NFL Nation: Nick Toon

MOBILE, Ala. -- Ever since Sean Payton, Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston arrived together in 2006, it's seemed like the New Orleans Saints have had their offensive core in place, and they've needed to build a complementary defense.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Nick Toon
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Nick Toon will see more opportunities moving forward, Saints GM Mickey Loomis said.
For example, their top pick in each of the past six drafts has been a defensive player. And most of the Saints' significant free-agent acquisitions have been defensive players during that span, as well.

But suddenly, the Saints' defense seems loaded with young building blocks after breakout performances in 2013 by guys such as ends Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks and defensive backs Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro.

And by comparison, the offense has started to look like the unit that needs more young developmental talent for the future -- especially at the offensive line and receiver positions. The immediate future of veterans such as right tackle Zach Strief, center Brian de la Puente and receivers Lance Moore and Robert Meachem is in some doubt for various reasons (free agency, the cap, diminishing roles). And someday Brees, Evans and Colston will need to be replaced, too -- though the Saints are hoping they've all got several good years left in them.

"It's a good question," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said when I asked if the team's focus needs to shift this offseason toward stocking that next generation of offensive talent. "The last few years the focus has been more on defense in the offseason and with the draft. I think it's going to be more balanced this year."

Loomis was quick to point out, however, that the Saints do like the potential of several young offensive players who contributed in 2013 -- even though they weren't big draft or free-agent investments.

"We've got some good young players," Loomis said while visiting with the media during a Senior Bowl practice Tuesday. "[Rookie left tackle] Terron Armstead, I thought, was really good in those last four games. Obviously, he had a few struggles early, but he responded, so I think we're excited about the prospects for him.

"We like this [guard/center] Tim Lelito, he's an undrafted free agent who we're excited about. [Receiver] Kenny Stills was productive as a rookie, fifth-round pick. And we like [second-year receiver] Nick Toon. Nick has been held back by the number of opportunities we can give him. Josh Hill, a [undrafted rookie] tight end. So we've got some good young players on offense. I know it might seem like we don't, but we do."

Toon is one of the most curious names on that list since he was inactive for the second half of the season after struggling when he got his most prominent opportunity of the year against the New York Jets. But when asked if Toon was in the "doghouse," Loomis explained what I always figured to be the case -- that Toon was simply stuck in the back of a crowded position group.

Maybe if Toon had performed better in New York, he would have forced the Saints to keep him in the lineup. But for the most part, he was active for a handful of games when the Saints had injury issues -- then he went back to being the inactive fifth receiver when everyone else was healthy.

"The only thing holding Nick back is the number of opportunities," Loomis said. "He'll get those going forward."

Loomis later spoke about undrafted rookie running back Khiry Robinson, third-year running back Mark Ingram and second-year offensive tackle Bryce Harris, among others whose roles could expand going forward.

It's too early to predict what the Saints' most glaring needs will be in free agency and the draft. They have five starters scheduled to be unrestricted free agents (tight end Jimmy Graham, Strief, de la Puente, safety Malcolm Jenkins and outside linebacker Parys Haralson). They might also opt to part ways with one or more current starters to shed salary-cap space.

But in general, the Saints don't appear to have many positions that "must" be filled in the first round of the draft -- to use a term that the Saints often use when categorizing their offseason needs.

"Always our goal is to fill as many of those holes prior to the draft -- those ‘musts' -- so we can take whatever may fall to us," Loomis said. "Obviously, we're not relying on it, but we'll see what we can do there. It's more of a challenge when you have salary cap issues, obviously. ...

"That best available player [concept in the draft] is always our goal. And that's what we like to talk about. Yet, you always have to have an eye on what you need for our team."

I also jokingly asked Loomis if the Saints have already identified this year's undrafted running back from some Division II school that will come out of nowhere to be a breakout player -- like undrafted standouts Robinson, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, among others in the Saints' recent past.

"We're going to," Loomis said with a laugh. "We will have one, I guarantee you that."

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

November, 3, 2013
11/03/13
4:30
PM ET

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 26-20 loss to the New York Jets, which moved them to 6-2 on the season.

What it means: This was a frustrating loss for the Saints because they shot themselves in the foot so often on offense, defense and special teams. After preaching last week that their 35-17 victory against the Buffalo Bills was too sloppy, the Saints committed many of the same mistakes this week. Way too many big gains allowed by their run defense against New York’s Chris Ivory; penalties, dropped passes and interceptions on offense; a missed field goal and big kick return allowed on special teams.

In the grand scheme of things, the Saints can afford one loss -- especially to an AFC team. But they need to prove this was just an “off day” in chilly, windy weather, rather than the continuation of an ugly trend.

Ryan still winless: No one could have been more disappointed than Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who is now 0-5 in NFL matchups against his brother Rex, the Jets’ head coach. Rob knew this was his best chance yet to beat his brother -- especially with Jets quarterback Geno Smith so inconsistent this season. But the Saints’ defense couldn’t stop the run consistently enough to put Smith in uncomfortable situations.

Stock watch: The Saints’ run defense, which had been up and down all season, definitely did not rise to the challenge against a physical, run-first team. New Orleans allowed a total of 198 yards on 36 carries -- 139 of them by Ivory, the power runner who was traded from the Saints to the Jets this offseason. The Saints left way too many gaping holes and missed too many tackles. Ivory had gains of 52, 30 and 27 yards.

