NFL Nation: Will Herring

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have reached an agreement with linebacker Will Herring on a one-year deal, according to sources.

Herring
Herring spent the last three seasons with the New Orleans Saints, playing mostly special teams and backup linebacker. He was the Saints' special teams captain in 2013.

In his three years with the Saints, Herring started three games and had 35 tackles, two interceptions and forced one fumble. He joined the Saints after a four-year run with the Seattle Seahawks. He had three tackles on defense and two on special teams in New Orleans' win against the Cowboys last season.

Herring is the third player the Cowboys have signed in free agency, joining Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain.
The New Orleans Saints have found a way to keep veteran linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith while still getting under the salary cap.

Larry Holder reports the Saints have restructured the contracts of Vilma and Smith, who were scheduled to count more than $23 million against the salary cap. It’s unclear how much cap space the restructures created, but it’s fair to assume both players took significant pay cuts. The Saints also released linebacker Will Herring.

But Vilma and Smith will have to go through a big transition as the Saints switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme. Smith still will play defensive end, but the change will be more pronounced for Vilma. He did not fit in a 3-4 scheme with the New York Jets earlier in his career and thrived in the middle after joining New Orlans’ 4-3 system.

But coach Sean Payton has said he’s confident Vilma can be a productive inside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme.

Checking injuries that matter most

October, 5, 2012
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The Friday injury reports for Sunday’s games are out, so let’s take a look at the most significant injuries around the NFC South.

Atlanta is listing safety William Moore (hip), center Todd McClure (pectoral) and fullback Lousaka Polite (hamstring) as questionable. If Moore can’t go, veteran Chris Hope likely would get the start. If McClure is out, the Falcons could go with either Joe Hawley or Peter Konz. If Polite sits out, I’d expect to see some of Jason Snelling at fullback, but I’d also expect to see the Falcons do the same thing they did last week and use some reserve offensive linemen at fullback.

The Carolina Panthers could be without two key defensive players as they play Seattle. Middle linebacker Jon Beason (knee) and cornerback Chris Gamble (shoulder) did not practice Friday and are listed as doubtful. The Panthers could play it safe and start Jason Phillips in the middle. Or they could take a chance and move outside linebacker Luke Kuechly to the middle, where he played in college. Kuechly isn’t off to a great start and switching positions could make things more difficult for him. Second-year pro Josh Thomas is the likely alternative if Gamble can’t go.

Receiver Lance Moore and linebacker David Hawthorne have been ruled out for Sunday night’s game with San Diego. With Moore out, veteran Greg Camarillo, who was re-signed this week, should get some playing time. Hawthorne missed last week’s game and so did his backup, Jonathan Casillas. But Casillas is expected to play this week, so the Saints will have to choose between him and Will Herring.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a bye, so there is no injury report for them.

Checking the injuries that matter most

September, 28, 2012
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The final injury reports are in for Sunday’s game, so let’s take a look at the most significant injuries around the division.

The news isn’t good for a New Orleans defense that already was struggling. Linebackers David Hawthorne and Jonathan Casillas and defensive end Turk McBride have been declared out for Sunday’s game at Green Bay. Casillas had been backing up Hawthorne. With both of them out, Will Herring appears likely to get the start.

Carolina middle linebacker Jon Beason (knee and shoulder) practiced Friday. Coach Ron Rivera said the team will see how sore Beason is Sunday before making a decision on his status. If Beason can’t play against Atlanta, Jason Phillips is expected to start in the middle. Running back Jonathan Stewart is listed as probable and expected to play for just the second time this season.

The Falcons have declared tight end Michael Palmer, cornerback Christopher Owens, running back Antone Smith and fullback Lousaka Polite out for Sunday. That means Dominique Franks likely will be used as the nickel back and running back Jason Snelling probably will get some time at fullback. Tommy Gallarda is expected to take Palmer’s place as the backup tight end.

The Buccaneers are relatively healthy compared to the other three teams. Reserve cornerback Anthony Gaitor is out for Sunday, but everyone else (including guard Carl Nicks and cornerback E.J. Biggers) is no worse than probable.
Click here for the complete list of New Orleans Saints roster moves.

