NFL Nation: Ryan Griffin


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.

W2W4: New Orleans Saints

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
12:00
PM ET
Two of the NFL’s four undefeated teams in the preseason will square off Thursday when the New Orleans Saints (3-0) host the Baltimore Ravens (3-0) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It will be the final exhibition game for both teams.

1. Griffin still in play? Honestly, I'm not sure if the Saints’ backup quarterback job is still up for grabs. For most of the offseason, I predicted they’d go with second-year pro Ryan Griffin as long as he could prove trustworthy in the role. But the Saints have played veteran Luke McCown ahead of Griffin in every preseason game so far. So maybe they’ve already made up their minds to go with the more proven veteran. … Either way, Griffin will get one last chance to sway them against Baltimore. He’s expected to play most of the game, though coach Sean Payton hasn’t announced who will start. Payton also hasn’t announced whether or not starting quarterback Drew Brees will play.

2. Jobs on the line? There are a handful of starting jobs still up for grabs, including at kicker (Shayne Graham vs. Derek Dimke), center (Jonathan Goodwin vs. Tim Lelito), cornerback (Patrick Robinson vs. Champ Bailey vs. Corey White) and fullback (Austin Johnson vs. Greg Jones). Of that group, I’d bet the only one that can truly be influenced by Thursday night's performances is the kicker battle. It’s close enough that a bad night could doom either guy. As for the others, I’m guessing we’ll see Goodwin, Robinson and Johnson starting in Week 1, though any extreme highs or lows tonight will certainly be taken into account.

3. Room for undrafteds? My latest 53-man roster projection didn’t include any undrafted rookies – which would be rare for the Saints, who wound up with a total of seven on their roster last year. But as I wrote Wednesday, I think outside linebacker Kasim Edebali has a chance after the Saints cut some experienced linebackers this week. Others on the bubble include safety Pierre Warren, tight end Nic Jacobs and cornerback Brian Dixon. A big night from any of them – especially on special teams – could earn a roster spot.
Most significant move: Releasing linebacker Victor Butler was a small surprise, but a huge shame. I was one of many analysts who thought the pass-rush specialist could have a huge impact when he joined the New Orleans Saints last year, following defensive coordinator Rob Ryan from Dallas. Unfortunately, Butler missed all of last season with a torn ACL, then he missed three weeks of training camp this year with an ankle injury. In the meantime, the Saints continued to develop two other breakout pass-rushers in Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. Hopefully Butler can get healthy and get another opportunity somewhere, because he’s an energetic, well-liked guy who showed a ton of promise before the injuries.

One-year wonders: I was equally surprised to see the Saints release second-year linebacker Kevin Reddick, who had been a mainstay on all of their special teams units last season and this preseason. But it goes to show how much depth the Saints have at linebacker. This probably guarantees that guys such as Keyunta Dawson and Kyle Knox will make the team and maybe open up a spot for undrafted rookie Kasim Edebali. ... Cornerback Rod Sweeting also got cut after spending all of last season on the roster as an undrafted rookie. And 2013 sixth-round pick Rufus Johnson Jr. got waived as well -- less surprising after both had fallen behind in the pecking order throughout the summer.

What’s next: Two of the most compelling battles that will be decided by week’s end are at backup quarterback (Luke McCown vs. Ryan Griffin) and kicker (Shayne Graham vs. Derek Dimke). It’s starting to look more and more like McCown will win the backup job. If that happens, the Saints will probably keep three quarterbacks since they like Griffin’s long-term potential. ... I don’t anticipate any more veteran surprises, but you can never rule them out. If I had to make my final roster projection right now, I’d have four guys battling for the last three spots (McCown, Edebali, safety Marcus Ball and defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick).

Saints' cuts: LB Victor Butler, LB Kevin Reddick, DE Rufus Johnson Jr., CB Rod Sweeting, S Ty Zimmerman, DE George Uko, WR Andy Tanner (injured), QB Logan Kilgore, TE Travis Beckum, OT Manase Foketi, OT Ty Nsekhe (injured).

Bring on Week 1.

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

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

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

Depends on when you’re watching. Both players have taken full advantage of their increased opportunities to shine while starter Drew Brees has been sidelined by a strained oblique.

Second-year pro Ryan Griffin seemed to leap ahead during last week’s preseason opener, when he played great after entering the game late in the first quarter at St. Louis.

[+] EnlargeLuke McCown
AP Photo/Bill HaberLuke McCown sizzled for the Saints, tossing two touchdowns in the first half on Friday night.
But then veteran Luke McCown may have looked even better throughout the first half of Friday night’s 31-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans, throwing a pair of TD passes to tight end Jimmy Graham.