Stock watch II: Saints second-year receiver Nick Toon struggled on a day when he had a chance to play a key role with veteran Marques Colston out with a knee injury. Toon dropped two passes -- one of which was tipped up and intercepted. The other could have been a big gain down the left sideline.

Up next: The Saints will be back in their element next week -- a Sunday night home game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Saints have been dominant in prime-time home games, winning 11 straight and 14 of their past 15, dating back to 2008.

Halftime report: Jets 20, Saints 14

November, 3, 2013
11/03/13
2:52
PM ET
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New Orleans Saints are trailing the New York Jets 20-14 at halftime after a sloppy first half on both sides of the ball. Here are a few thoughts on the action so far:

Ivory’s revenge: Former Saints tailback Chris Ivory is making the Saints pay for trading him to the Jets this offseason. He has 10 carries for 93 yards, including a 52-yarder, a 27-yarder and a 3-yard touchdown. It’s not really a “revenge” game for Ivory, since the Saints did him a favor by trading him to New York’s less-crowded backfield. But he’s showing them what they missed out on, regardless.

Two picks for Brees: Saints quarterback Drew Brees has thrown two interceptions in this game after throwing just five in the first seven games. Both of them were tipped balls -- the first when he threw too far behind tight end Benjamin Watson, the second when receiver Nick Toon bobbled a pass. Toon is having a rough day, wasting his chance to step up in Marques Colston’s absence. He also dropped a deep ball down the left sideline earlier in the game.

The Saints are losing the turnover battle 2-0, flipping the script from the rest of the season. Heading into the game, the Saints had a turnover ratio of plus-8 and the Jets minus-12.

Sproles out: The Saints lost one of their top playmakers, running back Darren Sproles, to a concussion on the first series. He’ll be missed today since the Saints are relying heavily on their passing game. The Jets have the NFL’s No. 1-ranked run defense, and they’ve held New Orleans to 16 yards on five carries today.

Graham, Meachem thriving: Two weapons have been thriving for the Saints today. Tight end Jimmy Graham has four catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Robert Meachem has three catches for 88 yards, including a 60-yarder. Expect Brees to lean heavily on Graham in the second half.

Hartley misses again: Saints kicker Garrett Hartley missed another 43-yard field goal, wide left, on the opening drive. He’s now missed three in a row. He can’t afford another miss in a tight game like this.
Thoughts and observations on the New York Jets:

1. The Re-X factor: The top storyline for the second half of the season, which begins Sunday, will be the future of head coach Rex Ryan. Owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik have to make a decision: Extend his contract or fire him. Naturally, the No. 1 factor will be the team's record, but there's another factor that should (and will) loom large in the evaluation -- the development of rookie quarterback Geno Smith.

If Smith makes strides and finishes with his arrow pointing up, it would be a huge boost for Ryan and his coaching staff. It would mean he's developing under Marty Mornhinweg & Co., and what sense would it make to start over next year with a new staff? My sense is that a 7-9 record, with an ascending Smith, would be good enough to earn Ryan another year. Statistically, Smith's second quarter was slightly better than the first, but he'll need more than baby steps over the final eight games to nail down the job for 2014. If he regresses, it won't bode well for Ryan.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWill the Jets use another early draft pick to select a QB if rookie Geno Smith continues to struggle the rest of the season?
"If I put on my GM hat, I would tie Rex, Marty and Geno together," said ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, one of the smart people around football. "The Marty-Geno mix is really good, and I think Marty is good for Rex. The Jets' ceiling, if they acquire more talent, is higher because of Marty's aggressive approach. I wouldn't want to start over with a new guy next year. They should maintain continuity. They're wildly inconsistent, but it looks better and has a better feel than last year. It's a better product."

I agree. But Smith needs to keep going in the right direction.

2. Quarterbacking 101: Dilfer said Smith is operating an offensive system more complex than what the Jets used in Mark Sanchez's rookie year in 2009. In '09, they scaled it back to help Sanchez. It was heavy play-action and they moved the pocket, halving the field and cutting down his reads. With Smith, "It's pure dropback, with complex read progressions," Dilfer said. "Marty is throwing a lot of good stuff at him. It's baptism by fire. Talking to great coaches and great quarterbacks, and knowing my own experience, that's the best way to get the best out of a young quarterback. It speeds them up to the graduate level."

I get it, but I think there should be times when Mornhinweg dials it back a little to help Smith through rough patches.

3. Where the Hill is Stephen? Second-year WR Stephen Hill has become an afterthought in the Jets' offense, raising questions about him. Consider the last five games: 23 targets and only 10 receptions, including five when the team was in an obvious catch-up/passing mode. Save for two big games against the Buffalo Bills, Hill has been a disappointment in his first two seasons. In fact, one-third of his career yardage total (and three of his four TDs) has come in the two Buffalo games.

I asked Mornhinweg about Hill's lack of production, and all he said was, "That's my responsibility. I have to do a better job there." Meaning? "Get him the ball a little bit."