Most significant move: The Saints have a history in recent years of finding obscure running backs (see Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory). They’ve done it again. Undrafted rookie Travaris Cadet made the roster. So did Thomas, Ivory, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles. That leaves the Saints very heavy at running back, but that’s not a bad thing. Cadet almost forced the Saints to keep him by having a tremendous preseason. Now, the Saints have the upper hand on any team looking for a running back. Sproles is likely untouchable, and I don’t see the Saints parting with Ingram, who joined them as a first-round pick last year. But Thomas and Ivory have shown they can do a lot of good things, and the Saints could add a future draft pick if a team that’s desperate to add a quality runner is willing to make a trade.

Onward and upward: One of the best kicking battles in NFL history was won by Garrett Hartley, who spent the summer kicking against veteran John Kasay. Both have kicked in the Super Bowl and both kicked well this summer. I don’t think there really was a clear winner. Kasay and Hartley finished in a dead heat, and the Saints made the logical decision. They went with the homegrown guy, who still has four seasons remaining on his contract. As long as Kasay, 42, wants to keep playing, he should be able to find another place to kick because he showed no signs of slipping with his preseason performance.

What’s next: The linebacker corps remains a question mark. Starters Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne have been injured, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be ready for the season opener. The only other linebackers on the roster are Scott Shanle, Jonathan Casillas, Will Herring and newly acquired Barrett Ruud. I’ve got a strong suspicion the Saints will bring in a linebacker (maybe two) from somewhere else in the next few days.

Observation deck: Saints-Texans

August, 25, 2012
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Some observations from the New Orleans Saints’ 34-27 preseason victory against the Houston Texans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Saturday night.

  • There’s no doubt the defense is a concern. But let’s keep a few things in mind. Houston is one of the league’s better offenses, the Saints were starting backup linebackers and, most importantly, the defense doesn’t have to be great when you’ve got Drew Brees and this offense. The Saints fell behind 14-0 quickly, but Brees put the Saints right back into the game. Brees and the offense are good enough to keep the Saints in any regular-season game.
  • With starting linebackers David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton sidelined by injuries, the Saints started Jonathan Casillas in the middle with Scott Shanle and Will Herring on the outside. Lofton has a high-ankle sprain and Hawthorne is recovering from knee surgery. There’s no guarantee they’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. At the start of training camp, I thought Herring wouldn’t be on the opening-day roster and Shanle would be pushed into a backup role. Casillas is an outside guy, who was forced into the middle because there really was no alternative. Veteran Barrett Ruud recently was brought in via trade and played in the second half, but I’m not sure he has much left. If the Saints have to go a few games into the regular season with that trio starting, they’ll have big problems. I’m thinking there’s a linebacker (or two) on another roster at the moment that could end up with the Saints shortly.
  • I did see some individual bright spots on the defense. Second-year defensive end Cameron Jordan produced an early sack, even though he blatantly was held. I really believe Jordan will prosper in the system of coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is another guy I think is going to emerge in Spagnuolo’s system. Jenkins showed signs of that when he read a reverse perfectly and popped the ball out of Keshawn Martin’s hands for a fumble that was recovered by Will Smith.
  • I think it was pretty telling that rookie cornerback Corey White was getting some playing time in the first quarter. White knocked a ball out of Martin’s hands and Sedrick Ellis recovered. It’s looking more and more like White is going to get some playing time in the nickel and dime packages.
  • A couple of other young defensive players that I think are on the rise made big plays on special teams. Safety Isa Abdul-Quddus forced a Trindon Holliday fumble on a kickoff return and defensive end Junior Galette scooped it up and raced in for a touchdown.
  • The competition for the fourth running back spot between Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet continues to provide some drama. Ivory lost a fumble on the first drive. But Ivory might have redeemed himself with some nice running in the third quarter, although that came against Houston’s second-team defense. But Cadet also looked good as a receiver out of the backfield. This one is going to be a very close call.
  • Speaking of guys fighting for roster spots and fumbles, wide receiver Joseph Morgan put the ball on the ground once. He made a nice catch, but kept fighting too long after his forward progress was stopped by three guys and one of them popped the ball loose. Morgan’s fumble led to a quick and easy touchdown for Houston. But Morgan might have redeemed himself a bit with a fourth-quarter touchdown catch.
  • Tight end Jimmy Graham won’t say if he bulked up in the offseason, but he sure looks like he did. If so, it hasn’t slowed him down a bit. Graham looks even better than he did last season, when he had 99 catches.
METAIRIE, La. -- As he prepares for his third NFL season, it sounds as if New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has figured out the secret to NFL success.

"I was told to never tug on Superman’s cape," Graham said.

