NFC South: Sedrick Ellis

Film of the NFC South chat

May, 18, 2013
5/18/13
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We had all sorts of great questions in Friday's NFC South chat. Here's a team-by-team look at some of the highlights:

ATLANTA FALCONS

eric (arcata, ca) [via mobile]: the last time the falcons dropped 100 mill on a qb it didnt turn out as well. do you think this time is different with matty ice and do you think he deserves it? thanks pat and happy Friday.

Pat Yasinskas: Yes, I think he deserves it. He's produced five straight winning seasons and I don't think there are any off-field concerns with Ryan.

Sean (Vegas): Which rookie in the NFCS is going to have the biggest impact?

PY: I'll say Desmond Trufant. Think he starts right away and opposing offenses will challenge him right away.

Nathan (Mayer): Pat, if Matt Ryan doesn't have an extension does he hold out?

PY: I seriously think something will get done before camp.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Rick (Charlotte,NC): Is it time to start giving David Gettleman a little credit for what he has managed to do with the Panthers given the situation he had going in?

PY: Yes, he's making the most out of it. And I think the DeAngelo restructure was bigger than people realize. They freed up cap room in 2014 and '15, which is hugely important because they already were way over where the '14 cap is going to be.

Hank (Charlotte, NC): What do you see Gettleman doing with the money D-Will's restructure freed up?

PY: I wouldn't get your hopes up too high. Might make a mid-level move or two. But I think he's just setting up as much carry-over money as possible for next year's cap.

Prashanth (San Jose): Pat, I liked your piece on the Panthers OC Shula where you mentioned that he should be better at this role than he has been in the past, due to better talent he has at his disposal. But I am still concerned that conservatism is a deep instinctual behavior and this may well affect the Panthers offensive production this year. What do you think?

PY: Give Shula a chance. Think you might be pleasantly surprised. He had nothing to work with in his Tampa days. Plus, some of the conservative nature (maybe most of it) was due to Dungy. Shula and Rivera are coaching for their jobs. I think they'll play to their strengths.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Scott (CJS): Why do you think Sedrick Ellis is out of a job? From what I remember, he was solid for the Saints.

PY: Wouldn't say he was solid. I'd say he was an underachieving former first-round pick.

Brian( Kenner LA ) [via mobile]: Hey Pat. Just a quick statement. I don't think the Saints D is as bad as the stats say. Everyone, even you, thought it was a middle of the pack D last year and with the additions of Bunkley and Lofton they were better. So when you throw in a new coach and all the bounty stuff. I feel like they were set up for failure. With the additions this year and some normalcy, I see a bounce back. At least to the middle of the pack. Which is all they need. Thoughts??

PY: If they can get to anywhere near the middle of the pack on defense, Saints will be in great shape.

Paul (Knoxville): Any chance the Saints are setting up to release Harper, sign a veteran S (Woodson?) to replace Harper, and start Vaccaro..then upgrade the pass rush?

PY: Half of Harper's base salary is guaranteed. They'd take a cap hit if they cut him.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Nicolas (Parkland, FL): Is there a good chance that Mike Glennon starts at QB over Freeman in the first regular season game?

PY: Let's not get carried away. Freeman's going to camp as the starter and I expect him to open the season in that role. If he starts off poorly ...well, then things could change.

Darin (Louisville, Ky): Hey Pat with a healthy Bowers and Clayborn, and the addition of Gholston and Spence... How u think the pass rush will compare to that of last year?

PY: Remains to be seen. But I think it's pretty clear the Bucs have very big expectations for Bowers. We'll see if he can deliver. The potential is there.

BMand (Sarasota, FL): When is Revis expected to be able to fully participate in practice?

PY: Dominik has said he's confident Revis will be ready for start of training camp.

Here’s the complete transcript of Friday’s NFC South chat.

Reviewing NFC South free agents

March, 7, 2013
3/07/13
10:42
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We’ve shown you the lists of potential NFC South free agents before. But let’s do it again because there have been some minor moves and the free-agency period is getting ready to start Tuesday.

