NFC South: New Orleans Saints

METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and Indianapolis Colts receiver Reggie Wayne go way back. Well, sort of.

Wayne, a New Orleans-area native, was among the ones who got away when Payton was recruiting the area for the University of Illinois in his final year as a college coach in 1996.

Bush
Wayne
Payton brought up that memory Tuesday when asked for his general impressions of Wayne throughout his stellar 13-year career and what he thinks of Wayne now trying to come back from a torn ACL at the age of 35.

It's possible that Wayne will make his preseason debut against the Saints on Saturday night, though that hasn't been decided yet.

"He's an extremely talented player," Payton said. "I know him a little bit uniquely because I was here in Louisiana recruiting high school players for the University of Illinois, C.J. and I."

That "C.J." refers to Curtis Johnson, the current Tulane head coach and former Saints receivers coach, who had a recruiting stranglehold on the New Orleans area back in those days. Johnson helped woo Wayne and safety Ed Reed, among others, to the University of Miami. Johnson also helped lure Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk to San Diego State, where Johnson and Payton first worked together.

"We spent a better part of a week going in and out of these schools," Payton continued. "I would say we got to about 30, 35 schools. Had I been just solo with a map, I probably would have gotten to 12. But Curtis would drive in, parking lot, back door, in a gymnasium, right to the coach, where normally you might go to the front desk and get a pass and go through all the correct steps. But that year, Reggie Wayne was coming out, that year Ed Reed was coming out. There was another good player coming out of St. Augustine High School, I think a defensive tackle, I can't think of his name. There were a handful of good players coming out. So I remember his recruitment, I remember hearing what I heard from Curtis and then over the years followed him.

"Look, he is very competitive. He's the type of player that could do that, that could recover from an injury like that. And he has had a great career."

I asked Payton if he ever beat out Johnson for a New Orleans-area prospect.

"Not while he was at Miami. No," said Payton, who remains close with Johnson and the Tulane program. "Every year there is great talent (in the New Orleans area). And one of the things he is doing so well at Tulane is identifying, recruiting, and those guys are winning their battles. It starts with the procurement of talent. He is very good at that."

Saints’ Camp Report Day 18

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
7:45
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints got some good news on the injury front Tuesday when safety Jairus Byrd was cleared to do full-contact work. But there were still a handful of key players missing. Cornerback Keenan Lewis was held out of practice, though he did some exercises off to the side with trainers. Guard Ben Grubbs was absent after leaving with an undisclosed injury during Monday’s practice. Receiver Brandin Cooks was absent for the second straight day with a stomach virus (coach Sean Payton said he still had a fever). Cornerback Patrick Robinson, linebackers Victor Butler and Khairi Fortt and fullback Erik Lorig were also among a group of players who remained sidelined with unspecified injuries. Defensive end Akiem Hicks and cornerback Champ Bailey participated in a walk-through but didn’t do any team drills.
  • Veteran defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick replaced Hicks with the starting defense – another sign of Deaderick’s versatility and possible value to the Saints. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder spent most of the summer lining up as the Saints’ second-string nose tackle while John Jenkins recovered from a pectoral surgery, and that’s where Deaderick was lined up when he recovered a fumble in last Friday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. Deaderick, 27, spent his first three seasons with the New England Patriots and one year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s right on the roster bubble, but he’s making a strong case.
  • Speaking of that roster bubble, another undrafted rookie that belongs on your radar is outside linebacker Kasim Edebali, a German native who played at Boston College. The main reason I haven’t touted Edebali much when I do my weekly 53-man roster projections is because I feel like that position is so overcrowded that it will be tough to crack. But the 6-2, 253-pounder has flashed some impressive athleticism and pass-rush ability at times. Saints analyst Bobby Hebert was just touting Edebali on Monday. Then on Tuesday, Edebali got a ringing endorsement from fellow former undrafted linebacker Junior Galette. When asked if he’s been impressed by any undrafted guys, Galette said, “One guy I’d point out, Kasim Edebali. You know he’s not really a rookie, I feel like. He’s up there in age, 25 years old [as of Sunday]. He’s a lot more mature than I was as a rookie. And the guy gets off the ball and he can play.”
  • Some of the on-field highlights Tuesday: Rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste went up high to break up a pass from Drew Brees to Marques Colston in the end zone, one of Jean-Baptiste’s best efforts to date. … Cornerback Corey White forced a fumble against running back Khiry Robinson in seven-on-seven drills, one of White’s many nice plays in camp. … Tight end Jimmy Graham continued to serve as a go-to target in Tuesday’s practice, continuing a stellar camp. And after Graham scored a TD on Tuesday, he celebrated with an emphatic (and legal) spike. … Brees kept the ball to himself, tucking it and running it in for a score to cap a red zone drill at the end of practice.
  • The Saints will take their practice show on the road Wednesday night for a rare practice across the lake at Mandeville High School. The session, from 7-9 p.m. CT, will be free and open to the public, weather permitting. Payton said the team will be in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts instead of a fully-padded session.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints have never specified the nature of fullback Erik Lorig’s leg injury. But clearly it’s not a minor issue, since Lorig hasn’t even watched a practice in street clothes since first suffering the injury during a scrimmage on Aug. 2.

