Black and Gold Bricks

Rick Sarro Friday, August 22, 2014 0
Black and Gold Bricks

Can you imagine the letdown Saints players and coaches will have once they return to home base and offices in Metairie? The thick, humid, hazy air of summer in New Orleans can’t stack up to the cool, crisp, Downey fresh smell of the mountains of West Virginia.

The Saints better enjoy training camp while it lasts. Yes, I included the word “enjoy” and training camp in the same sentence because in a short time, it will be back to reality.

When you think of West Virginia, coal mines and hillbillies come to mind. And that may be true for small pockets. But it’s not the case for the ritzy and posh Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs where the Saints chose to conduct their pre-season business this year.

Presidents, titans of business and oil shieks go to Greenbrier for R&R. It’s not a place where you would normally think of 7 on 7 drills, goal line defense or work on blitz packages. In another stroke of genius (New Orleans-based media and the national press would surely agree), Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton scratched Metairie, Hammond, Thibodeaux and Jackson, Miss. off their list and headed north to the cool, green paradise of upper West Virginia.

Now that’s how you really motivate the boys to reclaim the NFC South.

That’s not to say the Saints need extra motivation this year, as they’re well aware that the Carolina Panthers stormed the gates and took control of the palace last season with an aggressive, stingy defense along with stable and consistent quarterback play from Cam Newton. The Atlanta Falcons took a major step back, but retain enough talent to do a one-year turnaround. Divisional eyes will be on Tampa Bay as veteran coach Lovie Smith takes over for another Bucs rebuilding project.

The regular season schedule will be intriguing, as the Saints play both the NFC and AFC North, which means matchups against the Packers, Bears, Vikings and Lions, along with dates against the Ravens, Steelers, Bengals and Browns. (Yes, the Saints will welcome Johnny Football to the NFL in Cleveland on Sept. 14 — that’s if Manziel wins the starting job at quarterback.)

Throw in a road game at Dallas on Sept. 28th (Sunday night) and a home tilt with the 49ers on Nov. 9, and you have a challenging schedule to navigate.

Sean Payton was able to claim the franchise’s first ever road playoff win last season in Philadelphia, but fell victim to Seattle again in the next round. He’ll have to figure out a way to beat those Super Bowl champion Seahawks as they, along with that 12th man, will stand in everyone’s way in the NFC.

Every off-season, most NFL teams go through some form of rebuilding or recasting a roster that seems to be in perpetual motion all year. The Saints are no different.

Loomis, from his general manager’s chair, and Payton, have new bricks to lay in the black and gold’s foundation from the offense and defensive ends of the squad.

Those bricks were equally distributed from the draft and free agency.

The headline free agent signing of All Pro safety Jairus Byrd from Buffalo was required to fill the void left by Malcolm Jenkins’ departure to the Eagles. The secondary and locker room got a whole lot smarter with the addition of 16-year-veteran and perennial All Pro cornerback Champ Bailey.

When it comes to the health and safety of quarterback Drew Brees, the free agency grab with the most impact was the signing of veteran center Jonathan Goodwin from San Francisco.  The 35-year-old Goodwin was a mainstay on the offensive line when Payton and Brees began their offensive fireworks from 2006 on, and for the Super Bowl championship season of 2009.

Payton continues to upgrade his talent and get younger through the draft. This year’s top pick has risen to star status in just a few weeks of camp. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State has put his 4.3 speed and route running on display for all to see, and the adjectives coming out of the coaching staff and veteran players alike include electric, special, go-to and of course “blink of an eye” fast.

Cooks made the play of the day during the much-anticipated intra-squad scrimmage, catching a deep touchdown pass as he raced past the secondary. He isn’t big at 5 feet, 10 inches, 190 pounds, but is a route-running machine who has a history of never breaking down.

One of the keys that brought Payton to pull the trigger on draft day was the fact Cooks barely missed a down to injury over his four years at Oregon State.

You can take durability to the bank in the NFL. Receivers can’t collect catches, yards or touchdowns standing on the sidelines in Under Armor warm-ups on game days.

Several vets have likened Cooks’ calm, cool and composed demeanor to that of Saints veteran receiver Marques Colston. The rookie’s work ethic has been evident to Colston, who says the top draft pick comes to work every day and wants to improve. Who better to learn from than the Saints’ all-time leading receiver?

Colston can also help keep Cooks from any temptations of turning into a dreaded receiver Diva.