Here’s the list of potential free agents for all four NFC South teams:

Atlanta Falcons. Tony Gonzalez, Brent Grimes, Sam Baker, William Moore, Will Svitek, Mike Cox, Todd McClure, Luke McCown, Christopher Owens, Mike Peterson, Garrett Reynolds, Lawrence Sidbury and Vance Walker all can become unrestricted free agents. Michael Palmer can become a restricted free agent.

Carolina Panthers. The potential unrestricted free agents are Derek Anderson, Antwan Applewhite, Gary Barnidge, Dwan Edwards, Ben Hartsock, Sherrod Martin, Captain Munnerlyn, Louis Murphy and Mike Pollak. Richie Brockel can become an exclusive-rights free agent. Andre Neblett, Nate Ness and Jason Phillips are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

New Orleans Saints. Jermon Bushrod, Jonathan Casillas, Chase Daniel, Sedrick Ellis, Devery Henderson, Ramon Humber, Elbert Mack, Turk McBride, Will Robinson, Courtney Roby and Scott Shanle can become unrestricted free agents. Brian De La Puente, Justin Drescher, Junior Galette and Chris Ivory are scheduled to become restricted free agents. Eric Olsen and Michael Higgins can become exclusive-rights free agents.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ronde Barber, Dallas Clark, Michael Bennett, E.J. Biggers, Andrew Economos, Roy Miller, Roscoe Parrish, Sammie Stroughter and Jeremy Trueblood can become unrestricted free agents. LeGarrette Blount, Jacob Cutrera, Corvey Irvin and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

Top 10 NFC South free agents

March, 5, 2013
3/05/13
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We’re a week away from the start of free agency, so let’s rank the division’s top 10 free agents.

We’re talking only true unrestricted free agents with expiring contracts and not guys that already have been released (like Michael Turner last week).

[+] EnlargeBrent Grimes
AP Photo/Scott BoehmBrent Grimes missed most of last season with an Achilles injury but he's still expected to be a hot free agent.
1. Brent Grimes, cornerback, Falcons. Grimes’ No. 1 ranking comes partly because he’s good and partly because cornerback is a premium position. Even though he’s coming off a major injury, he’s going to get paid big money by Atlanta or some other team.

2. Michael Bennett, defensive end, Buccaneers. He’s an all-around defensive end who has just hit his prime. I’m somewhat surprised the Bucs haven’t already locked him up.

3. William Moore, safety, Falcons. He’s coming off a Pro Bowl appearance and he and Thomas DeCoud have emerged as a nice safety tandem. The Falcons need to keep Moore.

4. Sam Baker, left tackle, Falcons. He had a solid 2012 season. He may not be great, but I don’t see where the Falcons are going to find anyone better.

5. Dwan Edwards, defensive tackle, Panthers. He was a bright spot last season and the Panthers need to keep him.

6. Tony Gonzalez, tight end, Falcons. I’m ranking him low because it’s unclear if he wants to retire. If Gonzalez decides to play, he jumps toward the top of the list.

7. Captain Munnerlyn, cornerback, Panthers. He’s undersized, but plays with a chip on his shoulder. At best, he could be a starter in the right situation. At worst, he can be a quality third corner.

8. Jermon Bushrod, left tackle, Saints. He’s been a solid player, but the Saints have cap limitations. They also prefer to pay their interior linemen big money and get by with bargains on the outside.

9. Ronde Barber, safety, Buccaneers. It remains to be seen if the Bucs want Barber back. It also remains to be seen if Barber wants to play another year. If he does, someone will sign him.

10. Roy Miller, defensive tackle, Buccaneers. The final spot came down to a choice between Miller and New Orleans defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. A former first-round pick, Ellis has been a disappointment. Someone will sign him because there is talent there. But I’d sign Miller first because you know the effort will be there.

