Saints mailbag: Dixon over Champ?

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
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The New Orleans Saints’ next media availability will be Wednesday. That’s also when we’ll get our first injury report leading up to their Week 1 showdown with the Atlanta Falcons. In the meantime, here’s the latest edition of the Saints mailbag. Thanks for submitting your questions to me on Twitter. Send them anytime to @MikeTriplett.

@MikeTriplett: I think Champ Bailey still looked good enough to play. And I wouldn't be surprised to see him land on another team that needs cornerback help. But ultimately, Bailey and Patrick Robinson were probably fighting for just one roster spot all along. The Saints' fifth defensive back is safety Rafael Bush, and their sixth is cornerback Corey White -- two guys whom they trust on defense and, more importantly, are big-time special-teams assets. So where was Bailey going to fit in when everyone was healthy? Inactive on game days? Break the glass in case of emergency? For that reason, it didn't really come down to Bailey versus rookie cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Brian Dixon. Those guys probably won't play much on defense this year if everyone else stays healthy. But they can play special teams if needed. Or maybe they'll be inactive on game days since they're still young developing players. The Saints often reserve those inactive spots for "redshirt" guys. The big question is whether the Saints made the right choice with Robinson ahead of Bailey. And I honestly don't know. Both came with question marks and a recent track record of injuries and inconsistency. I think Bailey felt a little more stable and would probably be better in press coverage. But Robinson had a slightly better performance throughout camp. And he's younger and much faster, so he's able to run down the field better with speed receivers. So I understand the move. But I also understand the concern among Saints fans, who were hoping Bailey would come in and look like his old self and lock down the No. 2 cornerback job, which remains a question mark. @MikeTriplett: It's a combination of many factors. I'll rank the O-line and the improved play of the overall run game No. 1. We started to see it toward the end of last year, especially in the playoffs. And they're coming into this year really confident. No. 2 is the way Ingram is being used in a more versatile role. I've said for years that he got a raw deal when he was stuck in the base/goal-line package with a fullback and two tight ends. The Saints weren't very good at running out of that formation against defenses loaded to stop the run. Now we're seeing Ingram as the lone back more, sometimes in the shotgun, sometimes catching passes -- and seeing more open space. No. 3 is Ingram himself. He has been healthy all year. And he's certainly still developing as a fourth-year pro who has had a lot of stops and starts in his career. However, while I'm optimistic that all of these factors are real, it's important to point out that I was saying a lot of the same things about Ingram last summer. I also thought he looked great in his first summer in 2011. And it just never really materialized those years. So consider me cautiously optimistic about his chances this year. @MikeTriplett: Three names come to mind -- one guy with the toughest matchup of the day, and two who are licking their chops over their Week 1 matchup. The first is cornerback Keenan Lewis, who needs to keep living up to his lockdown reputation against one of the NFL's best receiving corps. Lewis is often matched up against No. 1 receivers, so maybe he'll draw Julio Jones. But Roddy White is no slouch, and neither is Harry Douglas, for that matter. The other two are defensive end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette, who can't wait to test rookie left tackle Jake Matthews and an already-questionable Falcons line that lost veteran Sam Baker to an injury during the preseason. They've got to exploit that matchup, and I think they will. @MikeTriplett: I assume you mean young players. Otherwise I'd obviously start with safety Jairus Byrd. And I'm not sure if second-year left tackle Terron Armstead counts. But he has a chance to be very special and generated almost as much buzz as Cooks this summer. As for the other rookies, I don't expect any to play significant roles on offense or defense right away. Safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Marcus Ball could have the biggest impact on special teams, and one or both could contribute in goal-line packages. Other young players like Jean-Baptiste, Dixon, Ronald Powell, Kasim Edebali and Kyle Knox will probably be limited mostly to special teams. @MikeTriplett: I made the same observation after the Saints released two pass-rushing outside linebackers (Victor Butler and Keyunta Dawson) and kept seven defensive linemen. ... And we knew they were likely to stick with three safeties after they re-signed Bush in the offseason. Obviously I expect defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to have plenty of tricks and tweaks up his sleeve on a weekly basis. But I don't expect any significant shift from last year's bread and butter.

