NFL Nation: Pierre Thomas

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees remained sidelined by a strained oblique during Monday’s practice, increasing the odds that he will sit out the New Orleans Saints' second preseason game on Friday night against the Tennessee Titans.

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However, Brees continued to show signs that he won’t be out for too long. He threw passes to receiver Kenny Stills and ran with cornerback Champ Bailey, among other exercises on an adjacent practice field.

Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t bother with another daily status update calling Brees "day to day" and adding that Brees is "getting there."

Payton did, however, elaborate slightly when asked about the injuries to cornerbacks Bailey and Patrick Robinson and how they’ll affect the Saints' evaluation of that No. 2 cornerback battle. Although Payton didn’t specify either player's injury, he predicted both will return to practice soon.

Bailey, who has been sidelined since July 31, did more running on the side Monday than we have seen to date. Robinson, who left Sunday’s practice early, spent some time on the stationary bike Monday.

"I think (Bailey) is making progress, and I think sooner than later he’s gonna be back out here," Payton said. "Champ’s someone that’s smart enough to know his body and obviously wants to make sure he’s 100 percent. ...

"I think with regards to Patrick, I don’t anticipate him being out a whole lot of time. He’s in good shape and he was smart enough yesterday, he just felt it get tight and he pulled off."

In another bit of good news, running back Pierre Thomas returned to practice in full pads and participated in some full-team drills after being held out of last Friday’s preseason opener and Sunday’s practice with an undisclosed injury.

Meanwhile, guard Jahri Evans, linebacker Victor Butler, fullback Erik Lorig, cornerback Rod Sweeting and safety Ty Zimmerman remained absent from practice.

Kicker Shayne Graham was present but did not participate in practice after suffering an undisclosed injury during Friday’s game. Stills, offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe and tight end Je'Ron Hamm were also present but didn’t participate.

Safety Jairus Byrd and guard Ben Grubbs were dressed in full pads and did some individual work, but they did not participate in full-team drills.

UPDATE: Center Jonathan Goodwin and linebackers David Hawthorne and Kyle Knox were not present at the Saints’ afternoon walk-through. It’s unknown if their absences were injury-related.
As expected, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was held out of Friday night's preseason opener at the St. Louis Rams.

Brees has been resting a strained oblique for the past week, though he has increased his workload off to the side during practice each day -- including a throwing session with safety Jairus Byrd before Friday's game, according to observers at the Edward Jones Dome.

Saints coach Sean Payton has never specified a timetable for Brees' return, other than to describe him as "day to day." But Payton said he did not believe the injury would jeopardize the start of the regular season.

Running back Pierre Thomas also did not dress for Friday's game, which was more of a surprise since he practiced all week. The reason for his absence is unknown. The Saints haven't offered many injury details during training camp since they aren't required to.

The others who weren't dressed for Friday's game, according to reports from The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, were expected after they missed practice time leading up to the game: guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, receivers Kenny Stills and Andy Tanner, fullback Erik Lorig, tight end Je'Ron Hamm, offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, Byrd, cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Terrence Frederick, linebacker Victor Butler and defensive tackle John Jenkins.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- It’s still too early in New Orleans Saints training camp to judge exactly how they plan to split the workload among their deep running back corps.

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My best guess is that Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson will split carries pretty evenly in base packages and early downs, while Pierre Thomas lines up more with the nickel offenses (sort of the old Darren Sproles role). That would make sense, since Thomas is both the best pass-catcher and the best pass-protector of all the Saints’ running backs.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees offered some lofty praise of Thomas’ versatility Tuesday when asked if throwing the screen pass to Thomas is one of his favorite plays.

“Yes. He’s one of the best screen runners there is, ever,” Brees said. “He does such a great job of timing, setting up his blocks, just hitting those seams and hitting the sidewalk. He does a phenomenal job at it.

“You see these young guys (Ingram, Robinson and Travaris Cadet) starting to pick up on a little bit of those traits, too. Sproles was great at it. But Pierre can do everything. He’s the best all-purpose back in the league in my opinion. Run, pass, screen game, pass protection ... you name it, he can do it.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Pierre Thomas thought he was going to be released by the New Orleans Saints this year.

Not just one of those, "You never know what might happen in this business" deals, either.

[+] EnlargePierre Thomas
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoPierre Thomas has rushed for 3,523 yards and 26 touchdowns in seven seasons with the Saints.
Thomas saw what happened to so many of his longtime veteran teammates as the Saints were shedding salary-cap costs. He saw the reports that he and fellow running back Darren Sproles were being shopped around in trade talks. And he saw the writing on the wall -- or so he thought.

