NFL Nation: Drew Brees

Saints Camp Report: Day 5

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • Another day, another "wow" moment for rookie Saints receiver Brandin Cooks. At some point, I'm going to have to borrow a Sean Payton term and start "de-recruiting" Cooks instead of continuing to pump him up. But that's hard to do when he keeps making eye-popping plays. This time Cooks took a screen pass from Drew Brees and shot past a couple hapless defenders for a touchdown. Cooks also showed off some receiving skills on a nifty back-shoulder catch from Brees, among other highlights. "That was awesome. ... I think that just gives you a taste of what we have in him," Brees said of the screen play. "(Some people) are straight-line fast but not real quick or they have long strides or short-area quickness but not long speed. This guy has it all. He's got short-area quickness, great transition ability and phenomenal straight-line speed."
  • Fellow receiver Nick Toon has also continued to impress throughout training camp. The third-year pro sprung free for one deep ball and went up high to pluck another pass out of the air. It was just another typical practice for Toon this summer as he has probably racked up more catches in team drills than any receiver in camp. ... Of course Toon has looked good in training camps past, and his job this year will be to prove that it can translate onto the field. But Brees, for one, sees Toon playing more "natural" with more "confidence."
  • I've said over the past couple days that 1-on-1 pass-rush drills are my favorite individual segment in camp. But I specifically like watching the daily battles between guard Jahri Evans and defensive end Akiem Hicks. They're both so strong, it's like the irresistible force vs. the immovable object. Credit Evans for holding his own so far in a drill that's designed to favor the defense, but they both look good.
  • Safety Jairus Byrd wasn't the only one back from injury Tuesday. Receiver Robert Meachem (back) and offensive tackle Tavon Rooks (back) also returned from injuries. … Among other highlights from Wednesday's session: an interception by cornerback Terrence Frederick on an overthrown deep ball by Luke McCown; a huge run block by right tackle Thomas Welch that upended safety Vinnie Sunseri; and a great pass break-up deep down the field by Corey White against QB Ryan Griffin at the end of practice.
  • No practice Wednesday. Players will have their first off-day of camp after five straight days of practice. They'll be back on the field Thursday morning.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Drew Brees said he was joking when he tweeted about how suspicious it was that he was “randomly” drug tested by the NFL twice after claiming he wants to play until he’s 45 years old.
But when it comes to those comments themselves about wanting playing for another 10 years, Brees said he was dead serious.

“I’m not delusional. I know that that’s something that would be extremely difficult to do,” Brees said. “I know it’s one year at a time and it’s, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ You have to come out each and every year, prove it, be consistent and all of those things.

“But why not push the envelope a little bit. Crazier things have happened.”

I followed up with Brees on the subject Tuesday because I suspected that he was indeed serious when he threw that lofty goal out there. And not only did he insist he was serious, but he offered a lot of insight into what makes him tick.

“Not many have done that,” Brees said. “George Blanda, he was plenty past 45. I’ve played with a couple of kickers, [John] Carney, John Kasay, of course Morten Anderson played past 45. Vinnie Testaverde was 44. It can be done. A lot of things would have to fall into place.

“I think throughout your career you hit certain milestones. I came in this league as a second-round pick to the San Diego Chargers. They signed Doug Flutie in free agency so I knew I was coming into a backup position for Doug Flutie. At that point your goal becomes, ‘You know what, I just want to become a starter in this league and earn a starting role.’ So then the minute you kind of get that, then, ‘OK, what’s the next step? I want to be a really good player. I want to be a Pro Bowl player in this league.’ Then you accomplish that, now, ‘It’s my fourth year, I think I can make it to double digits. I can play 10 years in this league.’ Then you hit that, then you are like, ‘OK, I want to play until I’m 35.’ Now I’m 35, so what’s the next thing? That is where my head is at. …

“It’s certainly not going to be easy, but I try to play this game like I am a kid and have fun like I did when I was playing it, tossing the ball down the street with my brother, buddies from school or whatever. I still have that playful mentality when it comes to it, so you enjoy coming to work every day. This is a serious business. They don’t keep you around if you aren’t playing well. You still have to play at a high level. You have to find a way to take care of your body and make good decisions in regards to that. I believe I can do that.”

So can Brees really do it? I’m not going to rule it out.

For one thing, Brees has shown no real signs of slowing down. Yes, he had some uncharacteristic struggles on the road last season, but he was as dominant as ever inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And his final numbers in almost every major passing category ranked among the three best in his tenure with the New Orleans Saints (5,162 yards, 39 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 68.6 completion percentage and 104.7 passer rating).