But then Griffin came out hot again, connecting on two deep balls to Joe Morgan and TD passes to Mark Ingram and Seantavius Jones. (Griffin should’ve had another deep TD pass to Brandin Cooks that Cooks couldn’t hang on to -- but then again, Griffin also should’ve had an interception that was nullified by penalty).

In other words, these quarterbacks aren’t making the decision easy or obvious for the Saints. It’s one of those things they love to call, “a good problem to have.”

“I thought both Luke and Ryan did a lot of really good things,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I thought they both located the ball well. … I thought there were a lot of positives to coach off of based on … just first impressions.”

I’ve projected Griffin as the likely winner all summer, because I think his long-term potential gives him the tiebreaker. The way I figure it, the Saints have to keep three quarterbacks if McCown wins the backup job since they don’t want to let Griffin go. But if they can trust Griffin as the backup, they only need to keep two.

But I’ve got to admit, McCown made me doubt myself when he came out so sharp on Friday night -- and spoke so confidently after the game.

“Well, that’s our job,” McCown said when asked about the Saints’ crisp opening TD drive, which included four third-down conversions and completions to four different receivers. “I mean, look, I’m as confident as I’ve ever been playing the game. I thought as an offense we were very fluid, very smooth on that first series, communication was great, guys making plays, getting open. And they brought a series of a couple different pressures that we were able to pick up, capitalize on.

“That’s how you want to start every game. And I fully expect to start every series that way. That’s the kind of mentality you have to have.”

McCown, an 11th-year veteran, is pretty much everything you’d look for in a veteran backup QB. He may as well have come out of central casting.

The 6-foot-4, 217-pounder has bounced around with five different teams, starting nine games along the way. He’s got a strong arm, some veteran savvy. He’s great in the locker room. He’s a lot like the veteran journeyman backup who stepped in and became a surprise star for the Chicago Bears last year -- Luke’s brother, Josh McCown.

McCown’s second touchdown pass to Graham was gorgeous, tucked right between a linebacker and the back line of the end zone. His first TD pass came on the move after he escaped pressure. A third-down completion to Cooks earlier on that first drive came just as he was getting clobbered by a rusher. It might have been the best I’ve ever seen McCown look.

And yet, the one word that doesn’t get used often with the 33-year-old McCown is “upside.”

And that’s the first word you keep hearing when it comes to Griffin, who signed with the Saints last year as an undrafted rookie out of Tulane University, across town in New Orleans.

Griffin, 24, continues to show a combination of poise and confidence that belies his lack of experience. The 6-5, 206-pounder showed off his big arm with those pinpoint deep balls to Morgan (52 and 44 yards). And he should’ve cemented a monster night with a 46-yard TD pass to Cooks. But shockingly, Cooks actually failed to deliver for a change after he cruised behind the secondary and dropped a tough-but-catchable ball.

“He already told me, he came up to me, ‘Alright, I owe you one, I got you,’” said Griffin, who said those deep balls were part of the game plan. “I think Coach wanted to take a few shots early on. The first completion was that one to Joe, and he made a great catch. Then come down and throw it to Mark, I think he made a safety miss. So guys were making plays today.”

Griffin said he felt comfortable playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which was also his home stadium when he played at Tulane. But that was about as close as he came to giving himself any credit.

“Some of those passes today that even were completed, I wish I had better ball placement,” Griffin said, according to the New Orleans Advocate. “... I feel like there’s a lot that I’m yet to show. I still have a lot of things I need to work on. It’s a process.”
As long as the training camp injuries are minor enough, teams can always find a silver lining to them. They mean more opportunities for the backups to develop and be evaluated.

That’s been the case with the New Orleans Saints this summer at a few positions -- namely quarterback, guard and safety. With Drew Brees missing the past two weeks with a strained oblique, the Saints have been able to see how backups Ryan Griffin and Luke McCown fit in with the first-string offense against the first-string defense.

[+] EnlargeSenio Kelemete and Marcel Jones
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMarcel Jones, No. 70, and Senio Kelemete have benefited from getting first-team reps in camp.
Likewise, they’ve gotten a long look at backup guards Senio Kelemete and Marcel Jones, who by all accounts have stepped up big-time while starting guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs have been nursing injuries. And young safeties like Vinnie Sunseri, Marcus Ball and Pierre Warren have all taken advantage of increased opportunities while starter Jairus Byrd is recovering from back surgery.

“That can only help us,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said, specifically referring to the situation at guard. “Look, Jahri’s gonna need some reps to get ready and play, and we’ve got time to get him healthy. [In the meantime], I still can’t say ‘Cel or Marcel.’ I’m still calling him Jah. Me and Jah kind of have our own language that we speak, and it’s not in our playbook. And yet it’s hard for me not to speak that language. So I think the cohesiveness between us will be there, and the same on the other side.