The draft also brought in two rookie defensive backs with ample size. Nebraska cornerback Jean-Baptiste Stanley, at 6 feet, 3 inches, 218 pounds, along with Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri, at 6 feet, 210 pounds, should see snaps in nickel and dime coverages.

The offensive line has been thinned out with the free agent departures of Jerome Bushrod and Charles Brown the last couple of years, so rookie Tavon Rooks of Kansas State will need to advance quickly.

The strength of the Saints foundation will also depend on how well a number of players return from injuries. Foremost on that list will be second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro, who’s coming off knee surgery. If early returns are any indication, Vaccaro is 100 percent and is already putting heavy hits on receivers and tight ends, including the well-paid Jimmy Graham.

Other defensive players who are questionable due to injury include linebacker Victor Butler and cornerback Patrick Robinson. These two may not end up as starters, but will be critical for added depth that second year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will need to call on.

Receiver Joe Morgan missed all of last year with a knee injury suffered in training camp. Morgan was the speed demon: the deep threat that stretched the field and led the team in yards per catch. Morgan has a lot of competition this summer with Cooks in the fold along with the improving Kenny Stills, Nick Toon, Andy Tanner and veteran Robert Meachem.

Brees’ favorite Lance Moore is now in Pittsburgh, so one of these receivers must step up and become a pass catching safety net.

Loomis was able to add by subtraction by allowing star players like Moore, running back Darren Sproles, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Haper to leave either through free agency, or simply by releasing them, as in the case of Vilma and Harper.

There is concern in some corners about replacing the yards,  catches and kick returns of Sproles. But I’m not out of sorts over his landing with the Eagles. Sproles’ production had significant dips the last two seasons, and the time is right for the youth movement to begin anew with this offense.

That means Khiry Robinson, who’s lighter and more game-plan adept, will get more carries and prove to be a capable replacement to Sproles. Running back Travaris Cadet will enter his third year and be ready to produce in offense and the return game. Veteran Pierre Thomas led the team with 549 yards rushing, and is still the call point when it’s third down and 2 yards.  Former first-round pick Mark Ingram is still in the backfield mix, but there’s renewed pressure to produce more than two yards and falling forward as he begins his fourth year in New Orleans.

Ingram, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama, is in a daily roster spot fight with small college competitors in Robinson (West Texas A&M), Cadet (Appalachian State) and maybe even rookie free agent Tim Flanders from Sam Houston State.

In any preseason review of the Saints there has to be some mention of Brees right?

I could wax on for half this piece of work, noting how much Brees means to the Saints offense, the entire team, the organization and its chances to contend for the NFC title and a possible Super Bowl berth. It’s gotten to the point where I really don’t have to any more. Anyone who follows the Saints or the NFL already knows how significant the Brees factor is. If he’s anywhere near his production over the last seven seasons and stays healthy, Brees gives the Saints the chance to win every game, win the division, the conference and vie for another Lombardi Trophy.

His numbers last year were once again top tier. He had 5,162 passing yards with a 68.6 percent completion rate. He threw 39 touchdowns (a bit fewer than in past years) and 12 interceptions (a bit higher than in past years). He finished with a very respectable 104 passing rating, playing nearly every snap in every game.

If there’s any concern from last season, it was the fact that Brees was chased, bounced and hit much more than before. His offensive line was simply not as good as it had been. This resulted in an uncharacteristically high 37 sacks. That’s got to change this season if Brees is to be equal to his past effectiveness and remain injury-free.

The good news is the 35-year-old quarterback is healthy, strong and talking about playing past the age of 40. He and wife Brittany are expecting their fourth child and first daughter to go with their three boys.

The main story line for the Saints this off-season was the franchise tag and ensuing arbitration case of Jimmy Graham.

The Saints tagged Graham, who was in the final year of his very low-paying contract. Graham didn’t like the tag status even though he would make the highest average salary for tight ends at $7 million per year. He and his agent claimed (rightfully so, in my opinion) that Graham should be classified as a wide receiver because he lined up in that spot on 68 percent of plays. The strategy was to reclassify him as a receiver so Graham would be paid at a receiver’s average of $12 million per year.

He stayed out of all preseason mini-camps and OTAs and brought his case before an arbitrator. After a few stressful weeks, the binding decision was Graham would remain a tight end on the roster and on his contract.