For another things, Brees’ game doesn’t rely on superior arm strength or athleticism as much as it does his mental game, his instincts, his quick decision-making and his accuracy.

But more than anything else, Brees is one of the most driven, determined competitors the league has ever seen. And he said the other day that he’s motivated by trying to accomplish things that have never been done before or that people consider impossible. So if nothing else, Brees may just stubbornly will himself to keep thriving for another decade.
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Look, I'm not saying he can and I'm not saying he can't. I have nothing but respect for Eli Manning's abilities and the things he can do. He can beat Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, and if you didn't believe that after the first time, he did it again for good measure. The New York Giants' quarterback is largely underrated and underappreciated, and he's perfectly capable of having a great season even though he's coming off his worst season.

However.

If Manning completes 70 percent of his passes this year in Ben McAdoo's new offense, as quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf said Monday he'd challenged Manning to do, then McAdoo, Langsdorf and anyone else who had a hand in it should have their choice of NFL head-coaching jobs next January. And they can ride unicorns with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to the interviews.

Start with the very short list of quarterbacks who've ever hit that number in a full NFL season. It's basically Drew Brees (twice, in 2009 and 2011), Joe Montana (1989) and Steve Young (1994). Langsdorf said the list he gave Manning also included Sammy Baugh, Ken Anderson and Alex Smith. But Baugh played only eight games in the 1945 season in which he hit the mark (the league played a 10-game season that year). Anderson's 1982 season was only nine games long due to a players strike. And Smith put up his 70.2 mark in 10 games in 2012 before losing his job to Colin Kaepernick.

So if Manning is to hit this goal over a full season, he'll be doing something only three other players -- two of whom are in the Hall of Fame, and one of whom surely will be -- have done. The fact that it's a nearly impossible achievement is the first and best reason to doubt it. Manning's career completion percentage is 58.5, and his career high for a single season is 62.9, set in 2010. He would have had to complete an additional 69 passes in 2013 to get to 70 percent from the dismal 57.5 at which he finished. That's 4.3 more completions per game. Even in 2010, he would have needed 39 more completions, or 2.4 per game. May not sound like a lot, but it is when you think about what it means.

Secondly, as much as we've written about the Giants' new offensive scheme, there are still legitimate concerns about whether they have the personnel to run it effectively. The offensive line isn't set yet. Their wide receiver group is littered with question marks after Victor Cruz. They do not have a reliable pass-catching tight end on the roster. And as much as they want to stress high-percentage plays and completion percentage, it's tough to imagine they'll throw to the running backs all season.

Which kind of leads me to my final point: Eli Manning, risk-taker. Manning's calling card as a quarterback has always been, to me, his fearlessness. He has the confidence to try any throw, no matter how risky, because (a) he believes he can make it, and (b) he has an uncommon ability to put mistakes behind him and not let them affect his performance as the game goes along.

It's inconceivable to think that McAdoo and Langsdorf could change this about Manning even if they wanted to, and it's inconceivable to believe they would want to. Manning's ability to deliver an uncanny throw in a huge spot is one of the few things you can point to right now in this Giants offense that might have a chance to set it apart from others in the league. Their challenge is to install an offense that's more efficient and less turnover-prone while still making use of what Manning does best. So there's still going to be plenty of downfield stuff, and that stuff will come with more risk.

Now, OK. I understand about coaching and motivation. If Langsdorf sets a goal of 70 percent and Manning aims for it but falls 5 percent short, he'd still obliterate his career high and improve on last year by 7.5 percent. The Giants would surely take that. But hearing Langsdorf say this Monday brought home the ideas of (a) how much different this offense is going to be than it has been for the past decade, and (b) how hard it's going to be for the Giants to be proficient in their new offense in its first season.

