NFL roster cuts: AFC | NFC

NFL Nation: Drew Brees

Three takeaways from ESPN's #NFLRank reveal of the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the league. Today: 1-10.

1. QB shuffle: Everyone loves a quarterback ranking, and #NFLRank brought a unique take to the traditional top four. For the second consecutive year, the panel tapped Green Bay Packers ace Aaron Rodgers as the best quarterback in football. If anything, the 2013 season shook loose anyone who might have grown numb to Rodgers' skills and value. The Packers won only two of eight games he either didn't play in or couldn't finish because of a fractured collarbone, but he returned in Week 17 to lead the team to a division-clinching victory at the Chicago Bears. Meanwhile, the panel reacted to Tom Brady's down season for the New England Patriots by pushing him down to the No. 4 QB after Rodgers, the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning and the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees. Brady is still considered the seventh-best offensive player in the game, but you'll find no argument here about his standing among other elite quarterbacks.

2. Burying the lede: In a quarterback-driven league, it's fascinating that a receiver was named the best offensive player in the game. Yes, in 2014, Rodgers and Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson have swapped positions. Quarterback is the game's most important position, but the prime of Johnson's career is proving to be historically productive even in the NFL's age of passing. In 46 games over three seasons, Johnson has caught 302 passes for 5,137 yards and 33 touchdowns. That means in his average game -- average! -- Johnson catches 6.6 passes for 111.7 yards. Johnson has accounted for 1,120 more yards over that period than the NFL's next-most productive receiver, Brandon Marshall. There is no other player in the NFL who has outperformed his peers at that level in recent years.

3. Anonymously elite: You could probably name the NFL sack leader over the past two seasons. The Houston Texans' J.J. Watt has 31 since the start of the 2012 season, and for that and other reasons, he is the No. 1 defensive player in this year' #NFLRank. But can you identify the player who totaled the second-most sacks over that period? Robert Quinn of the St. Louis Rams might be the least known player among the #NFLRank top 10s, but he grew into an unblockable force during last season's 19-sack campaign. (He has 29.5 since the start of 2012.) One linebacker and three defensive backs separated Watt and Quinn in this ranking, and at this point Quinn has to be considered the top edge rusher in the NFL. You'll be hearing more about him.
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his wife Brittany welcomed their fourth child and first baby girl.

The proud papa tweeted a picture and this message on Tuesday morning:

 

Brees missed Monday’s practice because of the pending arrival, but was back on the practice field Tuesday morning. It's unclear if he will play in Thursday’s preseason finale against the Baltimore Ravens.

Brees often sits out the final exhibition game. And now he has an awfully good doctor’s excuse.
METAIRIE, La. -- With baby No. 4 on the way, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees missed practice on Monday.

Brees and his wife Brittany are expecting their first girl to fill out a roster that already includes boys Baylen, Bowen and Callen. It’s unclear exactly when she is expected.

"I don't have any news, but I think you guys will probably hear," Saints coach Sean Payton said after practice. "Everything is going good, and I think you'll hear something."

It’s also unclear if Brees’ absence will affect whether he plays in Thursday’s preseason finale against the Baltimore Ravens. It already seemed like a long shot since he often sits out the final preseason game. But the Saints haven’t yet specified whether Brees will play.
New Orleans Saints receiver Marques Colston confirmed that he was just getting some veteran rest when he sat out of the team’s second preseason game two weeks ago -- part of a plan that has been ongoing this entire offseason to limit the 31-year-old’s workload.

“That’s just something that Sean [Payton] decided to do,” Colston said. “We had kind of spoken about it all preseason, and really this is the first time where he kind of sat me down. So it was just really rest.”

Colston
Colston has talked all offseason about how much healthier he feels this year compared to the last year or two, when he has been plagued by a nagging foot injury.

“I’m feeling really good going into the season,” Colston said. “I have two more weeks to try and get better and continue to manage my body. But by all means, it’s a totally different ballgame than last year.”

Colston certainly looked fresh in last Saturday night’s preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts. He made two big-time catches – a 13-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone and a 12-yard catch on a third-and-8.

And he was targeted a total of six times by quarterback Drew Brees during the first quarter (two catches, two incomplete passes, one offensive pass interference penalty and one defensive pass interference penalty).

