NFL Nation: Will Smith

Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- Examining the Dallas Cowboys' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

The Kyle Orton watch is over now that the Cowboys released the veteran backup. The timing of it is a surprise, and Jason Garrett spoke optimistically all offseason about Orton’s return. Now the Cowboys turn their attention to Weeden as Romo’s backup. Weeden had a productive spring, running the first-team offense as Romo recovered from back surgery. The Cowboys haven’t kept a third quarterback since 2011, and Caleb Hanie and Dustin Vaughan will have work to do to crack the 53-man roster

RUNNING BACKS (4)


The last two spots could be up in the air. Randle, a fifth-round choice, will be pushed by free-agent pickup Ryan Williams in the preseason. Williams, a former second-round pick, was not able to stay healthy in Arizona. The Cowboys have given him a chance to win a backup job. Clutts did a nice job as a late-season pickup in 2013. He is more versatile than undrafted rookie J.C. Copeland, but I don’t think having a fullback on the 53-man roster is set in stone.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)


I debated whether to go with a sixth, but later on you will see why I stuck with five. It is possible the Cowboys will look for a veteran in the final cuts if they feel limited by their depth because of injury, but I think they like the overall group. They will work their No. 3 receiver role on a rotation basis, but Beasley could emerge as a bigger threat on third down. There will be a lot of eyes on Williams, who takes over the No. 2 role on a full-time basis. Bryant is set for another Pro Bowl-type season.

TIGHT ENDS (3)


Witten remains near the top of the game at his position. His total catches were down last year, but his touchdowns were up. Escobar’s role figures to expand, especially as a No. 3-type receiver. Hanna has the inside track on the third spot, but I have a feeling the Cowboys will be looking for more of a traditional blocker, especially if they want to get away from the fullback spot to open up a role elsewhere.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9)

The top six are set, with Bernadeau or Leary fighting it out for the left guard position and the loser becoming the top backup on the interior. Parnell is in the final year of his deal, and if Weems develops, I wonder if the Cowboys would look for a trading partner. They have invested a lot in Parnell in time and money for him to be a backup, so it would be a risk, but perhaps one worth taking. Weems had a decent offseason. Clarke gets the nod as the No. 9 guy right now, but veteran Uche Nwaneri could work his way into the mix.

DEFENSIVE LINE (10)

I think the Cowboys will go heavy here, especially considering what happened last year and the numbers they have thrown at the position this year. Four of them are rookies -- Lawrence, Gardner, Bishop and Coleman. I believe Anthony Spencer and possibly Amobi Okoye will start the year on the physically unable to perform list, so they don’t make this 53-man roster with the idea that they join the team after the sixth game of the season. Wilson garnered the last spot over a 2013 starter, Nick Hayden, but there will be a few players in the mix for the final few spots, including Ben Bass.

LINEBACKER (7)

Carrying seven linebackers might be a little heavy, but I have special teams in mind when it comes to Will Smith. He benefits from having only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. The Cowboys spent the offseason telling us games are won and lost up front, so carrying an extra offensive or defensive linemen could get in this mix as well. McClain gets a spot only because of his experience. Backups of Holloman, Hitchens and Smith would be tough considering their youth, and I can see the Cowboys looking for veteran backup help around the final cut dates.

CORNERBACK (5)


Carr and Claiborne have to play exceptionally well for this defense to have a chance, and they might have to do it without much help from a consistent pass rush. Scandrick is coming off his best season, and Claiborne will have to beat him out to reclaim the starting spot. Moore can play inside and out. Mitchell showed in his limited offseason work that he can make plays. Last year’s fourth-round pick, B.W. Webb, will have to fight for a spot. Based on his offseason work, he did not make the cut for this roster.

SAFETY (5)

Church is the only player without questions. The Cowboys are projecting the other four with their biggest bet on Wilcox. He enters camp as the starter, but he could be pushed by Heath and Hamilton. Dixon will be more of a special-teams threat if he is to make the roster. Hamilton showed some playmaking in the offseason. No Matt Johnson? Not right now, especially after he couldn’t practice -- again -- for most of the offseason.

SPECIALISTS (3)


Perhaps Cody Mandell can push Jones, but Jones is the more consistent punter and has a good rapport as a holder for Bailey. Ladouceur remains one of the best long-snappers in the game. This group won’t change during the summer unless there is an injury.

Dallas Cowboys draft wrap-up

May, 10, 2014
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NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


IRVING, Texas – A wrap-up of the Dallas Cowboys draft. Click here for a full list of Cowboys' draftees.

