NFL Nation: Sean Payton

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief made a bold proclamation Monday, saying, "I think we can be as good as a running team as we have ever been."

And running back Pierre Thomas talked in a similar excited fashion about the run game the other day, saying among other things that, "We are putting in more time on the running game than I have ever seen before."

It would be natural to hear comments like that and be a little skeptical. The Saints seem to talk every summer about putting more emphasis on the run game -- but then the results have been decidedly hit and miss each season.

However, I've begun to sense one big difference while hearing folks talk about the run game this summer: Confidence.

[+] EnlargeKhiry Robinson
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints found their running groove late in the 2013 season and during their playoff win at Philadelphia.
Both Strief and coach Sean Payton sounded Monday like they were very encouraged and energized by the success the Saints started to have in the run game late last season -- especially in their playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

And they seem to genuinely expect that progress to continue in the second year under offensive line coach Bret Ingalls, who introduced more of a zone-running scheme last year.

"I think that Pierre is right," Strief said after the Saints' run blocking was particularly impressive during Monday's practice session. "I think that last year there was kind of a renewed focus, and yet there was a big change that happened last year. I think going into this year there is a lot more understanding, a much better consistent understanding from linemen, tight ends, backs, on what exactly we are doing.

"There's that same emphasis that we had last year. (But) there's a little bit of success early, and I think there is a lot more confidence in it right now. And I think guys are really excited in that part of the practice."

Payton, meanwhile, has consistently talked about how he wants to do a better job of "controlling" the final four minutes of close games -- whether that's running the ball or stopping the run. The Saints struggled at times in both areas last year before improving late in the season.

When asked if the Saints need to counteract the dominant teams in the NFC like Seattle and San Francisco, Payton said, "Well, we think we're one of those teams."

"We played that way in our first playoff game against Philadelphia and really approached the second playoff game (at Seattle) much the same way," Payton said. "Now, do we want to improve in that area? Yes. But we feel like that's going to be important for us, and we feel like we're one of those teams."

The Saints certainly have the talent to do it. They have a deep running back corps led by Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson (who continued to impress in Monday's practice). And they have proven veteran blockers like Strief, Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and tight end Benjamin Watson, among others.

The Saints also have shown an ability to run the ball efficiently in the past, especially in their two most prolific offensive seasons of 2009 and 2011 (when they twice had the No. 6-ranked rushing attack in the NFL).

And that's the blueprint here. Nobody is talking about the Saints changing their offensive identity.

They're talking about being more efficient when they run -- and being able to consistently make teams pay for trying to sit back in coverage like Philadelphia or New England did last year.

The Saints would have no problem with a repeat of 2011, when they threw for more than 5,300 yards and still ran for more than 2,100.

"We have one of the best quarterbacks (Drew Brees) in the history of the NFL, and we are going to throw the football," Strief said. "But when we get a chance to run it, I know we want five (yards) a carry. I know that we want to be efficient. And if you look back at the years that we have been successful, I think that is really where the importance is. ...

"I don't think that we need to be the 49ers where we are running the ball 50 times a game, because I think that we have different pieces in place to be effective in the passing game. But I think the mindset of this camp is that we have to be a lot more efficient than we have been. I think we are off to a good start with it."
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Undrafted rookie safety Pierre Warren continued to “flash” on the New Orleans Saints' practice field Monday morning -- this time diving to intercept a pass that was dropped by receiver Brandon Coleman in full-team drills.

Earlier in camp, Warren also forced and recovered a fumble against running back Derrick Strozier. The former Jacksonville State standout has also made a handful of nice pass break-ups over the past few days.

And the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder clearly showed coaches something they liked long before this week -- because he spent all of organized team activities and minicamp working with the second-string defense (taking advantage of starter Jairus Byrd's injury absence).

Obviously it’s way too early to grant Warren a spot on the 53-man roster based on a handful of highlights. He’s probably had his share of low moments, too, that aren’t always visible to the naked eye. (For instance, Warren was involved in a secondary breakdown Sunday that left a receiver wide open, but it was unclear who missed the assignment).

But the Saints do have a history of giving opportunities to undrafted rookies who shine in training camp. And it certainly won’t hurt Warren to keep showing up on the practice field like he has so far.

Warren, who turned pro after his junior year, led the Gamecocks last season with five interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and finished second on the team with 76 tackles.

So far he has been working alongside fifth-round draft pick Vinnie Sunseri with the second string, ahead of Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball and fellow undrafted rookie Ty Zimmerman.

Coach Sean Payton said he took note of Warren’s nice play Monday. However, Payton quickly stressed that for all of those roster hopefuls, it is what they do on special teams this summer that will likely make the biggest impact.

“I just finished talking about this with the whole team: when you’re looking at the safety position, linebacker, tight end ... all of these players that are trying to make an impression are having a chance to do that now,” Payton said. “Certainly they’re going to have to do that when we start the preseason games. Every year there are going to be two guys that make it because of the kicking game. Either they cover kicks, they block a kick, they’re smart and know where to be. He’s a player that would fall into that category.

“He has good ball skills and it appears to be good reactions and someone who’s beginning to pick up what we’re doing. We just keep giving him reps, giving all these guys work. He’s one of those players, though, where the kicking game is going to be important.”