Obviously it didn’t take long for those two longtime teammates to find their familiar rhythm while Brees was making his own preseason debut. Brees had been sidelined by a strained oblique during the first two exhibition games.

“The old trusty guys,” Brees said when asked about finding that rhythm with Colston and longtime running back Pierre Thomas during two first-quarter scoring drives. “Some of those guys, we’ve had so much time together. I was thinking about it today. You take each of ‘em. You take Marques, Pierre Thomas, Zach Strief, Jahri Evans, Jonathan Goodwin, even though he left and came back. All of us have been together for eight-plus years now. That’s pretty rare, but certainly that pays off. We have that trust and confidence in one another.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- The New Orleans Saints have gotten pretty good at these final preseason “dress rehearsals” over the years.

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

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

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

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

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

Consider that, “Mission accomplished.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring on Week 1.

It only took one quarter for Drew Brees to prove he's ready for the regular season on Saturday night. And the rest of the New Orleans Saints' starting units didn't look too shabby themselves in a 23-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

The Saints weren't perfect -- especially in the penalty department (10 for 84 yards), which has been a maddening problem this preseason. But they did most of the important things right while cruising to an early 20-7 lead.

Here are some other thoughts on the Saints' third preseason game:
  • Apparently Brees didn't have to shake off too much rust after missing the first two exhibition games with a strained oblique. He led the Saints to touchdowns on their opening drive and their third drive, throwing TD passes to fullback Austin Johnson and receiver Marques Colston. Brees finished 9-of-15 for 128 yards and even ran 10 yards for a first down. ... He called it a night before the first quarter was over and probably won't play in the preseason finale on Thursday night. He certainly doesn't need to.
  • The Saints' starting defense looked dominant at times, highlighted by safety Kenny Vaccaro's diving interception in the first quarter and a nearly spectacular interception by cornerback Keenan Lewis, who ran step for step down the field with receiver T.Y. Hilton and tipped away a deep ball. Safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Patrick Robinson and cornerback Champ Bailey also made healthy returns to the lineup, helping New Orleans hold Luck to a mediocre night (10-of-18 for 103 yards, one touchdown, one interception). Luck's TD came on a blatant breakdown in coverage, when nobody picked up wide-open tight end Coby Fleener on a 21-yard pass. ... Defensive end Cameron Jordan was also outstanding with one sack, one near-sack and one pressure into an incomplete pass during a goal-line stand.
  • Receiver Kenny Stills left the game with trainers during the first half, which was the biggest negative of the night. According to the CBS broadcast, Stills aggravated the quad injury that has plagued him throughout the preseason. It's unclear how long he may be out, but if he's in danger of missing Week 1, the Saints do have plenty of experienced depth at the position.
  • Neither of the Saints' backup quarterbacks did anything to cement their job as Brees' understudy. I found it odd that veteran Luke McCown came in first for the third straight game; I thought it would be more of a 50-50 split during the preseason between he and Ryan Griffin. McCown finished 3-of-10 for 45 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, though he did lead the Saints on two field goal drives. Griffin, meanwhile, led the Saints to just three points during the entire second half, finishing 8-of-13 for 46 yards with an interception.
  • In other position battle news: Center Jonathan Goodwin started ahead of Tim Lelito and appeared to play well while the offense was rolling. ... Kickers Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke were both perfect (Graham made field goals of 39 and 24 yards; Dimke a 45-yarder. ... The running backs aren't exactly jockeying for roster spots, but they again proved that there should be a three-way timeshare between Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson. Thomas had the best night with four catches for 66 yards and three runs for 13 yards. Ingram had a 17-yard run and finished with eight carries for 46 yards. Robinson had eight carries for 21 yards and one catch for 4 yards.

W2W4: New Orleans Saints

August, 23, 2014
Aug 23
12:00
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The New Orleans Saints (2-0) and Indianapolis Colts (0-2) will meet in the third preseason game at Lucas Oil Stadium tonight, with the game televised nationally on CBS. Here’s What 2 Watch 4:

1. Look at the stars: Tonight’s game will be much closer to the real thing than New Orleans’ first two preseason outings. Quarterback Drew Brees will make his debut after missing the past two games with a strained oblique, and said he wants to get in a good groove since he’s not expected to suit up in Week 4 of the preseason. Safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Champ Bailey, guard Jahri Evans and receiver Kenny Stills are also expected to make their preseason debuts after recovering from various injuries. I’m very interested to finally see both the offense and defense intact for the first time -- especially against a quality opponent like the Colts in a game where the starters are expected to play about a full half of football. I hope rookie receiver Brandin Cooks is on the field after battling a stomach virus all week, because I’m anxious to see Brees out there with his full array of mismatches to choose from.