Here's the part that stings the Jets: They drafted Hill in the second round (43rd overall) after trading up, passing up WR Alshon Jeffery, who has become a solid receiver with the Chicago Bears. Jeffery has 57 catches, 928 yards and five touchdowns in two seasons; Hill has 44, 592 and four. The Jets knew Hill would be a project when they drafted him, but it has to be troubling that a receiver off the street -- David Nelson -- has produced better numbers over the past month.

4. Re-visiting Revis Island: Some in the media (including me) have fallen into the trap of trying to imagine the Jets' defense if they had kept CB Darrelle Revis, perhaps conveniently forgetting that he's coming back from major knee surgery. He's still not the Revis of old, and he admitted it the other day on his weekly radio spot in Tampa. Revis, explaining why the Buccaneers haven't used him in the press-man style that made him famous, said his surgically repaired knee has been the main factor.

“Earlier in the year, I didn’t have the explosion to play press; the receiver would just run the [vertical] 9-route on me and I didn’t have the stamina to do that play in and play out, especially playing press," Revis said.

If he were with the Jets, this would be a significant issue, considering their system is predicated on man-to-man coverage.

5. Ivory's payback: Chris Ivory downplayed Sunday's matchup against the New Orleans Saints, his former team, but I suspect he will be highly motivated to prove a point. Back in training camp, Ivory admitted to me that his three-year run in New Orleans was difficult at times because of their crowded backfield.

"I never felt lost, but I didn't like the situation at times," Ivory said. "At the same time, you have to understand there are phases you have to go through, being undrafted. They had guys they drafted, guys they had confidence in. Me, just coming in, I had to build their confidence and it took a little more time."

The Jets traded a fourth-round pick for Ivory, one of only six player trades last offseason involving a fourth-round pick or higher, according to ESPN's John Clayton. The Jets had two of the six -- the Ivory and Revis trades.

6. Revolving door: Because of injuries, it has been difficult to build continuity on offense. In fact, the Jets have used 28 different players, tied with the Bucs for most in the league.

7. Go wide, young man: The Jets aren't known as a perimeter running team, but maybe they should think about it more often. When they run around left end, they average 6.78 yards per carry, the fifth-best mark in the league, according to NFL stats. When they go right end, it's 5.59 yards. Imagine if they had a real perimeter threat.

8. McElroy's intel: Dan Pompei of Bleacher Report spent a week with Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who allowed behind-the-scenes access as he prepared for last week's game against the Jets. The story reveals that former Jets QB Greg McElroy, a member of the Bengals' practice squad, was a big help. McElroy typed up a tip sheet and gave it to QB Andy Dalton. Gruden also picked his brain on the Jets in a meeting.

"His insight is very helpful," Gruden told Pompei in the middle of the week. "He has a pulse on their defense, what hurts them."

I'd say the Bengals hurt them, all right.

9. Good news/bad news: The Jets are one of only 11 teams since 2001 to have a minus-12 turnover margin or worse through eight games. That's bad. Of those 11 teams, they're the only one to have a .500 record. That's good. It indicates what they could be if Smith stops giving it away.

10. Feeling old: The first time I saw Nick Toon was Nov. 27, 1992, the day his dad, Al, retired from the NFL at the too-young age of 29. Nick was only 4, but he was at the news conference, and I remember seeing him afterward in the parking lot at the Jets' old Hofstra training facility. He hopped into a mini-van, and the family drove off. It always struck me that Al's wife, Jane, was behind the wheel. Al, still suffering from post-concussion syndrome, wasn't fit to drive. Now, Nick is a grown-up wide receiver, and he'll be playing Sunday for the Saints at MetLife Stadium. I'll be in the press box, wondering how 21 years flew by in a minute.

Observation deck: Saints-Raiders

August, 16, 2013
8/16/13
11:18
PM ET

The early part of Friday night’s 28-20 victory by the New Orleans Saints over the Oakland Raiders made me flash back four years.

Back in a 2009 preseason game the Saints went out to Oakland and humiliated the Raiders. I ended up writing a post in which I said New Orleans looked like it was heading for the Super Bowl. When the Saints got to the Super Bowl some five months later, some New Orleans fans pointed back to that post and said I was clairvoyant.

The truth was I wrote that tongue in cheek. I was complimenting the Saints, but I also was pointing out that the Raiders looked terrible.

I’m doing the same things now (based mostly on the way the Saints dominated the first half, which is all that matters in a preseason game). But, hey, if the Saints do end up going to the Super Bowl again, you can say you heard it here first.

Some other observations on the Saints:
  • For those worried about the pass rush, relax a bit. The Saints produced five sacks in the first half. You can put some of the blame on the makeshift Oakland offensive line. But the Saints deserve some credit, too. The first-team defense looked very good.
  • Inside linebacker Curtis Lofton sat out with an unspecified injury. Ramon Humber took his place and came up with a tackle for a loss on a running play and a sack. With inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma also missing some time after knee surgery, Humber might have a chance at some playing time in the regular season.
  • One of the more intriguing competitions is for the Saints' third-receiver spot. Rookie Kenny Stills and second-year pro Nick Toon both played well. Toon, who isn’t a prototypical deep threat, caught a 56-yard pass from Drew Brees early in the game. Stills, who does have the tools to be a deep threat, caught a 16-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.
  • Running back Travaris Cadet didn’t help his chances of landing a roster spot as he lost a fumble in the third quarter. Cadet had another third-quarter fumble, but the Saints were able to recover that one.
  • Quarterback Seneca Wallace, who is competing with Luke McCown for the backup job behind Brees, didn’t have a good outing. The Saints turned the ball over three times while Wallace was in the game. McCown appears to have the inside track for the backup job.
The New Orleans Saints still are looking for depth at wide receiver after losing Joe Morgan to a season-ending injury.