Saints Camp Report: Day 2

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
6:40
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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • Robinson rising: Cornerback Patrick Robinson had two nifty pass break-ups on back-to-back plays Saturday – another sign that he’s back to playing aggressively with confidence after a tough two-year stretch. Robinson struggled as a full-time starter in 2012, then he missed most of last season with a knee injury. But the former first-round pick clearly is energized by the chance to get back into a prominent role. For now, Champ Bailey has received the most looks as the Saints’ No. 2 cornerback, but Robinson has rotated in at times. “He’s looking great,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “He’s always looked smooth. He’s a unique guy. He’s a tall guy that can bend, and those guys are really rare.”
  • Offense wins: The defensive highlights were few and far between on Saturday, however. Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Ryan Griffin took advantage of some breakdowns in the secondary to complete several deep balls (with Jimmy Graham, Nick Toon and Brandin Cooks among the beneficiaries). “Today wasn’t our best,” Ryan said. “Whooo, that offense was rolling.”
  • Break out the pads: Players on both sides are fired up about Sunday’s practice, which will be the first padded session of the offseason. Typically they don’t tackle all the way to the ground. But they will finally get to do some real hitting. “Oh, definitely (excited), especially for the offensive and defensive linemen,” defensive end Akiem Hicks said. “That is something that we look forward to all year. We get to run around in our pajamas for most of the year, but when the pads come on, you get to hit that guy that was talking a little trash earlier in the year.”
  • Weather concerns? Sunday’s practice could be affected by a projected storm, as there are no indoor facilities at the Saints’ new training camp site. Coach Sean Payton joked, “We don’t get bad weather” – referencing the uncanny way the Saints avoided the rain for years in past camps in Jackson, Miss. But he said the Saints will be flexible if they need to wait out any lightning.
  • White at safety? Cornerback Corey White, who is competing with Bailey and Robinson, spent part of practice as the deep safety in nickel packages while safety Kenny Vaccaro moved up into the slot. It might be a moot point when safety Jairus Byrd returns from injury. But it was another example of Ryan’s creative use of the personnel at his disposal. “He’s another smart guy that’s got a lot of talent, so he can play multiple spots for us,” Ryan said.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Bubba Watson might have blown his chance on Friday to crack the New Orleans Saints roster.

The two-time Masters champion and longtime Saints fan dropped a pass from Saints quarterback Drew Brees during training camp practice at The Greenbrier resort, where Watson and his family recently moved.

“He’s blaming me. He said I underthrew him,” Brees joked after practice.

Watson
Watson
It was a designed play, but Watson didn’t run a pass route. He just stepped onto the field from the sideline and waited for Brees to deliver a deep ball, which bounced off his hands as he reached for it.

“It’s a stationary target, I didn’t want to overthrow him. I thought it was something he could come back to,” Brees said. “I said, ‘Hey every now and then a receiver’s gotta come back to the ball.’ So he’s saying QB error, I’m saying receiver error.

“What I wanted was an over-the-top throw. We’re gonna have to just practice that. I’m gonna have to get him off the course this afternoon, maybe over here for some extra reps when you guys leave, so he doesn’t get nervous. And then maybe we’ll get a big touchdown reception before he has to leave here.”

When asked if Watson choked, Brees said, “No, I just don’t think we best utilized his skill set. So we just need to come up with a better route for him.”
PITTSBURGH -- ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski recently ranked all of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is sixth on his list after Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck.

Roethlisberger
"Jaws" performed his usual exhaustive film review in compiling his list, and he offered strong praise for Roethlisberger as well as an astonishing statistic:
I thought Big Ben had one of his best seasons in 2013. We all know he has a unique skill set, with the ability to be a pocket passer but also extend the play when it's necessary. Ultimately, there are two sets of numbers that stand out to me for Roethlisberger. The first is that he has 156 career starts and has won 67 percent of them. That's astonishing. The second is that veteran quarterbacks understand the necessity of coming away with touchdowns and not field goals in the red zone. In the last two seasons, Roethlisberger has 27 TDs and zero INTs inside the 20-yard line."


You can debate where Roethlisberger ranks among NFL quarterback but one thing that can't be disputed: Big Ben is the player the Steeler can least afford to lose for an extended period in 2014.

The 11th-year veteran makes the no-huddle attack go and that will again be an important component of the Steelers' offense. Roethlisberger, who turned 32 in March, is still playing at a high level and he is coming off a season in which he took every snap. Bruce Gradkowski is a capable backup but nothing would help the Steelers more as they try to return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus than if Gradkowski spends most if not all of the upcoming season on the sidelines.

Here are four other players whom the Steelers cannot afford to lose this season.

WR Antonio Brown: The Steelers' wide receivers become average if Brown is sidelined by a significant injury. The reigning Steelers MVP caught 110 passes for a team-record 1,499 yards last season and he will again make the other wideouts better simply because of the attention he commands from opposing defenses.

C Maurkice Pouncey: The Steelers got lucky that Fernando Velasco and later Cody Wallace played so capably at center after Pouncey tore his ACL eight plays into last season. They cannot count on that fortune again if Pouncey goes down. The three-time Pro Bowler is the unquestioned leader of the offensive line, and he is eager to reward the Steelers for the lucrative contract extension they gave him last month.