He was talking about quarterback Drew Brees. Graham noted how the quarterback challenged him to a sprint race at the start of training camp and said he let Brees win. Graham was partly joking, but there was some deep wisdom in his words.

More than ever, the Saints are Brees’ team. They’ve been through an offseason unlike one any other team has faced. They’ve been through the painful drama of the bounty scandal and they’ll move forward without coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season, and general manager Mickey Loomis, who is suspended for the first eight games.

Brees, the league's highest-paid player, is coming off a season in which he set a NFL single-season record for most passing yards. No, let other teams try to tug on Brees’ cape. If the Saints really are going to endure all this adversity successfully, they need Brees’ skill and leadership more than ever. They need to ride the coattails of the most positive thing they have at the moment.

Brees knows this high-flying offense as well as anyone, including Payton. The Saints remain loaded at offensive skill positions. There’s little doubt this team still is going to score a lot, and that alone will keep it competitive.

But Brees can’t do everything by himself. Even before the word "bounty" started flying in March, the Saints knew they had to overhaul their defense. That became clear in last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco. That’s why defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired. Predecessor Gregg Williams had a gambling philosophy, going all-out to produce turnovers. The negative side effect was that the Saints gave up too many big plays.

Spagnuolo brings a more balanced philosophy. Sure, he wants turnovers, but he also wants to be able to shut down offenses from time to time. A big theme of this camp is the installation of Spagnuolo’s defense. Even though that’s not his side of the ball, Brees shows a lot of interest in the defense. Even in camp, the Saints are implementing game plans.

“[Spagnuolo] is going to try to find every flaw, just like we are going to do to them,’’ Brees said. “Along the way, I am certainly going to be picking his brain as to what he is seeing with our offense, how we can improve. That is how you help one another. That is a habit that we got into, me talking to the defensive guys, even if it is just the secondary guys, saying, 'You give away that blitz whenever you do this.' We are competing against each other, but in the end we are on the same team. I want them to be able to go out and have as much success as possible, just like they want us, on game day, to have as much success as possible.”

Maybe that’s the best way to improve the New Orleans defense. Practice against Superman every day. After you’ve been through that, everything else should be easy.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Mark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREMark Ingram rushed for 474 yards and five touchdowns during his rookie season with the Saints.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Mark Ingram’s playing time. Fan expectations for Ingram might be significantly higher than the team's. That’s somewhat understandable, because the Saints traded back into the first round in 2011 to draft Ingram. He played at a college powerhouse (Alabama) and won a Heisman Trophy. Instant stardom was expected by fans, but it didn’t turn out that way in Ingram’s rookie season.

He finished with 122 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns. Injuries were part of the reason his numbers weren’t bigger. But even before the injuries, Ingram shared playing time with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory did a nice job joining the rotation after Ingram’s injury problems started. Ingram had a couple of offseason surgeries and said he’s completely healthy.

But that doesn’t mean Ingram suddenly is going to become a 300-carry guy. New Orleans’ offense is based on diversity, and that’s not going to change. The Saints aren’t going to take playing time away from Sproles, who set an NFL record for all-purpose yards last season, and Thomas is going to play because he has earned it with his performance.

Assuming Ingram stays healthy, I expect him to get more carries than last season, but a 200-carry season for about 800 yards is a reasonable expectation.

2. Will the linebackers be better than last season? I think they’ll be markedly better. Many believe the season-long suspension of Jonathan Vilma is going to hurt the Saints. If this were two or three years ago, I’d agree. But Vilma was bothered by knee problems last season, and his age seemed to be catching up to him. I think free-agent addition Curtis Lofton is an upgrade over Vilma in the middle. In fact, I think Lofton is pretty similar to what Vilma was two or three years ago. The Saints will be just fine in the middle.

Plus, the Saints didn’t sit still at outside linebacker. They signed free agents David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. It looks as if Hawthorne is well on his way to winning a starting job. That leaves Chamberlain competing with Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas for the other starting job. There’s no true favorite here, and Shanle is the fallback option as the safe choice because he’s smart and dependable. But Chamberlain, Herring and Casillas are more athletic and at least come with the possibility of producing big plays. The hope is that one of those three can step forward to win the starting job.

