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NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - INSIDE SLANT
After switching to a 3-4 defensive scheme this offseason, the New Orleans Saints' coaching staff moved former 4-3 defensive ends Will Smith, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson to outside linebacker to add depth to that position.
Then, they signed former Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Victor Butler to start on the strong side opposite Smith, while penciling in Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Vilma at the inside spots.
But the best-laid plans sometime get blown up, which is exactly what happened to the Saints before training camp even started.
The linebacking unit has been decimated by injuries since June, starting with the loss of Butler to a torn ACL in one of the final organized team activities of the summer.
But it didn't end there, as seven of the 15 linebackers who were on the field for the first training camp practice on July 26 have missed practices or at least one preseason game.
It has become so bad that the Saints had to move defensive end Jay Richardson to outside linebacker to make sure they had enough players to get through hot, steamy practices. Richardson, who hasn't played in a regular-season game since 2010, has started the first two exhibition games.
Vilma is the latest to miss significant playing time. He only practiced twice in a 1 1/2-week span since the Black and Gold Scrimmage the first weekend in August and had arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 15.
Vilma will likely miss the remainder of the preseason, which isn't a big deal. What the Saints don't know is if Vilma will be back and ready for the Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the Atlanta Falcons.
Lofton has been sidelined twice during training camp, the first with a sore back, which leaves the Saints dangerously vulnerable up the middle even though Ramon Humber and David Hawthorne have filled the bill.
Other linebackers who have missed time are Galette (leg), Wilson (dislocated elbow), Chris Chamberlain (undisclosed), Eric Martin (undisclosed) and Ray Shipman (hamstring).
The good news is that Lofton, Galette and Wilson should be back for the regular-season opener. But how effective they can be has to be a concern for the Saints' defensive coaches.
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - NOTES, QUOTES
While the Saints have a lot of question marks at linebacker, one of the biggest concerns going into training camp seems to have worked itself out.
As training camp came to a close last week, Saints coach Sean Payton said left tackle Charles Brown, who's trying to earn the starting spot vacated by two-time Pro Bowl pick Jermon Bushrod, was a consistent performer throughout the three-week camp.
"I think he has been pretty good," Payton said. "That's one of those positions where no news is pretty good news. He's playing well. It's been encouraging, but it's still early on in the preseason. He's certainly ahead of the other guys."
--The goal for rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills going into the team's second preseason game against the Oakland Raiders last Friday night was to play mistake-free football.
In his NFL debut a week earlier, Stills dropped a pass and fumbled the ball on an end around. He also was cited for not getting out of the huddle in a timely manner and having trouble lining up properly.
Stills did make a difficult 22-yard catch in the opener, but heard about the miscues from his father, former NFL player Kenny Stills Sr.
When asked if he got any tips from his dad during the conversation, he said, "No, it was very short and sweet.
"He just said it was unacceptable to drop a ball and that I'm lucky I have a few more opportunities to prove myself," said the younger Stills, a fifth-round draft pick who caught a 16-yard touchdown from Drew Brees against Oakland.
--Veteran quarterback Seneca Wallace, who missed the preseason opener with a groin injury, was released three days after a 28-20 win against the Raiders.
Wallace lost a fumble and also threw an interception on back-to-back possessions while playing with the second-team offense in the third quarter against the Raiders.
The fumble was returned for a touchdown and the interception led to a field goal, which allowed the Raiders to get back into the game. Wallace was 3 of 6 for 32 yards and had a passer rating of 26.4.
Luke McCown, on the other hand, completed 18 of 28 pass attempts for 216 yards with two touchdowns a week earlier in a win over the Kansas City Chiefs. His passer rating was 96.7.
--Line judge Sarah Thomas was part of Friday night's officiating crew headed by referee Jerome Boger.
Thomas worked several practices at Saints camp earlier this month and is on a fast track to possibly join the NFL for the 2014 season.
Thomas correctly called intentional grounding on Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor late in the third quarter.
--The Saints have racked up 11 sacks through their first two exhibition games after collecting seven of them -- five against Raiders starter Matt Flynn -- in Friday night's win.
A year ago, the Saints had just four sacks after two exhibition games. They went on to rank near the bottom of the NFL with only 30 in the regular season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I definitely think my speed has been overlooked in my career for whatever reason. This was a great opportunity to go out and show everybody I can run." -- Saints WR Nick Toon, on getting behind Raiders CB Tracy Porter for a 56-yard catch in the second preseason game.