2. Secondary is primary: Finally, we’ll start to see what this highly-touted Saints secondary looks like with all of the veterans on the field together. I’m not actually sure how much we’ll get to see Byrd and Bailey since the Saints have been cautious with their recovery timetables. But Byrd certainly didn’t waste any time living up to his reputation as a ball hawk in full-team drills this past week, intercepting two passes and breaking up another in the end zone on just his second day of full participation. As for Bailey, I think his roster spot is pretty secure, but his starting job remains up for grabs against fellow dinged-up veteran Patrick Robinson and Corey White. As coach Sean Payton said of Bailey earlier this summer, the Saints don’t need to see it every day, but they do need to see it once in a while. A strong outing against Andrew Luck & Co. would help.

3. No yellow flags: Sure, penalties are up around the league. But the Saints have been turning it into an epidemic, with 10 of them in Week 1 and 22 last week (plus six others that were declined). Payton was seething after the game, refusing to dismiss the problem as “just the preseason” and suggesting that it’s a sign of poor discipline and poor coaching. Obviously the Saints will be looking to clean up their act so the issue of “sloppy play” isn’t hanging like a black cloud heading into the regular season. … The guys it’s probably most important for are the offensive linemen who are still jockeying for roster positions (be it centers Tim Lelito and Jonathan Goodwin battling for a starting job, or guys like Bryce Harris, Marcel Jones and Senio Kelemete battling for backup roles).

Saints Camp Report: Day 20

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints transitioned out of "camp mode" on Thursday with a glorified walk-through practice that was mostly dedicated to preparation for Saturday night's preseason game at the Indianapolis Colts. This is the one and only preseason game that will get that kind of treatment, since it's the one game where the starters play about a full half. The Saints had a scout team impersonating the Colt, and it was interesting to note that the one Colts offensive player they singled out was up-and-coming receiver T.Y. Hilton (with a player wearing a red No. 13 jersey). "I think when you look at this team, we were talking about this the other day, there are a lot of new faces, guys that are very impressive, that can run. Obviously we know the quarterback (Andrew Luck) has turned into the real good football player. He's got the arm to make all the throws. I think the offensive line has played well. When you put that together with the defense, you are seeing a young roster that has played well, and I'm sure they have high expectations."
  • Since the Saints' offensive and defensive units weren't really going full-speed against each other Thursday, there weren't a ton of highlight moments that stood out. But sure enough, cornerback Corey White managed to squeeze in another big play (almost a daily ritual in camp) with an interception against quarterback Ryan Griffin. Although White probably won't begin the season as a starter with Champ Bailey and Patrick Robinson now returning from injuries, he's certainly taken advantage of his increased practice opportunities. And he'll likely make his way onto the field in certain packages. "All of the reps have been good for me just to show the coaches what I can do on a constant, consistent basis," White said.
  • Receiver Brandin Cooks was back in practice on a limited basis Thursday after missing the three previous days with a stomach virus/fever. When asked if Cooks will play against the Colts, coach Sean Payton said, "We'll see. … We'll see where he's at tonight and tomorrow. (The focus is) really just keeping him hydrated and getting his body weight up a little bit." … Guard Ben Grubbs was also back in practice after missing the past two and a half days with an undisclosed injury. The only other change from Wednesday's practice participation was the absence of safety Marcus Ball, which Payton declined to elaborate on. … Also noteworthy: linebacker Victor Butler and cornerback Rod Sweeting were doing more conditioning work with trainers off to the side of practice than we've seen yet.
  • Quarterback Drew Brees was asked Thursday about safety Jairus Byrd's standout performance in Wednesday night's practice -- particularly Byrd's impressive and deceptive interception against Brees in 7-on-7 drills. "Oh man, it was a ridiculous play," Brees said. "I didn't throw it exactly where I wanted to; I was trying to throw it to Nick Toon in the back, kind of retracing on a route, and Jairus was underneath it. No. 1, I didn't feel like he would really reach it, but he did. To actually come down with it was a whole (different) story. Usually that ball just gets tipped and goes out of the back of the end zone, but it was an impressive play."
  • The Saints don't have a full practice scheduled for Friday. They'll have a brief walk-through, and they'll also take part in an annual fan luncheon before traveling to Indianapolis. Saturday's game at 8 p.m. ET will be nationally-televised by CBS.