A new, long-term, 4-year deal was  completed. The resulting contract was worth $40 million, with more than half of this guaranteed money, making Graham the highest paid tight end in the NFL.

Before you start sniping about $10 million a year and how he was non-existent in that second round playoff game at Seattle last season, remember Graham led the team with 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and a team-high 16 touchdowns. His three-year career totals are the best in the league, with 270 catches, 3,507 yards and 36 scores. All of this came with countless crowd-pleasing but now illegal post touchdown dunks.

Graham is in camp, healthy, happy and ready to put his Seahawks shut-out behind him.

Payton, Brees, Graham and this offensive juggernaut had to play second fiddle at times to one of the most stunning defensive turnarounds in league history last season.

In 2012, with Payton serving that season long Bountygate suspension, the Saints defense gave up the most yards and points in the team’s history. One game after another became more laughable and embarrassing and led to the punch line in jokes across sports talk radio.

Payton would have none of that during the off-season of 2013, when he hired Ryan as his new master of defense. After a scheme shift to a 3-4 defense, an infusion of a few veteran players and the hard-hitting Vacarro into the starting line-up, the revamped Saints became one of the Top 5 highest rated defenses in the league in 2013.

Ryan’s aggressive style led to 37 sacks and a low 34 percent third down conversion rate. Shockingly, it was the Saints’ defense that kept the team in many games.

A lot of the credit went to Ryan, and rightfully so. He pushed a lot of the right buttons, with packages and personnel. He’s looking to expand that impact this year with more turnovers. The Saints had one of the lowest turnover totals in 2013, snagging only 12 interceptions and 11 fumbles.

It’s a close race, but the focal point of the defense is the defensive front, anchored by defensive end Cam Jordan with a team-high 12 1/2 sacks. He’s followed closely by the speedy Junior Galette, with 12 sacks.

Akiem Hicks came on at times, as did Glenn Foster.

The middle is solid, with veteran Brodick Bunkey and John Jenkins returning.

The secondary is full of new faces after the release of Harper and injured cornerback Jabari Greer. Newcomers like Byrd and Bailey will join Keenan Lewis, who is having a break-out camp. Corey White will seek a starting corner spot, battling Robinson. Expect to see a lot of safety Rafael Bush.

Bailey’s signing from the Denver Broncos garnered a lot of NFL media hype because he’s a 10-time Pro Bowler and first-ballot Hall of Famer. But he saw limited action in six or seven games last season due to injury. It’s not sure how many snaps the Saints will get out of him, but if he’s healthy, Bailey will contribute both on and off the field.

The linebackers are no slouches. Veteran Curtis Lofton was tops in tackles with 125. David Hawthorne, when healthy, can play sideline to sideline. Galette is listed at outside linebacker, but is more of an end on the front. Ramon Humber and Parys Haralson are solid from the outside. Ryan is looking for more depth and more turnovers from this crew.

Fifteen-year veteran kicker Shayne Graham appears to have the kicking duties, but that could change with the wind. But Thomas Morstead is entrenched at punter with his 47-yard average.

This offense had the same look and vibe as in past seasons in 2013, but something was off.  Brees and company struggled to score points as turnovers mounted, as did pressure on the quarterback. The unit looked out of sync amid many three-and-out series.

Payton is no fool. He saw the same thing. So he brought in the speedy and shifty Cooks to spread the field and work in open spaces. He’ll increase the snaps and opportunities for both Robinson and Cadet at running back as the offense seeks more balance with the Brees passing attack.

He must find the blocking schemes to better protect his franchise quarterback. Guard Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, along with Goodwin at center, will improve the up-front protection.

Graham and Colston will get their passes sure enough. Thomas will run the screen pass as he does with perfection. And they’ll break in a new fullback in 250-pound Erik Lorig.

So far so good on the training camp injury report.

The players are happy to be in the cool mountain air.

Division rival Atlanta will have to deal with the distractions of having HBO’s Hard Knocks cameras in training camp 24-7.

The Tampa Bay Bucs have a new coach and a ton of roster turnover and turmoil.

And the defending NFC South champion Panthers will now have to play with the target on their backs for a change.

The bricks are being laid for 2014. We will see if there are any early cracks when the pre-season schedule opens in St. Louis.

 

 

Get Rick Sarro’s perspectives on sports on Soundoff 60, which airs Monday through Sunday nights at 9 pm on Suddenlink Channel 60 and Saturday and Sunday mornings at 10 am as well.