3. Can the offensive line, minus Carl Nicks, be as good as last season? Nicks took the big money and left for Tampa Bay in free agency. Losing a player many scouts consider the best guard in the NFL must take a toll. But the Saints already had Jahri Evans, who might be the closest thing to Nicks. Loomis did a nice job getting Ben Grubbs to replace Nicks. Grubbs isn’t quite on the Nicks/Evans level, but he’s an above-average player and came at a much lower salary than Nicks. The Saints build their offensive line around the interior, and Evans and Grubbs will form a very strong guard tandem.

Brian de la Puente did a nice job taking over at center last year and should be fine with Grubbs and Evans surrounding him. The tackles are more of a question. The Saints are sticking with Jermon Bushrod on the left side and Zach Strief on the right. They’re serviceable, but Bushrod and Strief aren’t all-pros, and the presence of Evans and Grubbs should be enough to keep this offensive line among the better ones in the league.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Spagnuolo’s history. There is legitimate concern about the pass rush, because Spagnuolo likes it to come mostly from his front four. Aside from defensive end Will Smith, who will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints don’t have a proven pass-rusher. Many fans are worked up about the potential of Junior Galette and converted linebacker Martez Wilson. Those guys could turn into something, but maybe fans aren’t looking in the right direction.

Second-year pro Cameron Jordan might be a big factor. Yeah, I know that sounds like a stretch because Jordan had one sack as a rookie, but he was a first-round pick and still has plenty of untapped potential. There’s more than that, though. Look at Spagnuolo’s past. When he became defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 2007, Justin Tuck had gone through two NFL seasons with one sack. In Spagnuolo’s first season, Tuck had 10. In 2008, Tuck recorded 12.

If Spagnuolo can get anything close to double-digit sacks from Jordan, he may have short- and long-term answers for his pass rush.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

How much adversity can one team take? The Saints will use all that happened to them in the offseason as a rallying cry, providing strong motivation. But it’s tough for any team to ride one emotion (anger, in this case) for an entire season. This franchise has been through a lot, and you have to worry about that taking a toll at some point.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees and Tom Benson
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREWith a new contract and instability in the coaching staff, Drew Brees will be asked to be even more of a leader for Tom Benson's Saints.
You also have to worry about the Saints being a target for opponents, especially those who spent the past few months hearing that the bounty program had targeted some of their own players. Then throw in the fact that assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has run the team in Payton’s absence, must serve a six-game suspension at the start of the season. At that point, the Saints are expected to make another of their assistants the acting head coach. Yes, this is a veteran team with outstanding leadership, but it sure looks like a lot of things are stacked against the Saints.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • There was a lot of buzz about cornerback Marquis Johnson in the first few days of camp. He made some nice plays and usually was around the ball. The Saints hope second-year pro Johnny Patrick can be their No. 3 cornerback after starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson. But Johnson has a chance to compete with Patrick and may have one slight advantage. The third-year player spent his first two seasons in St. Louis, where Spagnuolo was the coach. Johnson knows the system, and that might be why he’s off to a fast start in camp. If he can sustain it, he’ll have a chance to move past Patrick. At worst, Johnson has a chance to be the fourth cornerback and a key player on special teams.
  • The Saints have almost an embarrassment of riches at kicker. They have Garrett Hartley back from an injury that kept him out last season and veteran John Kasay, who filled in nicely for Hartley. Hartley and Kasay each have made a lot of big kicks in their careers. Although Kasay is 42, he’s not showing signs of slowing. Hartley has the stronger leg, but Kasay has been a model of consistency throughout his career. The Saints will let this competition play throughout camp. If it ends in a dead heat, it might be the toughest call of all when it’s time to trim the roster. Brought in by Loomis, Hartley has earned a spot in franchise history with some clutch kicks. But Loomis and Kasay go all the way back to the early 1990s, when they were together in Seattle.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about New Orleans’ young wide receivers early in camp. Adrian Arrington, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Andy Tanner and Chris Givens have made spectacular catches. But let’s keep that in perspective. Those catches came before the Saints put pads on and before defenders could hit. The Saints are looking for fourth and fifth receivers, but let’s not anoint any of these guys yet. The preseason games will determine who wins the final roster spots at receiver. Arrington’s entering his third season, and it’s time for him to start showing something. Toon comes in after a solid career at Wisconsin. They probably are the favorites to make the roster at this point. But Morgan, Tanner and Givens might be able to change the pecking order if they can make catches in traffic in preseason games.
  • The Saints thought they might get an eventual starter when they drafted Charles Brown in 2010. There was even hope that he might turn into the long-range solution at left tackle. That hasn’t come close to happening. Bushrod has settled in nicely at left tackle. The Saints hoped Brown at least would be able to start at right tackle. But that hasn’t happened, either. Strief beat out Brown for the starting job last season. When Strief was injured, Brown got playing time, but his play wasn't pretty. (If you don’t believe me, look at the tape of the loss to the Rams.) The Saints still say that Strief and Brown are competing for the starting job this season, but Strief has received all of the first-team work, and I didn't hear any buzz at all about Brown from coaches. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure Brown even will be on the roster when the regular season starts.
  • Speaking of offensive linemen who could be on the bubble, don’t forget Matt Tennant. The Saints drafted Tennant in 2010, thinking he'd be the heir apparent to Jonathan Goodwin at center. It hasn’t worked out that way. When Goodwin left via free agency last year, the Saints took an early look at Tennant and quickly signed Olin Kruetz, the former Bears star. When Kruetz abruptly decided to retire, the Saints didn’t turn back to Tennant. They turned to de la Puente, who now has a strong grip on the starting job. Like Brown, Tennant could be fighting for a roster spot. The Saints used to have a good reputation for finding offensive linemen beyond the first round of the draft (Evans, Nicks and Bushrod), but Brown and Tennant may have eroded that trend.
  • The Saints appear set with Graham and David Thomas at tight end. Graham is a great pass-catcher, and Thomas is a jack of all trades. But keep an eye on Michael Higgins, who spent much of last year on the practice squad before getting promoted to the regular roster late in the season. Higgins already has demonstrated he can block, and showed signs of being a good receiver early in camp. Thomas has had injury problems, and the Saints may not want to overuse him. Higgins could provide another alternative.
  • There has been talk that strong safety Roman Harper might not be a great fit in Spagnuolo’s defense because he isn’t known for great coverage skills. But I believe Spagnuolo will find a way to make this defense work for Harper. There’s really not an alternative behind him. His backup is Jonathon Amaya, whose only claim to fame is that he was part of the Reggie Bush trade.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints will be hitting the field for their first practice of training camp late Thursday afternoon.

