NFL Nation: Robert Meachem

Most significant move: Releasing cornerback Champ Bailey was the New Orleans Saints' biggest bombshell. But it ultimately shouldn't come as a shock. Bailey wasn't able to beat out fellow veteran Patrick Robinson for the No. 2 cornerback job. And for Bailey, it was probably a “starting job or bust” situation since he doesn't play special teams, and since the Saints are happy with their nickel/dime guys in safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Corey White. ... The big question mark is whether Robinson is the right choice. He had a nice camp at times, and the speedy athlete has shown as much big-play ability as anyone in the Saints' secondary during his turbulent five-year career. But Robinson has also battled injuries and inconsistency. If he can provide stability, New Orleans' secondary should he a huge strength.

Super loss: By cutting receiver Robert Meachem, the Saints now have only seven players remaining from their 2009 Super Bowl roster. They also parted ways with longtime veterans Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer and Roman Harper this year. But the writing was on the wall for Meachem when younger receiver Joe Morgan came back so strong from a knee injury. The two of them have a similar skill set as standout blockers and deep threats. I expect Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks and Joe Morgan to be the Saints' four active receivers when everyone is healthy. And while Stills nurses a quad injury that could keep him out in Week 1, the Saints still have promising young receiver Nick Toon available.

What's next: The Saints still have one glaring need since they went with "none of the above" in their kicker competition. Neither Shayne Graham nor Derek Dimke was consistent enough to lock down the job. I'm perfectly fine with that, especially when you consider the experienced veterans who are now available (Ryan Succop, Alex Henery, Connor Barth, Jay Feely, Rob Bironas, plus a number of young guys who had solid camps elsewhere). The question, however, is whether the Saints can develop trust in a new guy quickly enough. The Saints have had an itchy trigger finger regarding kickers over the years. So what happens if the guy they choose misses once or twice in September? ... To make room for the next kicker, the Saints will likely place either fullback Erik Lorig or linebacker Khairi Fortt on injured reserve -- possibly with a designation to return.

Saints moves: Terminated contracts of CB Champ Bailey, OLB Keyunta Dawson, K Shayne Graham, FB Greg Jones, WR Robert Meachem, OT Thomas Welch. Waived C Matt Armstrong, CB Derrius Brooks, WR Brandon Coleman, ILB Todd Davis, K Derek Dimke, CB Terrence Frederick, WR Charles Hawkins, TE Nic Jacobs, G Marcel Jones, WR Seantavious Jones, OT Tavon Rooks, RB Derrick Strozier, NT Lawrence Virgil, CB Trevin Wade, S Pierre Warren, T/G Jason Weaver.

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints missed their chance to finish undefeated in the preseason for the first time in franchise history, losing 22-13 to the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Obviously that doesn’t matter a lick, considering quarterback Drew Brees and about a dozen other starters sat out the final exhibition game.