Jones
The fact that the Saints immediately went out and signed veteran fullback Greg Jones was another indicator that they didn’t expect Lorig back quickly.

It’s still unknown when or if Lorig is expected back this season. But coach Sean Payton said the team will prepare as if he’s not going to be ready for Week 1, with Jones and third-year pro Austin Johnson competing to serve as Lorig’s replacement.

"Our preparation's got to be with the idea that, as Erik's rehabbing, we've got to be ready to have a fullback Week 1, with the chance it's not going to be Erik," Payton said. "And so both of those guys are competing.

“Greg’s a veteran player. Austin's been with us now for the better part of a year and a half. And so I think, No. 1, Austin's had a good camp. Greg's been here for two weeks. Both of them will play a lot again this weekend [Saturday night at Indianapolis].”

Payton later added that Johnson is “doing real well.” The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder spent most of last season on the Saints’ practice squad after signing with the team in January 2013. Johnson was actually a linebacker in college at Tennessee, and he signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2012. But he didn’t find a permanent home that season.

Johnson has shown potential as a blocker and receiver out of the backfield, and he could also be used on special teams.

Meanwhile Jones, 33, is a 10-year veteran who spent last season with the Houston Texans and his first nine years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 6-1, 251-pounder has primarily served as a lead blocker in 131 career games played. He also has a total of 272 carries for 913 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career, plus 73 receptions for 471 yards and three touchdowns.

Last season, Jones played in all 16 games for the Texans with five starts, with a total of two rushes for 2 yards and five receptions for 34 yards.

The Saints could also use their tight ends as fullbacks in certain situations. Second-year tight end Josh Hill has made some cameos in that role.
METAIRIE, La. -- Joe Morgan has obviously helped his case to make the New Orleans Saints' roster by once again displaying his dynamic deep-threat ability (three catches for 108 yards last Friday night).

But it’s Morgan’s more underrated strong suit that gives him the best chance of being active on game days – his blocking.

Blocking ability will be a huge deciding factor in the intriguing three-way battle between Morgan, Robert Meachem and Nick Toon for the Saints No. 4 receiving job. And in my mind, that gives both Morgan and Meachem a big advantage because they’ve proven to be excellent blockers in the past.

[+] EnlargeJoe Morgan
AP Photo/Bill HaberWide receiver Joe Morgan has the ability to beat a team deep, but it's his blocking that may get him on the field more often.
Typically, the Saints keep only four receivers active on game days. And in past years, they’ve featured a specific receiver in their heavy sets (with one receiver, two tight ends, a fullback and running back). Out of that formation, the receiver can either block or run deep routes on play-action “shot” plays.

Meachem has thrived in that role for years. But Morgan took it over that in 2012 when Meachem left for the San Diego Chargers.

Then when Morgan suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp last year, the Saints wasted little time re-signing Meachem after he got released by the Chargers. And they inserted him right back into that role (ahead of Toon).