At least one young player has certainly received Payton’s message loud and clear.

As I was walking away from Payton at the podium, I came across fifth-round draft pick Ronald Powell in mid-sentence in a separate interview, and he was saying:

“... a lot of things I don’t know. But one thing I do know is that special teams is very important.”
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – The play of the day at New Orleans Saints camp Saturday was provided by tight end Jimmy Graham, who outleaped safety Vinnie Sunseri, reeled in a pass with one hand from quarterback Ryan Griffin and took it to the house before dunking over the goal post (which remains legal in training camp!)

Just in case anyone forgot, it was a vintage Graham moment. And we will continue to see plenty more of them now that the Saints have locked him up with a four-year, $40 million contract.

The notion that defenses somehow “figured out” how to stop Graham last year is misplaced.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesA couple teams figured out how to stop Jimmy Graham last season, but it's not a plan that many teams can pull off.
Yes, Graham was silenced by the Seattle Seahawks in the Saints’ season-ending playoff loss, thanks to frequent double-teams and some heavy attention from All-Pro safety Earl Thomas. Yes, Graham was silenced by the New England Patriots earlier in the season when they made the rare choice to shadow him with physical Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib.

And yes, Graham and Saints coach Sean Payton, among others, will have to figure out ways to adjust to all the new wrinkles that they continue to see from opposing defenses.

But it’s not like either the Seahawks or the Patriots provided a blueprint that other teams can easily follow.

Both of their plans required some of the best defensive players in the league, and they required the depth to also successfully cover the rest of the Saints’ dynamic offensive weapons.

New England’s successful use of a cornerback against Graham became a hot topic during the offseason debate about whether Graham should be considered a wide receiver or tight end. But there wasn’t another team before or after the New England game that simply decided to put a cornerback on Graham and take him out of the game.

“(New England and Seattle) were two different scenarios,” Payton said. “No. 1, New England put one of their bigger best defensive backs on him. Credit Bill (Belichick). You know, Aqib is bigger than their safeties. So he was able to play effectively. …

“But each week it varies what teams are doing. We see different plans to handle him. Obviously when you sit in on a meeting Tuesday night and you’re beginning to defend a player like him, you’re gonna account for him.”

Graham said he went back and looked at the film of that Patriots game at the time but honestly couldn’t see anything he could have done differently with the way they chose to attack him with a combination of Talib’s man coverage and zone coverage behind him.

“Talking with some of the Patriots this offseason, they had a big game plan. That’s just how it is sometimes,” Graham said. “Sean and Drew [Brees], they’re so good at dissecting the game and figuring things out. When it’s not my night, it’s just not my night. We’ve got so many young receivers on this team, we’ve got (Marques) Colston, (Robert Meachem). Somebody else is going to get a ton of balls, and I know they’re going to be making plays.

“For me, my biggest (focus heading into this season) is really staying healthy. Toward the latter part of the season, it was tough. That’s what I’m focused on. I’m going to rehab every day, even though I don’t have to.”

Since Graham emerged as a threat in 2010, the Saints’ offense has been a pick-your-poison attack. If a defense wants to sell out to try and shut down Graham, the Saints will usually make them pay in other ways.

The Philadelphia Eagles, for instance, made it their clear focus to harass Graham by bumping him at the line of scrimmage and double-teaming him through each level of the defense in their wild-card playoff matchup.

And it sort of worked – Graham caught just three passes for 44 yards. But the Saints made Philly’s defense pay by running 36 times for 185 yards in that game.

The Saints also started running the ball effectively against the Patriots in that Week 6 matchup. But they waited a little too long to adjust their game plan (and Brees made a poor decision at one point to try and force the ball to Graham, throwing an interception).

“Yeah, I think it was just one of those games where offensively we weren’t very effective, especially in the first half, then got some things going in the second half,” Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said. “Obviously we’ve always been an offense where Drew’s gonna find the open guy. And give credit to New England for what they did. Obviously they did a good job of taking (Graham) away from what we want to try to accomplish.

“But like I said, our offense is not built around any one guy. We’re gonna find the open receiver, and that’s what Drew does such a great job of.”

More often than not, Graham will continue to be that open receiver.

Every team the Saints faced last year probably went into those game-planning meetings with a desire to shut down Graham. But that plan failed for most of them as Graham racked up 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.

The Carolina Panthers, for example, had one of the NFL’s best pass defenses last year. But in two critical December showdowns against Carolina, Graham combined to catch 11 passes for 131 yards and three touchdowns.

Graham has only been back on the Saints’ practice field for two days since signing his new contract. But he already stood out as Brees’ go-to guy again on several passes in team drills and 7-on-7 drills Saturday.

Get used to seeing a lot more of it this year.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- One of the most compelling players to watch during the New Orleans Saints’ training camp will be newly-signed cornerback Champ Bailey.

Bailey
Naturally, there are questions about how much the 12-time Pro Bowler and likely Hall of Famer has left in the tank. But the Saints clearly had a vision for how the 36-year-old can aid their deep and versatile defense. And Bailey has a great shot at winning a starting job this summer.

As for what exactly the Saints need to see from Bailey during training camp and the preseason, Coach Sean Payton pulled out a classic line from his mentor Bill Parcells -- as he often likes to do.