Saints’ Camp Report Day 18

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

Saints Camp Report: Day 17

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
6:00
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METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The defense got the better of the offense during a simulated two-minute drill at the end of Monday's practice -- always among the most spirited competitions in camp. Quarterback Drew Brees looked sharp for a while, moving the first-string offense from one 20-yard line to the other. Brees hit tight end Jimmy Graham for four completions, including a perfect pitch-and-catch tucked between a linebacker and safety. And Mark Ingram was an asset as a receiver out of the backfield during the drive. But then the drive stalled as time started to run out, with a spike, an incomplete shot toward Kenny Stills in the end zone, a would-be sack by blitzing safety Kenny Vaccaro (if they were live tackling) and an incomplete fade pass toward Marques Colston in the end zone. Brees loudly grunted his disgust after the missed opportunity. ... Ryan Griffin led the second-string offense, but they weren't able to cross midfield, thanks to a pass break-up by safety Vinnie Sunseri and two would-be sacks on third and fourth down. Griffin's fourth-down pass, which was nullified, was also intercepted by safety Pierre Warren for good measure.
  • I left Warren off my projected 53-man roster this morning. But the undrafted rookie continues to make plays and make an awfully strong case for himself. Warren also had a nice pass break-up earlier in full-team drills. The problem is that I've still got Warren ranked sixth among the safeties on New Orleans' depth chart, with newcomers Sunseri and Marcus Ball also playing so well in recent weeks. Ball also had a would-be sack on a blitz during team drills Monday.
  • Speaking of undrafted rookies on the roster bubble, receiver Brandon Coleman had a great practice, continuing his roller-coaster summer with the Saints. Coleman made several nice catches, even working in with the first string at times. His best effort was when he went up high to snag a pass over cornerback Brian Dixon. I still think Coleman is more likely headed to the practice squad than the roster, but his unique size and skill set make him worth watching. Payton took note of Coleman's performance, saying he made four or five nice catches, which was “encouraging.” Payton also complimented Coleman's blocking performance in Friday's preseason game.
  • Another receiver who looked sharp Monday was Colston. He had at least two nice catches -- including a gorgeous throw from Brees over cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste during team drills. Colston sat out last Friday's preseason game for an undisclosed reason, but his health certainly hasn't looked like an issue over the past two days.
  • The Saints had to head indoors Monday because of rain and lightning -- to the chagrin of the fans, since indoor practices are closed to the public. They'll try again Tuesday, with an outdoor practice scheduled from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., open to the public weather-permitting.
METAIRIE, La. -- As expected, penalties were a huge area of emphasis for the New Orleans Saints following Friday night’s flag-fest against the Tennessee Titans.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro said players had to perform up-downs in Sunday's practice for every penalty. And coach Sean Payton said he might invite a set of NFL officials back to practice to continue to educate players and coaches on the new rule changes and points of emphasis this season.

But more than anything, Saints quarterback Drew Brees said, the players need to police themselves. Brees made that point to teammates Friday night after the Saints were flagged 28 times (22 accepted) and has reiterated it since.

“Well, at the end of the day, at some point, the team takes control of itself,” Brees said. “The leaders take control of the team, and you are accountable to one another, you police one another. If things are going to change, it has to change from within. It’s not going to change because coach tells you that something needs to change.

“Now, certainly Sean Payton does a great job of identifying problems, finding solutions and challenging the players. I mean, his message to us at the end was maybe unlike what you would think. I think everyone would assume he’s going to rip us the minute we step foot in the locker room. I think his approach was maybe a bit of the opposite, and that is, if we didn’t get five turnovers, we get beat. We know that, we have to understand what penalties do and we have talked about that a lot here the last two days. But if you want to fix it, it’s up to (us).”