[+] EnlargeZack Martin
Robin Alam/Icon SMIZack Martin was the right choice for the Dallas Cowboys in the first round.
Best move: In taking Zack Martin with the 16th pick in the first round with Johnny Manziel staring at them in the face, the Cowboys made a football decision. Bravo. It did not directly help a defense that ended last in the NFL in 2013, but indirectly it could make the defense better. If the Cowboys are better along the offensive line, they can do a better job closing out games by running the ball and the defense would be on the sidelines watching. Martin started 52 games at left tackle at Notre Dame but will move to guard, most likely for Mackenzy Bernadeau, this year. He is the third offensive linemen the Cowboys have drafted in the first round in the last four seasons. The Cowboys hit on tackle Tyron Smith (2011) and center Travis Frederick (2013) and if they hit on Martin, they will make Tony Romo’s life much easier. Jason Garrett said teams win games up front, but he has been reluctant to run the ball and Scott Linehan’s offense in Detroit was pass happy. The Cowboys do not have to become a ground-and-pound team but they will have to do a better job of finishing games with the run.

Riskiest move: The Cowboys entered the draft knowing they needed a right defensive end. When they went with Martin in the first round, the need increased, so they were willing to overpay some by giving the Washington Redskins their second (47th) and third (78) picks in order to move to the 34th pick to take Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. With how the draft fell, they had a chance to stick at their picks and take defensive linemen anyway, but none with the elite talent they believe Lawrence has to affect the quarterback. Moving up is always dangerous. The last time the Cowboys moved up significantly in a round was in 2012 when they took Morris Claiborne in the first round. Through his first two seasons, the Claiborne move has not paid off.

Most surprising move: Most of the draft experts had linebacker Anthony Hitchens as a late-round pick, but the Cowboys took him in the fourth round, No. 119 overall. He was Iowa’s defensive MVP in 2013 and led the team in tackles for two seasons with 112. He could play inside linebacker as Sean Lee’s backup and be a special teams stalwart early on. The Cowboys defense is predicated on speed and he ran a 4.7 at the scouting combine. But he was productive. He had an eye-catching 13.5 tackles for loss as a senior.

File it away: The Cowboys came into the draft needing to find help for a defense that finished last in the NFL in 2013. The Cowboys ended up with nine picks and took seven defenders to potentially help Rod Marinelli make over the unit in 2014. Five of those picks came in the seventh round, so some expectations need to be tempered, but the Cowboys were able to find a defensive end in Ben Gardner, a linebacker in Will Smith, a safety in Ahmad Dixon, a defensive tackle in Ken Bishop and defensive back Terrance Mitchell. If the Cowboys can find three players to fill roles out of that group, they should be happy.
Smith
Free-agent defensive end Will Smith, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, is visiting the New England Patriots today, a source tells ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton.

The 6-foot-3, 282-pound Smith has spent his entire career with the Saints (2004-2013) and was released Feb. 12, in part because of salary-cap considerations. He was due $11.55 million in salary and bonuses in the final year of his contract.

Smith, who ranks fourth in Saints history with 67.5 career sacks, missed last season because of a torn ACL.

The 32-year-old Smith would likely project to an Andre Carter-type nickel-rushing role in New England, where ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are locked in as starters. The Patriots' need at the position was highlighted Monday, as there is a notable drop-off after Jones and Ninkovich.

Cowboys won't rush roster moves

February, 20, 2014
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INDIANAPOLIS -- When will the Dallas Cowboys start making decisions on the future of players?

“Til it’s time to get under the cap,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said.

Teams do not need to be compliant with the salary cap until March 11, but some teams have already started cutting players to create cap savings, like the Detroit Lions did last week in cutting Louis Delmas and Nate Burleson and the New Orleans Saints with Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer.

In addition to using the time at this week’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis to look at draft prospects, the Cowboys will use the time to discuss the futures of players like DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin and how they want to pare their salary cap by $20 million-$25 million before the first day of the league year.

Several others could have their contracts restructured, like Tony Romo, Sean Lee, Jason Witten, and others could be cut, like Justin Durant, to make room.

“We continue to look at them and we continue to look at what’s available out there, what’s going to be available out there, and we’re looking at a lot of tape with [assistant director of player personnel] Will [McClay] and the pro guys are looking at the tape on all those guys and what’s likely to be available in the draft,” Jones said. “All these things affect the decision.”

Free-agent spotlight: DE Will Smith

February, 19, 2014
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Smith
The New Orleans Saints have 13 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on March 11, plus the three players they released last week. Here’s a breakdown on defensive end Will Smith:

Position: DE
Age: 32
Height: 6-3
Weight: 282

Scouting report: Smith is on a very short list of the greatest defensive players in Saints' history -- fourth on the team’s career chart with 67.5 sacks and third with 20 forced fumbles. But the Saints decided last week to part ways with Smith after 10 years together -- in large part because he was due $11.55 million in salary and bonuses this year.

Smith is also coming off of a torn ACL that sidelined him for the entire 2013 season. But he said recently that his rehab is going well. So he should still get an opportunity to land elsewhere.