Draft rewind: Saints' five-year recap

February, 21, 2013
2/21/13
10:49
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A look at the NFC South’s best and worst from the past five NFL drafts, one team at a time.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Best choice: Jimmy Graham. The Saints took what appeared to be a huge leap when they took the former University of Miami basketball player in the third round (95th overall) in 2010. They struck a major gold mine. By his second season, Graham already was one of the best tight ends in the NFL. But the really good news is that his best days are likely still ahead of him.

Worst choice: Sedrick Ellis. Taken with the seventh overall pick in 2008, Ellis was supposed to have a huge impact. That never has happened. Ellis hasn’t been a total bust, but he’s never delivered the type of production you would expect from a top-10 pick. That’s why I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Saints let Ellis walk into free agency in March.

Verdict pending: Mark Ingram. The Saints traded up to get Ingram with the 28th overall pick in the 2011 draft. When you trade up to get a running back, you expect big results. We haven’t seen much out of Ingram yet as he shares space in a crowded New Orleans backfield. But I’m not ready to give up on Ingram just yet. I think he still could be an impact player if the coaching staff uses him properly.
Back when Curtis Lofton left the Atlanta Falcons for the New Orleans Saints as a free agent, he did it because he wanted to be an every-down linebacker.

Lofton has said the Falcons made it clear to him shortly after the arrival of new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan that he’d come off the field on passing downs. The Saints lured Lofton largely by telling him he’d be an every-down linebacker in their system.

He ended up coming very close to literally being an every-down linebacker. The Saints had 1,137 defensive plays. Lofton was on the field for a team-high 1,121 (98.59 percent) of those plays.

Let’s take a look at the playing-time percentage breakdown for the rest of the New Orleans defense:

Looking at New Orleans' free agents

February, 11, 2013
2/11/13
1:17
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Time to continue our look at the NFC South’s potential free agents with the New Orleans Saints.

Their list includes left tackle Jermon Bushrod, linebacker Jonathan Casillas, backup quarterback Chase Daniel, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, receiver Devery Henderson, linebacker Ramon Humber, cornerback Elbert Mack, defensive end Turk McBride, tackle Will Robinson, receiver Courtney Roby and linebacker Scott Shanle. Center Brian De La Puente, center Justin Drescher, defensive end Junior Galette and running back Chris Ivory can be restricted free agents. Safety Rafael Bush, guard Eric Olsen and tight end Michael Higgins can be exclusive-rights free agents.

The big names are Bushrod, who has made himself into a Pro Bowler, and Ellis, a former first-round pick. Although the Saints have major salary-cap issues, they are likely to at least make an attempt to keep Bushrod. But it’s important to remember the Saints aren’t like most other teams when it comes to their philosophy on paying offensive linemen. They have a history of paying more to guards (see Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs) than they do to tackles and Bushrod could get big money on the open market.

Ellis never has lived up to his draft status and, with the Saints switching to a 3-4 defense, I’m not sure he’s a good fit for the scheme.

Henderson and Shanle used to be key players. But age started to catch up to them last season and I don’t see the Saints making a big push to keep them.

Kiper's NFC South mock draft

January, 16, 2013
1/16/13
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Mel Kiper Jr. has put out his first mock draft , so let’s take a look at what he’s projecting from the NFC South in the first round.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has Tampa Bay taking Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree. In some ways, I like this call. Put Ogletree with Lavonte David and Mason Foster and the Bucs could have a very good linebacker corps for a long time. But part of me would like to see the Bucs get a cornerback with this pick. They certainly have a huge need at that position. But Kiper has Alabama’s Dee Milliner going in the top five. Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes is the only other cornerback he has going (late) in the first round. Maybe Milliner’s stock drops between now and the draft, but I doubt it. The more likely scenario is that Rhodes or some other cornerback climbs draft boards with good workouts.

Carolina Panthers. Kiper has them taking Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. I’m all for that move. The Panthers have been weak at defensive tackle since Kris Jenkins left the team after the 2007 season. It’s time to invest an early draft pick in the position.