“Bill used to say this and every once in a while I’ll reference Parcells, ‘With a player like Champ we don’t need to see it every day, we just need to see it once in a while,’” Payton said. “He used to say that, it made sense. So that’s being smart, with the conditioning test, for instance, or it’s being smart with how we practice him.

“But I have a pretty good vision for what I think he can do for us, and I think that’s been communicated. And I think he’s really anxious to do that.”
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NFL Nation's Mike Triplett examines the three biggest issues facing the New Orleans Saints heading into training camp.

Offensive line: After ranking among the NFL’s elite units for half a decade, the Saints’ offensive line has suddenly become one of the team’s biggest question marks. It still has a chance to be one of New Orleans’ strengths -- led by Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and veteran right tackle Zach Strief -- but the Saints need to clean up the inconsistency they displayed up front last season while also breaking in two new full-time starters at left tackle and center. The line is the key to the Saints’ two biggest priorities on offense this season: running the ball with more consistency and giving Drew Brees time to hit some more explosive plays down the field.

The good news is there’s plenty of reason for optimism: Second-year left tackle Terron Armstead has the potential to be a great player; the Saints have two strong candidates for the center job in youngster Tim Lelito and veteran Jonathan Goodwin; and the line was playing terrific by the end of last season. This was especially true during the playoffs after Strief said they got better at identifying their strengths and weaknesses. They need that progress to continue.

Cornerback: The Saints might be building the NFL’s best secondary east of Seattle, led by young stars such as cornerback Keenan Lewis, safety Kenny Vaccaro and newly signed safety Jairus Byrd. However, they need to find out which other cornerbacks they can rely on among a group loaded with both talent and question marks. None of the candidates are sure things. But with so many options, one or two of them are bound to emerge.

The most intriguing is probably future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, whom the Saints signed in free agency in hopes that he still has a standout season left in him. Third-year pro Corey White has shown promise, but also some growing pains, so far. Former first-round draft pick Patrick Robinson had a great start to his career but needs to bounce back from his 2012 struggles and a knee injury that wiped out his 2013 season. Second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a big corner with big potential, but he might need time to develop. Throw second-year pro Rod Sweeting into the mix, and a few other young guys, and this should easily rank as the most compelling position group to watch this summer.

Road woes: If it’s possible to address this issue during training camp, the Saints will find a way. Their struggles on the road last season derailed their Super Bowl chances. They’ve got to find a way to win enough road games in the regular season to make sure they’re playing at home in the playoffs -- where they are truly dominant inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints’ road performance will be especially important early on since they play three of their first four games on the road, including a critical Week 1 showdown at division rival Atlanta.

Coach Sean Payton and Brees were already stressing the importance of their road performance this summer. Although they’re confident in their ability to travel (especially after a playoff win at Philadelphia last season), they’re well aware of the need to handle things such as communication better. Payton broke down statistics for the team this summer and even pumped crowd noise into practices during OTAs -- something he had never done so early in the offseason. If nothing else, they’ll get used to hotel living, as they’ll spend three weeks at their new training camp site at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.
Tight end Benjamin Watson is confident there won’t be any lingering animosity between teammate Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints once they finally get their contract negotiations resolved.

Watson, who visited ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Connecticut, on Friday to serve as a guest analyst on a variety of programs, admitted Graham’s negotiations have been more public than most because of his franchise-tag grievance hearing. But he said it’s really no different than typical contract situations, which can also get heated at times.

[+] EnlargeBenjamin Watson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBenjamin Watson, 82, says he expects no lingering issues in the wake of Saints teammate Jimmy Graham's contract negotiations.
“I’m very confident that it’ll be resolved the right way and guys can move forward,” Watson said during a break between his on-air appearances. “Obviously it’s always tough when you go through litigation with somebody, and it can probably get heated. And I’m sure there are emotions on both sides. But that is the business side of the game.

“And it’s unfortunate that it came to that and that it was so public. But I really think -- I know, I don’t think -- I know that Jimmy loves New Orleans and I know that he loves our team and the organization and he loves playing here. And we love him, everybody wants him here, coaches included. So when it comes down to contract situations, that’s just a necessary evil. ... Not even evil, but just a necessary progression of getting a player here.”

Watson was asked specifically by host Robert Flores on the Football Today podcast about the unique situation where Saints coach Sean Payton essentially testified against Graham during Graham’s grievance hearing. And Watson admitted that he found that interesting, but he still classified it as part of the business side of the game.

“Welcome to the business side of football,” Watson said. “And a lot of times we don’t see this part because rarely does a situation make it all the way to arbitration. But that’s the business side of football. And it’s kind of no different than a contract situation where there’s a heated discussion over contracts, things are said back and forth. And in the end, both sides are able to amicably move on and back to the business of football once there’s an agreement in place.

“But I’m with you. I was thinking much the same thing when I heard that Coach Payton was having to testify, and I don’t know if he was testifying on his own accord or was being forced to, and I also don’t know what conversations he’s had with Jimmy since then and where their relationship stands. But I do know that if and when Jimmy makes it back, and hopefully sooner than later, things will be smoothed over and we'll get to trying to play Saints football and winning championships.”