The former first-round pick out of Ohio State has always been more of a power rusher than a pure speed rusher. And his sack numbers have waned in recent years (after having a career-high 13 sacks in 2009, he hasn’t had more than 6.5 since).

But I’ve always found Smith’s skill set to be underrated -- especially in recent years -- because he makes offensive tackles work hard on every snap by using his physicality to shrink the pocket. He still racked up plenty of quarterback hits and hurries in recent years. And he is also a very good run defender.

Projection: Smith’s options may be limited since he’s 32 years old and coming off of a knee injury. But I still like his chances of hooking up with another team, even if it’s in a rotational role in base defensive packages (something like the Saints’ additions of Kenyon Coleman and Parys Haralson last year).

Smith has spent most of his career as a 4-3 end, which is where he would likely fit best for another team. His leadership will also be valued as a five-time defensive captain coming from a team with so much winning experience.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints will be just fine. In fact, their defense is arguably in a better place now than it has ever been in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, with new young leaders emerging during an excellent 2013 season.

However, it seems impossible -- almost disrespectful, in fact -- to suggest such a thing after the Saints released four of the greatest defensive players in franchise history Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeCameron Jordan
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesThe Saints have already relied on young players like Cameron Jordan to step in to play.
The greatest chapters in Saints history couldn't be written without Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer. And to some degree, I feel like all four of them were underrated -- especially in recent years -- as supporting actors alongside New Orleans' high-powered offense.

All four of them will almost certainly wind up in the Saints Hall of Fame -- and at least some of them in the newly-formed Ring of Honor. And I could make a strong case that the Saints don't win a Super Bowl without each of them, who were in their absolute primes during that unforgettable 2009 season.

Plus, on a personal note, they've been great guys to work with. I've covered the Saints since 2005 (Smith was the only player left who outdated me). And these were all "go-to" guys in the locker room who gave honest insight into the team -- not to mention passionate rants about their alma maters (or jazz music, in Greer's case). As I'm sure everyone inside the organization would attest, the locker room will feel emptier without them inside.

So I don't want to dismiss any of these moves quickly or quietly. But I guess that's the cold, harsh reality of the NFL's short life span. The Saints now have just nine players left from that Super Bowl roster, and they may wind up parting ways with even more of them in the coming weeks.

These moves are always tough -- but they're usually the right moves. Look at the Saints' recent history. It was also tough for them to let go of former Pro Bowlers and leaders like Deuce McAllister, Jon Stinchcomb, Carl Nicks, Jermon Bushrod, Jonathan Goodwin, Scott Fujita, Tracy Porter and Darren Sharper. But few of those moves ever came back to bite them.

And that will probably be the case again this time.

All four veterans played limited roles last year (Smith missed the entire year with a knee injury, Vilma played in only one game, Greer suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, and Harper played a backup role while missing half the season with a knee injury).

Of the four, I think Greer will be the hardest to replace. He was the only one of the group that was an every-down starter last year, and he was playing very well for the first 10 weeks last season before he suffered the major knee injury. Then after he left, young backup Corey White suffered through some growing pains as his replacement.

But it's not like the Saints had much of a choice. Even if they kept Greer, his injury might have limited him into the summer and beyond.

The bright side for the Saints is that they were actually able to rebuild their defense while the old leaders were still in the building -- something that's hard for most teams to pull off.

The Saints are now led by younger versions of all these guys -- defensive end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis, safety Kenny Vaccaro and linebackers Junior Galette and Curtis Lofton.

Jordan was a Pro Bowler last year. Lewis should have been a Pro Bowler. ESPN Scouting Insider Matt Williamson recently suggested that Vaccaro could wind up being an eight- to 10-time Pro Bowler. Galette had 12 sacks. And Lofton, a captain and signal-caller, has racked up 248 tackles over the past two years.

Young linemen Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins could soon emerge as standout players, as well. And they all appear to be in great hands under the direction of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Last year, the Saints made an astounding turnaround from 32nd to fourth in the NFL in yards allowed. They were also fourth in points allowed and second in pass defense.

So while Wednesday's moves were a bit ground-shaking, they weren't earth-shattering -- at least in a pure football sense.

As for what the future holds for Smith, Vilma, Harper and Greer, it's tough to say.

I think Smith, 32, and Harper, 31, have the best chance of catching on with another team right away. Smith missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but it came in the summer, so he's had ample time to recover. And while his pass rushing production had started to dip in recent years, I always thought he was underrated as a power pass-rusher and standout run defender. I could still see him in a rotational role with a defense that could use that physical presence and veteran leadership.

Harper, too, will have to find the right fit. He's always been better as a blitzer and run defender than in deep pass coverage. But he played well in spurts when healthy last year -- especially in the season-ending playoff loss at Seattle.

