NFL Nation: Rufus Johnson

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints’ OTA practice on Thursday was open to the media. Here’s my quick take on the observations that stood out most:

[+] EnlargeStanley Jean-Baptiste
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste has impressed the Saints during offseason workouts.
Crowded CB battle: It looks like the competition for jobs behind No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis will be wide open this summer. Last week, we saw Patrick Robinson working with the first-string defense. Today, both Champ Bailey and Corey White were out there with the 1s while they spent most of team drills in nickel defense. Rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste also rotated in with the first-stringers at times, while Robinson worked with the second string.

Jean-Baptiste looked pretty good out there, including a play when he stuck with speedy, small receiver Charles Hawkins deep down the field, forcing Drew Brees to throw incomplete. Jean-Baptiste will need time to develop this summer, but he hasn’t looked too raw or lost out there at all. Defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff spoke highly of his progress after practice.

Toon looks solid: Third-year receiver Nick Toon had a nice practice, including one catch he had to reach up and pluck out of the air. As I’ve written since the middle of last season, I still think the Saints are high on Toon’s potential, even though he struggled during his brief opportunity for playing time last year while filling in for injured veterans.

Coach Sean Payton stressed Thursday that the Saints still have high expectations for Toon, and he could have an opportunity to play a significant role this year.

A lot of fans seem eager for the Saints to move on from Toon and maybe replace him with undrafted rookie big man Brandon Coleman. But so far Coleman looks like he may need some time to develop. He dropped a pass Thursday, though it’s obviously an extremely small sample size so far.

Lots of Cadet: It felt like Travaris Cadet was getting the lion’s share of the workload among the Saints’ running backs Thursday, both when the Saints were doing run plays and passing plays. He stood out even more than usual since the Saints aren’t doing any live tackling in practice at this stage of the offseason, but he still showed some speed and nifty elusiveness at times.

I think Cadet clearly ranks fourth in the pecking order at running back behind Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. But he could indeed play a much greater role in this offense now that Darren Sproles has been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Goodwin’s return: Veteran center Jonathan Goodwin was back on the field after signing his contract earlier this week. He was working with the second-team offense, while Tim Lelito remained with the first string. But Payton said it will be an open competition for the job this summer.

Goodwin is obviously thrilled to be back in New Orleans, where he played from 2006-10 before leaving for a more lucrative deal with the San Francisco 49ers. Goodwin said he considers New Orleans his second home and that leaving was one of the toughest decisions he’s ever made. He said he even changed his mind twice at the time, telling the 49ers he was coming, then telling them he wasn’t, then switching back.

Other depth chart notes: Quarterback Ryan Griffin worked with the second-string offense throughout practice, but neither he nor Luke McCown stood out much, for better or for worse. The secondary had a nice practice, in general, denying anything from being completed deep. But the practice was mostly filled with run plays and shorter passes.

Second-year outside linebacker Rufus Johnson appeared to be working as a 3-4 defensive end for much of the practice, signaling either a possible position change or a versatile role.

Kenny Stills, Hawkins and running back Derrick Strozier took turns fielding punts, but it was more of a punt-coverage drill than a return drill, so it’s still unclear what the pecking order will be there. Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks is expected to be the No. 1 guy there when he returns to practice later this month. Cooks is not allowed to practice yet since his school, Oregon State, is still in session.

Injuries/roll call: Safety Jairus Byrd was watching from the sideline after having back surgery last week. Payton said he’s still expected to be ready for the start of training camp this summer. Defensive tackles John Jenkins and Tyrunn Walker remain sidelined with an undisclosed ailment. Receiver Joe Morgan was still working off to the side as he rehabs from last year’s knee injury.

Also not participating for undisclosed reasons: Receiver Steve Hull, linebacker Cheta Ozougwu and nose tackle Moses McCray.

And as expected, tight end Jimmy Graham was not present since he is still unsigned.
Most significant move: The fact the Saints didn’t release or put Jonathan Vilma on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list is a very strong sign that the veteran linebacker is expected to be healthy early in the season. That’s very significant. Vilma may be nearing the end of his career, but he still is the emotional leader of this defense and his mere presence makes this unit stronger.

Going in a different direction: Courtney Roby had been a fixture on special teams since his arrival in 2008. But the Saints have some younger, more athletic guys, like Rafael Bush, they want to get involved on special teams. Roby’s value also was hurt by the fact he brought little as a wide receiver. The team elected to keep Andy Tanner over Roby because Tanner has some upside as a receiver.

What’s next: After losing outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler to injuries, the Saints could look at the waiver wire to add some more help for the pass rush.