This is really the first summer where both Morgan and Meachem are competing against each other for that same role, and it’s still too close to call.

“I don’t know. I think we’re both great blockers,” the 6-foot-1, 184-pound Morgan said when asked who’s the best blocker. “He’s a little bit bigger than I am [6-2, 215], so he can probably bock some of the bigger guys better than I would. But I’m still not gonna say he’s a better blocker than me. And I won’t put myself above him. We both work hard, and we love doing it.”

Morgan’s big-play ability during that 2012 season is obviously what put him on the map. He caught 10 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns (a whopping 37.9-yard average).

But Morgan said he thinks it was his blocking ability that “got me on the field first, before anything else.”

“I actually pride myself in blocking, because throughout my career, like when I was in high school we had two running backs that had 2,500 yards, we didn’t throw the ball much at all. Then when I got to college, we ran the ball probably 75, 80 percent of the time,” Morgan said. “So where I’ve come from, in order to get on the field, you had to be a blocker.

“And here, even though we throw the ball a lot, it was what got me on the field first of all. I was in our 22, 22-Z packages. And I made the most out of that opportunity and [it] opened the door for more opportunities.”

I’m certainly not ruling Toon out of the conversation to crack the Saints’ 53-man roster or to be active on game days. I think the Saints still like his long-term potential enough to keep him around, regardless. And he has been the Saints’ most consistent pass-catcher of the threesome throughout training camp.

But Toon has shown more inconsistency than the other two as a blocker, and I think he’ll need to prove he can be an asset in that role if he wants to crack the lineup.

Coach Sean Payton didn’t specifically agree with the idea that the No. 4 receiver job will come down to which receiver is the best blocker. But he said blocking in general has been a huge point of emphasis among the receivers.

“No. 1, I think we need to be better as a unit overall in blocking ... if we’re going to run the ball more effectively and more efficiently,” said Payton, who also pointed out that undrafted rookie receiver Brandon Coleman had some nice blocks in Friday night’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. “For receivers in there, it’s part of the job description. ... It’s equally important as running, stretching the defense or running the correct route.”

Saints Camp Report: Day 17

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
6:00
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The defense got the better of the offense during a simulated two-minute drill at the end of Monday's practice -- always among the most spirited competitions in camp. Quarterback Drew Brees looked sharp for a while, moving the first-string offense from one 20-yard line to the other. Brees hit tight end Jimmy Graham for four completions, including a perfect pitch-and-catch tucked between a linebacker and safety. And Mark Ingram was an asset as a receiver out of the backfield during the drive. But then the drive stalled as time started to run out, with a spike, an incomplete shot toward Kenny Stills in the end zone, a would-be sack by blitzing safety Kenny Vaccaro (if they were live tackling) and an incomplete fade pass toward Marques Colston in the end zone. Brees loudly grunted his disgust after the missed opportunity. ... Ryan Griffin led the second-string offense, but they weren't able to cross midfield, thanks to a pass break-up by safety Vinnie Sunseri and two would-be sacks on third and fourth down. Griffin's fourth-down pass, which was nullified, was also intercepted by safety Pierre Warren for good measure.
  • I left Warren off my projected 53-man roster this morning. But the undrafted rookie continues to make plays and make an awfully strong case for himself. Warren also had a nice pass break-up earlier in full-team drills. The problem is that I've still got Warren ranked sixth among the safeties on New Orleans' depth chart, with newcomers Sunseri and Marcus Ball also playing so well in recent weeks. Ball also had a would-be sack on a blitz during team drills Monday.
  • Speaking of undrafted rookies on the roster bubble, receiver Brandon Coleman had a great practice, continuing his roller-coaster summer with the Saints. Coleman made several nice catches, even working in with the first string at times. His best effort was when he went up high to snag a pass over cornerback Brian Dixon. I still think Coleman is more likely headed to the practice squad than the roster, but his unique size and skill set make him worth watching. Payton took note of Coleman's performance, saying he made four or five nice catches, which was “encouraging.” Payton also complimented Coleman's blocking performance in Friday's preseason game.
  • Another receiver who looked sharp Monday was Colston. He had at least two nice catches -- including a gorgeous throw from Brees over cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste during team drills. Colston sat out last Friday's preseason game for an undisclosed reason, but his health certainly hasn't looked like an issue over the past two days.
  • The Saints had to head indoors Monday because of rain and lightning -- to the chagrin of the fans, since indoor practices are closed to the public. They'll try again Tuesday, with an outdoor practice scheduled from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., open to the public weather-permitting.
METAIRIE, La. -- As expected, penalties were a huge area of emphasis for the New Orleans Saints following Friday night’s flag-fest against the Tennessee Titans.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro said players had to perform up-downs in Sunday's practice for every penalty. And coach Sean Payton said he might invite a set of NFL officials back to practice to continue to educate players and coaches on the new rule changes and points of emphasis this season.