New Orleans Saints. Kiper also has the Saints taking a defensive tackle -- Ohio State’s Jonathan Hankins. This one also makes plenty of sense. Former first-round pick Sedrick Ellis never has become a star and he’s about to become a free agent.

Atlanta Falcons. We don’t know Atlanta’s exact draft position yet, but it will be late in the first round. Kiper has the Falcons taking SMU defensive end Margus Hunt. That’s logical because the Falcons need to get John Abraham’s eventual replacement. But you can’t lock in on any one player or position when you’re drafting as late as the Falcons will be. Depending on if they keep Brent Grimes and Sam Baker, I could see them drafting a cornerback or a left tackle. I could also see them drafting a tight end to replace Tony Gonzalez.

NFC South evening update

September, 24, 2012
9/24/12
6:33
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Time for a Monday evening look at the biggest headlines from around the NFC South.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Coach Mike Smith said backup tight end Michael Palmer will miss Sunday’s game with Carolina due to a shoulder injury. The Falcons have starter Tony Gonzalez, but don’t like to overload him with blocking duties. Tommy Gallarda is likely to take on a role as a blocker. The Falcons also may consider activating Chase Coffman off their practice squad.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Coach Ron Rivera said he wished wide receiver Steve Smith had not told the media about getting on Cam Newton when the quarterback was sulking at the end of Thursday night’s loss to the Giants. I understand that what happens between teammates should stay between them. But I don’t have any big problem with Smith acting as a veteran leader. Newton made a big deal in the offseason about saying he wanted to be a better teammate. Smith has had his own ups and downs, but he’s dealt with them. If Smith sees a quarterback with his head wrapped in a towel in the final minutes, he has every right to get on him.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said rookie defensive tackle Akiem Hicks will start to get more playing time. Not a bad idea. Hicks has looked good in limited action and I don’t know that Sedrick Ellis has a real bright future with the Saints.

Quarterback Drew Brees insists the Saints will turn their season around after an 0-3 start. That’s still possible, but the Saints have very little margin for error if they want to make a serious bid for the playoffs.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

With defensive end Adrian Clayborn done for the season after suffering a knee injury Sunday, there still is some hope Da’Quan Bowers could return later this season. Bowers tore his Achilles tendon in the offseason and is on the physically unable to perform list. Bowers spoke briefly to the media on Monday and talked about his rehabilitation without going into any detail about a time line for his return. But team officials previously have expressed optimism that Bowers might be able to start practicing when he’s eligible in Week 6.

Observation deck: Saints-Titans

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
10:03
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Some quick observations from the Saints' 10-6 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Thursday night's preseason finale:
  • Assistant head coach Joe Vitt went almost exclusively with backups, which isn’t at all surprising when you consider the Saints were playing their fifth preseason game, including the Hall of Fame Game. The Saints started third-string quarterback Sean Canfield. He is a long way from being Drew Brees and even backup Chase Daniel, but Canfield looked better than I’ve ever seen him in practice and previous preseason games. Canfield did turn the ball over a couple of times, but I think he at least made a case for the Saints to keep him around.
  • I think a lot of people thought third-round defensive tackle Akiem Hicks would be a project because he played his college football in Canada. I think a lot of people might have sold Hicks short. He continues to impress. He sacked Jake Locker in the first quarter. It’s pretty obvious Hicks has earned a spot in the rotation behind starters Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis. You could even look a year ahead and perhaps picture Hicks as a starter because Ellis’ contract is up after this season and the Saints will have a tight salary-cap situation in 2013.
  • Receiver Joseph Morgan continues to look good. I think he probably holds the edge on rookie Nick Toon for the No. 4 receiver spot (I count Courtney Roby, a return man) as the fifth receiver. That makes you wonder if the Saints will keep six receivers on the roster. My guess is they will. Toon’s a guy they were high on before his preseason got interrupted by an injury. Toon’s healthy now and I don’t think he’s a guy you want to risk losing by releasing him and hoping to get him back on the practice squad.
  • The competition for the fourth running back spot remains close between Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet. But I think Ivory might have gained a bit of ground in this game because Cadet lost a fumble.
  • A lot of people were stunned when safety Isa Abdul-Quddus made the team last year. I was one of them, but I’m starting to see why now. Quddus knocked a ball loose in the second quarter and Elbert Mack recovered the fumble. Quddus already has established a role as a special-teams player. But I think he’s turning into a solid backup at safety, and somewhere in the future he could end up starting.
The New Orleans Saints obviously are happy with what they have seen so far out of rookie defensive tackle Akiem Hicks.

