interested. That might help raise the value of what Ivory could bring in a trade.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Quarterback Josh Freeman said he doesn’t feel additional pressure as he heads into a contract year. That’s a good attitude to take. But this clearly is a crucial year for Freeman and it’s going to be a challenge to continue to not be impacted by the pressure. Freeman is talented and the best thing he can do is relax and have fun with the game. If he can do that, everything else will fall into place.
Daniel Cox takes a look at the six tackles chosen ahead of Sam Baker in the 2008 draft. Some worked out and some didn’t. A lot of Atlanta fans said Baker was a bust before he turned in a solid 2012 season. But Baker’s had a better career than some of the guys drafted ahead of him, particularly former Carolina tackle Jeff Otah, who was taken two picks before Baker.
A lot of Carolina fans were underwhelmed when the team signed cornerback Drayton Florence. That’s understandable because he’s nearing the end of his career and never has been a superstar. But Florence has history with coach Ron Rivera. The two were together in San Diego. Rivera’s had pretty good luck in bringing in guys he worked with while he was with the Chargers. Florence isn’t going to solve all of Carolina’s problems, but he could be a solid contributor for a year or two.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Larry Holder reports that there is no indication of how cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha’s visit with the Saints went Sunday. It’s unlikely he got to spend time with coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis because they were traveling to the NFL owners meeting. But Asomugha has history with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan from their time together in Oakland. If both sides are interested in a deal, that can be accomplished with one phone call by Loomis.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
New York Jets owner Woody Johnson characterized reports that the team is shopping cornerback Darrell Revis as a “little exaggerated." However, Johnson also said the Jets would consider any move that would make their team better. The bottom line here is Revis is available and Tampa Bay is interested, but the Buccaneers are hoping the compensation the Jets want in a trade drops because they don’t want to part with this year’s first-round pick. If no other team steps up, the Jets may have to drop their price.
Strategy: Atlanta's philosophy is to keep its core together. Still, the Falcons are usually good for one or two significant moves per offseason. There is a bit of salary-cap room to work with and more could be created with some contract restructures. The Falcons have several areas of need, most notably at defensive end and running back. It would be difficult for Atlanta to get a top-notch pass rusher with the 30th overall pick in the draft. That's why I suspect the Falcons could make a splash move to bring in someone such as a Cliff Avril, Dwight Freeney or Osi Umenyiora.
Cap status: The Panthers had to work like crazy just to get under the salary cap. They're already facing salary-cap nightmares for 2014, so I wouldn't expect a big spending spree.
Strategy: This is Dave Gettleman's first free-agency period as a general manager, so we don't know his tendencies. But the cap situation assures that he won't be making a bunch of huge signings. Still, the Panthers have more needs than they'll be able to fill in the draft, so they may have to dabble a bit in free agency. They might not be able to get a top-notch cornerback in the middle of the first round of the draft. They need a No. 1 cornerback after releasing Chris Gamble, so they may have to look for one in free agency.
Cap status: The Saints spent the past few weeks digging out from a cap mess, so they don't have a lot of room to work with.
Strategy: Even with the cap situation, it has never been the style of general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton to be complacent. They'll be creative and aggressive in free agency. They have to retool a defense that was the worst in the league last year and they're switching to a 3-4 scheme. They need players that can fit that scheme, particularly a pass rusher or two. They also could use some help in the secondary. The Saint also may be in the market for a left tackle if they're unable to prevent Jermon Bushrod from leaving via free agency.
Cap status: The Bucs are the one team in the division that doesn't have to worry much about the cap. They're entering free agency with more than $30 million in cap room.
Strategy: The Bucs have major needs at cornerback, and I'm expecting them to do something dramatic, whether it's trading for Darrelle Revis or signing a significant free agent. The Bucs could even end up trying to get two starting cornerbacks out of free agency. And it won't stop at cornerback. The Bucs also could use help at tight end, slot receiver, outside linebacker and depth on the defensive line.
Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?
Atlanta Falcons. After releasing veteran John Abraham, the team is without an elite pass-rusher. That’s why the Falcons should make Cliff Avril their top target in free agency. Sitting near the end of the first round, they’re not likely to land an impact pass-rusher in the draft. They have to bring in someone from the outside, and Avril is the closest thing there is to a sure thing. At 26, Avril still is very much in his prime. He won’t be inexpensive, and the Falcons have made it clear their priority is to re-sign their own free agents. But there aren’t many other places to turn for a pass-rusher, so this is one spot where the Falcons can devote some money.
Carolina Panthers. The Panthers have a glaring need at cornerback. Josh Norman and Josh Thomas can be role players, but they’re not No. 1 cornerbacks. That’s why the Panthers should go after San Diego free agent Antoine Cason. Ron Rivera knows him from their time together with the Chargers, and Rivera has a history of bringing in players from San Diego. Cason, 26, already is good but could become even better. Put him behind a pass rush anchored by Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, and Cason could become a star.
New Orleans Saints. There is very little cap room to work with in New Orleans, but general manager Mickey Loomis is a creative guy. He can free up enough money for the Saints to make a few moves in free agency. As the Saints switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, they can’t afford to sit still with their personnel. More than anything, they need a pass-rusher. Indianapolis defensive end/linebacker Dwight Freeney is on the market and would be a good fit here. Freeney has played on a Super Bowl champion team, and his presence could go a long way in helping new coordinator Rob Ryan rebuild the defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs are in a cap position in which they can do just about anything they want. The thing they should do is trade for New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Bucs are one of the few teams with the ability to take on his long-term cap ramifications. The Bucs also are desperate for help at cornerback. Adding Revis would give them a shutdown corner, and that could help a defense that ranked No. 32 against the pass last season.
On this afternoon a year ago, the NFL sent out a scathing report that said the New Orleans Saints had run a three-year bounty program with financial incentives for injuring opponents.
It was the story that wouldn’t go away. For months upon months, there were daily twists, turns, audiotapes and blaming of “snitches."
Coach Sean Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis all drew suspensions. They appealed and lost.
Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith and two other former Saints also drew suspensions by the league. They appealed, continuously, and eventually won.
In the end, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed the appeals process over to former commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The suspensions of Vilma, Smith and the two others were vacated.
In the minds of many Saints fans, that meant vindication. But that’s nothing more than blind loyalty and Saints fans are missing the point by a mile. Tagliabue found that virtually all of Goodell’s factual findings were correct, but decided the punishment didn’t fit the crime.
Whether it was not having Payton for the full season, not having Vitt for six games or all the distractions, the bounty scandal took a toll on the Saints. They went 7-9.
But, as I wrote on the day this all started, the Saints have no one to blame but themselves. Their arrogance was their downfall. If they had simply stopped the bounty program the minute the NFL told them to, we never would have heard about it. Instead, the Saints denied it and kept right on doing it and it all caught up to them.
It’s over now and it’s time for the Saints to move on. They should benefit from a much quieter offseason because they’ll have their coach and they won’t be surrounded by a daily circus.
The latest example came Monday when it was revealed that general manager Mickey Loomis had signed a contract extension that will keep him with the team through 2017. Loomis signed the deal in August, but the team didn’t make any formal announcement before or during a disappointing 7-9 season.
Loomis was suspended for the first eight games of the season and coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire season. Payton was reinstated last week and recently signed a contract extension of his own.
Prior to the bounty scandal, the Saints had enjoyed a period of unprecedented success under Payton and Loomis. They built a regular playoff contender and won a Super Bowl by using their strong working relationship and an aggressive style.
Now that things are getting back to normal for the Saints, there are a lot of reasons to think Payton and Loomis can get things back to the way they were. It won’t be easy because the Saints have salary-cap issues and a defense that, statistically, was one of the worst in NFL history.