But more than anything, Saints quarterback Drew Brees said, the players need to police themselves. Brees made that point to teammates Friday night after the Saints were flagged 28 times (22 accepted) and has reiterated it since.

“Well, at the end of the day, at some point, the team takes control of itself,” Brees said. “The leaders take control of the team, and you are accountable to one another, you police one another. If things are going to change, it has to change from within. It’s not going to change because coach tells you that something needs to change.

“Now, certainly Sean Payton does a great job of identifying problems, finding solutions and challenging the players. I mean, his message to us at the end was maybe unlike what you would think. I think everyone would assume he’s going to rip us the minute we step foot in the locker room. I think his approach was maybe a bit of the opposite, and that is, if we didn’t get five turnovers, we get beat. We know that, we have to understand what penalties do and we have talked about that a lot here the last two days. But if you want to fix it, it’s up to (us).”

The Saints aren’t alone. Flags are up throughout the NFL as more of an emphasis is being placed on certain penalties, like defensive contact in pass coverage and hands to the face at the line of scrimmage. And Vaccaro admitted that requires the players to adjust.

“It’s kind of a shock for the defense, especially if you’re aggressive and you like to press,” Vaccaro said. “But you’ve gotta play by the rules.”

The expectation around the league is that those penalties will decrease significantly once the regular season starts and once players and officials both adjust to the new norm.

But Payton -- who went on a classic postgame tirade about the penalties on Friday -- reiterated Sunday that the Saints’ discipline problems stretched far beyond the new rules tweaks.

“Typically, preseason is a time where it’s a real point of emphasis to get everyone on the same page,” Payton said. “But after going back through the film, and I felt this way after the game, I didn’t feel like we were sitting on a ton of ‘what-if’ calls.

“There might have been two. But when you get into the 20s, you stop worrying about two.”
Examining the New Orleans Saints' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)
I'm sticking with my pick of Griffin for the backup job, since I think he's been doing enough to prove he's poised and mature enough to handle the role. And if Griffin wins the backup job, that allows the Saints to just keep two quarterbacks. But I'm absolutely not counting out veteran Luke McCown, who played great the other night against the Tennessee Titans.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

I made the switch at fullback from Erik Lorig to Jones since we haven't seen Lorig on the practice field for two weeks. But until we know more details about the severity of Lorig's leg injury, it's impossible to predict whether he'll wind up on the active roster or injured reserve. If Lorig's injury is serious, either the veteran Jones or younger backup Austin Johnson could wind up replacing him. ... As I said last week, the four tailbacks are practically etched in stone.

RECEIVERS (6)

I felt bad about cutting Morgan from my 53-man roster last week. And I feel even worse after watching him have his best week of practice, followed by an outstanding performance in Friday's preseason game. Morgan sure looks healthy, which was the biggest question mark with him after he missed nearly a year with a major knee injury. ... I still think it will be hard for the Saints to keep so many veteran receivers, since they typically only keep four active on game days. But I'm not ready to prematurely cut any of them just yet after learning my lesson last week. ... If the Saints decide to keep a young receiver in a "redshirt" role, Seantavius Jones might be that guy. But the practice squad seems a more likely destination for Jones or Brandon Coleman.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Last week, I added undrafted rookie Nic Jacobs when I cut Morgan. So this week I'm flip-flopping them again. I still like Jacobs' potential as a massive blocker and possible special teams asset. But there aren't a ton of open roster spots right now.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

Another reverse flip-flop, with Jones replacing Senio Kelemete as my eighth lineman. Both guys have a great shot at the roster -- and both have gotten some great experience over the past two weeks while starters Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs have been sidelined with injuries. I went with Jones this time because I thought he played a little better Friday night and because he has more guard-tackle versatility. But it's close.