Saints announce practice squad

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
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The New Orleans Saints announced their 10-member practice squad Monday. They signed safety Pierre Warren, cornerbacks Trevin Wade and Terrence Frederick, linebacker Todd Davis, defensive tackle Lawrence Virgil, receivers Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones, tight end Nic Jacobs, offensive tackle Tavon Rooks and guard Antoine McClain.

Of that group, McClain is the only one who wasn’t with the Saints in training camp. The 6-foot-5, 336-pounder was released by the Buffalo Bills over the weekend. He also spent time with the Baltimore Ravens and Oakland Raiders after joining the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Clemson in 2012.

The Saints are expected to hold a bonus practice Monday before returning to their usual weekly routine, with players off on Tuesday. Their first media access and injury report will be Wednesday.
A few thoughts on the New York Jets as we head into stage II of cutdown weekend:

1. Swinging and missing: The release of wide receiver Stephen Hill underscored a shortcoming of the Rex Ryan regime -- the inability to develop offensive draft picks. In the first five drafts under Ryan, the Jets picked 19 players on offense, none of whom have developed into anything close to a Pro Bowl player. In fact, three of the four highest-drafted players are gone -- quarterback Mark Sanchez (first round, 2009), lineman Vladimir Ducasse (second, 2010) and Hill (second, 2012). The last hope from those drafts is quarterback Geno Smith (second, 2013). Running back Bilal Powell (fourth, 2011) and wide receiver Jeremy Kerley (fifth, 2011) are nice role players, but they're not game changers.

There are a few reasons for the drought, namely: Instability (three offensive coordinators), a defensive-minded culture created by Ryan and, of course, questionable drafting. Hill was a big, big miss. He was actually the No. 14 player on their draft board, well ahead of fellow receiver Alshon Jeffery, who was picked by the Chicago Bears two spots after Hill (43rd overall). To be fair, many of the scouting services rated Hill over Jeffery. The Jets' mistake was trading two draft picks to move up and rushing him into the lineup with no fallback option. Hill never was the same after his killer drop as a rookie in New England.

[+] EnlargeStephen Hill
AP Photo/Chris SzagolaThe Jets cut Stephen Hill on Saturday after he mostly struggled during his two seasons with the team.
2. Stephen (Lam) Hill: I ran into former Jets great Wesley Walker at the recent Hofstra practice, and we got to talking about Hill, whose future with the team already was the subject of speculation. Walker's opinion on Hill was clear: Keep him and continue to coach him up. He felt Hill had too many positive traits to be jettisoned after only two years. Walker brought up the name of a former teammate -- Johnny (Lam) Jones. The mere mention of Jones' name is enough to make longtime Jets fans cringe, but Walker didn't mean it in a negative way. He made the comparison because he felt Jones was a talented receiver who never fulfilled his potential because he wasn't properly developed. At least Jones got five years before he was dumped; Hill got only two.

3. Cornering the market on mistakes: General manager John Idzik deserves to be criticized for his handling of the cornerback situation, especially now that Dimitri (Don't Call Me AWOL) Patterson is a goner, but this whole Darrelle Revis angle is tired. That bridge was burned by both sides, and the Jets weren't interested in repairing it. I didn't criticize Idzik at the time, so I certainly won't second-guess him now. My problem is that his non-Revis plan wasn't any good. In free agency, he identified Patterson as a starting-caliber player even though he had only 20 career starts and had played with six teams in 10 years, wearing out his welcome in most places. (From what I understand, he was considered a diva around the Jets even before he went AWOL.) Instead of doubling down in the draft, Idzik didn't draft a corner until the third round -- the injury-prone Dexter McDougle, who is out for the season. How's it all working out?

4. Money for nothing: Unless they somehow recoup part of the signing bonus, the Jets wasted $1 million on Patterson, the same amount they wasted on Mike Goodson. Here's another way to look at it: For doing nothing, Patterson gets almost as much money as Muhammad Wilkerson gets this year for being the best player on the team -- $1.2 million. That's twisted.

5. 'Snacks' time is over: As of Saturday night, the Jets' 53-man roster had no undrafted rookies. They're one of only four teams with no UDFAs, according to Brian McIntyre, a contract and analytics expert. It's not all that surprising, considering the Jets didn't spend much in this area. Teams were allocated to spend up to $80,362 in signing bonuses, but the Jets doled out only $4,000, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Defensive end Anthony Grady ($2,500) and fullback Chad Young ($1,500) were the only UDFAs to receive a signing bonus; the other five UDFAs got nothing. Hey, a Damon (Snacks) Harrison doesn't come around every year.