So what did matter? I can’t say that any jobs were obviously won or lost on Thursday night. But here are the clues that stood out most:
  • I still have no idea who’s going to win the kicking job. Derek Dimke got all of the work Thursday, including kickoffs. However, he missed a 54-yard attempt wide right that might have helped him lock down the job. Fortunately, a roughing penalty was called, giving him a second chance at a 49-yard attempt, which he made. … That’s kind of how it has been for both Dimke and veteran Shayne Graham all summer -- mostly good, some bad, nothing definitive.
  • Luke McCown sure looks like the front-runner for the backup quarterback job. He started again (McCown played ahead of Ryan Griffin in all four exhibition games) and led the Saints to a touchdown on the opening drive, going 4-for-4 for 29 yards, including a 3-yard TD strike to Travaris Cadet. Griffin played the rest of the game after that first drive, but he was pretty ordinary, finishing 11-of-21 for 126 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
  • Receiver Joe Morgan has been getting better every week and might have moved ahead of both Nick Toon and Robert Meachem as the fourth receiver. Morgan started and caught four passes for 33 yards (one of them a great catch down the field). I would say Meachem’s job appears to be in jeopardy, as he has fallen behind those other guys in the playing-time pecking order. But sure enough, Meachem made a fantastic 52-yard catch Thursday to help remind the Saints why they’ve always liked him so much.
  • I’m almost positive Jonathan Goodwin has won the starting center job over Tim Lelito, as Goodwin got the night off, along with many other veteran starters.
  • If anyone could have possibly lost a starting job Thursday, it might be cornerback Patrick Robinson. The Ravens picked on him quite a bit, chipping away with several mid-range gains. Baltimore virtually ignored fellow veteran Champ Bailey on the other side of the field. I think that battle will remain fluid, but it’s possible Bailey could inspire more confidence heading into Week 1.
  • Of the undrafted rookies vying for roster spots, outside linebacker Kasim Edebali continued to look the part. He started in place of Junior Galette and was in on at least three of the starting special-teams units. Edebali didn’t have any dramatic highs or lows, but it’s obvious the Saints are giving him a serious look. … Meanwhile, safety Pierre Warren made two great plays with an open-field run stop and a leaping interception on an overthrown deep ball. But he wasn’t as involved on special teams, so he’s a slightly longer shot to crack the roster. … Cornerback Brian Dixon had a nice pass break-up and tight end Nic Jacobs was in with the starters at times. But they’re also long shots.

Saints Camp Report: Day 5

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

Saints Camp Report: Day 3

July, 27, 2014
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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints held their first padded practice -- which always has a bit of that Christmas-morning feel for the linemen. Not surprisingly, no one was more exuberant than linebacker Junior Galette, who made several big plays. The first came just two plays into the first 9-on-7 contact drill, when Galette blew up a run play then trash-talked fullback Erik Lorig by yelling, "Block me!" Right tackle Zach Strief then gave Galette a shove as they walked back to the line. But that was the only time any real feistiness broke out.
  • Sunday also marked the debut of my favorite individual drill in camp -- 1-on-1 pass-rush. The drill is designed to favor pass-rushers, so it's often a "win" for the blockers just to hold their man at bay. The guys who stood out most to me were Strief (for holding strong against Cameron Jordan), end Akiem Hicks (for his raw power), linebacker Keyunta Dawson (who beat tackle Bryce Harris twice) and end Glenn Foster. But obviously that's a small sample size. … The battles between Strief-Jordan, Jahri Evans-Hicks and Terron Armstead-Galette were all pretty even.
  • The "old" guys stood out Sunday in a number of the most competitive roster battles: I wrote earlier about how cornerback Champ Bailey made the play of the day. … Quarterback Luke McCown outshined Ryan Griffin. That battle is still wide open, but it was worth pointing out since Griffin has gotten more attention so far. … Kickers Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke both made all their field-goal attempts, but coach Sean Payton gave Graham a vote of confidence by saying he'll be "tough to beat out." … Payton also singled out an intecerption made by backup linebacker Ramon Humber in 7-on-7 drills as "exceptional." … And center Jonathan Goodwin got his first snaps with the first team ahead of Tim Lelito this camp. Then Lelito and McCown fumbled an exchange during team drills.
  • Payton was right. The Saints don't get bad weather. They had beautiful conditions for most of Sunday's practice, squeezing it in before a downpour started. Everyone got drenched, however, during post-practice interviews.
  • Receiver Robert Meachem missed practice after his back locked up Sunday morning, but he shouldn't be out long. Meachem tweeted that he went to the hospital to get checked out but hopes to be back on the field soon. Jairus Byrd, John Jenkins, Kenny Stills and Tavon Rooks remained sidelined. And guard Ben Grubbs sat out for part of practice, but he's been getting a lot of scheduled rest throughout the summer.
Bringing back veteran Robert Meachem makes a lot of sense for the New Orleans Saints. They were thin on veteran receivers. And Meachem is still a good fit in his specific role -- as a standout blocker and effective deep threat on play-action passes.