Vilma and Greer will probably need to prove they can get back closer to 100 percent health for a team to bring them in. Vilma has said he still wants to play, but he's been battling a nagging knee injury for the last three years now.

All of them could bring that combination of championship experience and veteran leadership that many young locker rooms crave, however -- a combination that will be missed in New Orleans.
METAIRIE, La. -- In one sense, the New Orleans Saints have been through this already in recent years -- needing to trim more than $20 million from their salary cap by the start of the league year March 11. However, this next month will likely be the most emotionally challenging yet in the era of general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton.

It’s entirely possible the Saints could part ways with up to nine of the 13 players remaining from their Super Bowl roster.

Four are unrestricted free agents (safety Malcolm Jenkins, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, offensive tackle Zach Strief and receiver Robert Meachem). Five others could become salary-cap casualties (defensive end Will Smith, cornerback Jabari Greer, safety Roman Harper, receiver Lance Moore and running back Pierre Thomas).

[+] EnlargeWill Smith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWill Smith has been a Saint for 10 years. An 11th season in New Orleans will be possible only if he takes a pay cut.
The four Super Bowl vets who are most likely to stay on the roster are quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans, receiver Marques Colston and punter Thomas Morstead.

It’s not exactly the end of an era. The Saints are still bona fide Super Bowl contenders, led by Payton and Brees, and have done a great job of continually reshaping a talented roster. But it’s awfully close.

Payton made a point to emphasize some of the tough decisions that are looming when he was asked about the pending contract negotiations with free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham on Fox Sports 1 last week.

"The most challenging part of your job as a coach, and I share that with Mickey or anyone that has been with an organization as long as we have been, going on Year 9, is some of the tough decisions that have to be made with regards to your cap with the ability that you possibly can sign Jimmy Graham," Payton said. "It's very easy to say, 'You are certainly going to get this done.' But you have to understand there is a budget here. That's the challenging part.

"You are going to read these names that have already come across the ticker from Atlanta last week [the release of cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas], and we will be no different."

The Saints are currently projected to be around $13 million to $15 million over the salary cap. If they use the franchise tag on Graham, as expected, they’ll need to carve out about $6.5 million more (a figure that will vault closer to $11 million if Graham is later deemed to be a receiver instead of a tight end). Plus, the Saints will want to clear even more space off the books to sign other free agents and send out restricted-free-agent tenders.

Loomis and the Saints’ front office have proved capable of handling similar circumstances in recent years while remaining fairly aggressive in adding free agents from other teams.

In the process, the Saints have had to let some core players go, such as guard Carl Nicks and offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod. They’ve also restructured several contracts and agreed to pay cuts with some longtime veterans. We’ll certainly see a combination of all three again this offseason.

Smith and Harper are the most obvious cap-casualty candidates. Smith, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is due to receive $11.55 million in salary and bonuses, and Harper is due $3.15 million. Both players could conceivably come back -- but only if they agree to drastic pay cuts, probably closer to $1 million.

I hate to add Greer’s name to that list, since I think he’s been possibly the Saints’ most underrated core player since 2009. But Greer is due $4.5 million and is rehabbing from a major knee injury suffered in November. So chances are he’ll have to agree to a pay cut to stay in New Orleans.

The next wave of possibilities includes Moore ($3.8 million), Thomas ($2.9 million) and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley ($4.5 million). Moore and Thomas have been in that same category with Greer over the years -- underrated core players and fan favorites. Thomas, in particular, may have just had his best season to date in 2013. However, all three veterans in this group play part-time roles now, which doesn’t match their lofty salaries.

Then there are the free agents. Again, it’s possible the Saints could bring back longtime starters like Strief and Jenkins -- but only if the price tag is extremely palatable. If any other team wants to outbid the Saints for their services, they probably will let them go. Strief, in particular, could be in high demand elsewhere after one of his strongest seasons. Meachem and Vilma could be back at veteran minimum salaries, but the Saints need to add youth at both positions.

Here’s the full list of Saints scheduled to become free agents next month:

Unrestricted free agent starters: TE Jimmy Graham, RT Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente, S Malcolm Jenkins, OLB Parys Haralson, K Shayne Graham

Unrestricted free-agent reserves: WR Robert Meachem, OT Charles Brown, QB Luke McCown, LB Jonathan Vilma, LB Will Herring, LB Ramon Humber, LB Keyunta Dawson, DE Kenyon Coleman, S Jordan Pugh

Restricted free agents: FB Jed Collins, WR Joe Morgan, S Rafael Bush, DL Tom Johnson
METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints didn't plan to start a youth movement or some kind of extreme roster makeover on their defense this season. In fact, they worked hard to restructure the contracts of core veterans such as Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Roman Harper because they wanted them to be part of their revitalized defense.

But the Saints and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have been forced to continually adapt as six projected starters have gone down with injuries.