Saints moves: Released WR Courtney Roby, DE Jay Richardson, CB Chris Carr, S Jim Leonhard. Waived QB Ryan Griffin, WR Preston Parker, FB Austin Johnson, WR, Saalim Hakim, G Elliott Mealer, TE Keavon Milton, TE Michael Higgins, G Andrew Tiller, C Jeremiah Warren, LB Ray Shipman, LB Rufus Johnson, DT Isaako Aaitui, S Jerico Nelson, LB Baraka Atkins, T Marcel Jones, CB Korey Lindsey and CB Jumal Rolle. Placed C Eric Olsen on injured reserve.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The major question facing each team in the NFC South as summer break looms.

Atlanta Falcons. Is the pass rush good enough? The Falcons replaced John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora. That might end up being something close to an even trade. But, just like when the Falcons had Abraham, you have to wonder who else might be able to generate a pass rush. Kroy Biermann is versatile and could bring some pressure from either defensive end or outside linebacker. But the Falcons really need one of their young defensive ends to step up. Second-year pro Jonathan Massaquoi appears to be the leading candidate for that.

Carolina Panthers. Who will be the starters in the defensive backfield? Aside from Charles Godfrey at one safety spot, that question remains wide open. The Panthers don’t have a clear starter at the other safety spot or at either cornerback spot. Veteran Mike Mitchell is one option at safety, but the team has been very impressed by rookie Robert Lester. The cornerback situation is even less clear. Captain Munnerlyn is a lock to be among the top three corners, but Drayton Florence, Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and D.J. Campbell appear to be competing for the other spots. The winners will have to distinguish themselves in training camp and the preseason.

New Orleans Saints. Where’s the pass rush going to come from? Just when it seemed like we were getting some clarity on this, it’s become a bigger question than ever before. Outside linebacker Victor Butler, who had a strong minicamp and played for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Dallas, went down with a torn ACL this week. The Saints firmly believed Butler was going to be a force. Now, they have to look at alternatives. Martez Wilson, Junior Galette and rookie Rufus Johnson all have some potential. But none of them are a sure thing. The Saints could end up bringing in a veteran that’s released somewhere else in the preseason if they don’t like what they’re seeing from the young linebackers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Are they really set at tight end? All indications are the Bucs are planning on going with Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree as their top two tight ends. That sounds a little dicey because Stocker hasn’t distinguished himself to this point of his career and Crabtree was used sparingly in Green Bay. But the Bucs appear to believe Stocker might be ready to elevate his game and they seem to think Crabtree has upside as a pass-catcher. It still is possible the Bucs could bring in a tight end, but that position doesn’t appear to be all that important in their passing game.
There’s some devastating news Wednesday involving the New Orleans Saints.

It turns out that outside linebacker Victor Butler reportedly has a torn ACL and likely will spend the season on injured reserve. Butler suffered the injury in a Tuesday workout when he banged knees with running back Mark Ingram.

That’s a huge blow because the Saints were counting on Butler to be a cornerstone as they try to recover from having the league’s worst defense last season. Butler had been handpicked by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan when he signed as a free agent in March. Butler and Ryan worked together in Dallas last season, and the Saints had big plans for him.

With Butler out, the Saints will have to juggle things at linebacker. Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Vilma are set as the inside linebackers and Will Smith seems the likely starter at the “Jack’’ linebacker spot.

Martez Wilson, Junior Galette and rookie Rufus Johnson now become the candidates to take Butler’s spot. All three of those guys have some potential, but they don’t have the same familiarity with Ryan’s defense as Butler did.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A first-year player who has turned heads in OTAs/minicamps:

Atlanta Falcons: Second-round pick Robert Alford has made a very positive impression in the OTAs and could be putting himself in position to challenge for a starting cornerback spot. First-round pick Desmond Trufant isn’t allowed to take part in OTAs until his University of Washington class graduates, and veteran Asante Samuel hasn’t been around for all of the voluntary sessions. That has allowed Alford to get plenty of first-team reps, and he’s made the most of them. He’s held his own against receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, and the coaching staff has been very impressed with his speed and quickness.

Carolina Panthers: Every time coach Ron Rivera is asked about young guys who are making a good impression, he mentions safety Robert Lester and cornerback Melvin White, who were signed as undrafted free agents. Lester is the one I think is worth keeping a close eye on. Though he wasn’t drafted, Lester has some pedigree. He played on two national championship teams at Alabama and was an important part of the defense. Charles Godfrey is the only sure thing the Panthers have at safety. Lester has a chance to compete with D.J. Campbell and Mike Mitchell.

