NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - INSIDE SLANT
The New Orleans Saints were happy, but not overjoyed, at what they were able to accomplish in 2013 after a miserable season one year earlier.
They were thrilled to finish 11-5 and get to the NFC divisional playoffs after a suspension-riddled 2012 season produced a 7-9 record and left them out of the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Yet, they were disappointed they weren't able to cash in when they had an opportunity to win the NFC South title and clinch the No. 2 playoff seed that would have earned them at least one home playoff game instead of having to go on the road.
But the Saints can still feel good about their revival, especially on the defensive side of the ball, which helped get them back in the playoffs instead of watching from home.
As a result, coach Sean Payton and his players believe the "window" of opportunity is still wide open for them as they look forward to their goals for 2014 and beyond.
"It's obviously more difficult the closer you get when you aren't able to accomplish those (goals)," he said. "But then, discussing the challenges this team faced, the way they responded, there are a lot of things that kind of motivate me (and) excite me about coaching them going forward."
"I thought they handled a lot of things this year coming off everything a year ago," Payton added, "the injuries, none of these things were discussed as excuses, but just any time we had a tough setback, tough losses, the response the next week. They made it not only enjoyable, but stimulating to coach because we were always on to the next challenge."
Quarterback Drew Brees was one of several players who talked after their season-ending, 23-15 divisional playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks about the window of opportunity.
Brees cited the veteran leadership, young talent, the system and the organization and track record in the last five seasons -- as well as the expectations they've set for themselves -- as things that will continue to serve them well.
"You would say that the future is as bright as we want it to be ... as hard as we are willing to work," he said. "It's all there for us now.
"Every year's a new year and you have to re-establish that identity every year. But the term 'window of opportunity,' in my opinion, it's always there for us -- for this team, for this organization, for this staff, for this group of players. It's always open."
Payton said he was encouraged by the roles some young players had to step up and fill when the team was decimated by injuries -- especially on defense.
"That window is still all the way open, and I mean that," Payton said. "We're always in a constant change, if you will, of taking in new players, evaluating this team and then going through the process of beginning to assemble the 2014 team.
"(But) as long as I'm the head coach here, we are trying to slam (the window) open ... always."
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - NOTES, QUOTES
--Saints safety Rafael Bush was fined $21,000 by the NFL for his hit on from Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin during last Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game.
Harvin suffered a concussion in the first half of Seattle's win over New Orleans that will keep him out of Sunday's NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers.
Bush acknowledged the animosity directed at him by Seahawks fans and responded on Twitter.
"What's up with all the (people) in my mentions all the seahawks fans should(n't) y'all worry about the 49ers??" Bush tweeted. "Anybody know me knows I play fast and physical but it's all good y'all have a blessed day."
Bush was penalized for the hit during the Seahawks' opening drive. Harvin went to the locker room in the first quarter and returned in the second quarter, but he did not play in the second half.
"It's super disappointing for Percy," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He wants to play."
Besides Bush, the NFL levied fines from last weekend's playoff games to Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Thomas for unsportsmanlike conduct, San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore for a face mask and the Indianapolis Colts cornerback Darius Butler for unnecessary roughness. Each was fined $7,875.
--The first order of business for the Saints over the next month or so is determining which of their 15 unrestricted free agents they plan to try and re-sign.
The list, of course, is topped by All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, who could be in line to receive a contract in the neighborhood of $10 million per season after catching 301 passes for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns in his first four seasons.
Graham will certainly be one of the league's most-sought free agents although he likely won't hit the open market and will be franchised if he and the team don't agree on a new deal.
Saints coach Sean Payton wouldn't talk about the specifics of free agency, but said he understands the concerns of fans who fear losing the 6-foot-7, 265-pounder.
"We have smart fans. ... They're smart enough to understand that, just like we have in years past, we're going to make decisions as best we can for our club moving forward," Payton said.
"They're going to be able to read closely between the lines and understand we're going to be in good shape. They're not going to be in a panic. They're going to be confident just the same way we are."
--Saints quarterback Drew Brees said Monday he's willing to do what it will take to sign Graham or any other player who could make a difference for the team going forward.
For Brees, who accepted a five-year, $100 million contract in 2012, that wouldn't mean a pay cut. It might mean restructuring his deal if he and the Saints, who could be as much as $12 million over the anticipated $126 million salary cap for 2014, were able to get that done.
For the second year in a row, Brees sidestepped questions about restructuring his deal -- which includes cap hits of $18.4 million, $26.4 million and $27.4 million the next three seasons.
"Whatever I can do to help this team ... if they want to come to me and extend me even further that would be great," he said with a laugh.