The Saints aren’t alone. Flags are up throughout the NFL as more of an emphasis is being placed on certain penalties, like defensive contact in pass coverage and hands to the face at the line of scrimmage. And Vaccaro admitted that requires the players to adjust.

“It’s kind of a shock for the defense, especially if you’re aggressive and you like to press,” Vaccaro said. “But you’ve gotta play by the rules.”

The expectation around the league is that those penalties will decrease significantly once the regular season starts and once players and officials both adjust to the new norm.

But Payton -- who went on a classic postgame tirade about the penalties on Friday -- reiterated Sunday that the Saints’ discipline problems stretched far beyond the new rules tweaks.

“Typically, preseason is a time where it’s a real point of emphasis to get everyone on the same page,” Payton said. “But after going back through the film, and I felt this way after the game, I didn’t feel like we were sitting on a ton of ‘what-if’ calls.

“There might have been two. But when you get into the 20s, you stop worrying about two.”

Saints Camp Report: Day 16

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17
11:50
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METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints returned to some hot and steamy weather when they held their first practice back home in Metairie. But it felt like Christmas morning with so many of their key players returning to the field at once. Quarterback Drew Brees was back in full-team drills for the first time in two weeks. So was guard Jahri Evans. Cornerback Keenan Lewis and receiver Marques Colston were full-go after injuries Friday night. Receiver Kenny Stills, linebacker David Hawthorne and defensive tackle John Jenkins increased their workload. And coach Sean Payton said he expects Jairus Byrd back to full speed Monday. Everyone on that list should be 100 percent by the start of the regular season. ... And to top it all off, even owner Tom Benson was back watching from his familiar spot in his golf cart after he had to leave training camp in West Virginia early because of some struggles with the altitude.
  • The "downer" side of the injury report: Fullback Erik Lorig and safety Ty Zimmerman remained absent. And cornerbacks Champ Bailey, Patrick Robinson, Rod Sweeting and Terrence Frederick and linebackers Victor Butler and Khairi Fortt all sat out in street clothes. It was a good sign to see Butler at least watching for the first time in weeks, with a sleeve over his right leg (the specifics of his injury are unknown). And Bailey was doing a lot of work off to the side with trainers (the specifics of his injury are also unknown). But all of their timetables are more in doubt than the others.
  • With so many injuries at cornerback, the healthy corners are obviously getting a ton of reps. But so far it’s been hit and miss for some of the guys in the lineup. Trevin Wade, who is about as closely "on the bubble" as it gets when it comes to the 53-man roster, literally tripped up when he fell while the Tennessee Titans’ Justin Hunter broke free for a 64-yard touchdown the other night. And rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste has had a series of ups and downs all summer, including some struggles at Sunday’s practice. I like Jean-Baptiste’s long-term potential and still expect his physicality and press coverage to be great assets. But he’s still going through that rookie learning curve for now.
  • Brees started 0-for-2 (gasp!) during full-team drills in his return to the field Sunday. He overshot receiver Nick Toon deep on his first throw. Then a short pass appeared to be dropped by receiver Joe Morgan. But one play later, Brees hit Morgan deep behind the secondary. ... Brees also connected with Colston for one of the day’s most impressive individual efforts in 7-on-7 drills when Colston reached out to snag a one-handed pass.
  • The Saints changed up their practice times this week. Their practices on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday have been moved back to 11 a.m. CT. They’re all still open to the public, weather-permitting. The Wednesday night practice across the lake in Mandeville is still scheduled for 7 p.m.
One of the best marriages in NFL history is heading into its ninth year. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have now been together since they both arrived in New Orleans in 2006, rewriting several league records along the way.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
AP Photo/Matt RourkeThe Sean Payton-Drew Brees partnership has become one of the most successful coach-QB combinations in NFL history.
When asked about that partnership, Payton said he and Brees were just reflecting the other night on how quickly the time has passed.

“The continuity of having someone like Drew, having him as our quarterback, has been significant, not just as a player but as a leader. Someone that each week is ready to go,” Payton said. “And you know, just last night we were sitting at the rookie show just talking about the various years and where we’re at now. And it kind of goes by pretty quick. It doesn’t seem like nine, I know that.