“But to get these guys in, give them a chance, you talk about guys that have grown in this camp, Marcel Jones, Senio Kelemete, really tons of growth. I mean, they really have played well and have gotten a lot of good reps against good players.”

Saints coach Sean Payton pointed out that the same thing happened at the receiver position last year when Kenny Stills and Nick Toon got a ton of experience with the first-string offense because of injuries -- something that obviously gave Stills a huge boost in his rookie season.

“You don’t know what position group it is going to be, but it’s somewhat typical of training camp,” Payton said. “And it’s important for the next guy up to know what to do and take advantage of the opportunity.”

The starting units should play a little more in Friday’s second preseason game against the Tennessee Titans -- possibly into the second quarter, or longer at thinner positions. Here’s a look at how the snap counts were divided in the Saints’ preseason opener last week at the St. Louis Rams:

OFFENSE (67 Snaps)
Quarterback – Ryan Griffin 38, Luke McCown 17, Logan Kilgore 12
Receiver – Brandin Cooks 37, Joe Morgan 36, Nick Toon 23, Robert Meachem 18, Marques Colston 14, Seantavius Jones 13, Brandon Coleman 12, Charles Hawkins 4
Tight end – Josh Hill 32, Nic Jacobs 21, Jimmy Graham 17, Benjamin Watson 12
Running back – Travaris Cadet 25, Mark Ingram 15, Khiry Robinson 14, Derrick Strozier 10, Timothy Flanders 4
Fullback – Austin Johnson 28
Center – Tim Lelito 39, Jonathan Goodwin 16, Matt Armstrong 12
Tackle – Bryce Harris 44, Thomas Welch 44, Zach Strief 17, Terron Armstead 17, Tavon Rooks 12
Guard – Jason Weaver 50, Senio Kelemete 40, Marcel Jones 32, Manase Foketi 12

DEFENSE (75 snaps)
Safety – Marcus Ball 43, Vinnie Sunseri 35, Pierre Warren 35, Ty Zimmerman 27, Rafael Bush 13, Kenny Vaccaro 13
Cornerback – Corey White 40, Stanley Jean-Baptiste 35, Trevin Wade 35, Brian Dixon 27, Derrius Brooks 20, Patrick Robinson 13, Keenan Lewis 13, Rod Sweeting 10
Outside linebacker – Keyunta Dawson 27, Khairi Fortt 26, Kasim Edebali 25, Ronald Powell 21, Junior Galette 13, Chidera Uzo-Diribe 10, Parys Haralson 6
Inside linebacker – Kevin Reddick 39, Todd Davis 27, Ramon Humber 23, Kyle Knox 21, David Hawthorne 13, Curtis Lofton 13
Defensive end – Glenn Foster 35, Tyrunn Walker 32, Rufus Jonson 24, George Uko 21, Akiem Hicks 13, Cameron Jordan 13
Defensive tackle – Lawrence Virgil 27, Brandon Deaderick 26, Brodrick Bunkley 11

SPECIAL TEAMS (31 snaps)
Ball 14, Sunseri 14, Dawson 13, Reddick 13, Edebali 12, Fortt 12, Jean-Baptiste 12, Knox 12, Powell 12, Davis 11, Hill 11, Zimmerman 11, R.Johnson 10, Wade 10, Justin Drescher 9, S.Jones 9, Cadet 8, Bush 7, Derek Dimke 7, Dixon 7, Humber 7, Thomas Morstead 7, Uzo-Diribe 7, Coleman 6, Harris 6, Jacobs 6, Sweeting 6, White 5, Cooks 4, Shayne Graham 4, Hawthorne 4, Warren 4, Armstead 3, Bunkley 3, Goodwin 3, Hicks 3, Jordan 3, Kelemete 3, Lelito 3, K.Robinson 3, P.Robinson 3, Strief 3, Vaccaro 3, Virgil 3, Watson 3, Welch 3, Armstrong 2, Brooks 2, Foketi 2, Griffin 2, M.Jones 2, Robert Quinn 2, Rooks 2, Weaver 2, Flanders 1, Lofton 1, Strozier 1
Ryan Griffin looked great in the New Orleans Saints’ preseason opener Friday night, completing 16 of 23 passes for 179 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.

What stood out to me most of all was Griffin’s poise and maturity -- the two main reasons why I think the second-year pro is ready to seize the Saints’ backup quarterback job.

[+] EnlargeRyan Griffin
AP Photo/Scott KaneSaints reserve QB Ryan Griffin showed that he can handle pressure in the pocket during Friday's game.
No offense to veteran Luke McCown, who is a great guy, a great fit in the Saints’ locker room and has done nothing to deserve losing his job over the past two seasons. But if Griffin continues to prove he has enough poise and polish to be the No. 2 guy, then the Saints will have the luxury of keeping just two quarterbacks on the roster.