DEFENSIVE LINE (6)

No changes here, with all six of these guys practically written in ink. Versatile backups Rufus Johnson Jr. and Brandon Deaderick are also strong possibilities.

LINEBACKERS (10)

No changes here either. I made the tough decision last week to cut veteran Victor Butler, and he still hasn't returned to practice. Like Lorig, it's impossible to make an accurate prediction until we know more about the severity of Butler's injury. But with so many quality linebackers on this roster, Butler will have to come back quickly to cement his place.

CORNERBACKS (5)
Trevin Wade is another strong possibility -- especially with the Saints dealing with so many injuries at cornerback right now. As long as all five of these guys are healthy by Week 1, though, I'm leaving Wade in a "next man up" role on the bubble.

SAFETIES (5)

Undrafted rookie Pierre Warren has had a great camp and has a great shot at the roster. But he also just missed the cut because of the Saints' depth at this position. Both Sunseri and Ball have looked even better over the last week or two.

SPECIALISTS (3)

I'm sticking with Shayne Graham at kicker. He's had a couple hiccups this preseason/training camp, but he's been mostly solid and still seems more reliable than less-experienced backup Derek Dimke. It's far from over.

Saints Camp Report: Day 16

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17
11:50
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints returned to some hot and steamy weather when they held their first practice back home in Metairie. But it felt like Christmas morning with so many of their key players returning to the field at once. Quarterback Drew Brees was back in full-team drills for the first time in two weeks. So was guard Jahri Evans. Cornerback Keenan Lewis and receiver Marques Colston were full-go after injuries Friday night. Receiver Kenny Stills, linebacker David Hawthorne and defensive tackle John Jenkins increased their workload. And coach Sean Payton said he expects Jairus Byrd back to full speed Monday. Everyone on that list should be 100 percent by the start of the regular season. ... And to top it all off, even owner Tom Benson was back watching from his familiar spot in his golf cart after he had to leave training camp in West Virginia early because of some struggles with the altitude.
  • The "downer" side of the injury report: Fullback Erik Lorig and safety Ty Zimmerman remained absent. And cornerbacks Champ Bailey, Patrick Robinson, Rod Sweeting and Terrence Frederick and linebackers Victor Butler and Khairi Fortt all sat out in street clothes. It was a good sign to see Butler at least watching for the first time in weeks, with a sleeve over his right leg (the specifics of his injury are unknown). And Bailey was doing a lot of work off to the side with trainers (the specifics of his injury are also unknown). But all of their timetables are more in doubt than the others.
  • With so many injuries at cornerback, the healthy corners are obviously getting a ton of reps. But so far it’s been hit and miss for some of the guys in the lineup. Trevin Wade, who is about as closely "on the bubble" as it gets when it comes to the 53-man roster, literally tripped up when he fell while the Tennessee Titans’ Justin Hunter broke free for a 64-yard touchdown the other night. And rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste has had a series of ups and downs all summer, including some struggles at Sunday’s practice. I like Jean-Baptiste’s long-term potential and still expect his physicality and press coverage to be great assets. But he’s still going through that rookie learning curve for now.
  • Brees started 0-for-2 (gasp!) during full-team drills in his return to the field Sunday. He overshot receiver Nick Toon deep on his first throw. Then a short pass appeared to be dropped by receiver Joe Morgan. But one play later, Brees hit Morgan deep behind the secondary. ... Brees also connected with Colston for one of the day’s most impressive individual efforts in 7-on-7 drills when Colston reached out to snag a one-handed pass.
  • The Saints changed up their practice times this week. Their practices on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday have been moved back to 11 a.m. CT. They’re all still open to the public, weather-permitting. The Wednesday night practice across the lake in Mandeville is still scheduled for 7 p.m.
NEW ORLEANS -- If Joe Morgan was falling behind in the battle for a roster spot at wide receiver, he made up for it in a hurry on Friday night.