Graham and the Saints have until Tuesday to work out a long-term contract agreement. Otherwise, Graham can only sign a one-year deal this season under the league's franchise-tag rules. If a long-term deal is not reached by Tuesday, the "business" could get even uglier since it could lead to a lengthy training camp holdout. But many times, deals get done at the 11th hour before these mid-July deadlines -- as was the case with the Saints and Drew Brees in 2012.

As for how the grievance hearing played out -- with arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruling that Graham is, in fact, a tight end instead of a wide receiver -- Watson said he always thought it would be a 50-50 proposition. But he thinks it will be important for the NFL and NFLPA to better clarify things in the future since the new breed of hybrid tight/end receiver is only growing around the league.

“You can even see with the decision, he kind of just had to make a line of demarcation when he talked about the four yards away from the tackle. So it’s still kind of vague,” Watson said of Burbank’s ruling. “I think that Jimmy is somewhat of a pioneer in that area because it got all the way to arbitration, but I think it’s going to come up again with other tight ends, especially because so many tight ends are coming up and being used as more traditional wide receivers, kind of in that in-between area. The NFL goes through change a lot and things evolve. And as the game changes and as players change, there has to be different conversations.”

Watson also talked about topics ranging from Brees to LeBron James on ESPN’s “First Take.” However, James’ signing began to dominate the news as the day went on, cutting short some of Watson’s appearance schedule.

This was the second time Watson has gone through the ESPN “Car Wash” during his 11-year NFL career. He has also served as a guest analyst frequently on the NFL Network and previously did some local TV work while with the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots.

Watson, who took part in the NFL’s “Broadcast Boot Camp” last year, said he “definitely” has an interest in broadcasting as a post-football career and just wanted to get in some “reps” during the offseason.
onside kickMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports  
Score: Saints 31, Colts 17
Date: Feb. 7, 2010. Site: Sun Life Stadium

Voting for the most memorable play in New Orleans Saints history was, as I expected, a tight race. The three nominees finished within percentage points of one another: The "Ambush" onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV won with 38 percent of the vote, followed by Tracy Porter's Super Bowl interception return (33 percent) and Steve Gleason's blocked punt in the Superdome re-opener after Hurricane Katrina in 2006 (29 percent).

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Saints' history?

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    38%
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    33%
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    29%

Discuss (Total votes: 34,564)

Personally, I was more partial to Gleason's block. I've never been around a moment that emotional at a sporting event -- or any other event. The symbolic rebirth of New Orleans on a national "Monday Night Football" stage transcended sports. But it was also a huge moment from a sports-specific angle, because it sparked a 3-0 start for the Saints that season on the way to the NFC Championship Game.

Former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who was around for all three of the nominated plays, said via Twitter: "Without Gleason's blocked punt, none of the other stuff happens. That moment was much bigger than just football."

I suspect that "Ambush" earned a number of votes from non-Saints fans as well as Who Dat Nation; it was such a memorable play that has since ranked on many lists of the top moments in Super Bowl history. The gutsy surprise play that started the second half also perfectly symbolizes the Saints' personality throughout the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era.

It was the first time a team had ever attempted an onside kick before the fourth quarter in a Super Bowl -- and it paid off big time. The Saints immediately followed with a touchdown, sparking their rally from a 10-6 halftime deficit.

And for those reasons, it probably gives the Saints the best chance to keep moving on in the overall "playoff" that ESPN will kick off next week among the winners from all 32 teams. I'm not sure it can top plays like "The Immaculate Reception," "The Catch" or "The Helmet Catch." But when it comes to unique moments throughout the game's history, "Ambush" certainly belongs in the conversation.
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.
METAIRIE, La. -- The only thing that stood out as much as Jairus Byrd’s absence from New Orleans Saints practice on Thursday was the presence of cornerback Patrick Robinson on the starting defense.

Robinson, who missed most of last season with a torn patellar tendon, was considered by many analysts to be on the bubble this offseason because of his rising salary and inconsistent production over the past two years. But the Saints have clearly remained committed to their former first-round pick.

It's far too early to rank the contenders for the No. 2 cornerback job with veteran Champ Bailey and third-year pro Corey White also heavily in the mix.

[+] EnlargePatrick Robinson
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsPatrick Robinson is battling Champ Bailey and Corey White for a starting spot opposite Keenan Lewis.
But it was good to see that Robinson will have a bona fide opportunity to get his career back on track.

"Look, he’s still a young player that we’ve seen develop,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Robinson, who turns 27 in September. “He’s someone that can run, that we think has good instincts. So I’m sure he’s just as anxious as we are to get out here healthy.

“We felt last offseason he did a lot of good things. So he’s right there as one of the guys competing for playing time and for a spot at that corner position.”

Robinson, a first-round pick out of Florida State in 2010, showed promise early in his career. But he’s had a rough stretch over the past two seasons.

He struggled in 2012 in his first year as a full-time starter -- though the entire defense struggled in that disastrous season in which the Saints set a NFL record for yards allowed under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Then last year, Robinson suffered a minor knee injury early in the summer that wiped out most of his preseason, followed by the season-ending injury in Week 2. He missed out on his chance to be part of the Saints’ stunning revival under new coordinator Rob Ryan.

“He’s been through a lot,” said Ryan, who said Robinson was looking great last summer before the injuries crept up. “He’s a special athlete, a unique guy that can bend. For such a big corner, he’s got natural bend. We’re going to have competition all over, but we think Patrick is going to be great for us, and we know he will be.