"There are so many possibilities of what could happen here," Brees added. "Let's just let this offseason start. Today's the second day of it unfortunately. "(I'm for) whatever helps this team win and puts the best team on the field."
--The Miami Dolphins, searching for a general manager after firing Jeff Ireland, reportedly asked to interview Saints director of player personnel Ryan Pace last week.
But the Saints denied the request, according to Fox Sports' Jay Glazer and ProFootballTalk.com.
Payton has often credited Pace, who is in his 12th year with the Saints player personnel department and the first in the position he now holds, with the makeup of the roster -- especially when it comes to plugging in players when injuries hit.
"I think that's what makes this place so exceptional is the job that (general manager) Mickey Loomis and Ryan Pace do," Payton said last week. "They put great players in your room.
"We've lost some tremendous players, but we've got some really high quality guys behind them that are just waiting for an opportunity to play."
--Graham earned All-Pro honors again this week when he was voted to the Professional Writers of America's first-team squad.
Graham, who was a near-unanimous first-team pick on The Associated Press' All-Pro team announced two weeks ago, was joined on the PFWA's All-NFC team by Brees.
Graham caught 86 passes for 1,215 yards and led the NFL with a franchise-record 16 receiving touchdowns. Brees had 5,162 yards, the third straight season he's topped the 5,000-yard mark, and had 39 touchdown passes and only 12 interceptions in posting a passer rating of 104.7.
Also, strong safety Kenny Vaccaro was named to the PFWA's All-Rookie team.
The 15th pick in the draft last spring, Vaccaro was a 14-game starter who was third on the team with 92 tackles before fracturing his ankle in Week 16. He had one interception and one sack and broke up six passes.
--The Saints are scheduled to have the 27th pick of the first round of the May 8-10 draft now that the divisional round has been completed.
The four teams eliminated in the divisional playoffs received the 25th though 28th spots in the draft -- based on their 2013 record.
San Diego (9-7) gets the 25th pick, while the Saints (11-5) will select 27th and Carolina (12-4) will go 28th. Indianapolis (11-5) earned the 26th pick over the Saints based on strength of schedule, but dealt the pick to Cleveland earlier this season.
--Brees posted his sixth 300-yard passing game in the postseason when he had 309 yards in last Saturday's divisional loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Brees is now tied for second place all-time with Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Joe Montana. Peyton Manning is the record-holder with eight 300-yard games in the playoffs.
Brees recorded his sixth 300-yard passing game in just 11 outings, besting Warner (13 games), Montana (23) and Brady (24).
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--The Saints have parted ways with four defensive veterans and members of their 2009 Super Bowl championship team: linebacker Jonathan Vilma, safety Roman Harper, cornerback Jabari Greer and defensive end/outside linebacker Will Smith. Greer and Smith, who each ended the 2013 season on injured reserve, were released with the designation failed physical.
All except Vilma were released, while the Saints said they won't offer Vilma a new contract. He becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 11.
"These were not easy decisions to make," general manager Mickey Loomis said in a statement. "Since we acquired them, Jabari, Roman, Will and Jonathan have all been excellent players on the field for us. Each of them were integral parts in turning this program around and winning a Super Bowl. They were a great example to our players as team leaders in the locker room as well.
"Will and Roman were two of the better draft picks we have made. Jonathan Vilma has been one of our best trades ever and Jabari Greer has been one of our best free-agent signings. These are the kinds of players and people you hope to acquire.
"However, a new NFL year is about to begin and, with the start of free agency in March, these difficult moves allow us to position our team under the salary cap to move forward for 2014."
Saints head coach Sean Payton said the four players are a huge loss for the team.
"I have coached and been around a lot of great players and I put these four guys right there at the top," Payton said. "Jabari, Roman, Will and Jonathan all represent and epitomize what we look for in our players. These are disciplined, smart, tough and team-oriented individuals. They all played an important role in helping this team and this city win its first Super Bowl and they have all enjoyed multiple playoff appearances and wins."
Vilma (6-1, 230) was originally selected by the New York Jets in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft out of the University of Miami. He made an immediate impact as the Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Vilma was acquired by the Saints in a trade in the 2008 offseason and in six seasons appeared in 70 games with 68 starts patrolling the middle of the New Orleans defense and recorded 530 tackles, eight sacks, six interceptions, 27 passes defensed, five forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries.