"Yeah, I actually did think that. But, I mean, I hoped for the best," Thomas said. "I was crossing my fingers hoping I wasn't gonna get traded. But I didn't know at that point, and I just left it in God's hands. And, well, you see where I'm at now."

The Saints wound up trading away Sproles instead, and they worked out a new three-year contract with Thomas. The new deal included a slight pay cut for the 2013 season (from $2.9 million to $2.4 million), but it was a strong commitment from the Saints to their longtime running back, nonetheless.

One of the most underappreciated players in the NFL since he first cracked the league as an undrafted free agent in 2007, Thomas said he certainly felt appreciated by the Saints.

"It was very nice throughout the situation just hearing what was being said and what was going on," Thomas said. "And I'm happy with the decision, and I'm happy to be here, and I'm happy to help us move in the right direction from here on out. ...

"I didn't want to go and learn a new system. I was comfortable where I was at. The fans here have been nice to me. But you've always gotta think that it's a business. So no matter what, if I would've went somewhere else, I would've showed them what I was about, I would've showed everybody who I am, who is Pierre Thomas, if that would've came to that situation. But it didn't. I'm here with the Who Dat nation and with the Saints organization, and I'm happy."

Thomas turns 30 in December, but he hasn't shown much sign of wear. In fact, last year was one of his most productive seasons with a career-high 77 receptions, which led all running backs in the NFL.

Thomas gained 549 rushing yards, 513 receiving yards and scored five total touchdowns before suffering a season-ending chest injury in Week 17.

Thomas disagreed with the notion that it might've been his best season to date, though.

"I don't think so. It was a good season for me last year, but I feel like there was some areas I could do better," said Thomas, who was asked what specifically he wants to improve.

"Running," Thomas said. "The run game. I know I don't get a lot of carries, but I need to still focus on when I do get the carries, how to accomplish those runs."

Thomas played in exactly 50 percent of the Saints' regular-season snaps. And he could potentially play a similar role this year, even with younger backs Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet clamoring for more snaps.

Now that Sproles is gone, Thomas should be featured heavily in the Saints' passing formations since he's their best receiver out of the backfield and their most reliable pass protector. He may lose some rushing yards but gain receiving yards as his role shifts slightly.

Thomas referenced that emphasis on pass protection while he was talking about the lessons that former Saints great Deuce McAllister taught him early in his career.

"The most important thing in this system, what I was first told, was protect Drew (Brees). ...Protect Drew, then second, protect the ball," said Thomas, who said he now passes on those same lessons to his younger teammates.

Even though they're competing for opportunities in a crowded backfield, Thomas said he takes pride in "helping these younger dudes out and trying to show them the way."

"I see myself as one of the vets, almost like the same way when I came in and Deuce was here," Thomas said. "So I feel like me and him just switched spots."
Now that the NFL draft has passed, ESPN's fantasy crew will go all-in on their own pre-draft prep for 2014. The first mock draft is being compiled today, followed by the annual rankings summit.

So I reached out to ESPN fantasy analyst Matthew Berry to get his thoughts on how much buzz he expects around rookie New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks -- a big-play threat who should make an instant impact in New Orleans' explosive offense.

And Berry fired back with his most burning Saints fantasy question in this special edition of Double Coverage:

Triplett: What's your early assessment of Cooks' fantasy value? Does he have a chance to rank among the top rookies overall this year?

Berry: Here are the positives on Cooks fantasy value: He has crazy speed and lands on a team that needs it. It's also a team that threw the ball 651 times last year and just saw 143 targets walk out the door in the form of Darren Sproles and Lance Moore. Some of those will go to Kenny Stills in an increased role, but not all of them. So he should have a solid target number from a future Hall of Fame quarterback on a team that scores in bunches. All positives.

But part of the reason Drew Brees is so great is that he spreads it around. Other than Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, no Saints pass catcher had more than four double digit fantasy points games last year. Sproles, who Cooks get compared to despite their different positions, had just three double-digit fantasy games last year. Three. On 89 targets. Obviously, many of those were dump-off passes when Sproles was in the backfield, but still. Sproles also knew the offense -- Cooks is a rookie.

Graham and Colston will take the lion's share of targets. Stills will get quite a bit more than last year's 51 targets. Pierre Thomas out of the backfield will get his. And the random work of players like Robert Meachem, Joe Morgan, Nick Toon, etc. will also eat away at potential work. Because of Cooks' speed, he will have some plays designed specifically for him, and three or four times this year he is going to have a monster game. Good luck predicting when that is, however.