LB Lawrence Timmons: Durable and incredibly productive, Timmons should have at least one Pro Bowl on his resume by now. He will call the defense until rookie Ryan Shazier is ready to assume that responsibility. Simply getting lined up properly proved to be a problem for the defense after Larry Foote went down in the 2013 opener with a season-ending arm injury.

DE Cameron Heyward: The 2011 first-round pick is the one proven commodity that the Steelers have at defensive end. Heyward pushed his way into the starting lineup after the fourth game of last season, and he led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures in 2013 and tied for the team lead with five sacks. To say there is a significant drop-off after Heyward at defensive end is an understatement.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are Pro Bowl selections and plenty of all-everything teams revealed in every NFL season. Some players are named, some are snubbed and the discussion on all fronts can be lively.

And then there's what Donny Moore does. Moore, who laughingly calls himself a "former sandwich artist who has had the greatest of opportunities, is a 36-year-old guy whose decisions are debated, sifted through and often even used as verbal barbs in not only living rooms across the country, but in locker rooms around the NFL."

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
EA SportsIt comes as little surprise that Peyton Manning is ranked as the top quarterback in "Madden NFL 15."
That's because Moore has the final say about player rankings in "Madden," the wildly popular Electronic Arts video game. The 26th edition -- "Madden NFL 15" -- is set for release on Aug. 26.

And when it comes to the Denver Broncos' game, players will soon discover what NFL defenses did last season -- because quarterback Peyton Manning is at the top of the heap. Manning, who threw for an NFL single-season record 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards last season on the way to this fifth MVP award, is tied for the game's top rating for quarterbacks at 98.

Moore gave Manning and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers a 98 rating -- "it's a 0 to 99 system, there are no 100 ratings in the game," Moore said. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees checked in at 96; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was rated at 93.

And while the debate rages around the league about whether Russell Wilson is a top-10 quarterback, Moore said he will be in this year's "Madden," as Wilson was also given a 93 rating.

Calculating Manning's rating, Moore said, was simply a matter of balancing past production, plenty of advanced metrics on the statistical side, and giving Manning the eye test.

"You're constantly looking at it, having your eyes on everything," Moore said. "It's not only what you see, relative to his peers, relative to the league, but what the metrics tell you as well. A guy like Peyton has such a long track record, from our standpoint it's going to take a lot to push that rating down any. A younger player's rating may be far more volatile ... But we update through the season and through the playoffs."

Moore said Manning's rating in the gaming world represents a complete bounce-back from the quarterback's return from spinal fusion surgery that caused him to miss the 2011 season, which are also the only games Manning has missed in his career. Since signing with the Broncos in 2012, Manning has started every game -- 32 regular-season games to go with four playoff games, with 92 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions.

"There were a lot of unknowns there when he came back, but the feeling was it would affect his throw power," Moore said. "We dropped him down to 84, 85 range, got back up to 89 in 'Madden 13,' I believe. And then to where he is now where we just looked at everything, throw power, awareness, all of those things."

Whether it be on Twitter or in person, Moore said plenty of NFL players have approached him about a ratings adjustment, and that speed tends to be the flashpoint from time to time.

"What usually happens is a big play will happen on Sunday and fans will start tweeting the player, 'Oh man, you did great, you need to talk to 'Madden' to get your rating up,' " Moore said. "And then they'll start following me and we'll go back and forth ... Guys always want to talk about their ratings, they're sort of 80 percent joking, 20 percent serious."

Moore said earlier this year, as he sat "in my cubicle at the office," he could hear Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, on site for a visit, questioning other staffers about how to get his speed rating adjusted. Moore said he then stepped over to meet the quarterback "and I look down and he's got a walking boot on because he just had surgery, so I was kind of going back and forth with him about how a walking boot would affect his speed."

"But in the end we want to just get it right," Moore said. "Whether it's a quarterback everybody knows like Peyton or a long snapper, we want to be right. We strive for perfection, we don't get it, but we always strive for it. But as far as Peyton, I've got a good feeling we're right on that one."
The main key for success for the Detroit Lions this season is remarkably simple and has been the main focus of the franchise since it fired coach Jim Schwartz following the 2013 season.

Stafford
Stafford
From hiring new head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter to signing Golden Tate, re-signing Brandon Pettigrew and drafting Eric Ebron, that focus has been giving quarterback Matthew Stafford everything he could possibly need to succeed.

Stafford has to use those tools to turn into the elite quarterback the team has been hoping for since they drafted him first overall in 2009. Statistically, Stafford has been one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, putting up massive numbers for the Lions during his first five seasons.