Meachem
Meachem
The Saints now have solid depth at the position, with Meachem, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan and Andy Tanner among the candidates for backup roles behind starters Marques Colston and Kenny Stills.

However, the Saints should absolutely still draft a receiver this year. And I think they will. Maybe even in Round 1 if the draft grades line up.

Draft analysts universally agree that this year’s rookie class is loaded with receiver talent. I’ve seen at least nine different receivers mentioned as possible first-round picks, including fast-rising Indiana prospect Cody Latimer, whom ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper paired with the Saints in his latest mock draft Insider.

More than a dozen intriguing receiver options will be available beyond the first round.

The Saints could use a dynamic receiving threat immediately to help them stretch the field. More important, they need to start developing a future No. 1 or No. 2 guy with Colston now in his 30s.
The New Orleans Saints have 13 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on March 11, plus the three players they released earlier this month. Here’s a breakdown on receiver Robert Meachem:

Meachem
Meachem
Position: backup WR
Age: 29
Height: 6-2
Weight: 215

Scouting report: After a disappointing stint with the San Diego Chargers, Meachem was back at home last season as a situational player in the Saints’ offense. The Saints love using Meachem in their heavy run formations, because he’s a very good blocker (his most underrated strength) and because he’s a dangerous deep threat on play-action fakes.

Meachem caught just 16 passes in the regular season last year, but he racked up 324 yards and two touchdowns. His average of 20.3 yards per catch would have led the NFL if he had enough receptions to qualify. He then caught another three passes for 109 yards in the playoffs.

Meachem thrived as a rotational player during his first stint with the Saints from 2007-2011 after being drafted in the first round out of Tennessee. He scored 25 touchdowns during that stretch, with his best years coming from 2009-2011. However, he flamed out when the Chargers signed him to a big-money deal in 2012 to become more of an every-down receiver.

The Chargers released Meachem after the preseason last year, and the Saints quickly snatched him up during Week 1 of the regular season.

Projection: I could definitely see Meachem returning in a similar role this year. The Saints obviously showed how much they value him last year when they re-signed him so quickly. And they reportedly have shown interest in bringing him back again this year.

However, it will be interesting to see what happens if fellow deep threat/blocking specialist Joe Morgan returns at a high level after missing all of last season with a knee injury. The Saints might also look to add a dynamic young deep threat in the draft.

Saints, Strief show mutual interest

February, 24, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints had some early discussions with free agent Zach Strief's agent, Ralph Cindrich, during the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. But the key word is "early."

"There is a mutual interest to get something done on both sides, and we had a good meeting and discussions," Cindrich said.

It's still too early to predict whether Strief will remain with the Saints. But I think it's a good sign that they've had some early discussions. I got the impression in previous years that the Saints were resigned to letting linemen like Carl Nicks and Jermon Bushrod get away -- without really having any substantial talks with them before the start of free agency.

As I've written before, I think the Saints will definitely be interested in keeping Strief, who arguably just had his best season in his third year as the team's starter at right tackle. However, money will be a big issue since the Saints are slammed tight against the salary cap. It's possible another team would be willing to pay more for the steady 30-year-old on the open market.

I feel the same way about center Brian de la Puente and safety Malcolm Jenkins -- two of the Saints' other full-time starters who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents on March 11. I could see one or both of them coming back, but only at the right price.

The Advocate's Ramon Antonio Vargas also reported over the weekend that the Saints have had preliminary discussions about possibly re-signing backup receiver Robert Meachem. That would also make sense, as long as Meachem's deal is cap-friendly.
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

Halftime report: Jets 20, Saints 14

November, 3, 2013
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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.

Reclaimed: Saints score with Meachem

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
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METAIRIE, La. -- One team's trash is another team's treasure. Especially when another team throws away one of your old favorite toys.