I like Cooks a lot as a dynasty target. And given the recent health issues of both Graham and Colston, he's an interesting flyer this year in re-draft leagues. But, barring injury or more information on how they plan to use Cooks, he's probably not someone you're gonna feel comfortable starting week to week in ESPN standard 10- or even 12-team leagues on a weekly basis. Better move for the Saints than for his consistent fantasy purposes, at least initially.

Berry: Another big question when it comes to the Saints this year: With Sproles gone, how do you see the running back work distributed? Seems pretty clear Thomas will have a similar role, but between Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson, who gets the most work?

Triplett: I'm afraid the answer won't be any less frustrating than the shared workload you just described among the receiving group.

The guy who will get the most buzz is Robinson. He came out of nowhere as a rookie last year and turned into a monster during the playoffs (when Thomas was hurt). And Sean Payton revealed that his mentor Bill Parcells compared Robinson to Curtis Martin and insisted he needs to use him more. So Robinson will obviously be more heavily involved on a consistent basis this year. But I don't expect him to leapfrog Ingram. I think it should be a pretty even split among those two when it comes to both touches and touchdowns. Maybe 600-700 yards and 6-7 touchdowns each, depending on injury?

I'm sure fantasy folks are tired of Ingram's potential by now. But once again, he finished last season very strong when a lot of fantasy players probably weren't paying attention to him anymore. And he was the guy the Saints were riding most during the playoffs, ahead of Robinson. Ingram had a 97-yard game in the playoff win at Philadelphia.

Another subtle thing that helped both Ingram and Robinson in the playoffs was that they were used in more versatile packages with Thomas out of the lineup -- some three-receiver formations, etc. One of the biggest hurdles for Ingram early in his career was that the Saints stuck him in the jumbo package. He performed much better when they got him in open space, even throwing some screens his way. With Sproles gone, he could see more of that.

As for Thomas, he's the most reliable one of the bunch, so he'll continue to get his usual amount of touches. But I could see him getting more catches and less carries as he shifts into more of Sproles' old role on third downs (he's also a reliable pass protector). Thomas caught a career-high 77 passes for 513 yards last year. That could be closer to the norm -- maybe 500 receiving yards and 500 rushing yards?

So to make a long answer short, they will probably all bring value in deeper leagues. But it's doubtful that any of them will emerge as a No. 1 or No. 2 fantasy back.
Sean Payton said the decisions to trade running back Darren Sproles and re-sign running back Pierre Thomas should not be viewed as signs that the New Orleans Saints plan to become more run-oriented.

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Payton said while addressing the media Wednesday morning at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla.

Payton said it had more to do with the Saints’ stockpile of youth at the position with young backups Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet.

[+] EnlargeTravaris Cadet
AP Photo/Steven SenneSaints coach Sean Payton says running back Travaris Cadet, 39, will get more opportunities following the trade of Darren Sproles.
“Really it came down to a vision as to where we were at, and us feeling like we were younger at some positions,” Payton said, adding that, “Signing Pierre was important. We didn’t think we were gonna be able to handle all the running backs, both Pierre and Darren, and they’re uniquely different.”

Payton still spoke highly of Sproles, though.

“He is someone we’ve graded high,” Payton said. “No. 1, he’s very intelligent. You know, I can’t think of many, if any, times where he does something on the field that you’re not expecting him to do, and that’s a good trait. He’s very competitive, he’s a great teammate. ...

“And then the discussion of a trade came up, and there was more than two teams interested. And all of a sudden what you were hoping for was a seven becomes a six, and then all of sudden you’re discussing a fifth-round pick. And in this year’s draft, that’s pretty considerable. And I think he’s going to a good place. ... But he’s a special guy.”

As for replacing Sproles in the Saints’ offense, Payton said third-year pro Cadet is certainly in line for more opportunities, and could be used in some of the same ways that Sproles was used.

But Payton stressed that no one player will specifically “replace” a unique playmaker like Sproles.

"Over the years, offensively we've had a number of key contributors to what's been a pretty good offense. There's been times where we've done it without Marques Colston. There was an offense prior to Jimmy Graham, prior to Darren Sproles. And one of the key components is an overall understanding philosophically of where guys need to be,” Payton said. “I don't think you ever replace a skill set like Darren's. It's unique, and it's different really than our league has seen in a while with a player of his stature. But with regards to his touches, with regards to opportunities, Travaris is a guy that has played and is now going into his third year. ...

"(Cadet has) got very good ball skills. He's a guy that can run the routes in that tree, when you talk about a choice route, you talk about an option. He can play from in the backfield, but he can play from extend positions. That doesn't mean necessarily he's a wide receiver. It just means he's a running back in space.”