That became evident Monday as the team announced it has released veteran defensive tackle Remi Ayodele. It’s pretty obvious the Saints plan to use Hicks and Tom Johnson as the backups in the rotation behind starters Sedrick Ellis and Brodrick Bunkley. The Saints initially had brought Ayodele back to New Orleans as insurance in case Hicks, who played his college football in Canada, did not develop quickly.

Ayodele joined the Saints in 2008 and started 29 games over three seasons. He left for Minnesota as a free agent last year, but was re-signed by New Orleans in free agency.

Ayodele was the biggest name on the list of transactions made by the Saints to get down to the 75-player limit. The only other veteran released Monday was quarterback Luke McCown. He had been signed during the offseason before the Saints and starter Drew Brees were able to work out a new contract. The Saints are set with Brees and Chase Daniel as their top two quarterbacks. Sean Canfield remains on the roster for now, but the Saints often have carried only two quarterbacks on the roster in recent seasons.

The Saints also waived linebacker Aaron Tevis, center Brian Folkerts, tight end Jake Byrne, safety Johnny Thomas, receiver Derek Moye, guard Paul Fenaroli, tackle Hutch Eckerson, defensive end Donovan Robinson, receiver Kevin Hardy, cornerback Kamaal McIlwain, defensive tackle Swanson Miller, cornerback Cord Parks and receiver Marques Clark.

Observation deck: Saints-Texans

August, 25, 2012
8/25/12
11:17
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Some observations from the New Orleans Saints’ 34-27 preseason victory against the Houston Texans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Saturday night.

  • There’s no doubt the defense is a concern. But let’s keep a few things in mind. Houston is one of the league’s better offenses, the Saints were starting backup linebackers and, most importantly, the defense doesn’t have to be great when you’ve got Drew Brees and this offense. The Saints fell behind 14-0 quickly, but Brees put the Saints right back into the game. Brees and the offense are good enough to keep the Saints in any regular-season game.
  • With starting linebackers David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton sidelined by injuries, the Saints started Jonathan Casillas in the middle with Scott Shanle and Will Herring on the outside. Lofton has a high-ankle sprain and Hawthorne is recovering from knee surgery. There’s no guarantee they’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. At the start of training camp, I thought Herring wouldn’t be on the opening-day roster and Shanle would be pushed into a backup role. Casillas is an outside guy, who was forced into the middle because there really was no alternative. Veteran Barrett Ruud recently was brought in via trade and played in the second half, but I’m not sure he has much left. If the Saints have to go a few games into the regular season with that trio starting, they’ll have big problems. I’m thinking there’s a linebacker (or two) on another roster at the moment that could end up with the Saints shortly.
  • I did see some individual bright spots on the defense. Second-year defensive end Cameron Jordan produced an early sack, even though he blatantly was held. I really believe Jordan will prosper in the system of coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is another guy I think is going to emerge in Spagnuolo’s system. Jenkins showed signs of that when he read a reverse perfectly and popped the ball out of Keshawn Martin’s hands for a fumble that was recovered by Will Smith.
  • I think it was pretty telling that rookie cornerback Corey White was getting some playing time in the first quarter. White knocked a ball out of Martin’s hands and Sedrick Ellis recovered. It’s looking more and more like White is going to get some playing time in the nickel and dime packages.
  • A couple of other young defensive players that I think are on the rise made big plays on special teams. Safety Isa Abdul-Quddus forced a Trindon Holliday fumble on a kickoff return and defensive end Junior Galette scooped it up and raced in for a touchdown.
  • The competition for the fourth running back spot between Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet continues to provide some drama. Ivory lost a fumble on the first drive. But Ivory might have redeemed himself with some nice running in the third quarter, although that came against Houston’s second-team defense. But Cadet also looked good as a receiver out of the backfield. This one is going to be a very close call.
  • Speaking of guys fighting for roster spots and fumbles, wide receiver Joseph Morgan put the ball on the ground once. He made a nice catch, but kept fighting too long after his forward progress was stopped by three guys and one of them popped the ball loose. Morgan’s fumble led to a quick and easy touchdown for Houston. But Morgan might have redeemed himself a bit with a fourth-quarter touchdown catch.
  • Tight end Jimmy Graham won’t say if he bulked up in the offseason, but he sure looks like he did. If so, it hasn’t slowed him down a bit. Graham looks even better than he did last season, when he had 99 catches.