6. Ex-Champ: The Jets need a cornerback and one of the best corners in recent memory is available, future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, who was cut by the New Orleans Saints. It brings back memories of a mega trade that never happened. In 2004, former GM Terry Bradway spent a good amount of time at the scouting combine trying to deal for Bailey, whom the Washington Redskins eventually traded to the Denver Broncos. Bailey, 36, has slipped the past two years and probably wouldn't cure the Jets' problem.

7. No road trips for Rex: Remember last year, when Ryan created a firestorm by taking a trip on cutdown day to visit his son at Clemson? The coach took a lot of unwarranted criticism for that decision, and I think he was taken aback by the fallout. On Friday, he was asked if he was planning to travel to see Clemson at Georgia on Saturday.

"It’s safe to say if my son was playing in the game, I probably would have been there again," Ryan said.

Seth Ryan, a wide receiver, is out with a broken collarbone.

8. Middle-aged Jets: Philly.com did a study of all 32 rosters, as of Saturday night, ranking them based on age. Turns out the Jets are the 13th-youngest team in the league. The average age is 25.85 years, slightly older than last year (25.6, seventh youngest). That's exactly what you'd expect for a team in Year 2 of a rebuilding project.

9. Milliner on the shelf?: The early rumblings are that cornerback Dee Milliner (high-ankle sprain) won't be ready for the season opener.

10. Start the countdown: It's seven days to the season opener. Hey, Oakland, do you know who your quarterback is?
Once again, the New Orleans Saints lived up to their reputation as a team that doesn’t care where you came from. They kept two undrafted rookies on the 53-man roster -- outside linebacker Kasim Edebali and cornerback Brian Dixon.

Last year, the Saints wound up with a total of seven undrafted rookies on their roster. And their recent history is littered with undrafted success stories, like running backs Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Khiry Robinson and outside linebacker Junior Galette.

Meanwhile, the Saints decided to cut one of their draft picks -- offensive tackle Tavon Rooks, who was drafted in the sixth round.

Rooks and many other youngsters who didn’t make the cut should be able to stick on the Saints’ practice squad, as well. Thanks to a new NFL rule, teams can now keep 10 players on the practice squad -- including two with at least two years of NFL experience. Teams can begin signing their practice squad once players clear waivers Sunday.

Among some of the other likely candidates to stick on the practice squad are safety Pierre Warren, cornerbacks Trevin Wade and Terrence Frederick, linebacker Todd Davis, receivers Brandon Coleman, Charles Hawkins and Seantavious Jones, guard Marcel Jones, tight end Nic Jacobs, running back Derrick Strozier and center Matt Armstrong.
Most significant move: Releasing cornerback Champ Bailey was the New Orleans Saints' biggest bombshell. But it ultimately shouldn't come as a shock. Bailey wasn't able to beat out fellow veteran Patrick Robinson for the No. 2 cornerback job. And for Bailey, it was probably a “starting job or bust” situation since he doesn't play special teams, and since the Saints are happy with their nickel/dime guys in safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Corey White. ... The big question mark is whether Robinson is the right choice. He had a nice camp at times, and the speedy athlete has shown as much big-play ability as anyone in the Saints' secondary during his turbulent five-year career. But Robinson has also battled injuries and inconsistency. If he can provide stability, New Orleans' secondary should he a huge strength.

Super loss: By cutting receiver Robert Meachem, the Saints now have only seven players remaining from their 2009 Super Bowl roster. They also parted ways with longtime veterans Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer and Roman Harper this year. But the writing was on the wall for Meachem when younger receiver Joe Morgan came back so strong from a knee injury. The two of them have a similar skill set as standout blockers and deep threats. I expect Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks and Joe Morgan to be the Saints' four active receivers when everyone is healthy. And while Stills nurses a quad injury that could keep him out in Week 1, the Saints still have promising young receiver Nick Toon available.