I’ll be out there gathering information for my Camp Confidential profile on the Saints, which is scheduled to run Monday, as well as stuff for our season preview that will be running late in the preseason. I’ll also be providing some live updates after practice and interviews.

This will be one of the more unique seasons in NFL history, because coach Sean Payton is suspended for the season and other members of the organization will serve suspensions at various times. So let’s run through a quick preview of some of the things I’ll be watching.

[+] EnlargeJoe Vitt
AP Photo/Margaret BowlesJoe Vitt will be the Saints' acting head coach in training camp, but will serve a six-game suspension to start the regular season.
The chemistry of the coaches: Assistant head coach Joe Vitt has been running things during the offseason, and will continue to do so during training camp. But Vitt will have to serve his suspension during the first six games of the regular season. It has been reported that offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will take over for Vitt, but the team hasn’t made any official announcement. Putting Kromer in the top spot makes sense, because it allows coordinators Steve Spagnuolo and Pete Carmichael to focus on the defense and the offense. Vitt has been Payton’s right-hand man since their arrival in New Orleans in 2006, so training camp is likely to look like business as usual for the players. But it’s going to be different for the coaches. After a bizarre offseason, the coaches have to use training camp to prepare for what will be a major change at the start of camp.

Running back Mark Ingram: He didn’t have a huge impact as a rookie because of injuries and a steady rotation in the backfield. But Ingram was a first-round pick, and the expectations are high. We’ll first find out if he’s healthy. If he is, then we’ll start to see how he will fit into a backfield that’s crowded with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory.

Junior Galette: New Orleans fans have had a fascination with this guy since he arrived in 2010. It’s understandable, because the defensive end has a unique combination of size and speed, and has shown flashes of promise in the past two training camps. That didn’t translate into much in Galette’s rookie season, but there were some signs last season, that he could be an impact player. Galette produced 4.5 sacks as a part-time player. With Will Smith expected to serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints are looking for a pass-rusher. Galette and second-year pro Martez Wilson, who is making the transition from linebacker to defensive end, have the most upside of the younger players in camp. If they continue to develop, they could take on major roles in the regular season.

The young cornerbacks: Patrick Robinson and Johnny Patrick are a lot like Galette and Wilson. They’re young, have a lot of potential, and likely will get a lot more playing time than they have in the past. With Tracy Porter departing as a free agent, the Saints are expecting Robinson to step into the starting role opposite Jabari Greer, and Patrick to become the nickel back. This is all part of a master plan. The Saints were preparing for Porter’s departure when they drafted Robinson and Patrick.