The team reportedly has signed veteran Patrick Crayton. That comes a week after the team signed another veteran, Steve Breaston. Rookie Kenny Stills and second-year pro Nick Toon also are in the mix for the backup jobs behind Marques Colston and Lance Moore.

Crayton, 34, hasn’t played in the NFL since the 2011 season. But he has some history with coach Sean Payton, who was an assistant in Dallas for the first two seasons of Crayton’s career.
METAIRIE, La. -- The first thing I noticed when watching the New Orleans Saints practice was the silence.

There was no messing around and no coaches screaming at players. Instead, the Saints looked like a veteran team that is intensely focused -- more focused than last year, when chaos surrounded the entire season. Maybe even more focused than in 2009, when the Saints eventually won their first Super Bowl championship.

The quiet practices are a firm sign that coach Sean Payton is back in charge and that this team wants to put last season as far in the past as possible. The bounty scandal that led to the season-long suspension of Payton and a disappointing 7-9 record is over, and the Saints want to return to their winning ways.

“Last year was an apparition," quarterback Drew Brees said. “It was a different time with all the situations that had taken place. This year, just knowing that we’ve got everybody here, this is our team. Nobody’s missing. This is the team that can accomplish great things, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Here’s our window of time to bring it together. We know there’s going to be tough times. We know there’s going to be adversity. Build that attitude, build that chemistry, and get ready to make a run at it.”

Payton’s return alone should make a big difference. He’s one of the league’s best coaches and possesses a brilliant offensive mind. After watching his team from a distance last year, Payton had some strong critiques for his players, even the superstars.

Soon after Payton was reinstated, he called tight end Jimmy Graham and told him that a season in which he caught 85 passes but led the league in drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information, wasn’t good enough.

“First, he called me and I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t pick it up," Graham said. “He was pretty mad because it took like two or three days for me to call him back. The conversation was very serious, talking about his expectations for me and the things that I need to correct from last year and how he’s ready to be back. He’s ready to see my growth even more."

Payton needs to see growth from more than Graham. He’s made it clear that he wants to run the ball more often and that the Saints have to be substantially better on defense.

If the Saints can combine those things with Brees and the passing game, they should be right back in playoff contention.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The defensive overhaul. Payton is an offensive guru, but the first order of business upon his reinstatement was to replace defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan. Spagnuolo’s defense never caught on in New Orleans, and the Saints finished last season ranked No. 32 in total defense.

The Saints aren’t just switching coordinators. They’re switching schemes. With Payton’s blessing, Ryan is installing a 3-4 scheme. The pass rush now will have to come from the outside linebackers, particularly Junior Galette, Will Smith and Martez Wilson, a trio of guys that previously played defensive end.

The secondary also is going through some major changes. The Saints signed free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.

The defense will look a lot different because Ryan uses a lot of exotic looks. If the results are different from last season, the Saints will be in good shape.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere won't be any excuses for Mark Ingram this season, as the Saints plan to keep him involved in their running game.
Ingram’s time? Payton repeatedly has said the Saints need to get back to running the ball more efficiently. They were good in that area in their Super Bowl season but got away from the run last season.

There really is no reason the Saints shouldn’t be able to get production from the running game. They have a good offensive line and three talented running backs -- Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.

The real wild card is Ingram. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis used a first-round pick on Ingram in 2011, but he hasn’t produced a lot in his first two years. I think Payton is going to make it a point to give Ingram more carries this season.

A new age of receivers. A few years ago, the Saints had a receiving corps as deep as any in the league, which came in handy because they use so many three- and four-receiver sets. But Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson left over the past two seasons. Joe Morgan, who had been ticketed for the third receiver spot, suffered a season-ending injury in camp.

That leaves starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore as the only sure things. Beyond them, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But the Saints hope veteran Steve Breaston, who was signed this week, and second-year pro Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season with an injury, can fill the void.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Any team that has Brees as its quarterback is going to be competitive. With weapons such as Graham, Colston and Sproles, the Saints are going to score plenty of points. It would be difficult for the defense to be any worse than last season.

If the Saints can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they can be a dangerous team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Rob Ryan
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRob Ryan will bring an aggressive new 3-4 attack to New Orleans, but do the Saints have the proper personnel to run it effectively off the bat?
The Saints already have had some tough breaks when it comes to injuries. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman and outside linebacker Victor Butler, who were brought in specifically to fill important roles in Ryan’s defensive scheme, already have suffered season-ending injuries.

Ryan is an aggressive coach, and the 3-4 has had plenty of success around the league in recent years. But I’m not sure Ryan has the personnel to make this defense succeed. It could take another offseason to get this defense fully stocked.

OBSERVATION DECK

One of the brightest spots in training camp has been the play of second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. I saw him make several big plays during my visit. Hicks is going to get his chance to shine in the regular season, and with Coleman out, it looks like he'll be a starter at defensive end.