The New Orleans Saints didn't waste a moment in snatching up wide receiver Robert Meachem after he was released by the San Diego Chargers in Week 1 -- bringing him back to where he started his career as a big-play threat from 2007-2011. And they haven't wasted much time getting Meachem back involved in their offense. He caught a 27-yard touchdown pass Sunday on the Saints' opening drive in their 31-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeRobert Meachem
AP Photo/Bill HaberThe Saints have quickly worked Robert Meachem back into their game plan.
“As I said earlier when we were able to sign Robert, he's running well, and we feel like we've got a pretty good handle on the things he does well,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday. “And it's good to have him back.”

It's a little surprising that the Saints have incorporated Meachem back into their offense so quickly. But clearly they valued the speed dimension he brought to their offense for so many years. So they inserted him back into the lineup in Week 2 ahead of second-year pro Nick Toon, who has been inactive the past two weeks.

Although reports out of San Diego this summer suggested that the Chargers felt like Meachem had lost a step, the Saints clearly didn't feel the same way when they looked at Meachem on film and brought him in for a workout.

“Not at all,” Payton said. “We felt like once he got comfortable with the system, his speed was something that we felt was a big plus. And then his size, he's a good blocker and someone who can make a play above his head.”

As Brees pointed out after Sunday's game, Payton even foreshadowed Meachem's touchdown on Saturday night by telling Meachem he was overdue to return to the end zone in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Payton recalled saying something like, “It's been a while since you found this end zone, so this would be a good game for you to get reacquainted with it.”

And sure enough, on the Saints' seventh offensive snap of the game, Meachem got behind Arizona cornerback Jerraud Powers while the Saints flooded the right side of the field with Meachem, tight end Jimmy Graham and tailback Darren Sproles.

“The touchdown catch was great,” Meachem said after the game. “The only problem was that I thought Jimmy was supposed to jump and take it. He said the same thing. If he would have jumped, then he would have had three touchdowns.”

“It felt so good to score,” added Meachem, who has clearly been relieved since leaving a situation that never panned out in San Diego. “I was kind of mad at myself because I had a ritual when I was here. I used to toss the ball underhand to the fans. (But) I really should have kept that ball. That ball meant a lot to me, but some fan got it.”

Meachem, who has now caught 25 touchdown passes as a Saint, including the postseason, isn't likely to take on a huge role in the Saints' offense this season behind other options like Graham, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Sproles and emerging rookie Kenny Stills. He has just two catches for 34 yards this season -- both coming on Sunday. But he's clearly a part of the mix again.

Moore's status: The Saints won't have an update on Moore's status until Thursday this week, when they practice for the first time leading up to Monday night's game against the Miami Dolphins. Moore left Sunday's game early with the training staff (after they reportedly checked out his wrist on the sideline). But the Saints haven't offered any updates.

Locker Room Buzz: New Orleans Saints

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
6:12
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NEW ORLEANS -- Observed in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 31-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

Welcome, Vaccaro: As expected, rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro's teammates tried to keep him humble after his first career interception in the fourth quarter. “Everybody said I’ve got to work on my return skills,” said Vaccaro, though he did manage to gain 29 yards on the runback. “I’m just glad I got the first one out of the way. So the next one I can get fancy with it, maybe.”

Second-year cornerback Corey White did mob Vaccaro on the field to celebrate his accomplishment, but that was news to Vaccaro after the game. “Is that who that was?” Vaccaro said. “I was like, ''Who is on top of me?’ I thought it was an Arizona guy congratulating me [since] he tackled me.”

Meachem
Meachem
Welcome back, Meachem: Receiver Robert Meachem's 27-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter wasn’t really anything new, since it was his 25th career TD catch as a Saint, including the playoffs. But Meachem admitted it was a terrific feeling for him. He had a tough 18-month stretch after leaving as a free agent last year to sign with the San Diego Chargers, where he struggled and was eventually cut this summer. And he said he’s felt like he’s “home” since re-signing with the Saints in Week 1.