The changes at linebacker: No position received more attention in the offseason. Knowing Jonathan Vilma could face suspension, and realizing that the linebacker play wasn’t great last season, the Saints added Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain as free agents. They still have veterans like Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas. Other than Lofton in the middle, no one is guaranteed a starting job. The Saints are going to throw all the other linebackers out there in camp, let them compete and see who steps up to earn starting jobs.

Saints: One big question

May, 3, 2012
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Is there any hope after the bounty scandal?

Going an entire season without coach Sean Payton is far from ideal. But, aside from that, the Saints -- by planning, luck or a combination of the two -- didn’t come out of this horrid offseason with nearly as many offseason problems as they could have.

Really, all they're losing as far as personnel is defensive end Will Smith for the first four games of the season. Yeah, I know linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the entire season. With all due respect to Vilma, he was a great player a few years ago, but he’s on the downside of his career and the Saints upgraded when they signed free-agent Curtis Lofton. Just for insurance, they also signed linebackers David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. Throw the new guys in with Scott Shanle, Martez Wilson, Jonathan Casillas and Will Herring, and the Saints are stronger at linebacker than they were last season.

If new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can figure out a way to generate a pass rush without Smith (and improve it when he returns), the Saints will be just fine on defense. We already know they’re just fine on offense, assuming quarterback Drew Brees’ contract situation gets worked out. There might be a few more weeks or months of drama on that end, but I don’t see any way the Saints go into the season without Brees' having a long-term deal.

Get Brees back in there, and the Saints could combine marketing campaigns with the NBA’s Hornets, who were just purchased by Saints owner Tom Benson. The Saints truly are a hornet’s nest right now. They (and their fans) are steaming mad at the NFL, the media and pretty much everyone outside of their world. You can see an “us-against-the-world mentality’’ building. As motivational ploys go, that’s not a bad one. Oh, here's a little more motivation. The Super Bowl is in New Orleans. The Saints and their fans could show up the NFL if they make it to the Super Bowl.
As severe as the New Orleans Saints’ player suspensions were for their three-year bounty program, they’re not entirely devastating.

Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season and defensive end Will Smith will be suspended for the first four games. That’s all, as far as current Saints go. Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, drew an eight-game suspension and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, will be suspended for the first three games of the season.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Vilma
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireJonathan Vilma had a down season in 2011, collecting 54 tackles in 11 games.
But let’s stick to the current Saints and how this latest news impacts them. There’s no doubt Vilma’s suspension is severe. But the overall news wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The NFL initially said 22 to 27 players were involved in the bounty program and there was fear many more current Saints could end up with suspensions.

But only Vilma and Smith ended up drawing suspensions. Those two have been defensive leaders for the Saints in recent years, but their suspensions aren’t going to gut the New Orleans defense.

The Saints had spent the offseason bracing for a possible lengthy suspension for Vilma, although I suspect the full season is about half a season longer than what the Saints suspected. But they were proactive at linebacker. They went out and got free agent Curtis Lofton from Atlanta. They also added David Hawthorne from Seattle and Chris Chamberlain from St. Louis.

Let’s be real honest here. As great as Vilma was in the Saints' 2009 Super Bowl season and maybe even in 2010, he had a down year in 2011. He tried to play through a knee injury before finally having knee surgery that kept him out for five games. Even after his return, Vilma wasn’t the same player he was in earlier seasons.

Plug Lofton, who is younger and healthier, in as the starting middle linebacker and the Saints may have an upgraded linebacker corps. Hawthorne and Chamberlain also can play outside and they’ll compete with Scott Shanle, Jonathan Casillas, Martez Wilson and Will Herring for playing time. The Saints are pretty well set at linebacker.

Defensive end is another story and the Saints will have to get through contests against the Redskins, Panthers, Chiefs and Packers without Smith, who led the team with 6.5 sacks last season. That will be a challenge, especially in a system in which new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likes to get the bulk of his pass rush from the front four.

Smith is the only member of the front four with a proven track record of getting pressure on quarterbacks. Cameron Jordan, who had one sack as a rookie, was projected as a starter even before Smith’s suspension. The Saints could go with Turk McBride or Junior Galette (or a combination of the two) at the other end spot.