“It’s unique. We have competition everywhere on this team, and whoever lines up first out of the tunnel, I’m sure the other guys will be playing plenty. We’re going to put our best players out there. That’s what Sean [Payton] hired me to do, and I think I’m pretty good at identifying that and playing to our players’ strengths. That’s what we’ll do, and we’re going to be damn good at it.”

Robinson (5-foot-11, 191 pounds) has always stood out because of his speed and his knack for snagging interceptions. His seven picks from 2011-12 led the team over that two-year stretch.

He’s struggled more in press coverage -- something he’ll have to improve to fit in Ryan’s defense. And his confidence was an issue when he first started with the Saints, which is something he’ll have to regain quickly after such a long hiatus.

Robinson wasn't available for interviews Thursday, but Payton said he’s been impressed by his attitude.

“He is moving around well, and there is some rust I’m sure he is working through,” Payton said. “His rehab has been real good. He has worked real hard at it and he seems to be moving pretty fluidly. I am sure as he continues to do that and gets more comfortable with football movements, that’ll help. But he has had a good offseason with regards to his injury and how he has approached it.”
METAIRIE, La. – The first thing that stood out about cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste on the practice field during the New Orleans Saints’ rookie minicamp?

His size.

Duh.

[+] EnlargeStanley Jean-Baptiste
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesThe Saints love the versatility of second-round choice Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
Jean-Baptiste’s size was well-dissected before and after the draft. At 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, he has the height and length that NFL teams have started to crave more than ever in this age of bigger receivers – especially since the Seattle Seahawks dominated last year with an arsenal of big defensive backs.

But after talking with coaches Sean Payton and Rob Ryan and Jean-Baptiste on Saturday, it’s another trait that stands out most with the second-round draft pick from Nebraska:

His upside.

“This young guy, we’re getting a piece of clay. And (defensive backs coach) Wesley McGriff’s gonna mold him into something special,” Ryan said of Jean-Baptiste, who began his career at Nebraska as a wide receiver -- after first bouncing through a prep academy and a junior college.

“He’s a tremendous athlete. So he doesn’t just have size, he’s got everything,” Ryan said “He’s just green for the position. But for us, he’s the perfect guy.”

Jean-Baptiste officially became a Saint on Saturday when he signed his four-year contract -- becoming the fourth of New Orleans’ six draft picks to sign. Terms were not disclosed.

Jean-Baptiste will get a chance to compete for playing time opposite starter Keenan Lewis -- competing with veteran candidates like Champ Bailey, Corey White and Patrick Robinson. At the very least, the Saints may start out by using Jean-Baptiste in a specific role where they can take advantage of his press-coverage ability.

“I think he’s doing well,” Payton said Saturday. “I think there’s certain elements to his game that he’s further along at. He’s certainly comfortable at the line of scrimmage in a press technique because of his size. And that being said, because of his size, when you play more off-coverage, that transition becomes a little bit tougher.

“But so far, we really like what we’ve seen from him. He’s athletic, he’s got good ball skills, he played receiver, and he seems to be real smart.”

Jean-Baptiste also pointed to those ball skills when asked to describe his greatest strength at this stage.

He had a career-best four interceptions and 12 pass break-ups last year, finishing his three-year stint at Nebraska with seven interceptions and 22 break-ups.

“Well, a lot of people say my press. But I think it’s my ball skills. So that’s what I’m gonna go with,” said Jean-Baptiste, who said he doesn’t feel like he’s raw as a cornerback -- but admitted he still has plenty to learn at the next level.

“I feel pretty comfortable (as a defensive back). But knowing that I’m playing with different people now, there’s always something I can fix, my technique, get smarter,” Jean-Baptiste said. “With Coach ‘Crime Dog’ (McGriff), Coach Ryan, Sean Payton, they’ll help me out. So I’ll be alright.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks said he is “beyond excited” to join the New Orleans Saints’ versatile, creative offense. And Saints coach Sean Payton is obviously fired up about having such a dynamic and versatile new athlete to work with.

But they’re not the only ones who are intrigued by the possibilities.

Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said he’s also looking forward to watching what happens from across the field – especially since he won’t have to worry about defending it when it counts.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Matt Cohen/Icon SMIReceiver Brandin Cooks' potential has the Saints excited -- defensive coordinator Rob Ryan included. "This guy opens your eyes," Ryan said.
“Anytime a player is hand picked by Sean Payton to play offense at receiver, you’d better believe he’s gonna be something,” Ryan said between practice sessions at the Saints’ rookie minicamp Saturday. “So I’m anxious to see him. I’m out here watching and it’s like, ‘Oooh.’ This guy opens your eyes.

“You can feel his speed. It’s something that [the late Raiders owner] Al Davis used to say. ‘Can you feel his speed?’ You can feel his speed. So I’m looking forward to seeing him. Because I know how Sean … they’re gonna create roles to get this guy involved, and it’s gonna be awesome.”

For now, the Saints’ first-round draft pick is simply lining up at the X receiver position while they install their playbook – which is typical for all players at this stage of the offseason.

But once New Orleans gets into training camp and the preseason in July and August, Payton will no doubt find a lot of creative uses for the 5-foot-10, 189-pound receiver, who ran the fastest 40-yard dash (4.33 seconds) of any receiver at the NFL combine.