Payton said Cadet will remain in the mix for the Saints’ lead kickoff returner job. But he said the punt returner job (which used to be manned by Sproles and receiver Lance Moore) remains open.

“We’ll have to see how that competition plays out,” Payton said. “It’s something we’ll pay close attention to.”
The New Orleans Saints restructured cornerback Keenan Lewis' contract to save some salary-cap space. And they are $3.09 million under the salary cap after all of their latest moves, according to the NFL Players Association.

Lewis did not take a pay cut. He simply converted some of his base salary in 2014 and 2015 into bonus money -- a common procedure in the NFL that allows teams to push the salary-cap costs back into future years.

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Lewis’ base salaries dropped from $3.3 million to $1.1 million in 2014, and from $4.1 million to $1.8 million in 2015.

UPDATED: He received a $4.4 million signing bonus as part of the restructured deal, which essentially replaced the salary. He also added slightly to future roster bonuses. Here's the new year-by-year breakdown, according to ESPN Stats and Information:

Signing bonus: $4.4 million
2014: Base salary $1 million, workout bonus $50,000. Salary-cap cost $3.35 million.
2015: Base salary $1.8 million, roster bonuses $700,000, workout bonus $50,000. Salary-cap cost $4.85 million.
2016: Base salary $4.25 million, roster bonuses $700,000, workout bonus $50,000. Salary-cap cost $7.3 million.
2017: Base salary $4.75 million, roster bonuses $700,000, workout bonus $50,000. Salary-cap cost $7.8 million.

So far, Lewis is the only Saints veteran who has done one of these simple restructures this year. In recent years, the Saints have done them with a number of players to carve out cap space.

It’s unclear whether the Saints plan more of them. They could easily push some salary-cap costs back in some of their bigger contracts with players like Drew Brees, Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs or Marques Colston. But perhaps the Saints figure they have already pushed back enough of the cap costs on those deals and wanted to spread it around the roster a little more.

The Saints also have not touched the contract of defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, who is to make $4.5 million in salary and bonuses this season. That seems awfully high, considering Bunkley was used as a part-time player the past two seasons. It’s possible the Saints are still considering asking for a pay cut later in the offseason (like they did with safety Roman Harper last year). Or perhaps they envision a bigger role for Bunkley this year after he finished strong last season.

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Thomas' pay cut: Running back Pierre Thomas, meanwhile, did take a pay cut in 2014 when he signed his new three-year deal with the Saints this month. The details are now available after that three-year, $6.9 million contract was officially processed.

Thomas will now make $2.4 million in salary and bonuses this season instead of $2.9 million. But that $2.4 million is all guaranteed. The Saints saved $1.33 million off this year’s salary cap with Thomas’ new deal.

Here’s the breakdown of Thomas’ contract:

Signing bonus: $1.245 million
2014: Base salary $855,000, roster bonus $300,000. Salary-cap cost $1.57 million.
2015: Base salary $2.1 million, workout bonus $50,000. Salary-cap cost $2.565 million.
2016: Base salary $2.2 million, roster bonus $100,000, workout bonus $50,000. Salary-cap cost $2.765 million.

Humber, Morgan deals: Also, the contract numbers are in on the Saints’ new one-year deals with receiver Joe Morgan and linebacker Ramon Humber. Morgan’s deal is for the minimum $495,000 with no bonuses. Humber’s deal is worth $795,000, including a $65,000 signing bonus. However, he will only count $635,000 against the Saints’ cap as part of the NFL rules regarding veteran salaries on minimum-level deals.
And now for some more good news for New Orleans Saints fans: One day after signing one of the biggest names on the free-agent market in safety Jairus Byrd, the Saints announced that they are re-committing to one of their most popular veterans -- running back Pierre Thomas.

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The Saints ultimately chose to keep Thomas over fellow veteran Darren Sproles – agreeing to a two-year contract extension with Thomas on Wednesday.

Although the Saints were shopping both players as possible trade bait last week, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, it makes sense that the Saints only wanted to let one of them go.

Thomas, 29, now remains as the Saints’ best receiver and best pass protector in a still-deep backfield that also includes promising young runners Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.

I was admittedly more keen on the idea of keeping Sproles, since he’s such a unique weapon. But I’ve always been high on Thomas’ abilities as a do-everything back, and I’ve written often about him being one of the most underrated backs in the NFL.

Plus, Thomas is a year younger than Sproles, has put a little less tread on his tires over the years, and should come at a cheaper price tag.