[+] EnlargeJunior Galette and Cameron Jordan
AP Photo/Bill FeigYoung players such as Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan, with five sacks between them, have emerged to help turn around the Saints defense.
The result? The Saints are 3-0, and a defense that last season set the NFL record for most yards allowed now ranks as the fourth-toughest in the league (295.7 yards allowed per game).

Although no one around Saints camp is claiming they’re better off without those missing veterans, there is obviously some sort of mojo that has developed while dynamic young playmakers such as linemen Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette and safety Kenny Vaccaro have started to emerge.

“I gotta start by saying it’s very unfortunate that we had so many pivotal parts of our defense go down. One guy that sits right next to me in this locker is Will Smith, and that’s something that can’t be replaced,” Hicks said. “But there’s definitely an energy, and we can use that. So it’s been working out.”

The Saints lost three projected starters to season-ending injuries this summer – outside linebackers Smith and Victor Butler and end Kenyon Coleman. Then inside linebacker Vilma was placed on short-term injured reserve after he had minor knee surgery in training camp (he could return at midseason). And in recent weeks, safety Harper and tackle Brodrick Bunkley have been sidelined by injuries, and nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2.

Yet none of those injuries has seemed to faze the Saints. If anything, the circumstances have empowered some of the young players who are stepping into more prominent roles.

Coach Sean Payton said that kind of injection of youth and energy can benefit a team – but only if the players “earned those positions.”

“In other words, I don’t think by design you go out and say, ‘We’re going to keep all these young players and cut the veterans,’” Payton said. “One thing that we try to do is just keep the best players. And the young players that earned spots we felt like were players that earned spots. And the veteran players that made the roster we felt like earned those spots. So, like you said [when the question was posed], it wasn’t by design.”

It hasn't just been young players stepping up to fill the void. Veteran linebacker David Hawthorne has played well as a replacement for Vilma. And the Saints traded for veteran linebacker Parys Haralson to help replace Smith.

And the most important change the Saints made to their defense this offseason came on the coaching staff -- which was by design. Payton fired former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo after just one year on the job and replaced him with Ryan -- whose versatile schemes and energetic personality clearly have resonated much better with Saints players.

“Anything but the old defense, I would have got excited regardless,” said Galette, who has never been shy about voicing his displeasure with Spagnuolo’s system, which he felt was too rigid and reactive rather than unpredictable and aggressive. “But Rob, just meeting him as a person off the field, his character and his personality just kind of sinks in with everybody else, and he still feels like he’s young and he brings a lot of energy himself.

“Anything but Spags would’ve been great. But Rob is just a plus.”

The players have been feeding off of each other as well. As veteran inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said, that amped-up energy level is especially noticeable along the defensive front, where young guys such as Jordan, Galette, Hicks, Martez Wilson, Tyrunn Walker, John Jenkins and Glenn Foster have taken turns rising to the challenge – and cranking up friendly rivalries among themselves.

For instance, when Galette (two sacks) was asked who’s having the better season so far between him and Jordan (three sacks), he said, “C’mon, are you serious right now? That’s not a serious question. Who do you think?”

“There’s no days off. We get to the film room, and it’s like, 'OK, I got off the ball faster than you.' You’re competing. And that’s that competitive nature that I feel like we lacked in past years,” Galette said – though he was quick to point out that he doesn't think the Saints are better off without their injured veterans.

“Obviously it would help if Will and Victor were here. But we can’t worry about that right now,” Galette said. “This is who we have right now, and this is what we’re gonna keep rolling with.”

It may not be how the Saints drew it up in the playbook, but sometimes the best thing a team can do is call an audible.

Saints' surging defense is the truth

September, 22, 2013
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Cameron JordanStacy Revere/Getty ImagesCameron Jordan notched two of the Saints' four sacks Sunday versus Arizona.
NEW ORLEANS -- At some point, we've got to stop asking whether or not what we're seeing from the New Orleans Saints' defense is for real.

The defense has been the driving force behind all three victories by the unbeaten Saints, including a dominant 31-7 win against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. New Orleans has already blown open a two-game lead in the NFC South.

How much more real does it have to get?

"It's nothing to get super excited about, other than the fact that we show a lot of promise, and that's what we've got to keep doing," cautioned defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has been the breakout individual player of the bunch with a team-high three sacks so far, including two on Sunday.

"You always want to have that hungry attitude of just straight grinding and building on each game," Jordan added. "I don't ever want to be like, 'This is the defense that we are.' I just want to keep going and keep getting better."

After a disastrous defensive performance last season, in which they set the NFL record for yards allowed in a season (7,042), the idea was that the Saints could get back to being playoff contenders if they could just find some way to get their defense back to being a "middle-of-the-pack" unit.

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer and Junior Galette
AP Photo/Bill FeigJunior Galette and the Saints kept pressure on Carson Palmer all game long.
Consider that goal already surpassed.