That’s certainly what former NFL coach Mike Riley did with Cooks in a pro-style offensive system at Oregon State, where Cooks led the nation with 128 catches for 1,730 yards last year with a combination of deep balls, slants and screens, among others. He also ran the ball at times and returned punts.

“He is versatile,” Payton said. “He’s obviously a receiver [first and foremost]. And I think we can line him up in the slot, line him up outside. [He has a] very good skill set with regards to acceleration, speed, catches the ball well. And I like his toughness.”

Cooks obviously couldn’t have hand picked a better offense for his skill set. Cooks said that’s both because of Payton’s creativity and quarterback Drew Brees’ penchant for spreading the ball around to whomever is open – something he said he appreciated from watching the Saints over the years.

“No doubt. When Coach Payton called [on draft] night and talked about some of the things we talked about, and how excited he was to use me in this offense …,” Cooks said. “And you look at Drew Brees’ stats, he’s getting the ball to all of his wide receivers. In the backfield, Kenny [Stills], Jimmy [Graham], [Marques] Colston, he’s getting the ball to everyone. So as a receiver when you see that, you get excited.”

Cooks said he feels like he’s been absorbing the playbook well so far, and he said it helps that a lot of the concepts and terminology are similar to the offense he ran at Oregon State.

Unfortunately, he’ll have to miss a chunk of OTAs over the next month since Oregon State is on a quarters system, and rookies can’t participate in OTAs until their school’s academic year has finished. But Cooks doesn’t think it will slow him down.

“[This weekend is] very important, to show that I can get comfortable with the playbook, I can pick up on things easily, and I can study. These five practices are extremely important to me,” Cooks said. “They drafted me for a reason, so I’ve gotta prove ‘em right now.”

NOTE: Stay tuned for more updates over the coming days from the Saints’ three-day rookie minicamp. Most sessions were closed to the media, but a portion of Saturday’s practice was open, followed by interviews.
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

METAIRIE, La. -- A wrap-up of the New Orleans Saints' draft. Click here for a full list of Saints draftees.

Best move: Trading up for dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks with the 20th pick in Round 1. Normally, I preach fans shouldn't expect too much from any draft pick in year one, but Cooks sure looks like he could make a huge impact right away for a Saints offense that suddenly needed some more juice after parting ways with veterans Darren Sproles and Lance Moore.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Matt Cohen/Icon SMIThe New Orleans Saints gained one of the more polished receivers in this draft class in Brandin Cooks, per ESPN's Scouts Inc. profile.
Cooks' combination of college production (128 catches for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State) and dynamic speed (4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash) makes the 5-foot-10, 189-pounder another matchup nightmare for coach Sean Payton to play with. Cooks could also take over the Saints' punt-return role -- another area in which they need some help.

But Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said that's more of a bonus than the reason Cooks got drafted.

"Obviously, we were aware of his skill [as a returner]," Loomis said. "But he also had 120-some catches. We're pretty happy with him as a receiver."

Riskiest move: The same answer. The Saints had to trade away a third-round pick to move up from No. 27 to No. 20. Obviously, I think Cooks was worth that risk, but it’s really the only move the Saints made that could qualify as a gamble. Many NFL teams cherish those midround picks.

Loomis, however, has always shown a willingness to trade up when the Saints have a conviction on a player, which was clearly the case in this instance. And he said the Saints' success with undrafted free agents has made them more willing to trade picks over the years.

Loomis said that third-round choice was "not inexpensive," and it would have been "a hard pill to swallow" to give up more than that. That's why the Saints didn't move higher into the teens ahead of the New York Jets, for example.

Most surprising move: Not drafting a center or guard. It wasn't a huge shock -- I ranked receiver and cornerback as the Saints' top two needs, and that's where they went in Rounds 1 and 2 with Cooks and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. But I did expect New Orleans to add an interior lineman at some point in the draft. Payton explained the Saints considered a handful of centers but never came close to drafting one. He said it wasn't a deep draft at the position in general, and the grades never lined up when New Orleans was on the clock.

That leaves the center position as the Saints' biggest question mark right now, but they're high on second-year pro Tim Lelito. I still think there's a strong chance they'll sign free-agent veteran Jonathan Goodwin to compete for the job.

File it away: What a change for Florida linebacker Ronald Powell to come into this draft as an unheralded fifth-round pick (No. 169 overall). Four years ago, Powell was rated as the No. 1 high school player in the country, according to ESPNU, but he never quite lived up to that potential and missed the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL that required two surgeries.

Powell is still an enticing athlete -- and he insisted those setbacks will only serve as motivation.

"I think he is hungry. It's very important to him. You get that sense specifically with that player," Payton said. "For every one of these guys, it's important. But every once in a while, you talk with one of these players, and that just stands out."
METAIRIE, La. -- Once again, the New Orleans Saints filled their most pressing need with the highest-rated player on their board Friday night, drafting Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round.

Coach Sean Payton acknowledged that cornerback was a position the Saints wanted to address in this year’s draft. And the board matched up well when Jean-Baptiste was still available with the 58th pick.

Payton said the Saints probably would have traded down if Jean-Baptiste didn’t fall to them.

“Stan was someone that was separate from the guys on our board. It ended up being a good fit for us,” Payton said.