The $5 million (and over) club

August, 20, 2012
8/20/12
11:46
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We’ve shown you the NFC South’s top earners multiple times in the past, but it’s time for an update. The massive contract Drew Brees signed in July and a few other recent moves have shaken things up.

We’re using average per year here. Let’s take a look at every NFC South player that averages at least $5 million on his current contract.

Observation deck: Cardinals-Saints

August, 5, 2012
8/05/12
11:21
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Let’s run through some thoughts and observations from the New Orleans Saints’ 17-10 victory against the Arizona Cardinals in Sunday night’s Hall of Fame Game.
  • Quarterback Drew Brees and most of the first-team offense played only the first series of the game. But it was a very efficient drive. The Saints went 77 yards on 10 plays to score a touchdown. Brees didn’t do anything fancy, but completed four of five passes for 41 yards and the first offense looked as smooth as you could hope for in a preseason opener.
  • Second-year running back Mark Ingram scored the opening touchdown on a 1-yard run. Ingram also had a nice 10-yard cutback run before that. Ingram missed part of his rookie season with injuries and had knee and toe surgery this offseason. But he looked like he’s completely healthy and that means he likely will share time in the backfield with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.
  • Free safety Malcolm Jenkins didn’t produce a single interception last season. He got one precisely five minutes into this game, jumping a route and picking off Kevin Kolb. I expect a lot more interceptions out of Jenkins this season as he gets a chance to be a true center fielder for the first time in his career.
  • Curtis Lofton had a tackle for a 2-yard loss on a run by LaRod Stephens-Howling on Arizona’s second possession. Get used to that. Lofton is better than any linebacker the Saints had last season, particularly against the running game.
  • Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who hasn’t been known as a pass-rusher, got nice pressure on Kolb in the Arizona end zone midway through the first quarter. Kolb barely got a pass off to avoid a safety. He also was shaken up on the play and left the game.
  • Overall, the Saints' first-team defense didn’t do anything that stood out either way. The unit wasn’t real sharp with its tackling against the Arizona running game.
  • There were some encouraging things from the Saints' second-team defense. Martez Wilson, who is making the move from linebacker to defensive end, produced a sack in the second quarter and another early in the third quarter.
  • Joseph Morgan and Laron Scott each misjudged a punt return in the first quarter. Scott redeemed himself with a nice kickoff return in the second quarter.
  • Undrafted rookie running back Travaris Cadet looked great catching the ball out of the backfield and in the return game. But it’s going to be tough for Cadet to make a roster that already includes Ingram, Sproles, Thomas and Chris Ivory. Cadet’s best hope might be to catch on with another team or to end up on New Orleans’ practice squad.

Akiem Hicks ready for action

August, 2, 2012
8/02/12
2:44
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The New Orleans Saints finally will get their first real look at their top draft choice.

Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said Thursday he expects to take part in Friday’s padded practice. Hicks had been sidelined by a hand injury, but it sounds like he’s about to get thrown right into the mix. Hicks said he’s been told he’ll play in Sunday’s Hall of Fame Game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Hicks said he’s used the time on the sideline to get as ready as possible.

“I’ve taken more mental reps than I’ve taken my whole life,’’ Hicks said. “Every play I’m into it, I’m waiting for the next call, I’m ready, I’m doing my own moves on the side and trying to figure out what I need to be ready for when I come back to full contact. A lot of mental reps.”

A third-round choice (the Saints didn’t have a pick in the first two rounds), Hicks has a chance at immediate playing time. The Saints are likely to use Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis as their starting defensive tackles. But Hicks will be given a chance to earn a spot in the rotation.

Sun finally shines on Saints

July, 26, 2012
7/26/12
8:49
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METAIRIE, La. – If you believe in omens, you might be able to view what happened to the New Orleans Saints on their first day of training practice as a wonderful thing. It just didn’t start off that way.

Almost fittingly, it all began with heavy clouds, rain, lightning and thunder. The afternoon storm got so bad that at one point, the metal guards surrounding the ceiling sprinklers in the media room fell to the floor. Consider all that a synopsis of what might have been the worst (or at least most challenging) offseason an NFL team ever has faced.

You know the story. In March, the NFL said the Saints had been running a bounty program for three years. Suspensions of coaches and players followed and it seemed like the Saints were in the news every day -- and for all the wrong reasons.

It got so bad that even die-hard Saints’ fans started taking shots at franchise quarterback Drew Brees, who’s been the most beloved figure in New Orleans in recent years, maybe ever. Brees signed his contract almost two weeks ago and all the clouds were supposed to be gone Thursday when the Saints hit the practice field. They weren’t.

“We were looking forward to getting out in front of our fans today,’’ assistant coach Joe Vitt said. ”Those are people that carry us through times.’’

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees, Joe Vitt
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDrew Brees and Joe Vitt are making sure that things are running smoothly at Saints camp.
The fans didn’t get to see practice. The storm was so bad that the Saints had to move practice indoors and close it to the public. Even indoors, you could still hear some thunder. And you could see some figurative clouds as safety Roman Harper, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and linebackers Scott Shanle and Jonathan Casillas rolled into practice about 45 minutes after it started.

They had been excused. Each of them spent part of the day at a courthouse testifying on behalf of linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is fighting to get an injunction that would stop his season-long suspension. Vitt also testified, but he arrived back at the facility about two hours before practice.

“This was planned,’’ Vitt said. “They missed none of what we call teaching situations.’’

Harper, Shanle and Ellis were working with the first-team defense before practice was over and Casillas was getting work as a backup.

About the time they returned to practice, things started looking a little more normal. The Saints ran some nine-on-seven drills and Brees started to hook up with receivers on some spectacular long passes.

“He’s got a lot of pent-up frustration,’’ Vitt said. “This is the first time he’s played since (a playoff loss at) San Francisco.’’

The offense started looking sharp and the defense had its moments.

“We’ve been together a long time,’’ All-Pro guard Jahri Evans said. “Everything is fluent with us. Everything is smooth motion.’’

Yeah, but coach Sean Payton is suspended for the season. Vitt’s running the team -- for now.

“He knows how this machine runs,’’ tight end Jimmy Graham said.

But Vitt’s going to have to step aside (and hand the top spot off to someone else) at the start of the season, because he’ll be suspended for the first six games. You can’t, in any objective way, say the Saints are in for a normal season.

“I think we go along here and just keep adjusting,’’ Brees said.

Maybe the Saints already are adjusting and maybe, as Vitt said, they’ve done everything they can to prepare for all the unique circumstances they’ve faced and will continue to face.

The opening practice was far from normal for many reasons. But, when all was said and done, the Saints looked as sharp as a team can on its first day of training camp. That’s why we’re going back to omens.

As the Saints walked out of their indoor facility and into their locker room, the storm was gone. The sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

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