But it also is entirely possible the Saints will try to find another defensive end (or two) in free agency.
Seattle Seahawks fans might recall linebacker David Hawthorne, then an emerging player, firing his agent and waiting til the last minute before signing a new contract in 2010.

Hawthorne was an exclusive-rights free agent at the time, meaning he had one choice: take a minimal one-year offer or hold out.

Exclusive-rights free agents usually re-sign as a matter of course, but not Hawthorne.

That series of events came to mind Tuesday when the New Orleans Saints announced they had reached agreement with Hawthorne as an unrestricted free agent.

A humbling market for inside linebackers suggested the Seahawks might be able to re-sign Hawthorne at a bargain rate, but pride sometimes intervenes. Players forced to take less money than anticipated sometimes feel more comfortable doing so elsewhere.

It's too early to say whether that was the case with Hawthorne. Initial news reports said contract terms were not available.

While Hawthorne led the Seahawks in tackles over the past three seasons, the Seahawks made other players higher priorities this offseason. They re-signed Red Bryant to a $35 million deal. They signed Matt Flynn for three years and $19 million.

Hawthorne visited Detroit and New Orleans. With the Saints, he joins former Seahawks teammate Will Herring. Hawthorne also gets a chance to start at middle linebacker if and when incumbent Jonathan Vilma serves a bounty-related suspension, as yet unannounced.

The Seahawks are hurting for experienced depth at linebacker, but their leadership has welcomed the opportunity to address needs in the draft. K.J. Wright, a fourth-round choice in 2011, played well enough right away for the team to feel good about dumping Aaron Curry. Malcolm Smith, a seventh-rounder in 2011, is another young prospect.

Seattle appeared likely to address linebacker in the 2012 draft with or without Hawthorne in the picture. Boston College's Luke Kuechly is one option in the first round. The Seahawks have also fared well finding defensive starters in the middle rounds, from Wright to starting cornerback Richard Sherman, to Pro Bowl strong safety Kam Chancellor.

Re-signing veteran linebacker Leroy Hill is another option for Seattle.

David Hawthorne to visit Saints

March, 14, 2012
3/14/12
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The New Orleans Saints are bringing in free-agent linebacker David Hawthorne for a visit Friday, a league source said.

Hawthorne, 26, spent the last four seasons in Seattle and emerged as a starter in 2009. Hawthorne had a career-high three interceptions last season and also was in on 115 tackles.

Hawthorne has played primarily in the middle, but has played some on the outside. The Seahawks are interested in keeping him, but don’t want to overpay.

The Saints seem to be in transition at linebacker with Jo-Lonn Dunbar on the free-agent market and some uncertainty about the future of Jonathan Vilma and Will Herring. Vilma is coming off a knee injury and has a high salary-cap figure. Herring, who was signed last year from Seattle, didn’t produce last season and could be a cap casualty.

The Saints have some familiarity with Hawthorne, who they played against in a playoff game after the 2010 season. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was also previously the head coach in St. Louis and saw a lot of Hawthorne in the NFC West.

Saints: Who's on the hot seat?

February, 27, 2012
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We’ll continue our look at which NFC South players could be on the hot seat because of salary-cap casualties with the New Orleans Saints.

At the moment, the Saints are under the cap, but that’s only temporary. They’re trying to re-sign quarterback Drew Brees to a new contract and that alone could put them over the cap. In addition to Brees, they also have key players Marques Colston and Carl Nicks that they would like to prevent from departing in free agency. They also have some lesser potential free agents in receiver Robert Meachem and cornerback Tracy Porter that, in a perfect world, they would like to keep.

But this isn’t a perfect world and the Saints are probably going to have to make some painful cap moves.

That means two prominent defensive veterans are candidates for release or restructure. Defensive end Will Smith is scheduled to count $10.15 million against the cap. Although Smith is their top pass rusher, the Saints could free up $6.15 million by releasing him. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the leader of the defense in recent years, is scheduled to count $7.6 million against the cap. The Saints could free up $3.6 million by releasing Vilma. The Saints might not be ready to part with Vilma and Smith, so restructuring is a possibility for each. But Vilma is coming off knee surgery and the Saints have all the medical reports. If Vilma's knee looks like it could be a lingering problem, the Saints might have to make the difficult move of releasing one of their team leaders.

Linebacker Will Herring is scheduled to count $1.7 million against the cap. He wasn’t much of a factor last season and seems to be a prime candidate for release because the Saints could free up $1.1 million by cutting him.