“But I don’t think in our game as coaches and players you take any season for granted, or any practice. Because I don’t want to use the word fragile, but it’s a profession that’s fleeting. And he’s been a huge part of us building the success we’ve been able to enjoy and hopefully look forward to.”

Among many other accomplishments during their time together, Brees has thrown for 5,000 yards four times -- including a NFL-record 5,476 in 2011. No other quarterback in league history has reached 5,000 more than once. The entire offense set the record for yards in a season that year (7,474). And Brees also holds the NFL record for completion percentage in a season (71.2 in 2011) and consecutive games with a TD pass (54).

Since 2006, Brees leads all NFL passers with 38,733 passing yards and 283 passing touchdowns.

And, oh by the way, they won a Super Bowl together after the 2009 season -- a feat they’d love to recapture.

Payton’s reflection Wednesday brought to mind the image of coach and player sitting next to each other on the back of a golf cart, cradling the Vince Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl XLIV and talking about trying to soak in the moment as much as possible.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees took yet another small step toward returning to action Wednesday when he participated in some individual passing drills with the quarterbacks and receivers for the first time. But it still seems extremely unlikely that the New Orleans Saints quarterback will play in Friday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans.

Brees
Saints coach Sean Payton declined to say whether Brees will play. But Payton has consistently said the team will be smart and cautious with Brees, who strained his oblique on Aug. 1.

Either way, Brees definitely appears as though he’ll be healthy in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He has increased his workload on a daily basis, including a return to the lineup during the team’s afternoon walk-through on Tuesday, followed by his appearance in individual drills on Wednesday.

Plus, Brees showed some impressive agility while sliding across a makeshift slip-and-slide during his ALS ice-bucket challenge Tuesday.

In other Saints injury news:
  • Guard Ben Grubbs returned to live team drills for the first time Wednesday -- and he dove right in during a spirited set of live goal-line drills. Grubbs said it was a lower back issue that caused him to miss more than a week of training camp practices, but he feels good now and is blessed to have enough time to fully recover before the regular season.
  • Rookie linebacker Ronald Powell left the field with the trainers after hobbling off the field during a play. The details of his apparent injury are unknown. UPDATE: Powell reportedly returned to the field Wednesday afternoon and participated in walkthrough.
  • There was still no sign of fullback Erik Lorig or linebacker Victor Butler at practice. Both players have been sidelined for nearly two weeks, though the Saints have not offered any details on the severity of their injuries.
  • Guard Jahri Evans and cornerback Patrick Robinson made brief appearances on the sideline Wednesday but did not participate in practice. Also not practicing Wednesday: receiver Kenny Stills, linebacker David Hawthorne, tight end Je’Ron Hamm, offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, cornerback Rod Sweeting and safety Ty Zimmerman.
  • UPDATE: Cornerback Champ Bailey participated in individual drills and the morning walk-through during Wednesday's practice but was reportedly absent from the afternoon walk-through.
TAMPA, Fla. – On a day near the middle of training camp, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith walked into his post-practice news conference and delivered a message.

"There's nothing really I can give you today," Smith said.

Smith wasn't being condescending or rude to the media. He simply was being truthful. Tampa Bay's camp hasn't had any major news or controversies. It has been downright boring at times -- but it beats the alternative.

We saw the other side of things last year, and it wasn't pretty. There was plenty of news and a ton of distractions. Former coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman were in the early stages of a feud that would end in divorce one month into the season. And it wasn't just Freeman who was having issues with Schiano's style. Numerous players had problems with Schiano's rigid ways and never fully bought into the coach.

That quickly caught up to Schiano, who was fired after two lackluster seasons. Enter Smith, who is the anti-Schiano in just about every way. Smith is calm and treats his players like adults, and you already can see the results of that. There have been no controversies.

Amid the tranquility, players are singing the praises of Smith. The coach brings back memories of Tony Dungy, who guided the Bucs to their first era of sustained success. That's no coincidence. Smith was the linebackers coach in Dungy's early years in Tampa Bay and has an approach similar to Dungy's.

People already are comparing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to Warren Sapp and linebacker Lavonte David to Derrick Brooks. Smith's hiring has brought enthusiasm to a fan base that hasn't had much to be excited about in recent years. But that fan base has pleasant memories of what things were like in the Bucs' glory days.