The New Orleans Saints' dynamic speedster caught three passes for 108 yards -- including gains of 52 and 44 -- during a 31-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans. Most importantly, Morgan showed that he is recovering from a major knee injury last summer that sidelined him for almost a full year.

“It was encouraging that he got behind the defense and was able to make a few plays that we’ve seen him make prior to his injury,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I think more than anything, what is important for us in the evaluation process is how he is moving. And tonight we saw him do a few things that were encouraging.

“Without having looked at the tape, I think it was a real significant step for him in the right direction. The type of injury he had was pretty significant.”

Ponder
Morgan
Morgan suffered a torn ACL and other unspecified complications that required two surgeries. But he has been on a steady mend all summer, doing rehab work off to the side during OTAs before returning to practices in training camp.

“With any rehab process, you’re not going to go just from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye,” Morgan said. “It’s been a long process but right now I feel great. Still trying to climb the ladder, still trying to get stronger. …

“The hardest thing to do is make a team in the training room. The less time you spend in the training room, the better your chances to make the team.”

Morgan said he’s not feeling any additional pressure to make the team this year because he said he has felt pressure every summer since he first arrived as an undrafted free agent out of Walsh in 2011.

The 6-foot-1, 184-pounder finally established himself as both a monster deep threat and a reliable blocker during the 2012 season, when he caught 10 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns -- an astounding 37.9 yards per catch. But then he suffered the knee injury during last year’s camp.

That blocking ability shouldn’t be overlooked. Morgan is more physical than his speed indicates, and Payton stressed Friday night that the team doesn’t see him as a “one-trick pony.”

Morgan is in a dogfight, though for the fourth and fifth roster spots with Nick Toon and veteran Robert Meachem (also known for his combination of excellent blocking and deep speed). It’s hard to imagine the Saints will keep all three of them, since they typically keep only four receivers active on game days. But it’s also hard to imagine any of the three getting cut just yet.
NEW ORLEANS -- Who’s winning the battle for the New Orleans Saints' backup quarterback job?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Some of those passes today that even were completed, I wish I had better ball placement,” Griffin said, according to the New Orleans Advocate. “... I feel like there’s a lot that I’m yet to show. I still have a lot of things I need to work on. It’s a process.”
NEW ORLEANS -- Sean Payton has talked in the past about the importance of "creating a crisis" to get his team's attention. It's something he learned from mentor Bill Parcells and a tact he used in the week leading up to Super Bowl XLIV when he gave some of his New Orleans Saints players a tongue-lashing for arriving late to a meeting.

Well, whether he wanted it or not, Payton got his crisis on Friday night in one of the uglier New Orleans Saints outings I can ever remember -- preseason or otherwise.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham was flagged twice for his post-touchdown celebrations Friday night.
The Saints committed 22 penalties, which led to a Payton postgame tirade that channeled some of former Saints coach Jim Mora's classic rants.

And the ugliest moment of all came during a sideline shouting match between Payton and star tight end Jimmy Graham after Graham was twice penalized for dunking after touchdowns.

It was a disturbing moment. Payton's reaction was expected -- players naturally get chewed out after penalties. It's why some of us were following Payton with our binoculars from up in the press box after Graham jogged off the field.

But Graham's emotional reaction was unexpected. As veteran teammate Zach Strief said, Graham had to know the tongue-lashing was coming. But as Strief also said, Graham is an emotional player who obviously feels strongly about protesting the new anti-dunking rule that took away one of his signature emotional outlets.

Graham chose to avoid the media on Friday night, exiting the locker room as reporters arrived. So I won't try to put any words in his mouth or even try to guess whether his frustration goes beyond his thoughts on the NFL's new penalty.

But I've always respected Graham as a player and a person, as a hard and determined worker and as a good locker-room guy and favorite of coaches. So I don't anticipate him allowing this issue to fester any more than it already has.