But Payton and Loomis built this franchise into a power once and they can do it again.
Just in time for the Super Bowl, the bounty scandal has come to a close New Orleans Saints.
The last remaining issue involving the Saints has been resolved (former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams remains suspended). The NFL announced Tuesday morning that coach Sean Payton has been reinstated from his season-long suspension. Initially, Payton was supposed to remain suspended until the day after the Super Bowl.
“Sean fully complied with all the requirements imposed on him during his suspension,’’ Goodell said in a statement. “More important, it is clear that Sean understands and accepts his responsibilities as a head coach and the vital role that coaches play in promoting player safety and setting an example for how the game should be played at all levels. We are committed to delivering football that fans love and the safety players deserve. Coach Payton agrees and I look forward to working with him going forward to do that.”
There are no winners and losers here. But there should be closure for the Saints. Goodell isn’t absolving Payton of anything in the bounty scandal. He simply is cutting Payton a break and letting him get back to work a little early, which is nice because it allows Payton to make some decisions about his coaching staff and also allows the coach to begin working with general manager Mickey Loomis on offseason personnel decisions.
Payton, who is viewed by many around the league as arrogant, came across as humble and somewhat contrite in a statement issued through the Saints soon after the news was announced.
“As I stated back in March, I, along with Mickey Loomis, take full responsibility for all aspects of our football program. I clearly recognize that mistakes were made, which led to league violations. Furthermore, I have assured the commissioner a more diligent protocol will be followed. Lastly, I feel we have learned from our mistakes and are ready to move forward. I want to thank our owner, Mr. (Tom) Benson and all of our great fans for the overwhelming support throughout this past year."
There, this whole sordid chapter officially is over for the Saints. It’s time for everyone to move on.
The latest development is that the team lost a valued member of its coaching staff. Adam Schefter reported that offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will be the new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach in Chicago.
Kromer was highly respected by the Saints and that was reinforced when he was named the interim head coach for the first six games of the season. Although the Saints started off 0-4, Kromer drew wide praise for keeping the team together during some difficult circumstances.
Kromer’s contract expired after the season. Although general manager Mickey Loomis said new contracts were offered to the coaches whose contracts had expired, the opportunity to be a coordinator for new Chicago coach Marc Trestman apparently was too tempting for Kromer.
When coach Sean Payton returns from suspension after the Super Bowl, one of his first tasks will be to find a replacement for Kromer.
The cap won’t be set until just before the league year starts in March, but it is expected to be slightly more than $120 million. Two NFC South teams are well under the cap and two are way over it and will have plenty of work to do in the next two months.
Atlanta Falcons. After spending closer to the 2012 cap than any other team in the NFL, the Falcons were able to carry over only $307,540 in cap space. But they also were given a $1 million adjustment for reasons that aren’t clear. They’re sitting at $113 million with 48 players under contract for 2013. But that cap room could disappear quickly if they re-sign potential free agents Brent Grimes and Sam Baker.
Carolina Panthers. The team carried over $3.654 million in cap space, but the situation remains a mess. With 56 players under contract, the Panthers are sitting at $131.7 million. There’s no doubt new general manager Dave Gettleman will attempt to restructure some contracts, but he’s going to have to release some veteran players just to get under the cap.
New Orleans Saints. They were able to carry over $2.7 million. With 55 players under contract, they’re sitting at $140.2 million, the second-highest current figure. General manager Mickey Loomis will have to restructure contracts and there is little doubt the Saints will part ways with some veterans.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They’re in the best cap shape in the division. They carried over $8.5 million and also were given a $1.643 million adjustment. They likely will try to re-sign defensive end Michael Bennett, defensive tackle Roy Miller and a few other potential free agents. But the Bucs, who easily can free up an additional $7.75 million by releasing cornerback Eric Wright, still should have plenty of room to make some moves in free agency.