Griffin looked calm, cool and collected after entering Friday’s game late in the first quarter. He led the Saints to three touchdowns and a field goal while rallying them to a 26-24 victory over the Rams.

Most impressive was the way the 6-foot-5, 206-pounder did an outstanding job of handling pressure -- whether it was throwing the ball away when necessary or quickly finding dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks for a 25-yard touchdown play before getting drilled on an all-out blitz.

“First off, the offensive line did a great job all night,” Griffin said after the game. “With the run game and the protection, they were great. On the one play, they happened to bring an all-out blitz. I know I just had to get it out to Brandin, and he did his job, made somebody miss to get in the end zone.”

Another subtle thing that stood out to me with Griffin was the way he pointed out defensive penalties to the officials or the sideline before flags were even thrown on two or three occasions. It reminded me of Drew Brees, who does that all the time because he’s so certain of what he’s seeing on the field.

Like I said, it was a subtle thing. But a lot of those big things and small things alike are adding up to show that Griffin already seems ready to handle the Saints’ backup role in his second season after being signed as an undrafted rookie out of Tulane.

“I think a lot like we talked about after the scrimmage, obviously Luke is a veteran. He’s been around a long time. He’s very comfortable in the huddle and you can feel that kind of confidence. Ryan has turned into that quickly,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said after Friday’s game. “Obviously it’s just his second year, but he’s a sponge. He’s absorbed a lot of information. I think he did a really good job of just getting us in the right place tonight.

“Just watching, knowing what we’re supposed to run things into and what we’re not, he did a good job of getting us into the right play. Obviously he showed a lot of poise on the touchdown pass, standing in, knowing he’s going to get drilled, and he delivered the ball perfectly and gives Brandin a chance to make a play.

“We like both of them a lot, not just as players but as guys. It’s good to see your guys play well and perform how you see them every day.”

No Drew Brees? No problem.

The New Orleans Saints found plenty of offensive firepower Friday in their 26-24 victory over the St. Louis Rams -- most of it provided by running back Mark Ingram and receiver Brandin Cooks.

It wasn't a perfect night by any stretch. Both first-string units had a few hiccups. But the Saints will feel especially good about the way they ran the ball, even without Brees and guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs in the lineup.

Here are some other thoughts on the Saints' first preseason game of the year:
  • I couldn't help but think of the way Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief compared the speed of these playmakers Ingram and Cooks the other day. Strief said Ingram has the kind of speed where you know he's running hard, like a freight train once he gets going. Meanwhile, Cooks has smooth, natural speed that barely looks like it requires any effort.

    Well, both methods made the Rams defense miss Friday night. Ingram broke several tackles en route to 83 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. And Cooks torched a pair of defensive backs with a nasty cut in the open field on a 25-yard touchdown. Cooks finished with five catches for 55 yards.

    Fellow Saints running back Khiry Robinson also ran well, with five carries for 23 yards and a touchdown. Among the guys who provided standout blocks were linemen Tim Lelito, Jonathan Goodwin, Senio Kelemete, Jason Weaver, Thomas Welch and tight end Benjamin Watson.
  • Ryan Griffin won the first round of the backup-QB battle by a landslide. Veteran Luke McCown started the game and did OK, but his night was marred by an ill-advised interception into the arms of blitzing defensive end Chris Long.

    Griffin, meanwhile, continued to show the poise and maturity he's been displaying all summer while completing 16 of 23 passes for 179 yards, a touchdown and no picks. Although Cooks got deserved credit for that touchdown catch, Griffin deserves just as much for absorbing a huge hit as he threw the ball under pressure.
  • Thumbs up: Backup defensive end Tyrunn Walker was outstanding with one sack and at least three other tackles for loss. At one point he made back-to-back run stuffs on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1. ... Glenn Foster, Brodrick Bunkley, Akiem Hicks, Ramon Humber, Rufus Johnson Jr. and rookie linebackers Ronald Powell and Khairi Fortt all stood out for at least one sack or tackle for loss. ... Don't sleep on linebacker Kyle Knox as a roster hopeful. He started on all four special teams, along with tight end Josh Hill and linebacker Kevin Reddick. ... Hill had a big night on offense, too, doing his best Jimmy Graham impression with two catches for 67 yards.
  • Thumbs down: Kicker Shayne Graham isn't a fan of the NFL's 33-yard extra point experiment. He missed one, bouncing it off the left upright. Both Graham and Derek Dimke made matching 37-yard field goals, though. ... Rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste got burned for a 24-yard touchdown pass. He's better in bump-and-run, but he never jammed the receiver and never turned to locate the ball. ... The entire Saints defense got burned on a 16-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter when no one covered tight end Cory Harkey. ... Cornerbacks Rod Sweeting and Brian Dixon also got beat for big plays in the fourth quarter. ... Rookie receiver Brandon Coleman dropped two passes, one of which was intercepted. ... The Saints' third-string offensive line struggled, especially rookie tackle Tavon Rooks.