Of course, the Saints' defense is still a work in progress after making drastic changes this offseason -- both intended (hiring coordinator Rob Ryan, signing free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafting safety Kenny Vaccaro) and unintended (losing veterans Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Victor Butler and Kenyon Coleman to summer injuries).

But they've been thriving behind a youth movement, especially on the defensive front. Jordan, 24, and pass-rush specialist Junior Galette, 25, have been terrific on the edges, while Akiem Hicks, Tyrunn Walker, Glenn Foster and John Jenkins -- all first- or second-year pros -- have taken turns doing damage up the middle.

Their performance up front has gone hand in hand with improved play on the back end, where veteran cornerbacks Lewis and Jabari Greer have done an outstanding job against top receivers like Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, Atlanta's Julio Jones and Roddy White and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.

"I think that's the bright side of our defense is that we really don't have any stars, if you talk about big-name guys. We've just got a lot of young guys with talent who are building confidence not only in themselves, but in each other," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "So we really don't know how good we are or how good we can be. It's just all about going to work every day and getting better.

"Obviously, with each win and each performance, we gain more confidence. But we really don't know where the ceiling is for this defense, so we go to work every week and treat every week like it was Week 1 versus Atlanta."

The Saints had a total of four sacks Sunday (two by Jordan and one each by Galette and Foster). Everyone on the Saints' defensive front took turns abusing a suspect offensive line to hit and hurry Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer throughout the afternoon. They eventually forced interceptions by Vaccaro and Lewis in the fourth quarter.

After the Cardinals opened the game with an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, they punted on their next eight possessions and threw interceptions on the final two.

"They can rush the passer," Palmer said. "There's two very good pass-rushers that people don't know a whole lot about. You hear a lot [about] Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, but Cameron Jordan is really good. He showed that today. Junior Galette is really good. They're physical guys. They stop the run, and they rush the passer. A really good combination of strength and speed."

Jordan is starting to get that respect around the country. Pro Football Focus highlighted him this past week, pointing out that his 12 quarterback disruptions led all 3-4 ends through two weeks (though, to be fair, the versatile Jordan is lining up as a traditional 4-3 end in many pass-rushing situations).

More importantly, Jordan is making his mom proud. He said she gave him grief after he went sackless in Week 1.

She wasn't the only one, though. The Saints' defensive line is clearly a competitive group.

While Jordan was talking to a group of reporters Sunday, Walker yelled over that he stole one of his sacks. After Week 1, Jordan was beside himself that he didn't have any sacks against the Falcons while Hicks already had one.

And while crediting Galette for having tremendous speed on Sunday, Jordan admitted that he is more of a "power" guy. But he said that makes for an interesting race between the two to get to the quarterback.

"I've been claiming the strength of our D-line is just how much youth and talent is on the D-line. It definitely showed today," Jordan said Sunday. "From the outside to the interior, I was highly pleased. Whether it be Tyrunn Walker or big Akiem or Glenn Foster, it was all just pressure everywhere. You couldn't really locate just one spot where we were getting pressure.

"And when you're part of a D-line like that, it's a party."

Observation deck: Saints-Dolphins

August, 29, 2013
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Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints24-21 loss to Miami on Thursday night:

What it means: The Saints came up a little short of a perfect preseason, finishing 3-1. But they are far from a perfect team. They head into the regular season needing to replace three guys (defensive end Kenyon Coleman and linebackers Victor Butler and Will Smith) who were expected to be starters but have been lost to injuries.

Ingram’s role? Running back Mark Ingram had a nice 8-yard touchdown run. But the mere fact Ingram was getting nine carries in the final preseason game makes me wonder if he’s bound to spend another year buried on the depth chart behind Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. Rookie running back Khiry Robinson got mop-up duty, but finished with 165 yards of total offense. Robinson isn’t a lock to make the roster, though, because he fumbled twice.

What’s next: The Saints open the regular season against Atlanta on Sept. 8 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

End of the road for Vilma, Smith?

August, 28, 2013
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These are words that no fan of the New Orleans Saints wants to hear. But Jeff Duncan simply might be pointing out a harsh reality when he writes that this may be the end of the road for linebackers Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma.

Smith
Vilma
Smith is out for the season with a torn ACL. Vilma recently had knee surgery, his fourth (that we know of) in the past couple of years. It remains to be seen if Vilma will be back on the field this season -- or ever.

Smith and Vilma have been important cogs on this defense for a long time. They also are revered in New Orleans. Their status only grew last year when they avoided the suspensions NFL commissioner Roger Goodell tried to give them during the bounty scandal.

Vilma and Smith appealed at every juncture and that strategy worked.

But there’s no appealing their current situations. Vilma and Smith each took pay cuts to remain with the Saints this year. But age and injuries are catching up to them.