Payton said the Saints also discussed the idea of trading up in the second round, despite already giving up their third-rounder to get receiver Brandin Cooks in the first round. Payton didn’t specify whether the move would have been for Jean-Baptiste.

Hope for running backs? The Saints didn’t have tunnel vision for corners only. In fact, Payton said the Saints even discussed LSU running back Jeremy Hill at one point -- despite being deep at running back already.

Payton brought that up when he was asked about how far the value of running backs seems to have fallen in recent years. The first running back didn’t go until the 54th pick in this year’s draft.

“Look, there will be another Adrian Peterson,” Payton said. “There will be another really good player that will hard to pass up on. So I think it’s just a matter of team’s needs and how they view or grade a player, but I don’t know if it will be a continuing trend. I think there is a feeling that you can find good running backs later in the draft or possibly in free agency, but that doesn't discount the notion of someone being a really unique and rare skill set of being taken still in the first round. I think that really is just how this class was graded.”

In good company: Naturally, Jean-Baptiste said he was excited to join a loaded Saints secondary that includes future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey and standout players like Jairus Byrd, Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro.

“I’m just happy to be part of it,” Jean-Baptiste said.

When asked specifically about Bailey, he said: “My reaction is I am excited really. Hopefully he will take me in with open arms and he can teach me what he knows.”

And when asked about defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, he said: “I love Rob Ryan, great defensive mind. You never know what he is going to bring, what kind of defense he is coming up with. I think he is just a great defensive coordinator.”

Long, winding road: Jean-Baptiste didn’t take a direct path to becoming a NFL cornerback. Because of academics, he spent time at a prep school and junior college before transferring to Nebraska, where he didn’t play as a redshirt fresman. Then he began his sophomore year as a receiver before switching positions.

But he said both experiences helped mold him.

“It just taught me a lot, growing up, that being on your own you just have to keep working at it, you can’t give up. Junior college really taught me all of that,” Jean-Baptiste said. “Going to Nebraska, it just sunk in and that’s when I started focusing up and understanding that I could go as far as I want to go.

“I think playing receiver helped me with a lot of things. It helped me with ball skills. It helped me read the formations real easy. It helped me break down the tendencies that receivers like to do. It helped me a lot.”

Finding a fit: Payton said the Saints will probably start with Jean-Baptiste in one specific role since he’s still a developing corner, rather than moving him around to a variety of spots.

Payton didn’t specifically address how he expects the competition to play out among Bailey, Corey White, Patrick Robinson and Jean-Baptiste, among, others for the No. 2 and 3 cornerback roles.

“I know Rob and his staff will look closely at what these guys do well,” Payton said. “His skill set as a young player and what we’ve seen is something that you get excited about, especially at that position. Because I mentioned last night there are certain positions, the pass rushers, the left tackles, the cornerbacks. Those [positions] are harder to find and they typically go pretty quick in the draft, especially the first day and a half or two days.”

Perfect name: Jean-Baptiste gets his name from his parents’ Haitian roots. But it sounds like it was made for New Orleans. In fact, New Orleans was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.
METAIRIE, La. -- The Pacific Southeast?

The New Orleans Saints continued to reshape their secondary in the mold of the Seattle Seahawks on Friday night when they drafted super-sized cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste out of Nebraska in Round 2.

[+] Enlarge Stanley Jean-Baptiste
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsCornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste's size (6-foot-3) has led to comparisons to Seattle corner Richard Sherman.
As coach Sean Payton pointed out, the Saints actually began the radical transformation of their secondary last year, when they signed free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in Round 1 of the 2013 draft.

But whether or not they were directly inspired by the Super Bowl champs, the Saints are clearly following the same playbook.

And suddenly, they've built the most loaded secondary east of Seattle after adding safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey earlier this offseason.

"Look, [the Seahawks] got a fantastic secondary. And we've had a chance to see it firsthand," Payton said. "But I think it was really trying to fit what we're doing. And a year-and-a-half ago, starting before last year's draft, we made an effort to really put a high value on size."

Jean-Baptiste (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) generated a lot of pre-draft buzz because of physical comparisons to Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman.

Some analysts, including the NFL Network's Mike Mayock, thought Jean-Baptiste might sneak into Round 1 because of that potential. ESPN's Todd McShay rated Jean-Baptiste 40th overall and said he "has a chance to be a steal."

And it was a timely move during a week in which the NFC South has only continued to load up on physical pass-catchers in this year's draft (receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins to Tampa Bay and receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Carolina).

"When you start looking at our division and you start looking at the receivers that we line up against, that size and length I think is really necessary," Payton said of a division that also includes Atlanta's Julio Jones and Roddy White and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson. "With the amount of bump-and-run coverage that we want to play, I think the longer corner helps in that regard. But I would also say the ball skills are important, because, offensively, when we play someone that doesn't have those ball skills, we [aren't afraid to target them].

"So you go into [the evaluation of Jean-Baptiste] with, 'What does he do well?' We think he can play press man [coverage], and his ball skills are something that we also put a value on."

Jean-Baptiste is still considered a bit of a developmental project even though he's 24 years old, so he won’t automatically leap ahead of fellow corners Bailey, Corey White and Patrick Robinson for playing time. But he might have the most long-term potential of the bunch.