Harper (6-1, 200) was the club's second-round draft choice in 2006 out of Alabama. In eight seasons, he appeared in 108 games and started 104 of them. Harper registered 743 tackles, the highest total by a Saint since 2006. He also had 17 sacks, seven interceptions, 53 passes defensed, 13 forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Greer (5-11, 180) is a 10-year NFL veteran who was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Buffalo Bills in 2004 out of the University of Tennessee. After spending his first five NFL seasons in Buffalo, Greer was signed by New Orleans as a free agent in 2009.
In five seasons with the Saints, Greer appeared in 63 games with 60 starts and recorded 290 tackles, nine interceptions with two returned for touchdowns, 68 passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Smith (6-3, 282) is a 10-year NFL veteran who was selected by the Saints in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft. The former Ohio State first-team All-American made an immediate impact on the Saints as a rookie, recording 7.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. Smith appeared in 139 career games with 120 starts for the Saints and posted career totals of 363 tackles, 67.5 sacks, two interceptions, 24 passes defensed, 19 forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries.
--The Saints re-signed kicker Shayne Graham, linebacker Keyunta Dawson and right tackle Bryce Harris to one-year contracts, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Saturday. Graham and Dawson were scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, while Harris would have been an exclusive rights free agent.
Graham's deal pays him a base salary of $955,000. The 13-year veteran joined the Saints in December after Garrett Hartley was waived. The 36 year old made 2-of-2 field goals in the regular season and converted 4-of-6 field goals in the playoffs. That included the game winner against the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card round.
Harris signed an exclusive rights free-agent deal worth $570,000. His base salary last year was $480,000. The two-year vet was mostly used as a backup, playing all 16 games. He started once against the New England Patriots in place of injured tackle Zach Strief.
Also, the Saints re-signed cornerback Trevin Wade (exclusive rights).
Tulane quarterbacks coach Mike Neu told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he's been hired as the Saints' quarterbacks coach. He replaces Joe Lombardi, the new Detroit Lions offensive coordinator.
Scheduled to be unrestricted in March
--T Charles Brown
--DE Kenyon Coleman
--C Brian de la Puente
--TE Jimmy Graham
--OLB Parys Haralson
--OLB Will Herring
--ILB Ramon Humber
--FS Malcolm Jenkins
--QB Luke McCown
--WR Robert Meachem
--S Jordan Pugh
--RT Zach Strief
--ILB Jonathan Vilma
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Drew Brees. Backups -- Luke McCown, Ryan Griffin.
Brees had another huge season, making the Pro Bowl by throwing for 5,162 yards with 39 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions -- seven fewer than in 2012 -- in 650 pass attempts. He completed 68.6 percent of his passes in compiling a 104.7 passer rating, the fourth-highest of his 13-year career. The only problem was Brees was sacked a career-high 37 times, some of which he blamed on himself for holding the ball too long. Overall, the numbers were the kind most teams would take over the course of a 16-game season. McCown played only in mop-up duty and Griffin, an undrafted free agent, was inactive after being promoted from the practice squad.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Mark Ingram, FB Jed Collins. Backups -- Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Khiry Robinson, Travaris Cadet.
Ingram missed five games early in the season with a toe injury, but started showing signs of why the Saints chose him after trading to get back into the first round of the 2011 draft. He finished the season with only 386 yards, but he averaged a team-leading 4.9 yards per carry and had a big game in the wild-card contest with the Eagles. Thomas led the team in rushing with 549 yards, but averaged just 3.7 yards per carry with a long of 18 yards. Thomas and Sproles, who had 220 yards, were relied on as pass-catchers with 77 and 71 receptions, respectively. Robinson, an undrafted free agent, rushed for 224 yards and averaged 4.1 yards per carry to take a jump over Cadet, a second-year pro, in the pecking order.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jimmy Graham. Backups -- Benjamin Watson, Josh Hill.
Graham had a big season despite playing the final 10 games with a plantar fascia injury. He led the team in receptions (86), receiving yards (1,215) and led the league in touchdown receptions (16) -- one shy of the NFL single-season record for a tight end. Graham was often double-teamed and was at times taken out of the game by cornerbacks who had the ability to be physical with him. Watson, a solid veteran, was a nice addition as a threat in the passing game, but also as a blocker. Hill also made the team as an undrafted free agent and saw a lot of action as an extra blocker.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Marques Colston, Lance Moore. Backups -- Kenny Stills, Robert Meahcem, Nick Toon. Injured reserve -- Joseph Morgan, Chris Givens.