And Thomas is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career. He ran for 549 yards last season and caught a career-high 77 passes for 513 yards and five touchdowns. He appeared in every regular-season game, playing exactly 50 percent of the Saints’ offensive snaps, before suffering a chest injury that sidelined him for the playoffs.

Thomas was due $2.9 million in the final year of his contract this season. The details of his new deal haven’t been released yet, but it’s likely that the Saints structured it in a way that will slightly lower his 2014 cap number.

Trading Sproles and reworking Thomas’ deal should give the Saints enough space to fit Byrd under the salary cap (assuming the Saints back-loaded Byrd's monster six-year, $54 million contract). But New Orleans will still need to carve out some more space to sign other players.

The Saints could manage that by restructuring current contracts or possibly releasing one or two more players.

This has been a tough offseason for the Saints’ fans and the organization alike, with the team parting ways with several longtime veterans. But these two latest moves should put a little extra spring in everyone’s step around New Orleans.
Of all the cuts the New Orleans Saints have been making this offseason, the news of Darren Sproles' pending release comes as the biggest surprise -- and could leave the biggest void.

I suppose I can get on board with the idea -- just as I saw the logic behind parting ways with Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer and Roman Harper. Sproles is 30 years old, an age when a lot of running backs tend to begin a steep decline, and his game has always been built on dynamic speed and quickness.

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The difference with Sproles, however, is that he'll be a lot harder to replace.

Sproles was a truly unique weapon that helped make the Saints offense so special from 2011 to 2013, one of those matchup nightmares that coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees loved to exploit so much. Even when Sproles wasn't posting big numbers, he was causing fits for defenses by lining up in a variety of positions and forcing top defenders to spy on him or double-team him.

I think Sproles still would have been worth his $3.5 million price tag in a part-time role, even if the Saints had to limit him to keep him fresh.

But I also can't ignore the fact that Sproles was far more dynamic in 2011 (when he set the NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards) than he was in 2012 or 2013. Last season, he had just 1,273 all-purpose yards and four total touchdowns.

It remains to be seen if the Saints will still consider releasing or trading veteran running back Pierre Thomas as well. Thomas has also been a valuable triple threat throughout his career as a runner/receiver/pass-protector.

I do like the potential of the Saints' younger, cheaper running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. Both of them are capable of stepping into bigger and more versatile roles as pass-catchers and pass-protectors -- as they showed during the playoffs last season while Thomas was injured.

But if the Saints decide to release both Sproles and Thomas, they should definitely try to add another all-purpose threat, either through free agency or the draft -- to follow in the line of Sproles and Reggie Bush before him (free agent Dexter McCluster comes to mind).

So far, the Saints have been able to successfully adapt after parting ways with several longtime veterans and core players from their Super Bowl team in recent seasons. The only one who's really come back to bite them at all so far is former left tackle Jermon Bushrod, since they didn't find a consistent replacement until late last season.

But releasing Sproles might put that success rate to the test more than any previous move.

It seems cold and callous to suggest that the New Orleans Saints will be OK after releasing longtime receiver Lance Moore. I felt the same way last month after the Saints released four of their all-time great defensive players.

Moore spent nine years as a core member of one of the greatest passing offenses in NFL history. He ranks in the top five in franchise history in receptions and receiving touchdowns. His two-point conversion catch in Super Bowl XLIV will be remembered forever. He's a sure bet for the Saints' Hall of Fame. And fans already have been tweeting about how much they'll miss his touchdown celebrations.

And yet, the Saints probably will be OK without him. Just as they'll probably be fine if they trade or release longtime running back Pierre Thomas.

That's the cold and callous reality of the NFL.

This isn't exactly a salary cap-mandated fire sale that we're seeing in New Orleans. We're just seeing a team that is making some hard but calculated football decisions about the cost of players versus their value.

Denver Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Carolina Panthers reporter David Newton just had excellent takes on similar decisions being made around the league right now.

Moore's release is a little different from those of Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer because he's still in the tail end of his prime. Moore is 30 years old, which isn't over the hill for a receiver. He just had his first career 1,000-yard season in 2012 and he racked up nearly 2,500 yards and 22 touchdowns from 2010-12.

But when I look at the role Moore played with the Saints last season -- and when I look at all the other options available at cheaper prices in both free agency and the draft -- I can understand the Saints' decision.

Moore will now become one of several experienced receivers who can be had on the open market at a discount price. But another team would be wise to take advantage. The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder has always been a shifty, sure-handed receiver, used in much the same fashion as Wes Welker on a smaller scale.

I was surprised at how much Moore's role diminished with the Saints last season. After he missed three games with a hand injury early in the season, he spent the rest of the year as the team's No. 3 receiver behind rookie Kenny Stills -- playing less than 50 percent of the snaps when he was in the lineup.