In another sign that the Saints are serious about running the ball more, Graham has bulked up. The tight end said he now weighs about 270 pounds and that he’s focusing on becoming a better blocker.

The Saints have a history of finding unheralded running backs who end up making a contribution (see Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet). They might have found another one in Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Robinson has flashed big-play ability in camp. The Saints have so much depth at running back that it might be tough for him to make the roster, but he could end up on the practice squad.

There was some thought that Jason Smith, a former first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams, could end up as the starting left tackle. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Charles Brown has been getting virtually all the first-team work. Smith has fallen to third on the depth chart and is working behind rookie Terron Armstead. It’s looking like Smith might not even make the roster.

In recent years, the Saints have brought rookie defensive backs along slowly. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson didn’t play significant roles in their first seasons. But I don’t think the Saints are going to be cautious with Vaccaro. Whether it’s at one of the safety spots or as the nickelback, Vaccaro is going to play a lot this season.
Three things to watch for when the New Orleans Saints play the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday:

1. The wide receivers. With Joe Morgan lost for the season, the competition for the third wide receiver spot is wide open. Veteran Steve Breaston was brought in, but the Saints want to take an extended look at some of their young receivers, including Nick Toon and Kenny Stills.

2. The backup quarterbacks. Drew Brees likely will make only a quick appearance because the Saints are well aware of what he can do. But they need to get a look at Luke McCown and Seneca Wallace in game conditions. McCown might have a slight edge because Wallace missed some practice time with an injury, but this competition remains wide open.

3. The left tackles. Charles Brown has gotten virtually all of the first-team work in training camp. But he doesn’t have the starting job locked down just yet. Brown needs to perform well under game conditions and the Saints also want to take a look at rookie Terron Armstead.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints got a double dose of bad news Wednesday.

Receiver Joe Morgan will miss the season with a knee injury, coach Sean Payton said. Payton also said it’s likely defensive end Kenyon Coleman will miss the season with a pectoral injury. Payton said Morgan was scheduled for surgery Wednesday, and Coleman likely will have surgery Thursday.

The loss of Coleman is substantial. He was expected to start at defensive end. Coleman is the second projected starter to suffer a season-ending injury. Outside linebacker Victor Butler suffered a season-ending injury during offseason workouts.

With Coleman out, the Saints are likely to take a long look at second-year pro Akiem Hicks, who has been working at both defensive end spots and defensive tackle.

Morgan had appeared to be the leader in the competition for the No. 3 receiver spot. Veteran Steve Breaston and second-year pro Nick Toon are likely to be next in line to compete for the third spot.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each NFC South team as training camps get underway.

Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons are pretty well set at the offensive skill positions, but one guy to keep an eye on in training camp and the preseason is running back Jacquizz Rodgers. With the arrival of Steven Jackson, will Rodgers have a role as the third-down back? Jackson has a strong history of catching passes out of the backfield, but the coaching staff likes Rodgers and believes he has home run potential every time he touches the ball.

Carolina Panthers. From a fantasy standpoint, the issue is whether DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart will be the primary ball carrier. If both are healthy, they’ll split carries to some degree. But Stewart’s health remains a big question. He’s coming off surgery on both ankles and has had an assortment of injuries throughout his career. Williams had a strong finish last season and that may put him in the good graces of the coaching staff.

New Orleans Saints. The departure of Devery Henderson leaves the Saints looking for a third receiver after Marques Colston and Lance Moore. This position is critical because the Saints use so many three-receiver sets. Joe Morgan and Nick Toon appear to be the leading candidates for this job. Morgan seemed to have the advantage in minicamp, but the competition likely will go through camp and the preseason. Morgan is a long strider who has shown an ability to make some big plays. Toon, who missed his rookie year with an injury, is more of a possession receiver.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Veteran tight end Dallas Clark wasn’t re-signed and that means there will be a preseason battle for playing time at tight end. Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree appear to be the front-runners, but neither has produced much yet. The Bucs believe Stocker can do a little bit of everything and could blossom. But they also think that Crabtree, who was brought in from Green Bay, can be a productive pass catcher. Still, from a fantasy standpoint, drafting a Tampa Bay tight end probably isn’t a great idea.
METAIRIE, La. -- I’m getting ready to head out and watch the first session of the New Orleans Saints’ minicamp.

I’ll be back with more on the Saints later. But here are five things I’ll be keeping a close eye on.

The defensive vibe: Throughout the OTAs (organized team activities), there has been a lot of positive talk about new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. I want to see him in action. More importantly, I want to see his defense in action. New Orleans had the worst defense in the league last season, and something dramatic had to be done. I remember the stir Gregg Williams caused when he arrived as defensive coordinator in 2009. The defense was jumping after every loose ball in minicamp and training camp, and that created a swagger. I’m curious to see if Ryan is duplicating that.

Payton’s return: Coach Sean Payton has been back from his suspension for several months. But the mandatory minicamp will be his first formal time back with his players. I didn’t realize Payton’s true value to his team until he was out. Things were quieter with assistant head coach Joe Vitt running the team in minicamp and training camp last year. I’m guessing Payton’s presence will make things a bit more spirited.

The backfield rotation: In his third season, running back Mark Ingram is entering a critical time. The former first-round pick has been part of a logjam in the backfield. I think Ingram can be a solid player if he gets on the field more often. He needs to use the offseason to show the coaching staff he deserves to be on the field more than Pierre Thomas.