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SURPRISE OF THE SUMMER: Rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills was flying under the radar when training camp started because most observers were expecting Joe Morgan and Nick Toon to battle for the third wideout spot behind Marques Colston and Lance Moore. But Stills, a fifth-round draft pick, has had a solid camp and has seen a lot of reps with the No. 1 offense, as has Toon, because of injuries to Colston and Morgan. Colston has missed a lot of time with a foot injury and Morgan is out for the season, and the speedy Stills took advantage of it and could wind up being the deep threat the Saints lost when Morgan injured his knee.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Travaris Cadet vs. Khiry Robinson for fourth halfback. Cadet made the team as an undrafted free agent last season and was thought to be a lock to make the team again after Chris Ivory was traded away. But Cadet had trouble last week holding onto the ball, losing a fumble in practice and then put the ball on the ground twice -- losing one -- in a 28-20 win over the Oakland Raiders on Friday night. Robinson, on the other hand, is bidding to take Cadet's roster spot with a team-high 102 rushing yards and a 4.6-yard average although most it has come against third- and fourth team defenses.
--ILB Jonathan Vilma had arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 15 and will likely be sidelined at least for the remainder of the preseason.
--OLB Junior Galette has missed 1 1/2 weeks of practice with a leg injury and his return is not known although the injury isn't believed to be serious.
--WR Marques Colston has practiced only four times during training camp because of a foot injury and it's not known when he'll be back.
--ILB Curtis Lofton was held out of practice late last week, but the nature of his injury is not known.
--G/C Eric Olsen has a couple of weeks and the first two preseason games with a left foot injury and his return is not known.
--WR Courtney Roby hurt his toe in practice last week, but the severity of the injury or a timetable for his return are not known.
--OLB Martez Wilson returned to practice on a limited basis last week after missing two weeks with a dislocated left elbow and his return to full duty is unknown.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--CB Elbert Mack (not tendered as UFA).
--T William Robinson (not tendered as UFA).
--LB Scott Shanle (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED (all picks signed)
--S Kenny Vaccaro (1/15): $9,424,703 all guaranteed/4 yrs, $5,234,328 SB.
--T Terron Armstead (3/75): $2,867,436/4 yrs, $617,436 SB.
--NT John Jenkins (3/82): $2,792,560/4 yrs, $567,560 SB.
--WR Kenny Stills (5/144); $2,354,452/4 yrs, $194,452 SB
--LB Rufus Johnson (6/183): $2,265,308/4 yrs, $105,308.
--S Rafael Bush: Potential ERFA; $555,000/1 yr.
--C Brian de la Puente: RFAa tendered at $2.023M with second-round pick as compensation; $2.023M/1 yr.
--LS Justin Drescher: Not tendered as RFA; 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Junior Galette: Potential RFA; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--TE Michael Higgins: Potential ERFA: $555,000/1 yr.
--LB Ramon Humber: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Will Herring: FA, had been released by Saints; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--G Eric Olsen: Potential ERFA; $555,000/1 yr.
--WR Courtney Roby: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DE Baraka Atkins: FA; terms unknown.
--WR Steve Breaston: FA Chiefs; terms unknown
--LB Victor Butler: UFA Cowboys; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--CB Chris Carr: Not tendered as UFA by Chargers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DE Kenyon Coleman: UFA Cowboys; terms unknown.
--WR Patrick Crayton: FA; terms unknown.
--S Jim Leonhard: UFA Broncos; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB Keenan Lewis: UFA Steelers; $26M/5 yrs, $6M SB/$11M guaranteed.
--QB Luke McCown: UFA Falcons; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DE Jay Richardson: FA: $715,000/1 yr.
--T Jason Smith: FA Jets; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--QB Seneca Wallace: FA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--TE Benjamin Watson: UFA Browns; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--T Jermon Bushrod: UFA Bears; $36M/5 yrs, $11M SB/$17.715M guaranteed.
--LB Jonathan Casillas: UFA Buccaneers; $3M/1 yr.
--QB Chase Daniel: UFA Chiefs; $10M/3 yrs, $3M SB/$4.8M guaranteed.
--DT Sedrick Ellis: Not tendered as UFA/Bears; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Devery Henderson: Not tendered as UFA/Redskins; terms unknown.
--RB Chris Ivory: RFA tendered at $2.023M with second-round pick as compensation; $2.023M/1 yr, then traded to New Orleans.
--DE Turk McBride: UFA Bears; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB Johnny Patrick (released)
--TE David Thomas (released)