Yet for every fourth-quarter comeback he completed and remarkable play he made, he has also made a decision leaving those watching and wondering what he saw or thought on that play. That has been the conundrum of Stafford's career. The Lions believe any issues Stafford has are correctable and these are the guys to do it after working with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

If the Lions turn Stafford into the consistent quarterback that led them to the playoffs in 2011 full-time, then the entire shift in coaching staffs and upgrading the offensive roster will have been worth it. But it all falls to Stafford -- as it often does to quarterbacks around the league.

There's a reason many franchises believe they can go only as far as the quarterback plays. Thus far, Stafford has taken them from a club that didn't win a game in 2008 to one with realistic playoff expectations each season.

Detroit has set itself up for more than that now, though. The Lions have a roster with enough talent to at least make a run at the playoffs, if not succeed in the postseason. If they do, Stafford and his improvement will play a major role in making it that far.

Saints' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
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Drew Brees is 35 years old, but I see no reason to expect any significant drop-off in his performance in the next three seasons -– especially because the savvy quarterback doesn’t rely solely on a big arm. As long as Brees stays healthy, New Orleans should remain among the NFL’s elite Super Bowl contenders through 2016 and beyond.

Brees
So far, the Saints have done a remarkable job of continually replenishing the roster with new young stars around Brees. The defense is arguably in better shape now than it has ever been in the Brees-Sean Payton era –- and they don’t have a single player remaining from their 2009 Super Bowl championship roster.

The key for the Saints will be to keep reshaping their offense the same way, particularly at the line and receiver positions. The Saints need recent draft picks such as left tackle Terron Armstead and receivers Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills pan out so they remain an elite offensive unit.

For now, veteran standouts such as receiver Marques Colston and linemen Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs and Zach Strief are still in the tail end of their primes. But it’s possible that one or more will need to be replaced over the next three seasons due to a drop in production, a rise in salary or both.

The offensive line, in particular, is going through one of its biggest transitions right now. Armstead is taking over the vital left tackle spot, while second-year pro Tim Lelito and veteran Jonathan Goodwin are battling over the vacated center job. The Saints’ line showed more inconsistency this past season than usual before finishing strong. They need to prove they're still a strength and not a question mark going forward.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Who do you trust to evaluate NFL players -- those paid to do so for a living or those who are paid to play the game?

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando polled 26 front-office executives and coaches Insider and found that Aaron Rodgers -- along with Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning -- belonged in the top-tier of quarterbacks. Even more telling was that the four tied for the top spot in the voting.

Rodgers
Rodgers
Yet when the NFL Network solicited the advice of current NFL players for its latest top 100 list, the Green Bay Packers quarterback came in as merely the 11th-best player in the league regardless of position.

How can that be?

The answer is simple. Like in many things NFL-related, players don't know what they're talking about. Every one of them is in the NFL for a reason -- whether it's blocking, tackling, catching the ball, running with it, throwing it or kicking it.

But that does not mean they are qualified to judge others who do so.

Maybe the players polled looked at last season, when Rodgers missed seven-plus games because of a broken collarbone, and forgot how good he is. But they should have been reminded of that when he returned for the regular-season finale and led the Packers to a Week 17 win against the Bears that gave the Packers their third straight NFC North title and their fifth straight playoff appearance -- all under Rodgers.

Listen to the players if you want, but Sando's 26 league insiders -- eight general managers, two former GMs, four pro personnel evaluators, seven coordinators, two head coaches, two position coaches and a top-level executive -- are far more qualified to judge talent.

In Sando's project, designed to rank all 32 starting quarterbacks and determine who among them are elite, here is what he wrote about Rodgers:
If Rodgers gives up anything to Brady and Manning before the snap -- which is debatable -- his athletic ability seems to make up for it.

"You can't fool him," a defensive coordinator said. "We watched some cutups on him and he was ridiculous. He sees everything. They'd have a blitz on and he'd throw it and he knows what the blitz is. I don't know how he knows it. He throws into this tight window that nobody would throw into. Brees is the same way."

A veteran cornerback I talked to this offseason put it this way: "He is very cerebral. I don't think he is quite like a Peyton Manning, but he can read defenses and all that stuff, and when stuff breaks down, he is mobile enough to get out of the pocket and run. That is what made him so good, especially a couple years ago. He is still playing well. He just got hurt last year."
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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.
IRVING, Texas -- When it comes to ranking quarterbacks, the debates can be endless and sometimes pointless, but Mike Sando took the question to people inside the NFL with his latest ESPN Insider piece. Insider

Romo
It might surprise some of you that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo finished tied for eighth in the tier-rankings of 26 general managers, former GMs, pro personnel people, coordinators, head coaches, position coaches and an executive.