As for the issue of the Saints' sloppy play -- those 20 other penalties that had nothing to do with dunking -- I'll rank that as mildly disturbing.

It's not something we've seen from the Saints consistently in the past. They have a smart, veteran team for the most part, with a proven, veteran coaching staff.

And you can be absolutely certain that the players and coaches will be sent a message through more tirades to come behind closed doors.

"We'll find ourselves at the short end of a game and then wonder about our offseason goals and what happened. And we won't know exactly when it happened," Payton said, making it clear that there's nothing harmless about a crisis in Week 2 of the preseason.

"We'll say, ‘Hey, when we get to the regular season, it'll clean itself up,'" Payton said. "That's silliness."

NEW ORLEANS -- Although the New Orleans Saints beat the Tennessee Titans 31-24, coach Sean Payton will be seething over the stunning amount of penalties his team committed. The Saints finished with 22 of them (14 in the first half) and had at least four others declined. Payton was already upset when the Saints committed 10 penalties a week ago.

Two in particular stood out. Tight end Jimmy Graham drew 15-yard taunting penalties for dunking over the goalpost after both of his touchdown catches in the first half -- a celebration that was outlawed by the NFL this offseason.

Although Graham obviously felt like it was worth the cost during the preseason, Payton appeared to be upset when he chased down Graham to talk to him after the second one.

Here are some other thoughts on the Saints' second preseason game of the year.
  • With Drew Brees sidelined again by an oblique strain, both of his potential backups played great. Luke McCown completed 12 of 19 passes for 117 yards and both touchdown passes to Graham. He was especially impressive on the opening drive. Griffin, meanwhile, completed 13 of 20 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns (though he was fortunate to have an interception nullified by a penalty). Griffin went big on a few throws, hitting Joe Morgan twice for 40-plus yards and nearly hitting Brandin Cooks for a deep score that Cooks couldn't reel in.
  • The Saints' defense was maddeningly inconsistent, allowing some big plays and long drives early (including a 64-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter). But it finally started to deliver some of those turnovers the Saints have been preaching about all offseason. The Saints finished with five takeaways (forced fumbles by Kenny Vaccaro and Cameron Jordan that were recovered by Rafael Bush and Akiem Hicks; opportunistic fumble recoveries by Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Brandon Deaderick; and an interception by Vinnie Sunseri). Vaccaro also appeared to force another fumble, recovered by Curtis Lofton, but it was overturned by replay.
  • No, Pierre Thomas has not become the odd man out in the Saints' three-way time-share at running back. After sitting out the first preseason game, he was heavily involved Friday -- especially as a pass-catcher and pass-protector on third downs. Thomas caught three passes for 27 yards. As I've been saying, I expected to see him in Darren Sproles' old role tonight. … The Saints' run game wasn't very effective Friday, but Mark Ingram did catch a 23-yard touchdown pass -- showing that he'll have a chance to play a more versatile role this year in the Saints' offense.
  • Cornerback Keenan Lewis left the field with trainers during the first half. The Saints didn't offer any specifics on his injury. He would be a huge loss if he's out for any regular-season games -- maybe as hard to replace as anyone outside of Brees. Rookie linebacker Khairi Fortt also left with an apparent injury.
My vote for the most under-the-radar New Orleans Saints roster hopeful this summer goes to linebacker Kyle Knox. The third-year pro reminds me of guys like Ramon Humber and Rafael Bush, who have quietly developed into core special teams players and defensive role players in recent years.

Knox, 25, has barely drawn any attention from the media or the fan base because the spotlight usually falls on either the star players or the newcomers. And Knox is neither.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder joined the Saints’ practice squad last October. Then he was called up to the active roster for the two playoff games, mostly to help on special teams. He made one tackle.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Kyle Knox
AP Photo/Chris Tilley"I'd rather be on the field and play any position, and I feel I'm versatile enough," Kyle Knox said.
Now Knox is making a strong push for a full-time gig. He started on all four of the Saints’ special teams units in last week’s preseason opener at the St. Louis Rams. And he has spent most of the summer with the second-string defense, playing both outside and inside linebacker.