New Orleans Saints: Outside linebacker Rufus Johnson stood out during this week’s minicamp. He’s the product of a small school (Tarleton State), but he certainly looks like he has the tools to play in the NFL. He has a nice combination of size and quickness and has been working at the “Jack" linebacker spot behind Will Smith and Martez Wilson. Smith is nearing the end of his career, and Wilson is unproven. Johnson appears to have the potential to develop into a strong pass-rusher and could take on a bigger role in the future.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: While Darrelle Revis works with the trainers on the sideline to rehabilitate his knee, rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks has been getting a fair amount of first-team work. Banks hasn’t been flawless. But at times he’s held his own against starting receiver Mike Williams, and that is an encouraging sign. At 6-foot-2, Banks has the size to match up with the division’s bigger receivers like Marques Colston, White and Brandon LaFell. If Banks can continue to impress, there’s a good chance he’ll end up starting opposite Revis, and Eric Wright will slide inside to play the nickel position.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints just finished the first practice session of their minicamp.

Let’s take a quick run through some notes, highlights and observations:
  • Cornerback Keenan Lewis was not at practice. Coach Sean Payton said Lewis was “held out’’, but did not elaborate on the reason,
  • Jason Smith, who is competing for the starting left tackle spot, limped off the field about halfway through practice and was taken to the locker room.
  • Most of the talk about the safeties has centered on veterans Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, and rookie Kenny Vaccaro. Harper and Jenkins worked with the first team Tuesday, and Vaccaro worked with the second team. But the one safety I saw make several big plays was backup Isa Abdul-Quddus.
  • Payton has said second-year running back Travaris Cadet has some similarities to Darren Sproles. But Cadet will have to come up with some big plays to make Payton and the coaches forget about what happened on a short pass about halfway through practice. The perfectly-thrown pass went right through Cadet’s hands and was intercepted by Corey White.
  • There clearly is a competition for the backup quarterback spot between Luke McCown and Seneca Wallace. I thought Wallace had the better performance Tuesday morning. I also think the Saints might be wise to keep Wallace. His mobility could be used on the scout team to help the defense get ready for the likes of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.
  • Wide receiver Jarred Fayson was the first name Payton mentioned when asked which young players stood out to him. Fayson had several nice catches. Fayson and cornerback Rod Sweeting had a brief shoving match after they collided at the end of one of Fayson’s catches.
  • Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said he was impressed by the performance of rookie linebacker Rufus Johnson. He’s working behind Will Smith and Junior Galette at “Jack’’ linebacker. I saw Johnson swat down a pass, and he looks like he has some quickness.
  • Running back Mark Ingram hasn’t been much of a threat as a pass-catcher. But the Saints seemed to be throwing to him a fair amount Tuesday. I think that might be a sign of things to come.
  • I’ll have much more on Ryan and the defense in my Thursday column. But, for now, let’s just say I was impressed with how many different defensive packages the Saints put on the field Tuesday morning.
The New Orleans Saints aren’t wasting any time in getting their rookies signed.

The team announced Thursday it has signed four of its five draft picks, including first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro. Offensive tackle Terron Armstead, receiver Kenny Stills and linebacker Rufus Johnson also have signed.

Defensive tackle John Jenkins, a third-round pick, is the only remaining unsigned rookie. But getting him in the fold shouldn’t be a major problem.

The entire NFL appears to be adjusting to the format of the labor agreement reached in 2011, which imposes a strict rookie wage scale. Jenkins can only sign for what remains in the rookie pool.
The sixth round is over, except for the compensatory picks that don't involve any NFC South teams, but not without a little wheeling and dealing. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a pair of trades while the round was going on.

The one of note was that they finally traded running back LeGarrette Blount, who never was a favorite of coach Greg Schiano. The Bucs shipped Blount to New England for running back Jeff Demps, a former track star who the Bucs had tried to sign last year. The Bucs also got a seventh-round pick (No. 220) in the deal. Let's take a look at what the NFC South teams did in the sixth round.

At No. 182, the Carolina Panthers took Oregon running back Kenjon Barner. The Panthers are loaded at running back. This move was about special teams. Barner has ability as a return man, an area the Panthers want to upgrade.

At No. 183, the New Orleans Saints took Tarleton State defensive end Rufus Johnson. He’s a project from a small school, but has plenty of upside.

At No. 189, with a pick acquired from Minnesota, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took Miami running back Mike James. He’ll get a chance to compete for Blount’s former role as Doug Martin's backup.

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