W2W4: New Orleans Saints

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
12:00
PM ET
The New Orleans Saints (0-0) and St. Louis Rams (0-0) open the preseason tonight at the Edward Jones Dome.

1. Griffin audition: This game will be lacking star power at quarterback, with New Orleans' Drew Brees and St. Louis' Sam Bradford both expected to watch from the sideline. (Brees hasn’t been officially ruled out but will almost certainly sit as he rests an oblique strain). But that’s OK, because at this stage of the preseason, the Saints' quarterback most worth watching is second-year pro Ryan Griffin. So far, Griffin has looked great in training camp, showing poise and polish. But if the 6-foot-5, 206-pounder wants to beat out veteran Luke McCown for the Saints’ backup job, these preseason games will be the auditions that matter most. ... The Saints have obviously been high on Griffin’s potential since they signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Tulane last year. In fact, they blocked Griffin from being signed by this very Rams team off their practice squad last season when Bradford was first injured.

2. Bringing the heat: This game won't be lacking star power when it comes to pass-rushers. Guys like the Saints' Junior Galette, Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks and St. Louis' Robert Quinn, Chris Long and highly touted rookie tackle Aaron Donald should all be on display (for parts of the first quarter, at least). And you just know they are all champing at the bit to finally hit a quarterback at full speed. So even if there wasn’t any history between the Saints and Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the pass-rushers would be the most fascinating players to watch tonight. But when you add in the Williams intrigue (he has been known to blitz relentlessly in preseason openers before), it’s must-see TV. It is probably a wise time for the Saints to sit Brees, especially since Saints guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs might also be held out with injuries.

3. Cooks' growing legend: Somehow, Saints rookie receiver Brandin Cooks has managed to keep topping himself throughout training camp, making dynamic plays on an almost-daily basis. So it will be fascinating to see if his legend continues to grow in his preseason debut. We already knew about Cooks’ blazing speed -- which he has demonstrated often during training camp, especially when he burns defensive backs with sharp cuts in the open field. But the 5-foot-10, 189-pounder has also shown an ability to go up and win jump balls and reel in back-shoulder catches, among other highlights. ... St. Louis has a similar dynamic playmaker in second-year receiver Tavon Austin. So it will be interesting to see if the Saints' defense can corral him.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- With Drew Brees sidelined by an oblique strain, the New Orleans Saints are getting even more of a chance to evaluate second-year pro Ryan Griffin as a potential backup.

Right now, the battle between Griffin and veteran Luke McCown is still too close to call. But if Griffin can prove that he's trustworthy enough to be the No. 2 guy, you've got to think his long-term potential gives him a tie-breaker advantage.

[+] EnlargeRyan Griffin
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRyan Griffin has been impressive this offseason and is competing for the Saints No. 2 quarterback position.
So far, Griffin has taken advantage of his cameo appearances with the first-string offense. He looked great in Saturday's scrimmage while rotating with McCown. Griffin quickly exploited the opportunity to throw at targets like tight end Jimmy Graham and rookie receiver Brandin Cooks.

As cornerback Keenan Lewis couldn't help but admit, "He definitely whipped us."

And Griffin again looked good while taking the majority of snaps with the first-string offense in Monday's practice (while McCown was limited for an undisclosed reason). Griffin's highlight came on a beautiful touchdown pass to tight end Benjamin Watson in red zone drills, though he also showed some mobility by escaping for a nice gain around the corner.

"I'm trying to (take advantage of the first-team snaps), definitely. Every rep I can get, especially getting in there live with the ones and twos is great. I'm just learning as fast as I can, and just trying to improve," said Griffin, who downplayed the buzz he generated from Saturday's scrimmage.

"Well it never looks as good on film and it never looks as bad," Griffin said. "There's a lot of plays I feel like I could've had better ball placement. There's definitely room for improvement."

Griffin, who joined the Saints as an undrafted rookie out of Tulane last year, did admit that he feels more confident and comfortable in Year 2, though.

"Coming in as a rookie you don't really know what to expect, and so you kind of come in wide-eyed and you have no idea," said Griffin, who also has the benefit of working with his former college position coach, Mike Neu, who is the new Saints' QB coach. "This year I kind of had a general idea of how practice was going and what the tempo was like and how players practice. Just receiving that experience and having a year under my belt really helped. I'm just trying to improve on that and keep moving forward."

I asked Saints coach Sean Payton if the backup quarterback job would be strictly based on which player is more prepared to play in Week 1, or if Griffin's potential for growth could play a factor. Payton didn't specifically answer but said the Saints will absolutely go by what they see on the practice field, rather than rely on past history.