Quarterback Drew Brees said coach Sean Payton actually foreshadowed Meachem’s touchdown on Saturday night when they were reviewing the game plan one last time. “Obviously there were a couple of shot plays in the game plan for Meachem,” Brees said. “And [Payton] said, ‘Hey, Meachem, when’s the last time you scored a touchdown? We’ve got to break the seal and get you back in the end zone.’ And sure enough, it happened on the first drive.”

Tough to watch: All-Pro guard Jahri Evans had to watch Sunday’s game from the sideline -- for the first time in his eight-year career. Evans was active, but only as an emergency option. He did not play because of a hamstring injury, ending his streak of 114 consecutive starts (which was tied for the third longest in the NFL). Evans said he’s hoping to return to the field as soon as next Monday night against the Miami Dolphins.

“It was good while it lasted,” Evans said of the streak. “But a win is more important. And playing as many games as I can in a season and over a career is more important. The question is, ‘Do I miss one or do I miss four?’”

Positive spin: Nobody was too down about the Saints’ run-game troubles against the Cardinals. In fact, there was some optimism about the way they finished the game with 76 rushing yards in the fourth quarter when they were trying to run out the clock. The Saints had a total of minus-6 rushing yards on four carries in the second half. But Payton said he’s not concerned. The Saints coach said that was a conscious choice to adjust to the heavy fronts they were seeing from the Cardinals.

Nevertheless, the Saints had five rushes that went for negative yardage Sunday (not including kneel-downs). And primary tailback Pierre Thomas gained just 17 yards on his first 10 carries. So the run game clearly remains a work in progress.

No Ingram: Saints tailback Mark Ingram, who was inactive Sunday with a toe injury, was not available in the locker room to address a pregame report that he may seek a trade in the coming weeks.
Steven Jackson, Mark IngramGetty ImagesSteven Jackson and Mark Ingram will try to bring more balance to two pass-heavy offenses.
Sean Payton is back to right the wrongs of last season, when his New Orleans Saints went off the rails in his absence. The first test of the season is a fitting one: The Saints open against their hated NFC South rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, who ran away with the division last season even though they split with New Orleans.

Have Payton and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan fixed that horrid defense of a year ago? Will the Saints have much of a running game? Can the Falcons protect their franchise quarterback and give him time to find his myriad weapons?

ESPN.com NFL columnist Ashley Fox and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas discuss what Saints and Falcons fans can expect from the latest installment of this heated rivalry.

Fox: He’s back. It is redemption time for Payton after missing a year because of the bounty scandal. I’m sure, given how beloved Payton is in New Orleans, that the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be so loud it might lift off. I’ve seen different estimates for Payton’s worth. How many wins do you think he’s worth to the Saints?

Yasinskas: I think Payton's presence instantly takes the Saints from a nonplayoff team to a playoff team. His skills as an offensive guru are well known, and that certainly will help. But I think the more subtle benefit to having Payton back is his skill as a motivator. He's a master in that area, and he'll have his team ready for big games. Speaking of changes that came in the offseason, what do you think was the biggest move for the Falcons?

Fox: To me, the biggest change was the addition of Steven Jackson. As you well know, the Falcons struggled to run the ball late last season, when Michael Turner clearly had nothing left in the tank. I know Jackson has hit the age when running backs typically decline, but the Falcons don't need him to carry the load. They're going to pass to get a lead and run to win the game. As long as he can stay healthy, Jackson should be able to do that. How effective do you think the Saints' running game will be?

Yasinskas: That's a very timely question. Several times this offseason, Payton has said he wants more out of his running game. The Saints always are going to be a pass-first team. But if you look back at their Super Bowl year, their running game ranked in the top 10. Payton wants to get back to that, and I believe he has the tools to do that with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram. I think you'll see more of Ingram this year. He's a guy who needs 10 to 15 carries to get going, and he can bring more balance to the offense. Speaking of balance, the Falcons seem to have plenty of that. How potent is their offense going to be?