The third-receiver battle: The Saints used to have one of the league’s deepest receiving corps. But it’s looking a little thin after starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore right now. That said, the Saints have plenty of candidates to emerge as big parts of the offense. I want to see if Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Preston Parker or rookie Kenny Stills steps up.

The competition at left tackle: Jermon Bushrod's departure as a free agent left a big void. The Saints don’t have a clear answer. They’re letting rookie Terron Armstead compete with Charles Brown and Jason Smith for the starting job. The minicamp should give us an indication of who’s leading the competition.

Eight in the Box: WR status check

March, 29, 2013
3/29/13
12:00
PM ET
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each team look at wide receiver, and what still needs to be done?

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons have one of the best starting combinations in the league in Roddy White and Julio Jones, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. White and Jones are as good as most No. 1 receivers, and that creates matchup problems for opposing defenses, especially when you factor in the presence of tight end Tony Gonzalez. What has been mildly disappointing is that the Falcons haven’t gotten more out of their third receiver. Harry Douglas was used primarily in the slot last season. He has big-play potential but was limited to 38 catches and one touchdown. There is no serious challenger to Douglas on the current roster. That means the Falcons could look for an upgrade in what remains of free agency or in the draft.

Carolina Panthers: The team might not be sitting still at this position. It’s very possible the Panthers could use an early draft pick on a receiver because it’s time to start grooming an heir apparent to Steve Smith. He still is the No. 1 receiver, but his age is due to catch up with him at some point. Brandon LaFell has established himself as the No. 2 receiver but doesn’t look as if he’s a candidate for anything more. The No. 3 receiver spot is wide open after Louis Murphy departed via free agency. The team has some young options in Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams and Armanti Edwards. But the Panthers recently signed Ted Ginn Jr. He primarily was a return man in San Francisco the past three seasons. But he contributed as a receiver in Miami before that. Ginn has a chance to win the third receiver job.

New Orleans Saints: There could be change on the horizon in New Orleans’ wide receiver situation. Veteran Devery Henderson is a free agent, and it appears unlikely the Saints will bring him back. The Saints still have veterans Marques Colston and Lance Moore, but several young players are going to have a chance at significant playing time because the Saints use a lot of three- and four-receiver sets. Joseph Morgan flashed potential at times last season. But the player to keep an eye on is Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season because of injury. Toon might have the inside track on the third receiver job and eventually could develop into a starter.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs are well set with Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams as their starters. But the real competition should be for the No. 3 receiver spot as the team continues to try to give quarterback Josh Freeman everything he needs to succeed. Tiquan Underwood emerged as the No. 3 receiver last season, and he has a chance to stay in that role. But the Bucs brought in Kevin Ogletree to compete with him. Ogletree did some good things in Dallas last season and might be just starting to reach his potential.

Observation deck: Saints-Titans

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
10:14
PM ET

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

"I was told to never tug on Superman’s cape," Graham said.

He was talking about quarterback Drew Brees. Graham noted how the quarterback challenged him to a sprint race at the start of training camp and said he let Brees win. Graham was partly joking, but there was some deep wisdom in his words.

More than ever, the Saints are Brees’ team. They’ve been through an offseason unlike one any other team has faced. They’ve been through the painful drama of the bounty scandal and they’ll move forward without coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season, and general manager Mickey Loomis, who is suspended for the first eight games.

Brees, the league's highest-paid player, is coming off a season in which he set a NFL single-season record for most passing yards. No, let other teams try to tug on Brees’ cape. If the Saints really are going to endure all this adversity successfully, they need Brees’ skill and leadership more than ever. They need to ride the coattails of the most positive thing they have at the moment.

Brees knows this high-flying offense as well as anyone, including Payton. The Saints remain loaded at offensive skill positions. There’s little doubt this team still is going to score a lot, and that alone will keep it competitive.

But Brees can’t do everything by himself. Even before the word "bounty" started flying in March, the Saints knew they had to overhaul their defense. That became clear in last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco. That’s why defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired. Predecessor Gregg Williams had a gambling philosophy, going all-out to produce turnovers. The negative side effect was that the Saints gave up too many big plays.

Spagnuolo brings a more balanced philosophy. Sure, he wants turnovers, but he also wants to be able to shut down offenses from time to time. A big theme of this camp is the installation of Spagnuolo’s defense. Even though that’s not his side of the ball, Brees shows a lot of interest in the defense. Even in camp, the Saints are implementing game plans.

“[Spagnuolo] is going to try to find every flaw, just like we are going to do to them,’’ Brees said. “Along the way, I am certainly going to be picking his brain as to what he is seeing with our offense, how we can improve. That is how you help one another. That is a habit that we got into, me talking to the defensive guys, even if it is just the secondary guys, saying, 'You give away that blitz whenever you do this.' We are competing against each other, but in the end we are on the same team. I want them to be able to go out and have as much success as possible, just like they want us, on game day, to have as much success as possible.”