Four players tied for the top spot in Sando’s rankings, using a 1 for the best at the position and a 5 for the worst. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees shared the top spot. Andrew Luck was fifth.

Romo checked in after Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger and tied with Russell Wilson and Eli Manning in the second tier.

Here’s what Sando wrote and the insiders had to say about Romo:
T-8. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys (2.23 average rating)

A few evaluators questioned whether Romo had the mind-set to play at the highest level consistently. It's a familiar refrain in league circles, a feeling that Romo is an undisciplined QB playing for an undisciplined organization with a poorly constructed roster.

"People want to knock him," one GM responded, "but the guy has talent and is one of the top 10 starters in the league."

Romo is 34 years old and coming off back surgery, but he still could be in line for a "monster" season, one evaluator said. "But I absolutely believe they will not win big with him. As soon as he decides it's a clutch moment, his brain goes elsewhere. He loses focus and tries to create something."




What’s funny is that the GM and evaluator have the same thoughts of those who love Romo or loathe Romo who are not on the inside. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports went so far as to call Romo “underrated” in his yearly rankings, which drew the ire of some.

The “clutch” talk has been a big thing around Romo since the bobbled snap in 2006 against the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs. That talk is always followed up with Romo having the best fourth-quarter passer rating in NFL history (102.4) and his 20 come-from-behind wins.

Those numbers aren’t hollow, although with one playoff win to his credit that’s what his detractors will say.

That’s why this debate is a good one. Both sides can declare victory with their points. If Romo were to ever win a Super Bowl -- or perhaps just get to one -- then the perception would change entirely.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It is not uncommon for NFL contracts to become outdated in a hurry.

Someone is always signing a new deal or an extension to become the highest-paid this or the highest-paid that.

Rodgers
Rodgers
So when Colin Kaepernick signed his contract extension with the San Francisco 49ers last week, the initial reports suggested his deal contained more guaranteed money than Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s highest-paid player.

On paper, Kaepernick signed a six-year, $114 million extension that contained $61 million in guaranteed money. But in this case, the definition of guarantee is a loose one.

As ESPN’s John Clayton pointed out in his weekend Mailbag column, Kaepernick's deal is much more of a pay-as-you-play contract than the five-year, $110 million extension Rodgers signed on April 26, 2013. Rodgers’ deal was loaded with real guarantees.

Rodgers' signing bonus of $35 million followed by a guaranteed roster bonus of $9.5 million that was paid this March and another one worth $9.5 million due next March brought his guaranteed money to $54 million in real dollars.

For those who were outraged that Kaepernick received more guaranteed money, a closer examination of the deal revealed that those were "soft" guarantees. Kaepernick's yearly guarantees don't become such until April 1 before each season, meaning the 49ers can get out from under the deal at any point without paying those so-called guarantees.

So for the time being, even though Kaepernick has the potential to collect more than Rodgers, it's not accurate to call him the higher paid at this point.

Perhaps the best measure when comparing contracts is a three-year window. Looking at it that way, here's a breakdown of the top quarterback contracts by average per year, according to ESPN Stats & Information salary data:
Three of the quarterbacks on the list -- Ryan, Cutler and Kaepernick -- signed their deals after Rodgers did his 14 months ago. In that time, Rodgers' contract has held up. He remains the highest-paid quarterback with a $22 million-per-year average over the life his deal.

Maybe Russell Wilson, the next quarterback likely to cash in, will surpass him. But Kaepernick's deal did not.
Champ BaileyAP Photo/Jack DempseyChamp Bailey has 52 career interceptions -- including a particularly memorable pick-six in 2005 against new Saints teammate Drew Brees.
METAIRIE, La. -- Perhaps no play has better defined Champ Bailey's remarkable career than the interception he returned 25 yards for a touchdown while with the Denver Broncos in Week 2 of the 2005 season.

And no one recalls that play more vividly than Bailey's new teammate with the New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees.

He was Bailey's victim.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," said Brees, who was with the San Diego Chargers at the time. "We were beating 'em 14-3. It was in the third quarter. And we were running this, just a hitch outside to slot, so it was across the field. And he just read it and jumped it and picked it and took it to the house."

The play itself was vintage Bailey, whose 52 career interceptions lead all active cornerbacks.