Fox: I think they have a chance to be as potent, if not more so, than last season. The newly signed Matt Ryan has all of his toys back -- Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez. He threw for more than 4,700 yards last season and set career highs for completion percentage, attempts and completions. He could break those again this season. It will be interesting to see if the preseason, when the Falcons were flagged for countless penalties, was an aberration. They were the least penalized team in NFL history last season. As far as setting NFL records, the Saints' defense did last season and not in a good way. Do you think it is going to be any better this season under Ryan?

Yasinskas: It's hard to imagine the New Orleans defense being any worse than it was a year ago. Things just never worked for former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. I think there will be improvement with Ryan, but I'm not sure how significant it will be. The Saints are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, and I'm not sure they have all the personnel they need to be successful. Time will tell, but it's more than fair to say the defense is the biggest question mark for the Saints. Speaking of question marks, do the Falcons have any glaring weaknesses?

Fox: It is the offensive line. If Ryan is worth his salt as a defensive coordinator, he will strike the right side of the Falcons' line. That’s where the potential problems are. After 13 seasons and 194 starts, center Todd McClure retired after last season. Peter Konz, who started nine games as a rookie at right guard, slides back to his natural position at center. Left guard Justin Blaylock and left tackle Sam Baker are veteran rocks. That’s not the problem. The Falcons let right tackle Tyson Clabo walk in free agency. His replacement, Mike Johnson, broke his leg during training camp. Johnson's replacement, Lamar Holmes, was bad enough in the preseason that the Falcons signed Jeremy Trueblood earlier this week. Right guard Garrett Reynolds missed the second half of last season with an injury. How do you think Ryan will try to exploit the weakness?

Yasinskas: I agree with what you said about Atlanta's offensive line. It potentially could be a huge problem, and I'm sure Ryan is well aware of that. I'd look for him to try to exploit the right side of the line as much as possible. But the Saints have had their share of injuries on defense, and it still isn't clear how they'll apply pressure. Defensive end Cameron Jordan really is the only proven commodity as a pass-rusher. The Saints have big hopes for outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, and those guys need to become forces in a hurry. Atlanta has so many offensive weapons that the Saints need to get some pressure on the quarterback. Speaking of Atlanta's offensive weapons, is White completely healthy?

Fox: The Falcons better hope so. And they say he is, more or less. White sprained an ankle in the second preseason game but finally returned to practice this week. He is Mr. Reliable, having started 128 straight games, and had only two drops last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald had fewer among receivers who were targeted at least 100 times. So the Falcons need White to be healthy and productive. What’s up with the Saints’ third receiver situation?

Yasinskas: The Saints just brought back Robert Meachem, who didn't work out as a free agent in San Diego. I think Meachem can get back to being an impact player as a third or fourth receiver in time. But I think the Saints will open the season with rookie Kenny Stills as their third receiver. He has big-time speed, and the Saints need a downfield weapon to go along with Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Stills is an under-the-radar player who could have a big impact on this game. Do you see any Falcons who fall into that same category?

Fox: There are two undrafted rookie free agents on defense who won’t start but should see plenty of action. One is Joplo Bartu, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker out of Texas State. The other is Paul Worrilow, a 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker out of Delaware. Both are unheralded guys who are big and strong and really caught the coaches a little by surprise. Remember those two. OK, so give me a prediction. Who wins?

Reports: Jonathan Vilma headed to IR

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
5:26
PM ET
The news that wide receiver Robert Meachem is returning to the New Orleans Saints could have a downside to it.

To make room for Meachem on the roster, the Saints reportedly are placing linebacker Jonathan Vilma on injured reserve and designating him to return. Vilma will be eligible to return after six weeks.