Smith has a ridiculous salary-cap figure for 2014. Vilma hasn’t been an elite player for several years.

The Saints need to start getting younger on defense. They’re already working on that with Smith out for the season and Vilma’s status uncertain for this year.

But, no matter how you look at it, it seems highly unlikely Vilma and Smith will be with the Saints in 2014.

Saints make roster moves

August, 27, 2013
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The New Orleans Saints apparently are holding out hope that outside linebacker Victor Butler might be able to return later this season.

They placed Butler on the physically unable to perform list. That means Butler, who tore his ACL in the offseason program, could be eligible to return after Week 6. That still seems like a long shot, but the Saints know Butler’s medical situation better than we do.

In addition to placing Butler on PUP, the Saints placed linebacker Will Smith, receiver Joe Morgan and linebacker Chris Chamberlain on injured reserve. The Saints also waived linebacker Eric Martin, safety Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and receiver Tim Toone.

The Saints also claimed cornerback Jumal Rolle off waivers from Buffalo. That leaves the roster at 75. Teams have to get down to 53 players by Saturday evening.

Observation deck: Saints-Texans

August, 25, 2013
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There is reason for concern for the New Orleans Saints’ defense. There also is reason for hope.

Evidence of both was on display in Sunday’s 31-23 preseason victory.

Let’s start with the concern. New Orleans fans know all too well that the Saints had the league’s worst defense last season. The Saints have changed coordinators and schemes, but it looked as if nothing had changed early on.

The Texans gained 164 yards of total offense in the first quarter and the New Orleans defense struggled in all areas. But, even with Houston’s offensive starters remaining in through the end of the first half, some signs of hope emerged.

Cameron Jordan, who I think will excel as a 3-4 defensive end, came up with a sack and a quarterback pressure. Undrafted rookie Glenn Foster came up with his fourth sack of the preseason. Linebacker David Hawthorne, playing in place of the injured Jonathan Vilma, showed signs he can hold up in pass coverage. Cornerback Patrick Robinson, who struggled all of last season, had great coverage on a deep pass in the second quarter.

Oh, and one other thing besides all that -- you can bet that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was holding back on a lot of things that the Atlanta Falcons will see in the season opener.

Some other quick observations on the Saints:
  • The Saints already have had some injury problems at linebacker and, now, they may have another one. Will Smith limped off the field in the second quarter and didn’t return. Trainers appeared to be looking at his right knee.
  • If rookie Kenny Stills hadn’t already won the third receiver job, I think he might have accomplished that Sunday. Stills had a great catch despite strong coverage on a deep sideline route. He followed that up with a touchdown catch.
  • Backup quarterback Luke McCown had another strong performance. McCown completed 10 of 14 for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Reserve running back Travaris Cadet, who had some problems with fumbles earlier in the preseason, made a couple of nice catches out of the backfield. Cadet is in a competition with rookie Khiry Robinson for what is likely to be the final running back spot on the roster.
  • Receiver Andy Tanner stayed in the competition for a roster spot by making two touchdown catches.
METAIRIE, La. -- The first thing I noticed when watching the New Orleans Saints practice was the silence.

There was no messing around and no coaches screaming at players. Instead, the Saints looked like a veteran team that is intensely focused -- more focused than last year, when chaos surrounded the entire season. Maybe even more focused than in 2009, when the Saints eventually won their first Super Bowl championship.

The quiet practices are a firm sign that coach Sean Payton is back in charge and that this team wants to put last season as far in the past as possible. The bounty scandal that led to the season-long suspension of Payton and a disappointing 7-9 record is over, and the Saints want to return to their winning ways.

“Last year was an apparition," quarterback Drew Brees said. “It was a different time with all the situations that had taken place. This year, just knowing that we’ve got everybody here, this is our team. Nobody’s missing. This is the team that can accomplish great things, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Here’s our window of time to bring it together. We know there’s going to be tough times. We know there’s going to be adversity. Build that attitude, build that chemistry, and get ready to make a run at it.”

Payton’s return alone should make a big difference. He’s one of the league’s best coaches and possesses a brilliant offensive mind. After watching his team from a distance last year, Payton had some strong critiques for his players, even the superstars.

Soon after Payton was reinstated, he called tight end Jimmy Graham and told him that a season in which he caught 85 passes but led the league in drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information, wasn’t good enough.

“First, he called me and I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t pick it up," Graham said. “He was pretty mad because it took like two or three days for me to call him back. The conversation was very serious, talking about his expectations for me and the things that I need to correct from last year and how he’s ready to be back. He’s ready to see my growth even more."

Payton needs to see growth from more than Graham. He’s made it clear that he wants to run the ball more often and that the Saints have to be substantially better on defense.