Colston, a big target who takes a lot of hits over the middle, had 75 catches for 943 yards and five touchdowns to lead the team's wide-receiving corps once again even though his numbers were slightly down because Thomas and Sproles combined for 148 receptions and 1,117 yards. Moore caught 37 passes for 457 yards, but the Saints found a steal in the fifth round of the draft in Stills, who averaged 20.0 yards on 32 receptions with five touchdowns. Meachem, a deep threat, was a nice addition who averaged 20.3 yards per catch. Toon caught just four passes. Morgan is expected to be back for OTAs after a knee injury in training camp sidelined him for the season.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Terron Armstead, LG Ben Grubbs, C Brian de la Puente, RG Jahri Evans, RT Zach Strief. Backups -- T Charles Brown, T Bryce Harris, G Tim Lelito.
The Saints were anchored by a pair of Pro Bowl guards in Evans, who was elected for a fifth consecutive year, and Grubbs. Strief did a nice job at tackle, but Brown was removed from the starting lineup late in the season after some inconsistent play and replaced by Armstead, a third-round draft pick who played pretty well after struggling in his debut. De la Puente is a capable run blocker, but struggled at times in pass protection. Harris was used mostly as a blocking tight end, while Lelito showed promise after making the team as an undrafted free agent.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Akiem Hicks, NT Brodrick Bunkley, RDE Cameron Jordan. Backups -- NT John Jenkins, DE Glenn Foster, DE Tom Johnson, DE Tyrunn Walker. Injured reserve -- Kenyon Coleman.
This group had a big season as Hicks and Jordan provided pressure from the outside and Bunkley and Jenkins plugged up the middle. The play of Jordan, who earned a Pro Bowl nod with 12.5 sacks, and Hicks, who battled injuries, helped the Saints record 49 sacks -- 19 more than they had in 2012. Foster, an undrafted free agent who had three sacks, settled into a rotation with Johnson and Walker although all three were limited by injuries. Coleman, a proven run-stopper, tore a pectoral muscle in training camp and never played a down.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Junior Galette, ILB David Hawthorne, ILB Curtis Lofton, OLB Will Herring. Backups -- ILB Ramon Humber, OLB Keyunta Dawson, OLB Kyle Knox, OLB Rufus Johnson, ILB Kevin Reddick. Injured reserve -- OLB Will Smith (released), OLB Victor Butler, ILB Jonathan Vilma (won't be re-signed), OLB Parys Haralson.
The Saints' linebackers were active and aggressive under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan despite injuries that sidelined three probable starters -- Butler, Smith and Vilma -- for the season. Galette more than picked up the slack with a career-high 12 sacks off the edge, while Lofton and Hawthorne were solid inside with 139 and 122 tackles to rank 1-2 on the team. Haralson was a nice late-training camp addition, but tore a pectoral muscle in the playoffs. Vilma tried to return from a knee injury suffered in training camp, but played in just one game and may have to retire. Dawson and Humber were nice backups, while Herring was mainly a special teams contributor. Knox, Reddick and Johnson are all young players who didn't play much on defense.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Corey White, FS Malcolm Jenkins, SS Roman Harper (released), RCB Keenan Lewis. Backups -- S Rafael Bush, CB Rod Sweeting, CB Trevin Wade, CB Terrence Frederick, S Jordan Pugh. Injured reserve -- CB Jabari Greer (released), SS Kenny Vaccaro, CB Patrick Robinson, CB A.J. Davis.
The Saints ranked second against the pass, one year after finishing 31st, despite being decimated by injuries. Greer and Robinson had season-ending knee injuries and Vaccaro, one of the league's top rookies, had a solid first season in run support and in pass coverage before fracturing an ankle. Harper also missed seven games with a knee injury, but returned in the second half of the season. Lewis was a solid free-agent pickup with 41 tackles, a team-high four interceptions and nine pass breakups, while Jenkins had a much better season in the new scheme and always seemed to be around the ball with 66 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Bush played extensively in the back end.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Shayne Graham, P Thomas Morstead, LS Justin Drescher, KOR/PR Darren Sproles.
Long-time kicker Garrett Hartley lost his job late in the season after making just 22 of 30 field-goal attempts and was replaced by Graham, who was 6-of-6 before missing twice in the elements in the playoff loss at Seattle. Morstead's average fell more than three yards from 2012, but he still averaged a healthy 46.9 gross yards and 42.3 net yards per kick. He again was solid as a kickoff specialist, booming kick after kick into the end zone and tying for fourth in the league with 52 touchbacks. The Saints ranked near the bottom of the league in punt returns (6.1 yards, 30th) as Sproles had a long of just 28 yards and were 17th in kickoff returns (23.0). They were seventh in covering punts (7.5) and 26th on kickoff coverage (25.2). Drescher again was consistent in handling the long-snapping duties.