The impact of the play was huge for both teams. Denver, on the verge of an 0-2 start, went on to a 13-3 season. San Diego missed the playoffs at 9-7.

What made the moment even more symbolic of Bailey's career was the fact that he was coming off a dislocated shoulder suffered the week before while tackling Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown (the kind of physical play Bailey also has been known for throughout his career).

Brees
"He's a stud," Brees said, still shaking his head in disgust at the memory.

"You just knew every time you were going up against that guy, 'I cannot make a mistake, because he will make me pay,'" said Brees, who said Bailey's area of the field was always considered a "no-throw zone," a term reserved for only a few elite corners.

"It was just, 'Don't even think about it. It's not worth it,'" Brees said. "And whereas a lot of good cover corners have no interest in tackling, he's the exact opposite. He'll come up and hit you. He prides himself on being a good football player, not just a good cover guy. That sets him apart from the rest.

"I can't think of anybody that's done it as long as he's done it, at as high a level as he's done it."

When Bailey, 35, signed with the Saints this spring, there was naturally a lot of conversation about how much he might have left heading into his 16th NFL season. It's a fair question, considering Bailey's last season in Denver was plagued by injuries and inconsistent production.

What should not be lost is an appreciation for just how much of a "stud" Bailey has been throughout a career that has earned him 12 trips to the Pro Bowl and will one day land him in the Hall of Fame.

"I think sometimes after a year when you're injured, it's a 'What have you done for me lately?' world," said former NFL safety John Lynch, a teammate of Bailey's in Denver who is now a broadcast analyst for Fox. "But I think people forget: In my mind, Champ is one of the greatest defensive players ever to play the game."

'A real legend'

That appreciation certainly isn't lost on Brees or Saints coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who have also fallen victim to Bailey.

It's also not lost on a room full of young Saints defensive backs, all of whom have been gushing with admiration for their new teammate. Asked about Bailey, they were practically shouting over each other.

"He's the reason I wear No. 24," Corey White said.

"He's the reason I switched to defense," A.J. Davis said.

Rod Sweeting said it's still "overwhelming and exciting" to be around Bailey, whom he ranked alongside Deion Sanders as the corners he most revered growing up.

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
AP Photo/Bill HaberChamp Bailey may no longer have the skills of a shut-down cornerback, but he's a significant asset in the Saints locker room.
Keenan Lewis has made similar comments, including posting a picture of himself with Bailey in April on Instagram, with the caption, "My dream was to always meet this guy and I finally did. Amen God and thankyou. A real legend Champ Bailey."

A strong argument could be made for Bailey as one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history since he has thrived in an era in which the passing game has exploded because of rules changes and more sophisticated schemes.

Bailey began his career with the Washington Redskins in 1999 before being traded to Denver for running back Clinton Portis in 2004. He thrived for both teams.

Both Lynch's and Bailey's former coach, Mike Shanahan, said in the past that Bailey was even better than Sanders because he was more of a complete player. Former Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer once insisted Bailey was the best he had seen in nearly 50 years of coaching.

"What stands out most is how he has really tailored his game to the years that have gone by," said ESPN analyst Herm Edwards, a former coach and defensive back. "When Champ came into the league 15 years ago, it was a little different. Now, it's more wide open with the formations, and he's been able to adapt to all that. It says a lot about him."

NFL analyst Matt Bowen -- a former safety who played with Bailey in Washington -- agreed that Bailey is in a select group with Charles Woodson and Darrelle Revis as the best in the modern passing era.

"In the early 2000s, he was the best cornerback, maybe the best defensive player in the league, to be honest," said Bowen, who writes for Bleacher Report, among other outlets. "I mean, there were times during practice, in one-on-ones, he just looked like he was dancing with the receiver step for step.

"I've played with a lot of good defensive backs, guys who had great reaction time, great ball skills. But Champ had everything, I mean everything. He could've played offense if he wanted to. Could've played wide receiver, slot receiver. He was just that talented. Guys like him don't come around that often."

Bailey was a two-way star in college at Georgia, and Lynch said it was "rumored" that Bailey could run the 40-yard dash in 4.2 seconds.

But Lynch was just as impressed by Bailey's physicality. One of his greatest memories of Bailey was the first time they practiced together at the Pro Bowl, and Bailey was flying in to make tackles.

"He could play bump [coverage]. He could play off. He took the ball away. He took sides of the field away," Lynch said. "He's just a complete football player."

Another of Lynch's fondest memories was a play against the Oakland Raiders on which Bailey caught up to receiver Randy Moss from across the field to tip the ball away in the end zone.