Wide receiver Devery Henderson would appear to be an easy release because he’s scheduled to count $3.6 million against the cap and the Saints could free up $2.8 million by releasing him. But that’s not a given. If the Saints lose Colston and Meachem, they’ll need to keep Henderson.

Two other players are long shots to be released, but they’re at least possibilities because of their high cap figures and the fact the Saints could be in crisis mode. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is scheduled to make $6.9 million and the Saints could free up $5.2 million by releasing him. Bushrod made the Pro Bowl last season and has grown into a solid player. He’s heading into the final year of his contract and one possible solution would be to extend his contract to knock down this year’s cap figure.

Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis is scheduled to count $7.6 million against the cap and the Saints could save over $5 million by releasing him. Ellis never has become the dominant player the Saints hoped for when they used a first-round pick on him. But, when healthy, Ellis has been decent and the solution here might be an extension for Ellis that would spread out his cap hit over a longer period of time.

Wrap-up: Saints 31, Lions 17

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
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A few thoughts on a closer-than-expected game at the Superdome:

What it means: The Detroit Lions have now lost five of their last seven games, all to teams in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt, to fall to 7-5. Sunday night's loss clinched the NFC North for the Green Bay Packers and left the Lions in the seventh seed of the NFC's six-team playoff field.

Costly penalties: Ndamukong Suh's teammates didn't seem to get the message sent by his two-game suspension. They had at least three inexcusable post-whistle personal fouls. Receiver Titus Young cost his team a goal-line opportunity and forced it to settle for a field goal. Kick returner Stefan Logan threw the ball at the Saints' Will Herring after a return, and tight end Brandon Pettigrew was penalized for trying to kick and trip Saints safety Roman Harper. That was 45 lost yards right there. Scrutiny will increasingly turn to Lions coach Jim Schwartz to get this team under control.

StaffordWatch: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford put together a whale of a game, completing 31 of 44 passes for 408 yards and did not throw an interception until the Lions were in desperation mode late in the fourth quarter. It's probably not a coincidence that Stafford wasn't wearing gloves to protect a fractured right index finger. He had thrown nine interceptions in three previous games while wearing the gloves.

Undermanned: The Lions couldn't have been too upset with the way their defense played without Suh, safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston. They actually held the Saints 10 points below their average for home games this season.

What's next: The Lions will host the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday at Ford Field.

Rapid Reaction: Saints 49, Giants 24

November, 29, 2011
11/29/11
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NEW ORLEANS -- Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints’ 49-24 win against the New York Giants on Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

What it means: The Saints are 8-3 and still alone at the top of the NFC South. They also have the city of New Orleans rocking as the season comes down to crunch time. When teams have to come into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for prime-time games late in the season, the Saints have a huge home-field edge. They’ve got the Lions coming in for a prime-time game Sunday, and the Falcons come to New Orleans the night after Christmas. If the Saints win the NFC South and get the No. 3 seed, they’re pretty much guaranteed a trip to the NFC Championship Game, which could be a return trip to Lambeau Field, where the Saints started the season with a close loss to the Packers. But, hey, I'm thinking anything is possible for the Saints right now. This season is starting to remind me a lot more of 2009 than 2010.

The streak is over: The Saints had lost the coin toss in each of their first 10 games. That ended Monday night as they won the toss and elected to receive.

What I liked: Everything on offense. The Saints have so many weapons, and coach Sean Payton and Drew Brees use them all so well, it’s almost unfair for a defense to have to put only 11 players on the field. It might have been a little hard to notice because of Brees' ridiculous passing numbers, but the Saints also ran the ball pretty well.

The confidence factor: I wasn't crazy about it at the time when Payton went with a fake field goal on the first drive. It didn't work. But he basically was saying, "I don't care if we score here or not. This offense is going to put up so many points that it won't matter if we get seven, three or zero points here." He was right.

What I didn’t like: New Orleans’ defense gave up way too many yards. Then again, it didn’t really matter because there was no way a depleted New York defense was going to stop Brees and the New Orleans offense. But New Orleans still needs some improvement on defense, or that might come back to bite the Saints in the postseason.

Unsung hero: Linebacker Will Herring was hurt much of the early part of the season, and we haven’t seen much of him since he’s been healthy. But Herring showed up big, intercepting Eli Manning in the first quarter.

What’s next: The Saints host the Detroit Lions on Sunday night.

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