As a result, Moore finished with just 37 catches for 457 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season, plus another four catches for 51 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs.

I felt as though he was underutilized by the Saints last year, especially when their passing offense was stagnant late in the season. But if the Saints projected him in the same role, then it absolutely made sense for them to release him rather than paying him $3.8 million in salary and bonuses.

The Saints will go into this year with veteran Marques Colston and Stills as their top two receivers. And, of course, they have top receiving targets in tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles.

After that, they now have a ton of question marks in their receiving corps: unrestricted free-agent veteran Robert Meachem, who is getting older as well; restricted free agent Joe Morgan, who is coming off of a major knee injury; and young prospect Nick Toon, who has shown promise but has been inconsistent.

The Saints will undoubtedly have to dip into free agency and/or the draft for more help -- possibly even in the first round of the draft.

But they can and will find new weapons to emerge in a diverse offense that has always been able to spread the wealth under the direction of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees.
METAIRIE, La. -- It makes perfect sense for the New Orleans Saints to be shopping running back Pierre Thomas and receiver Lance Moore as possible trade bait, as ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported. I’m not as keen on the idea of trading running back Darren Sproles -- but I at least understand the logic behind considering all of those options.

The idea of trading any of those players must be more palatable to the Saints than the idea of releasing them outright. They’ve been so valuable to New Orleans’ offense for so many years, and all of them still have value going forward.

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Thomas
But the Saints have to make some tough choices because of their salary-cap situation. And Thomas and Moore, especially, have become part-time players whose salaries no longer match the way they’re being used in New Orleans’ offense. That’s why I’ve repeatedly identified them as possible salary-cap casualties or pay-cut candidates throughout this offseason.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think Thomas and Moore could be worth their salaries ($2.9 million and $3.8 million, respectively) if they were featured in more full-time roles. But that is just not how the Saints opted to use them last season as younger players emerged at their positions.

Thomas, 29, played exactly 50 percent of the Saints’ offensive snaps last year in the regular season -- and that was before backups Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson stepped up and played their best football in the playoffs. The Saints have an embarrassment of riches at a position that they don’t feature that often in their pass-heavy offense.

Moore, 30, was relegated to the Saints’ third receiver role behind rookie Kenny Stills last season after Moore returned from a hand injury in October. That was a head-scratcher to me. I think Moore was underutilized last season compared to his past production. But if that’s the role the Saints project him in again in 2014, I could see why they might consider making a move.

Sproles, 30, also played in only about 33 percent of the Saints’ snaps during the 15 games in which he was active. And his numbers were slightly down from years past (220 rushing yards , 71 receptions for 604 yards, four total touchdowns.) But I still think his skill set as a dynamic runner/receiver is so unique that he would be much tougher to replace.

As to whether other teams will bite, that is even tougher to predict. The free-agent market for running backs this year seems pretty thin, but the market (and the draft class) for receivers seems pretty deep.

The Saints are estimated to be slightly under the salary cap. And they should be able to carve out millions more in space by restructuring some current contracts. So they don’t have to cut anybody before the start of free agency on Tuesday. But they will probably have to release at least one more player or work out one or two pay cuts if they want to fill needs elsewhere on the roster.
METAIRIE, La. -- In one sense, the New Orleans Saints have been through this already in recent years -- needing to trim more than $20 million from their salary cap by the start of the league year March 11. However, this next month will likely be the most emotionally challenging yet in the era of general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton.

It’s entirely possible the Saints could part ways with up to nine of the 13 players remaining from their Super Bowl roster.

Four are unrestricted free agents (safety Malcolm Jenkins, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, offensive tackle Zach Strief and receiver Robert Meachem). Five others could become salary-cap casualties (defensive end Will Smith, cornerback Jabari Greer, safety Roman Harper, receiver Lance Moore and running back Pierre Thomas).

[+] EnlargeWill Smith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWill Smith has been a Saint for 10 years. An 11th season in New Orleans will be possible only if he takes a pay cut.
The four Super Bowl vets who are most likely to stay on the roster are quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans, receiver Marques Colston and punter Thomas Morstead.

It’s not exactly the end of an era. The Saints are still bona fide Super Bowl contenders, led by Payton and Brees, and have done a great job of continually reshaping a talented roster. But it’s awfully close.

Payton made a point to emphasize some of the tough decisions that are looming when he was asked about the pending contract negotiations with free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham on Fox Sports 1 last week.