Because of academics, Jean-Baptiste spent a year in prep school and a year at a community college before transferring to Nebraska, where he didn't play as a freshman. He began his sophomore season as a receiver before making the switch to cornerback.

By last season, he had really grown into the cornerback role, starting with an interception in each of his first four games.

"I was aware of it, everybody comparing me to Richard Sherman. I heard all of the rumors and all of the details. I was paying attention to everything they're saying," Jean-Baptiste said. "I think it had a big part to play in [my draft stock], but hopefully, the Saints picked me for the person I am and the skills that I bring."
METAIRIE, La. -- Some leftovers from our conversations with New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks and Saints coach Sean Payton on Thursday night:

Giving back to mom: Cooks already earned his first big professional pay day when he posted a blazing time of 4.33 seconds at the NFL scouting combine in February. Adidas awarded him $100,000 for running the fastest time of any athlete wearing a pair of special adidas cleats.

Cooks said that his first big purchase after winning that prize was a new Mercedes for his mother, Andrea.

“She needed one. She was driving around in a 1999 Saturn, and I wasn’t having that anymore,” said Cooks, whose mother raised him and his three older brothers after his father died of a heart attack when he was just 6 years old.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Matt Cohen/Icon SMIReceiver Brandin Cooks' potential has the Saints excited -- defensive coordinator Rob Ryan included. "This guy opens your eyes," Ryan said.
Cooks’ "gut" feeling: The Saints said they didn’t bring in Cooks for a visit to their facility because they were already sold on him. In fact, the last time they even spoke was at that February scouting combine.

However, Cooks insisted that he had a gut feeling he might wind up with the Saints. And he said he “knew something special was coming” when he saw them make the trade up to No. 20.

“At the combine when I had a formal interview with them I thought it was special, in the case when I walked out the door and I had that vibe,” Cooks said. “I definitely felt that since the combine. And hey, it happened, so I guess that I went with my gut feeling and that was the right thing to do.”

Same, but different: Cooks is actually the second Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver from Oregon State that the Saints have drafted during the Payton-Mickey Loomis era. The last one was Mike Hass, whom the Saints drafted in the sixth round in 2006.

Hass drew a lot of praise for his ability to catch everything in sight during summer camps. But he ultimately failed to make the roster, in part because he got beat out by a seventh-round pick from that year and an undrafted guy who had been on the Saints’ practice squad a year earlier (otherwise known as Marques Colston and Lance Moore).

Bargain price: The price the Saints paid to move up from No. 27 to No. 20 seemed appropriate based on recent history. They gave up their third-round draft choice (No. 91 overall) to the Arizona Cardinals. Two years ago, for example, the New England Patriots gave up the No. 93 pick to leap from 27 to 21.

However, the Saints’ trade was a bargain compared to a deal that occurred two picks later. The Cleveland Browns gave up the 83rd pick in the draft to move up from No. 26 to No. 22 to draft quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Art of the deal: We know the Saints have always been willing to aggressively move up in the draft when they believe a player is worthy – something Loomis expanded on in his pre-draft news conference. But they wouldn’t do it for just anybody.

Payton said the Saints made a list of players that would be worth moving up to get before the draft. And Cooks was the last player remaining on that list when they made their deal. He said the parameters were in place as the Cardinals’ pick approached. But the Saints weren’t sure Cooks would still be around until after the New York Jets’ pick at No. 18, since New York also had a need at receiver.

“You look ahead of you at the teams, but you also understand that the one unknown is always a team coming back in (and trading in front of you),” Payton explained. “There were a couple of teams that had a need at receiver. The Jets, before we made the trade officially, we really sat on that pick waiting. They went the direction of safety, and that all of the sudden made it apparent that this could happen.”

The Saints now have only five more picks remaining in this year’s draft, which means this will be the seventh straight year that they’ve come out of a draft with less than seven total picks (barring another trade).

But Loomis explained that the Saints have felt comfortable doing that over the years, in part because of their success with their undrafted free agents. Last year, seven of the Saints’ post-draft signings cracked the active roster.

Not pre-planned: Heading into this year’s draft, analysts and personnel executives universally agreed that the class was loaded with talent at the receiver position. But Payton said the Saints didn’t take that into account when they decided to part ways with Moore and runner/receiver Darren Sproles this offseason.

“No I wouldn’t say those decisions were based on the way this draft class shaped up,” Payton said. “Those were tough decisions, one with the trade and the other with a guy like Lance Moore. They weren’t predicated on the depth that we were looking at at all. They were separate.”

Along those same lines, Payton said the Saints didn’t feel like it was a must for them to add a dynamic speed element to their offense to fill the void left by those departed veterans. He said the pick was about Cooks’ value.

“I think we have some guys that can run. I think Robert Meachem can run. I think we have other players that are threats. Kenny Stills is someone. Nick Toon, who had a great training camp and didn’t receive as many opportunities a year ago … Joe Morgan will be coming back off an injury,” Payton said. “We have some team speed. This was more about the makeup of this player. Obviously we think he’s a good football player and a good receiver. He’s very confident.

“We felt there were eight players and maybe a little bit of a space with grades and then another clump. We just saw this guy as a real good fit. There were a few others the same way that might not have been at receiver.”

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