Maybe that’s the best way to improve the New Orleans defense. Practice against Superman every day. After you’ve been through that, everything else should be easy.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Mark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREMark Ingram rushed for 474 yards and five touchdowns during his rookie season with the Saints.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Mark Ingram’s playing time. Fan expectations for Ingram might be significantly higher than the team's. That’s somewhat understandable, because the Saints traded back into the first round in 2011 to draft Ingram. He played at a college powerhouse (Alabama) and won a Heisman Trophy. Instant stardom was expected by fans, but it didn’t turn out that way in Ingram’s rookie season.

He finished with 122 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns. Injuries were part of the reason his numbers weren’t bigger. But even before the injuries, Ingram shared playing time with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory did a nice job joining the rotation after Ingram’s injury problems started. Ingram had a couple of offseason surgeries and said he’s completely healthy.

But that doesn’t mean Ingram suddenly is going to become a 300-carry guy. New Orleans’ offense is based on diversity, and that’s not going to change. The Saints aren’t going to take playing time away from Sproles, who set an NFL record for all-purpose yards last season, and Thomas is going to play because he has earned it with his performance.

Assuming Ingram stays healthy, I expect him to get more carries than last season, but a 200-carry season for about 800 yards is a reasonable expectation.

2. Will the linebackers be better than last season? I think they’ll be markedly better. Many believe the season-long suspension of Jonathan Vilma is going to hurt the Saints. If this were two or three years ago, I’d agree. But Vilma was bothered by knee problems last season, and his age seemed to be catching up to him. I think free-agent addition Curtis Lofton is an upgrade over Vilma in the middle. In fact, I think Lofton is pretty similar to what Vilma was two or three years ago. The Saints will be just fine in the middle.

Plus, the Saints didn’t sit still at outside linebacker. They signed free agents David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. It looks as if Hawthorne is well on his way to winning a starting job. That leaves Chamberlain competing with Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas for the other starting job. There’s no true favorite here, and Shanle is the fallback option as the safe choice because he’s smart and dependable. But Chamberlain, Herring and Casillas are more athletic and at least come with the possibility of producing big plays. The hope is that one of those three can step forward to win the starting job.

3. Can the offensive line, minus Carl Nicks, be as good as last season? Nicks took the big money and left for Tampa Bay in free agency. Losing a player many scouts consider the best guard in the NFL must take a toll. But the Saints already had Jahri Evans, who might be the closest thing to Nicks. Loomis did a nice job getting Ben Grubbs to replace Nicks. Grubbs isn’t quite on the Nicks/Evans level, but he’s an above-average player and came at a much lower salary than Nicks. The Saints build their offensive line around the interior, and Evans and Grubbs will form a very strong guard tandem.

Brian de la Puente did a nice job taking over at center last year and should be fine with Grubbs and Evans surrounding him. The tackles are more of a question. The Saints are sticking with Jermon Bushrod on the left side and Zach Strief on the right. They’re serviceable, but Bushrod and Strief aren’t all-pros, and the presence of Evans and Grubbs should be enough to keep this offensive line among the better ones in the league.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Spagnuolo’s history. There is legitimate concern about the pass rush, because Spagnuolo likes it to come mostly from his front four. Aside from defensive end Will Smith, who will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints don’t have a proven pass-rusher. Many fans are worked up about the potential of Junior Galette and converted linebacker Martez Wilson. Those guys could turn into something, but maybe fans aren’t looking in the right direction.

Second-year pro Cameron Jordan might be a big factor. Yeah, I know that sounds like a stretch because Jordan had one sack as a rookie, but he was a first-round pick and still has plenty of untapped potential. There’s more than that, though. Look at Spagnuolo’s past. When he became defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 2007, Justin Tuck had gone through two NFL seasons with one sack. In Spagnuolo’s first season, Tuck had 10. In 2008, Tuck recorded 12.

If Spagnuolo can get anything close to double-digit sacks from Jordan, he may have short- and long-term answers for his pass rush.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