On several occasions, Smith has said that one of his goals is to make the Bucs relevant again. If things go according to Smith's plans, the Bucs might be boring, but they'll be good.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Smith is known for being a defensive coach, and he has some good ingredients to start with. McCoy and David were All-Pros last year, and they play two of the most important positions in the Tampa 2 defense Smith is bringing back to the Bucs. McCoy and David give Tampa Bay a nice start, but some other players are going to have to come through. The coaching staff believes strong safety Mark Barron is ready to be a star. If some role players come through, this could be a very good defense.

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDoug Martin is back from a shoulder injury, but he shouldn't have to shoulder all of the load in a deep backfield.
2. Doug Martin is back from a shoulder injury that kept him out for about half of last season. That should provide a huge lift for the offense. Martin rushed for more than 1,400 yards as a rookie in 2012, and he has looked sharp in training camp. Under Schiano, the Bucs often overused Martin. That’s not going to be the case with Smith. The Bucs have made it clear that Martin will remain as the feature back but that they’ll rotate in some other backs to keep him fresh. Rookie Charles Sims, Bobby Rainey and Mike James could be in the mix for playing time.

3. After using their first two draft picks on wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the Bucs have one of the biggest receiving corps in the league. Williams, Seferian-Jenkins and Vincent Jackson each are at least 6-foot-5. They're going to present coverage challenges for defensive backs.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The offensive line hasn't looked very good in the preseason, and that's a huge cause for concern. The Bucs are especially thin at guard. All-Pro Carl Nicks left the team after not being able to recover from a toe injury. That leaves four guys without a lot of experience vying for two starting spots. Oniel Cousins, Jace Daniels, Patrick Omameh and rookie Kadeem Edwards have been rotating at the guard spots, and two of them will emerge as starters, unless the Bucs bring in some help from the outside.

2. Smith went out on a limb when he signed quarterback Josh McCown as a free agent and immediately named him the starter. McCown, 35, has been a backup most of his career, but he did play well in Chicago last year when Jay Cutler went out with an injury. McCown threw 13 touchdowns with just one interception. It's too much to expect him to keep up that kind of pace, especially with an unsteady offensive line. Smith, who coached McCown in Chicago, believes he can be successful over the course of a full season. But that's something McCown has never done.

3. Smith's philosophy is to play great defense and be efficient on offense. That worked well enough to get Smith to a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. But that philosophy might be antiquated. The league has become quarterback-driven. The Bucs are in the same division as New Orleans' Drew Brees, Carolina's Cam Newton and Atlanta's Matt Ryan. McCown and this offense might not have enough firepower to stay competitive in the division.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • McCoy has had an outstanding training camp. He consistently has gotten into the backfield as a pass-rusher and has been stuffing running plays. But it remains to be seen whether McCoy's excellent play is simply the byproduct of the weakness at the guard spots.
    [+] EnlargeVincent Jackson
    AP Photo/Bill KostrounVincent Jackson, in his third season with the Bucs, will have a third starting QB throwing to him.

  • The chemistry between McCown and Jackson has been noticeable. In addition to the offseason program, the two spent a lot of time in the spring and summer working out at a local high school.

  • The Bucs have gotten almost nothing out of defensive end Da'Quan Bowers since taking him in the second round in 2011. But they are trying something new with Bowers this year. They're going to use him inside at defensive tackle in obvious passing situations.

  • The Bucs have high hopes for sixth-round draft pick Robert Herron. But don't look for the receiver/return man to get a lot of playing time early on. Herron has had ball-security issues in camp. He needs to hold on to the ball if he's going to earn playing time.

  • Herron will make the 53-man roster. So will Jackson, Evans and Chris Owusu. Eric Page also probably will stick thanks to his return skills. That probably leaves one spot to be filled from a group of receivers who have shown promise in training camp. Tommy Streeter, Louis Murphy, Lavelle Hawkins and Solomon Patton all have shown flashes, but at least a couple of them won't make the roster.

  • Hamstring injuries have kept cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Mike Jenkins out for a big chunk of training camp. But there's a flip side to that, and it's positive. Second-year pro Johnthan Banks has gotten a ton of work with the first team and has looked good. Banks didn't have a great rookie year. But his performance in camp probably will keep him in the starting lineup.

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