"One thing we have always tried to do here is regardless to how a player has been drafted, whether he signed as a free agent, whether he is 35 or 25, we are going to try to play the best players, keep the best players," Payton said. "We've kept free agents and cut draft picks, and when that happens it empowers your locker room. The same thing would apply with that competition.

"We are going to get a lot of work with those guys, and both of them are handling the reps well. They are both smart. They are both quick studies. Luke certainly is more experienced, and so it is kind of an ongoing process, but it's still real early."

Saints Camp Report: Day 2

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
6:40
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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • Robinson rising: Cornerback Patrick Robinson had two nifty pass break-ups on back-to-back plays Saturday – another sign that he’s back to playing aggressively with confidence after a tough two-year stretch. Robinson struggled as a full-time starter in 2012, then he missed most of last season with a knee injury. But the former first-round pick clearly is energized by the chance to get back into a prominent role. For now, Champ Bailey has received the most looks as the Saints’ No. 2 cornerback, but Robinson has rotated in at times. “He’s looking great,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “He’s always looked smooth. He’s a unique guy. He’s a tall guy that can bend, and those guys are really rare.”
  • Offense wins: The defensive highlights were few and far between on Saturday, however. Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Ryan Griffin took advantage of some breakdowns in the secondary to complete several deep balls (with Jimmy Graham, Nick Toon and Brandin Cooks among the beneficiaries). “Today wasn’t our best,” Ryan said. “Whooo, that offense was rolling.”
  • Break out the pads: Players on both sides are fired up about Sunday’s practice, which will be the first padded session of the offseason. Typically they don’t tackle all the way to the ground. But they will finally get to do some real hitting. “Oh, definitely (excited), especially for the offensive and defensive linemen,” defensive end Akiem Hicks said. “That is something that we look forward to all year. We get to run around in our pajamas for most of the year, but when the pads come on, you get to hit that guy that was talking a little trash earlier in the year.”
  • Weather concerns? Sunday’s practice could be affected by a projected storm, as there are no indoor facilities at the Saints’ new training camp site. Coach Sean Payton joked, “We don’t get bad weather” – referencing the uncanny way the Saints avoided the rain for years in past camps in Jackson, Miss. But he said the Saints will be flexible if they need to wait out any lightning.
  • White at safety? Cornerback Corey White, who is competing with Bailey and Robinson, spent part of practice as the deep safety in nickel packages while safety Kenny Vaccaro moved up into the slot. It might be a moot point when safety Jairus Byrd returns from injury. But it was another example of Ryan’s creative use of the personnel at his disposal. “He’s another smart guy that’s got a lot of talent, so he can play multiple spots for us,” Ryan said.
Examining the New Orleans Saints' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)
It’s not easy to cut veteran Luke McCown from this roster. He has been a great fit in the Saints locker room. But if the Saints can trust the younger Griffin in that backup role, they don’t need to keep three quarterbacks.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

I’m going out on a limb and predicting that this is the year an undrafted rookie running back doesn't make the roster (though Timothy Flanders will probably shine in the preseason). All five names on this list are virtual locks, with backup fullback Austin Johnson also a dark horse.

RECEIVERS (6)

I actually think it will be tough for all six of these guys to make the roster. But they have all shown enough in the past to earn the benefit of doubt for now. Morgan is the big wild card. His uncertain health and the addition of fellow speedster Cooks places him firmly on the bubble. But if Morgan shines in camp, he could pass up Meachem or Toon. ... The Saints have some talented undrafted rookie receivers, but the practice squad seems more likely for them.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

This is a spot where I could definitely see an undrafted rookie such as Je'Ron Hamm or Nic Jacobs cracking the roster. But the Saints went with only three tight ends last season, so I'll stick with that for now.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

The top seven seem pretty safe. After that, it's wide-open for one or two more backup spots. I'll go with the rookie Rooks for now because the Saints invested a sixth-round pick in him and like his growth potential. But former draft pick Marcel Jones and undrafted rookie Matthew Armstrong are among several other possibilities.

DEFENSIVE LINE (7)

The top six are about as safe as it gets. Johnson’s future is uncertain, but the second-year pro has great athleticism and potential. And now he’s being cross-trained as a defensive lineman, which adds versatility for the pass-rusher. Veteran Brandon Deaderick is a more experienced possibility for depth.

LINEBACKERS (9)

My most difficult cut on the defense was veteran outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson, whom the Saints really liked last season and re-signed this offseason. I also like pass-rusher Kyle Knox as a dark horse. But this is suddenly such a crowded group with the arrival of enticing rookies Fortt and Powell.

CORNERBACKS (6)

This position is even deeper. Six cornerbacks is a lot, but it’s hard to cut any one of these guys at this point. And I still had to leave off some talented candidates such as Trevin Wade, Terrence Frederick and Derrius Brooks.