Knox was in on the Saints’ first-string goal-line defense during Wednesday’s practice -- where he made an outstanding effort to hit running back Travaris Cadet at the goal line (though there’s still an open debate over whether or not Cadet scored).

Knox said he is eagerly accepting every role the coaches throw at him. After bouncing around from Seattle to Jacksonville to New Orleans since 2012, the former undrafted free agent out of Fresno State said any role is better than nothing.

“I’d rather be on the field and play any position, and I feel like I’m versatile enough. Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it,” said Knox, who said he has never let himself get too frustrated, despite missing the 53-man cut in Seattle each of the past two summers and being released by Jacksonville after a four-game stint last year.

“I always try to stay positive,” Knox said. “It’s always a tough time when you don’t have a job. But I just stayed prayerful, and I just focused on what I wanted to do.”

Knox was mostly used as a pass-rush specialist by all three NFL teams. But the Saints have moved him inside this summer to the weakside linebacker spot, where he played in college.

Humber, whom Knox said he leans on for advice quite a bit, said Knox has a unique skill set because of his impressive speed -- “he can fly” -- and his long arms, which allow Knox to keep blockers at bay.
As long as the training camp injuries are minor enough, teams can always find a silver lining to them. They mean more opportunities for the backups to develop and be evaluated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPECIAL TEAMS (31 snaps)
Ball 14, Sunseri 14, Dawson 13, Reddick 13, Edebali 12, Fortt 12, Jean-Baptiste 12, Knox 12, Powell 12, Davis 11, Hill 11, Zimmerman 11, R.Johnson 10, Wade 10, Justin Drescher 9, S.Jones 9, Cadet 8, Bush 7, Derek Dimke 7, Dixon 7, Humber 7, Thomas Morstead 7, Uzo-Diribe 7, Coleman 6, Harris 6, Jacobs 6, Sweeting 6, White 5, Cooks 4, Shayne Graham 4, Hawthorne 4, Warren 4, Armstead 3, Bunkley 3, Goodwin 3, Hicks 3, Jordan 3, Kelemete 3, Lelito 3, K.Robinson 3, P.Robinson 3, Strief 3, Vaccaro 3, Virgil 3, Watson 3, Welch 3, Armstrong 2, Brooks 2, Foketi 2, Griffin 2, M.Jones 2, Robert Quinn 2, Rooks 2, Weaver 2, Flanders 1, Lofton 1, Strozier 1
One of the best marriages in NFL history is heading into its ninth year. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have now been together since they both arrived in New Orleans in 2006, rewriting several league records along the way.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
AP Photo/Matt RourkeThe Sean Payton-Drew Brees partnership has become one of the most successful coach-QB combinations in NFL history.
When asked about that partnership, Payton said he and Brees were just reflecting the other night on how quickly the time has passed.

“The continuity of having someone like Drew, having him as our quarterback, has been significant, not just as a player but as a leader. Someone that each week is ready to go,” Payton said. “And you know, just last night we were sitting at the rookie show just talking about the various years and where we’re at now. And it kind of goes by pretty quick. It doesn’t seem like nine, I know that.

“But I don’t think in our game as coaches and players you take any season for granted, or any practice. Because I don’t want to use the word fragile, but it’s a profession that’s fleeting. And he’s been a huge part of us building the success we’ve been able to enjoy and hopefully look forward to.”

Among many other accomplishments during their time together, Brees has thrown for 5,000 yards four times -- including a NFL-record 5,476 in 2011. No other quarterback in league history has reached 5,000 more than once. The entire offense set the record for yards in a season that year (7,474). And Brees also holds the NFL record for completion percentage in a season (71.2 in 2011) and consecutive games with a TD pass (54).

Since 2006, Brees leads all NFL passers with 38,733 passing yards and 283 passing touchdowns.

And, oh by the way, they won a Super Bowl together after the 2009 season -- a feat they’d love to recapture.

Payton’s reflection Wednesday brought to mind the image of coach and player sitting next to each other on the back of a golf cart, cradling the Vince Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl XLIV and talking about trying to soak in the moment as much as possible.

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