"The most challenging part of your job as a coach, and I share that with Mickey or anyone that has been with an organization as long as we have been, going on Year 9, is some of the tough decisions that have to be made with regards to your cap with the ability that you possibly can sign Jimmy Graham," Payton said. "It's very easy to say, 'You are certainly going to get this done.' But you have to understand there is a budget here. That's the challenging part.

"You are going to read these names that have already come across the ticker from Atlanta last week [the release of cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas], and we will be no different."

The Saints are currently projected to be around $13 million to $15 million over the salary cap. If they use the franchise tag on Graham, as expected, they’ll need to carve out about $6.5 million more (a figure that will vault closer to $11 million if Graham is later deemed to be a receiver instead of a tight end). Plus, the Saints will want to clear even more space off the books to sign other free agents and send out restricted-free-agent tenders.

Loomis and the Saints’ front office have proved capable of handling similar circumstances in recent years while remaining fairly aggressive in adding free agents from other teams.

In the process, the Saints have had to let some core players go, such as guard Carl Nicks and offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod. They’ve also restructured several contracts and agreed to pay cuts with some longtime veterans. We’ll certainly see a combination of all three again this offseason.

Smith and Harper are the most obvious cap-casualty candidates. Smith, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is due to receive $11.55 million in salary and bonuses, and Harper is due $3.15 million. Both players could conceivably come back -- but only if they agree to drastic pay cuts, probably closer to $1 million.

I hate to add Greer’s name to that list, since I think he’s been possibly the Saints’ most underrated core player since 2009. But Greer is due $4.5 million and is rehabbing from a major knee injury suffered in November. So chances are he’ll have to agree to a pay cut to stay in New Orleans.

The next wave of possibilities includes Moore ($3.8 million), Thomas ($2.9 million) and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley ($4.5 million). Moore and Thomas have been in that same category with Greer over the years -- underrated core players and fan favorites. Thomas, in particular, may have just had his best season to date in 2013. However, all three veterans in this group play part-time roles now, which doesn’t match their lofty salaries.

Then there are the free agents. Again, it’s possible the Saints could bring back longtime starters like Strief and Jenkins -- but only if the price tag is extremely palatable. If any other team wants to outbid the Saints for their services, they probably will let them go. Strief, in particular, could be in high demand elsewhere after one of his strongest seasons. Meachem and Vilma could be back at veteran minimum salaries, but the Saints need to add youth at both positions.

Here’s the full list of Saints scheduled to become free agents next month:

Unrestricted free agent starters: TE Jimmy Graham, RT Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente, S Malcolm Jenkins, OLB Parys Haralson, K Shayne Graham

Unrestricted free-agent reserves: WR Robert Meachem, OT Charles Brown, QB Luke McCown, LB Jonathan Vilma, LB Will Herring, LB Ramon Humber, LB Keyunta Dawson, DE Kenyon Coleman, S Jordan Pugh

Restricted free agents: FB Jed Collins, WR Joe Morgan, S Rafael Bush, DL Tom Johnson
SEATTLE -- There were no surprises on the New Orleans Saints' official injury report Friday. Running back Pierre Thomas (chest) and defensive end Akiem Hicks (ankle) are listed as questionable after participating in Friday’s walk-through practice on a limited basis.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis (head/neck), guard Jahri Evans (ankle) and offensive tackle Terron Armstead (knee) are listed as probable after practicing fully on Friday.

It’s hard to predict whether Thomas and Hicks will play Saturday against the Seattle Seahawks. Thomas returned to practice Thursday on a limited basis for the first time since he suffered an unspecified chest injury in Week 17. Conventional wisdom would suggest the Saints won't rush him back since they have so much depth at the running back position -- and since running backs Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Khiry Robinson performed so well in Thomas' absence last week at Philadelphia. But when healthy, Thomas is a central part of the Saints' offense as a runner, receiver and pass protector.

Hicks was new to the injury report this week after playing at Philadelphia, so the severity of his injury is unknown. He was limited in practice all week. Hicks is a lot like Thomas, in that he has been an underrated part of the Saints' resurgence in the middle of the defense. But the Saints do have some trusted depth at all their line positions if Hicks is out or limited.

All of the guys listed as probable should play. Lewis and Armstead practiced fully all week. Evans was limited Wednesday before practicing fully Thursday and Friday.
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas (chest) and safety Rafael Bush (ankle) were held out of practice with injuries on Wednesday. Everyone else fully participated.

Thomas
Thomas is a new addition to the injury list. The severity of his injury -- or when it occurred -- is unknown. Thomas did not touch the ball in the fourth quarter of New Orleans’ 42-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, but many starters hit the bench late in the game since the score was so lopsided.