SAFETIES (4)

These four seem like a pretty safe bet. But this is another spot where an undrafted rookie such as Pierre Warren or Ty Zimmerman could earn his way into the mix, especially if he shines on special teams.

SPECIALISTS (3)

The only competition is at kicker, where Graham will have to fend off young contender Derek Dimke.
METAIRIE, La. – Second-year quarterback Ryan Griffin earned some attention for how well he performed during the New Orleans Saints’ minicamp practice on Tuesday.

He was even better on Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeRyan Griffin
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSaints reserve QB Ryan Griffin has earned praise for his work during offseason practices.
Griffin stood out more than anyone else to me during Wednesday’s session while working with the second team as he continues his open competition with veteran Luke McCown. The highlight was a deep completion to receiver Marques Colston in full-team drills. But Griffin was sharp throughout the day, except for one late interception to cornerback Terrence Frederick.

It’s too early to project Griffin as the Saints’ No. 2 quarterback this year, since McCown has remained solid and steady, as well. This competition will most likely play out in the preseason.

But it’s been evident that Griffin is coming into this year’s camp with a lot of polish and confidence for such a young guy.

Saints coach Sean Payton complimented Griffin when asked Tuesday if he attributes some of that polish to Griffin’s experience in a similar offensive system at Tulane under former Saints assistant coach Curtis Johnson.

“In fairness to Ryan, I don’t know that if [Tulane’s] offense was different, he’d be any further behind,” Payton said. “He’s someone who picks it up very quickly. He and Luke are real quick studies.”

Bringing the noise: For the first time in Payton’s tenure, the Saints started pumping in crowd noise during minicamp so the offense could simulate the conditions they’ll face in road games. It’s a popular tactic for NFL teams – just not usually this early in the offseason.

Clearly, it had an effect on the offense, with miscommunication leading to one mishandled shotgun snap by Brees from center Tim Lelito and a couple false starts with the backups.

Payton said part of the motivation behind the pumped-in noise was driving home the importance of playing better on the road this year.

Stills shines: If Griffin wasn’t the player of the day on Wednesday, it was second-year receiver Kenny Stills. He made a great effort to come back for a diving catch after Drew Brees chucked one to him from all the way across the field on the run in full-team drills. Stills also made a nifty one-handed catch in earlier passing drills, among other nice catches.

Stills has looked good throughout offseason workouts this year. He certainly looks like he’s ready to keep rising after a breakout rookie year. And Payton said after re-watching the film from last season, the Saints felt they needed to get Stills some more opportunities this year.

Colston healthy: Veteran receiver Marques Colston has been steady in camp so far. But most noteworthy is what he told The Advocate’s Ramon Antonio Vargas after practice – that his nagging foot pain from the past couple years is a non-issue this year. “Feels completely different … no restrictions,” Colston said.

Breaking up: Despite those standout moments by Griffin and Stills, it was a generally strong day for the defensive backs once again. I didn’t keep an exact tally, but it felt like there were at least a half-dozen noteworthy pass breakups in team and 7-on-7 drills. The one that stood out most was cornerback Keenan Lewis denying a touchdown pass to running back Travaris Cadet from Brees in the corner of the end zone during 7-on-7 red-zone drills.

Cornerback Patrick Robinson also stripped and recovered a fumble against receiver Robert Meachem, chasing down Meachem as he was corralled by a couple defenders in full-team drills. That’s been typical of the defense’s aggressive emphasis on forcing turnovers this year.

Coleman’s rough start: Undrafted rookie receiver Brandon Coleman continued to have highs and lows. He dropped a pass from Brees in a brief cameo with the starting unit in full-team drills. He did rally with a couple nice catches with the backups, though, before failing to locate a deep ball in the air. That’s been the story of Coleman’s offseason practices so far. But obviously it’s way too early for a fair evaluation on the young big man as he tries to gain his footing.
In the weeks and months after an 11-year-old Anthony Denham was taken from his family and placed into foster care, he often felt alone.

His three siblings were all in different places. His mother battled drug problems away from them all. He didn’t feel like he fit in as a black kid placed in a Hispanic household in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood.

But Denham was always a kid who wanted to see the bright side of things. He wanted to trust people; he wanted to believe things could work out better for him than they did for so many of his family members and friends. So he did.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Denham
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCompeting at a crowded position in Houston is just another challenge in a life full of them for Utah tight end Anthony Denham.
“I didn’t want to be poor,” Denham said. “I kind of lived that life. I didn’t want to struggle. I know if I kept going on that path, I would be either dead or in jail. I’m more someone who, if I set my sight on something, I’ll go and get it to the best of my ability.”