How much adversity can one team take? The Saints will use all that happened to them in the offseason as a rallying cry, providing strong motivation. But it’s tough for any team to ride one emotion (anger, in this case) for an entire season. This franchise has been through a lot, and you have to worry about that taking a toll at some point.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees and Tom Benson
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREWith a new contract and instability in the coaching staff, Drew Brees will be asked to be even more of a leader for Tom Benson's Saints.
You also have to worry about the Saints being a target for opponents, especially those who spent the past few months hearing that the bounty program had targeted some of their own players. Then throw in the fact that assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has run the team in Payton’s absence, must serve a six-game suspension at the start of the season. At that point, the Saints are expected to make another of their assistants the acting head coach. Yes, this is a veteran team with outstanding leadership, but it sure looks like a lot of things are stacked against the Saints.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • There was a lot of buzz about cornerback Marquis Johnson in the first few days of camp. He made some nice plays and usually was around the ball. The Saints hope second-year pro Johnny Patrick can be their No. 3 cornerback after starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson. But Johnson has a chance to compete with Patrick and may have one slight advantage. The third-year player spent his first two seasons in St. Louis, where Spagnuolo was the coach. Johnson knows the system, and that might be why he’s off to a fast start in camp. If he can sustain it, he’ll have a chance to move past Patrick. At worst, Johnson has a chance to be the fourth cornerback and a key player on special teams.
  • The Saints have almost an embarrassment of riches at kicker. They have Garrett Hartley back from an injury that kept him out last season and veteran John Kasay, who filled in nicely for Hartley. Hartley and Kasay each have made a lot of big kicks in their careers. Although Kasay is 42, he’s not showing signs of slowing. Hartley has the stronger leg, but Kasay has been a model of consistency throughout his career. The Saints will let this competition play throughout camp. If it ends in a dead heat, it might be the toughest call of all when it’s time to trim the roster. Brought in by Loomis, Hartley has earned a spot in franchise history with some clutch kicks. But Loomis and Kasay go all the way back to the early 1990s, when they were together in Seattle.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about New Orleans’ young wide receivers early in camp. Adrian Arrington, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Andy Tanner and Chris Givens have made spectacular catches. But let’s keep that in perspective. Those catches came before the Saints put pads on and before defenders could hit. The Saints are looking for fourth and fifth receivers, but let’s not anoint any of these guys yet. The preseason games will determine who wins the final roster spots at receiver. Arrington’s entering his third season, and it’s time for him to start showing something. Toon comes in after a solid career at Wisconsin. They probably are the favorites to make the roster at this point. But Morgan, Tanner and Givens might be able to change the pecking order if they can make catches in traffic in preseason games.
  • The Saints thought they might get an eventual starter when they drafted Charles Brown in 2010. There was even hope that he might turn into the long-range solution at left tackle. That hasn’t come close to happening. Bushrod has settled in nicely at left tackle. The Saints hoped Brown at least would be able to start at right tackle. But that hasn’t happened, either. Strief beat out Brown for the starting job last season. When Strief was injured, Brown got playing time, but his play wasn't pretty. (If you don’t believe me, look at the tape of the loss to the Rams.) The Saints still say that Strief and Brown are competing for the starting job this season, but Strief has received all of the first-team work, and I didn't hear any buzz at all about Brown from coaches. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure Brown even will be on the roster when the regular season starts.
  • Speaking of offensive linemen who could be on the bubble, don’t forget Matt Tennant. The Saints drafted Tennant in 2010, thinking he'd be the heir apparent to Jonathan Goodwin at center. It hasn’t worked out that way. When Goodwin left via free agency last year, the Saints took an early look at Tennant and quickly signed Olin Kruetz, the former Bears star. When Kruetz abruptly decided to retire, the Saints didn’t turn back to Tennant. They turned to de la Puente, who now has a strong grip on the starting job. Like Brown, Tennant could be fighting for a roster spot. The Saints used to have a good reputation for finding offensive linemen beyond the first round of the draft (Evans, Nicks and Bushrod), but Brown and Tennant may have eroded that trend.
  • The Saints appear set with Graham and David Thomas at tight end. Graham is a great pass-catcher, and Thomas is a jack of all trades. But keep an eye on Michael Higgins, who spent much of last year on the practice squad before getting promoted to the regular roster late in the season. Higgins already has demonstrated he can block, and showed signs of being a good receiver early in camp. Thomas has had injury problems, and the Saints may not want to overuse him. Higgins could provide another alternative.
  • There has been talk that strong safety Roman Harper might not be a great fit in Spagnuolo’s defense because he isn’t known for great coverage skills. But I believe Spagnuolo will find a way to make this defense work for Harper. There’s really not an alternative behind him. His backup is Jonathon Amaya, whose only claim to fame is that he was part of the Reggie Bush trade.

Saints Camp Watch

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
12:18
PM ET
Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I’m certain of: The New Orleans Saints will be coming to camp on a mission. They’re not happy about what has happened this offseason and they’ve taken on the mindset that the world is against them. That’s going to lead to an increased focus across the board, which is not a bad thing.

This team will miss suspended coach Sean Payton, but the Saints have some very strong veteran leadership. Quarterback Drew Brees has spent his career playing with a chip on his shoulder. After recently becoming the NFL’s highest-paid player, he’ll be out to show the world he deserves it. This team always has fed off Brees’ work ethic and leadership. That’s going to be needed more than ever.

One thing that might happen: I still think there’s a decent chance the Saints will add a pass-rusher at some point in the preseason. They’re putting in a defense, with new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, that will rely on the front four more than ever. Aside from Will Smith, who is suspended for the first four games, the Saints do not have a proven pass-rusher among their current crop of defensive linemen.

There are high hopes that some young players, such as Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, can emerge as threats. But the Saints don’t have a history of sitting around and waiting for young players to develop. More than any team in the NFC South, they’ve shown a willingness to bring in veterans in recent years. They couldn’t do that early in the offseason because of salary-cap concerns. But now that Brees’ deal is done, the Saints have some cap space to work with. If an experienced pass-rusher is released elsewhere or becomes available via trade, I can see the Saints pouncing.

One thing we won’t see: A rookie in the starting lineup. The Saints didn’t have a pick in the first two rounds of this year’s draft. But this isn’t a team that has even asked many of its first-round picks (see Malcolm Jenkins, Patrick Robinson and Robert Meachem) to start right away. The Saints did a nice job of addressing their needs through free agency.

Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, a third-round pick, and receiver Nick Toon, a fourth-round choice, might be the only rookies you’ll see much of this season. Hicks has chance to work his way into the rotation with Sedrick Ellis and Brodrick Bunkley. Toon has a chance to be the fourth receiver, behind Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore. At best, Hicks and Toon will be role players this season. But the hope is that those two and the rest of this draft class can make a bigger impact down the road.

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