It’s always possible that the Saints just wanted to give Thomas an extra day of rest on Wednesday, so his status could become a little clearer on Thursday and Friday.

Thomas would be a significant loss for the Saints. He has been one of their most reliable offensive weapons this year with a team-high 549 rushing yards, a career-high 77 receptions for 513 yards and five combined touchdowns. He also has an impressive history of producing for the Saints in cold-weather games like the one they’re expected to face Saturday night at Philadelphia. Earlier this week, the Chicago native said he loves playing in cold weather.

If Thomas is out or limited, however, the Saints do still have good depth at the running back position with Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, impressive undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet. Ingram has been playing terrific in small doses over the past three weeks with 108 rushing yards on 17 carries (6.4 yards per carry) and 49 receiving yards on four receptions.

Bush, meanwhile, would also be a significant loss for the Saints since they also lost rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro to a season-ending ankle injury last week. But it’s also unclear how severe his injury is. Bush has been dealing with the ankle injury for the past month. He missed three games, but he returned to the lineup last week against Tampa Bay as the Saints’ third safety behind starters Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints (11-5) have accepted their fate as a sixth seed.

But they certainly don’t feel like underdogs heading into the playoffs -- or specifically heading into their opening game at the No. 3 seed Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) on Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Bill HaberDrew Brees and the Saints take on the Eagles in the NFC wild-card game, Saturday at 8:10 p.m. ET.
Especially not the core of 10 Saints veterans who will be making their fourth trip to the playoffs in the past five years.

“No, no. We don’t view it as (being) an underdog. If we was a six seed, if we was a first seed, we’re gonna come at these playoffs the same way,” Saints running back Pierre Thomas said. “Being the sixth seed, I don’t see the experience being anything different than what we’ve really been going through. I feel that everybody’s going to approach this game as a very important game. And I feel like we’re comfortable with our situation that we’re in.

“It’s gonna show what type of team we really are. And we have to come out here and put everything on the line just like we did against Tampa (in Week 17). I said it after the game that Tampa was our first playoff game. And if we play the way we did and stay focused and hit on all cylinders, then we’re gonna be a tough out. So we’re gonna come at this game the same way, with the same attitude, the same drive and the same focus.”

Of course, in the same breath, Thomas mentioned that neither seeding nor past playoff experience matters much. It really boils down to execution.

Offensive tackle Zach Strief made a similar point after Sunday’s 42-17 rout over Tampa Bay.

“We’re a bunch of regular humans,” Strief said. “It’s human nature to say, ‘We won by a bunch, so I feel better about where we’re at.’ And yet, it doesn’t matter. Confidence is important, but it’s not going to win a game. What really matters is that this team gets itself 100 percent ready to go, 100 percent prepared to go and give ourselves an opportunity to win.”

That includes preparing for an opponent that comes with a high degree of difficulty: The Eagles have won six of seven games; they feature the top rusher in the NFL in LeSean McCoy; they run the most unconventional offense in the league under rookie coach Chip Kelly; and while their defense has allowed a lot of yards, they’re tied for third in the league in takeaways.

That also includes preparing to play on the road, where the Saints have struggled this year with a 3-5 record and throughout the history of this Sean Payton-Drew Brees era (going 0-3 in road playoff games since 2006).

Payton continued to playfully sidestep the inevitable questions about the Saints’ road performances on Monday by suggesting that the team will mix up the routine with new Gatorade flavors, pregame meals and apparel on the flight to Philly.

As for on-the-field changes that need to be made, players talked about needing to start faster and avoid the costly turnovers and penalties that have forced them to play behind in so many of their road losses this year.

The Saints’ experience and confidence should indeed help them to overcome some of those factors -- or at least not be consumed by them.

But Payton and players have talked all year about how this year’s team is still developing its own identity. Only 10 current players were around for the 2009 Super Bowl run, and only 20 current players have played in a playoff game with the Saints previously. (Others have playoff experience with other teams).

Seven of the 10 experienced players are on offense -- quarterback Drew Brees, receivers Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Robert Meachem, guard Jahri Evans, Thomas and Strief. The others are safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper and punter Thomas Morstead.

"It's hard to keep rosters together in today's NFL,” Payton said. “I think that we've been fortunate with the help of, No. 1, the durability of a lot of these players. ...There has been a lot of carry over in A) a (offensive) system, a coaching staff and then B) the players that are in it.

“I think we're a young team if you look at our roster, with the amount of rookies that made this team, but we still have that veteran leadership that has been in these types of games. So it's a little bit of a combination of both. Each year your team takes on really a new identity. I think this is a group that's worked extremely hard at improving last year's record.”

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