His sight right now is on trying to make the Texans’ roster. Signed as an undrafted free-agent tight end this month, Denham is part of a group that is one of the Texans’ strongest positions. It includes veteran Garrett Graham, second-year player Ryan Griffin, this year’s third-round draft pick C.J. Fiedorowicz and free-agent acquisition Zach Potter. That will also make winning a roster spot tough. Denham has plenty of experience with tough.

“What’s harder is what’s best,” Denham said. “What’s easy is not the way. It don’t take nothing to drop out. It don’t take nothing to choose the wrong path. You don’t have to think to do certain things. When you’re thinking, you’re on the right path. When you’re thinking, your mind is good. Just stay focused and maintain your goals. Set them. Set goals.”

That mentality took a while for Denham to develop. He grew up in Pasadena, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. In addition to his mother’s drug problems, he had no contact with his father. His mother was in and out of jail during his childhood.

In elementary school, because he wanted to be like his older brothers and cousins, there were days when he didn’t get up to go to school. He guesses he missed school more than he attended in fifth and sixth grade.

One day, Denham’s great-grandmother had enough of his mother’s inability to take care of her children. She called child protective services and had them removed.

One brother went to live with his father’s family. His younger sister bounced around between foster homes. Denham was placed in a home with a single mother to her own biological children as well as several foster children in El Sereno, a neighborhood in east Los Angeles.

"When I moved into the foster home, just being around everybody that wasn’t like me, not being from that culture, I was just like, 'What’s the point?'" Denham said. "'Everybody’s different. I don’t fit in this area because it’s predominantly Hispanic.' I was like, 'I could at any moment just leave.' But I didn’t do that. I stayed positive and just focused. I had a goal. My goal was to do my best and make it to the NFL."

Denham started to see football as a way to reach his goals when he started excelling at the sport in high school. He says he used football as a "father figure." There he had structure and learned morals. Back then, he was a lanky wide receiver who drew comparisons to Randy Moss. But it took more than his athletic ability to accomplish that -- that was another lesson Denham learned.

He passed the classes he took in high school, but was missing a core class he needed to qualify to play at a Division I college. So Denham went to East Los Angeles College instead and worked his way up to a Division I program.

"Very shy, very reserved kid that didn’t talk much," said Nick Garrett, then an assistant at East L.A. College who recruited Denham. "Just kind of kept to himself a lot. He had a hard time trusting people and dealing with people. ... My impressions of Anthony, he’s a quiet kid, very respectful kid. Once you earn his trust, he would run through a brick wall for you."

Denham became a two-time junior college All-American, the top receiver in junior college and earned scholarship offers from a handful of schools. He chose Utah, where he could stay close to his home but also leave the state.

This past winter, his size (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) and pass-catching ability got him invited to the NFL scouting combine, but he was described as raw by NFL.com analyst Nolan Nawrocki.

It’s another challenge in a life that has been full of them.

Late in high school, Denham reconnected with his siblings. He’s now reconnected with his mother, too, who he didn’t see for several years.

"It’s better now, because I’m more mature," Denham said. "I see her situation, and I know sometimes you can’t beat drugs. It’s really up to her. It’s all in her head. She’s been in and out of jail a majority of my life, but every time she sees me she can’t do nothing but cry. That’s all she can do, because she’s just, I’ll say, motivated by what I’ve become from where I came from.

" ... I look at it all the time like, man, I’ve been through hell and back. Honestly, I’ve really been there. I’ve always managed to find positive and upside to every negative situation. You know what they say in math, a negative and a negative is a positive. So everything that happened negative turned into the situation I have today."
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 quarterback Luke McCown:

Position: backup QB

Age: 32

Height: 6-4

Weight: 217

Scouting report: McCown is the living definition of a “career backup.” He has been in the NFL for 10 years, bouncing around with Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Atlanta and New Orleans. But he has made only nine career starts, with a total of 2,035 passing yards, nine touchdown passes and 14 interceptions.

McCown has been impressive enough to keep finding steady work. He won the Saints’ No. 2 job last year after a solid preseason performance. The year before that, he was cut by the Saints after the preseason – but wound up signing with the Atlanta Falcons as their backup.

McCown hasn’t completed a pass since 2011, though. His only attempt last year came on a poorly executed fake field goal.

Projection: I could definitely see the Saints bringing McCown back to compete with second-year pro Ryan Griffin for the backup job this year. The Saints would probably like to see Griffin step up and earn the job after essentially “redshirting” Griffin last year. But they’ll surely want to have a veteran option available.

McCown makes perfect sense to fill that role. The Saints have obviously liked what they’ve seen from him the last two years. And he’s appeared to be a good fit in the locker room.

As for those who keep asking if this is the year for the Saints to invest an early- or mid-round draft pick on a future replacement for starter Drew Brees, I don’t think so. I think Brees can keep playing at a high level for at least three or four more years (if not longer). So a rookie this year would probably be an unrestricted free agent by the time the Saints need a replacement.

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