Vilma had knee surgery in August and has been bothered by knee problems in recent seasons. David Hawthorne is expected to take Vilma’s place at inside linebacker.
Most significant moves: This is a thin roster, so there weren’t a ton of standout cuts here. But there were two veteran names of note to get the axe in the first year of the Tom Telesco-Mike McCoy era in San Diego. Tackle Max Starks and receiver Robert Meachem were cut. Neither were very good this summer. Starks was signed to be the left tackle. But he was beaten out by King Dunlap and then by young Mike Harris to be the swing tackle. Meachem, signed in 2012 by the previous regime to be the No. 1 receiver, was a disaster. The team is thin at receiver and Meachem is guaranteed to make $5 million this season. Still, the Chargers decided to move away from him. Other cuts of note were center David Molk and pass-rusher Thomas Keiser. Both were expected to have roles going into camp.

Going young: This is a team that is rebuilding and the 53-man roster shows it. All six draft picks (cornerback Steve Williams is on the injured reserve) made the team and three undrafted free agents -- safety Jahleel Addae, nose tackle Kwame Geathers and defensive end Brandon Moore -- made the 53-man roster. U-T San Diego reports it’s the first time since 2007 that every draft pick made the team and the first time in 10 years that three undrafted free agents made the roster. Telesco is looking for youth to make an impact. The opportunity is there for these youngsters.

What’s next: This roster is far from set. The Chargers are going to be a work in progress. I expect Telesco will tinker with the bottom of this roster for the next several weeks, maybe even all season. As an executive in Indianapolis, Telesco was known for his eye for talent and for being able to pick up pieces off the street. Thus, this is his time to shine. He has plenty of work to do in San Diego. The Chargers could use depth on the offensive line, at receiver, on the defensive line, at outside linebacker and in the secondary. The team’s special teams was weak in the preseason. That’s a telltale sign of poor depth. So, more players are needed. Among the players San Diego could potentially look at are receivers Lavelle Hawkins, Chris Harper, Russell Shepard, Tavarres King, linemen Ben Ijalana, Fernando Velasco, Jake Scott and Danny Watkins and defensive tackle Drake Nevis.

Players cut: CB Cornelius Brown, OT Nick Becton, DE Frank Beltre, S Sean Cattouse, TE Ben Cotton, CB Marcus Cromartie, LB Phillip Dillard, CB Greg Gatson, CB Logan Harrell, DE Jerrell Harris, RB Michael Hill, CB Josh Johnson, LB Thomas Keiser, WR Robert Meachem, CB William Middleton, LB Dan Molls, WR David Molk, OT Randy Richards, TE David Rolf, G Steve Schilling, OT Max Starks, WR Luke Tasker.

Observation deck: Chargers-49ers

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
1:55
AM ET
Random thoughts from the San Diego Chargers41-6 home loss to San Francisco:

OK, it was ugly. Ugly.

What does it mean? Well, the 49ers’ backups are much, much better than the Chargers'. San Diego doesn’t have much depth, and this was a classic fourth preseason game for Mike McCoy’s team. The starters rested. And the backups were hammered.

The Chargers’ depth on the offensive line was exposed. Left tackle Max Starks, signed to start, might not even make the team. He wasn’t very good. I can see Mike Harris being kept over Starks as the swing tackle.

San Diego's special teams were bad again, giving up a blocked punt (the second of the preseason) that resulted in a touchdown. San Diego’s special teams has been bad all preseason, perhaps a byproduct of a lack of depth. It will be something to monitor early in the season.

Receiver Robert Meachem suffered a possible concussion late in the game. He could be cut or put on injured reserve. Regardless, I don’t see a future for Meachem in San Diego, even though he will make $5 million this season.

Guard Johnnie Troutman, expected to provide depth at guard, suffered an arm injury. He missed all of last season with a shoulder injury.

Rookie quarterback Brad Sorensen wasn’t very good after playing well earlier in the preseason, throwing two interceptions. Still, I think he will be the No. 3 quarterback.

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