"Everybody was like, 'What just happened?'" Lynch said. "'Champ just happened.'"

Not done yet

Edwards, Lynch and Bowen all immediately brought up the same word while describing what makes Bailey great: professionalism.

They raved not only about Bailey's great character and class -- he never has been a "diva" or self-promoter -- but also his relentless work ethic and dedication to technique and recognition of opponents' tendencies.

Early in his career, Bailey was arguably the best bump-and-run corner in the game. Then, he began to shift and play more off coverage because his defensive backs coach, Bob Slowik, felt like he could see the field well enough to do even more than just shut down one top receiver.

After that, Bailey became deadlier.

He finished 2005 with eight interceptions in the regular season -- followed by a 100-yard interception return against Tom Brady in a playoff victory over the New England Patriots.

Then, in 2006, Bailey had one of the most dominant seasons ever by a defensive back. Based on varying accounts, he was targeted only 35 of 39 times in man coverage, with a total of 10 interceptions and only four completions.

ESPN scouting insider K.C. Joyner said Bailey was especially dominant against deep passes that season and said his 2006 season ranked with Revis' 2009 as the best he's seen in 11 years of breaking down tape.

"When he's on his game, Bailey can completely shut down a receiver's vertical game," Joyner said. "Even last year, he gave up only 50 yards on nine vertical pass attempts."

Bowen said the Saints' young defensive backs would be cheating themselves if they don't try to absorb as much knowledge as possible from Bailey, who said he's more than happy to fill that role.

"My first thing is to lead by example, show how hard I can work and try to lead that way," Bailey said. "I know I have a lot of experience and I'm not going to shy away from telling them things I think they need to hear and making sure I'm there for them when they have questions."

But that's not the only reason the Saints brought in Bailey.

Although they aren't counting on him to be a shut-down cornerback anymore, they still believe those unparalleled ball skills can be a big asset.

Bailey already forced one interception with a pass breakup during the first organized team activities practice session that was open to the media last week.

"I'm telling you, he looks great out here. He's got a lot of life, he's got young legs and he's fun to watch," Ryan said. "I don't know what happened [last year when Bailey struggled], but I've seen him up close and personal, intercepting balls against us when I was in Oakland [during the 2000s]. … The way he has been able to cover people over the years and still make plays on the football, that's unique.

"He'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and we're fortunate to have him. It's awesome to add a great player like him."
INDIANAPOLIS – It wouldn't be surprising if the reaction to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's new $110 million deal, which includes a record $61 million guaranteed, went something like this from the important figures inside the Indianapolis Colts' organization:

Owner Jim Irsay started squirming after realizing he'll likely have to pay quarterback Andrew Luck even more than that.

General manager Ryan Grigson was probably like, "This is why I had to be frugal and not free-spend during the offseason."

Luck, in typical Luck fashion, probably didn't have much reaction because he doesn't operate like that.

You can spend plenty of time debating whether Kaepernick is worth the contract. You can't knock somebody for getting paid. But no matter how you look at Kaepernick's huge payday, just know that the Colts should prepare themselves because they'll have to pay Luck even more money than what the 49ers quarterback got once he's eligible for a contract extension next year.

Why?

Luck is a better quarterback.

I know, I know, Kaepernick plays in the toughest division in the NFL -- the NFC West -- and he's been to the Super Bowl and the NFC Championship Game twice in as many seasons.

But just like the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson, Kaepernick gets help from a very good defense and running game to assist with the passing game.

Luck?

The Colts' defense has been a weak link outside of Robert Mathis' 19.5 sacks last season.

A running game?

Now that's funny.

Luck has overcome those flaws to lead the Colts to 22 victories and the playoffs in each of his first two seasons. He's done it with some late-game heroics, too.

Kaepernick is 21-8 as the 49ers' starting quarterback. Luck is 22-10 and 1-2 in the playoffs.

Kaepernick has thrown for 5,046 yards, 31 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his career. Luck has thrown for 8,196 yards, 46 touchdowns and 27 interceptions in his career.

Grigson knows at some point, he'll have to pay Luck and some of the other players in the 2012 draft class. He openly said so during the combine in February.

Here's a breakdown of guaranteed money given to active quarterbacks:

Kaepernick: $61 million
Matt Ryan: $59 million
Tom Brady: $57 million
Drew Brees: $55 million
Tony Romo: $55 million
Aaron Rodgers: $54 million
Jay Cutler: $54 million

Kaepernick set the bar with the contract Wednesday afternoon. Now you should expect Luck to surpass it.

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