If the Saints can combine those things with Brees and the passing game, they should be right back in playoff contention.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The defensive overhaul. Payton is an offensive guru, but the first order of business upon his reinstatement was to replace defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan. Spagnuolo’s defense never caught on in New Orleans, and the Saints finished last season ranked No. 32 in total defense.

The Saints aren’t just switching coordinators. They’re switching schemes. With Payton’s blessing, Ryan is installing a 3-4 scheme. The pass rush now will have to come from the outside linebackers, particularly Junior Galette, Will Smith and Martez Wilson, a trio of guys that previously played defensive end.

The secondary also is going through some major changes. The Saints signed free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.

The defense will look a lot different because Ryan uses a lot of exotic looks. If the results are different from last season, the Saints will be in good shape.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere won't be any excuses for Mark Ingram this season, as the Saints plan to keep him involved in their running game.
Ingram’s time? Payton repeatedly has said the Saints need to get back to running the ball more efficiently. They were good in that area in their Super Bowl season but got away from the run last season.

There really is no reason the Saints shouldn’t be able to get production from the running game. They have a good offensive line and three talented running backs -- Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.

The real wild card is Ingram. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis used a first-round pick on Ingram in 2011, but he hasn’t produced a lot in his first two years. I think Payton is going to make it a point to give Ingram more carries this season.

A new age of receivers. A few years ago, the Saints had a receiving corps as deep as any in the league, which came in handy because they use so many three- and four-receiver sets. But Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson left over the past two seasons. Joe Morgan, who had been ticketed for the third receiver spot, suffered a season-ending injury in camp.

That leaves starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore as the only sure things. Beyond them, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But the Saints hope veteran Steve Breaston, who was signed this week, and second-year pro Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season with an injury, can fill the void.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Any team that has Brees as its quarterback is going to be competitive. With weapons such as Graham, Colston and Sproles, the Saints are going to score plenty of points. It would be difficult for the defense to be any worse than last season.

If the Saints can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they can be a dangerous team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Rob Ryan
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRob Ryan will bring an aggressive new 3-4 attack to New Orleans, but do the Saints have the proper personnel to run it effectively off the bat?
The Saints already have had some tough breaks when it comes to injuries. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman and outside linebacker Victor Butler, who were brought in specifically to fill important roles in Ryan’s defensive scheme, already have suffered season-ending injuries.

Ryan is an aggressive coach, and the 3-4 has had plenty of success around the league in recent years. But I’m not sure Ryan has the personnel to make this defense succeed. It could take another offseason to get this defense fully stocked.

OBSERVATION DECK

One of the brightest spots in training camp has been the play of second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. I saw him make several big plays during my visit. Hicks is going to get his chance to shine in the regular season, and with Coleman out, it looks like he'll be a starter at defensive end.

In another sign that the Saints are serious about running the ball more, Graham has bulked up. The tight end said he now weighs about 270 pounds and that he’s focusing on becoming a better blocker.

The Saints have a history of finding unheralded running backs who end up making a contribution (see Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet). They might have found another one in Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Robinson has flashed big-play ability in camp. The Saints have so much depth at running back that it might be tough for him to make the roster, but he could end up on the practice squad.

There was some thought that Jason Smith, a former first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams, could end up as the starting left tackle. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Charles Brown has been getting virtually all the first-team work. Smith has fallen to third on the depth chart and is working behind rookie Terron Armstead. It’s looking like Smith might not even make the roster.

In recent years, the Saints have brought rookie defensive backs along slowly. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson didn’t play significant roles in their first seasons. But I don’t think the Saints are going to be cautious with Vaccaro. Whether it’s at one of the safety spots or as the nickelback, Vaccaro is going to play a lot this season.
METAIRIE, La. -- I’m about to head out to watch the New Orleans Saints practice. But, before I go, I’ll leave you with a list of things I’ll be keeping an eye on.

The left tackle situation. The Saints are letting Charles Brown, Jason Smith and rookie Terron Armstead compete for this starting job. Early indications are that Brown is in the lead. But I don’t think this competition is over with just yet. I think the preseason games will be a big factor.

The defense. It’s well known that the Saints had the worst defense in the league last season. When I visited for minicamp in June, it was hard to get a read on if the defense coordinator Rob Ryan was installing was any better because the players still were learning the system. They’ve had more time in it now, so I’m curious to see how the defense looks.

Will Smith at linebacker. Smith spent his entire career at defensive end. Now, he’s been moved to outside linebacker in the team’s new 3-4 scheme. Smith primarily will be asked to be a pass-rusher. But I want to see how he looks against the run and in coverage.

The running game. Coach Sean Payton has said he wants to run the ball more effectively this season. I think that probably means more carries for Mark Ingram, and I want to see how he looks in camp.

Kenny Vaccaro. The safety was New Orleans’ first-round pick in this year’s draft and early reports out of training camp indicate that he’s been very aggressive. That goes hand in hand with Ryan’s approach to defense.

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