What's next: The Saints still have one glaring need since they went with "none of the above" in their kicker competition. Neither Shayne Graham nor Derek Dimke was consistent enough to lock down the job. I'm perfectly fine with that, especially when you consider the experienced veterans who are now available (Ryan Succop, Alex Henery, Connor Barth, Jay Feely, Rob Bironas, plus a number of young guys who had solid camps elsewhere). The question, however, is whether the Saints can develop trust in a new guy quickly enough. The Saints have had an itchy trigger finger regarding kickers over the years. So what happens if the guy they choose misses once or twice in September? ... To make room for the next kicker, the Saints will likely place either fullback Erik Lorig or linebacker Khairi Fortt on injured reserve -- possibly with a designation to return.

Saints moves: Terminated contracts of CB Champ Bailey, OLB Keyunta Dawson, K Shayne Graham, FB Greg Jones, WR Robert Meachem, OT Thomas Welch. Waived C Matt Armstrong, CB Derrius Brooks, WR Brandon Coleman, ILB Todd Davis, K Derek Dimke, CB Terrence Frederick, WR Charles Hawkins, TE Nic Jacobs, G Marcel Jones, WR Seantavious Jones, OT Tavon Rooks, RB Derrick Strozier, NT Lawrence Virgil, CB Trevin Wade, S Pierre Warren, T/G Jason Weaver.

Saints cut Champ Bailey

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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AP Photo/Bill HaberThe Saints cut veteran cornerback Champ Bailey before he ever wound up playing a snap for them.

The New Orleans Saints released future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey on Saturday before he ever wound up playing a snap for them.

They also released veteran receiver Robert Meachem and both of the kickers they had in camp -- Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke -- while cutting down the roster to 53 players.

Bailey's release marks another disappointing chapter this year in an otherwise sensational career. The 36-year-old was also released by the Denver Broncos earlier this year after spending 10 seasons in Denver.

This latest release is a mild surprise. But a minor foot injury that sidelined Bailey for nearly three weeks during training camp couldn't have helped his chances of securing a roster spot.

As coach Sean Payton said early in camp, "With a player like Champ we don't need to see it every day, we just need to see it once in a while." And they obviously didn't get to see enough.

Bailey, too, recognized that despite his stellar track record, he needed to make an impression on his new team.


(Read full post)


Fantasy: Brandin Cooks

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
5:06
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video

Christopher Harris analyzes Brandin Cooks' draft value.
METAIRIE, La. -- It just got real.

The New Orleans Saints can finally start preparing for a game that counts -- and it’s a doozy. Week 1, on the road, against the division rival Atlanta Falcons.

The Saints will have more time to prepare for this matchup than almost any other opponent this season, with a bonus practice scheduled for Monday. But it’s not like they need it from a scouting standpoint. They certainly don’t need it from a motivational standpoint.

These teams know each other backwards and forwards, having battled for NFC South supremacy for the past six years, with mostly the same coaches, core players and systems in place.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints are eager to mix it up with the division rival Falcons in the regular-season opener.
Saints safety Rafael Bush, who almost joined the Falcons this offseason as a restricted free agent, came up with the perfect analogy on Friday.

“We play against these guys so much that it’s like playing your little brother or your big brother,” said Bush, who is friends with Falcons safety William Moore, among others. “You know each other very well, so it comes down to who’s the most detailed team and who makes less mistakes. And that’s pretty much been the outcome of these games. You now last year [the Saints’ win in Week 1], it could have been a tip away from losing that game. So it comes down to those small things.”

And like any good brotherly rivalry, Bush couldn’t resist throwing in some trash talk when asked whom he sees as the big brother in this scenario.

“We’re definitely the big brother,” Bush said. “I mean, we won twice last year. If you go against the overall record, I think the Saints are pretty much winning in that matchup.

“So they’re the little brothers, and we’re going to go in their house and we’re going to spank them like they’re our little brothers.”

Indeed, the Saints have won a whopping 13 of 16 against the Falcons since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006. However, players and coaches are always quick to point out how close these games always are.

Seven of the last 11 games have been decided by four points or less. Nine of them by eight points or less. Last year, the Saints won 23-17 at home in Week 1, thanks to Kenny Vaccaro's pass breakup in the end zone in the final minute. Then the Saints squeaked out a 17-13 win in the Georgia Dome in Week 12.

“When we play Atlanta, it oftentimes comes down to the final drive. It did in last year’s games, and I’m sure it will on Sunday,” Payton said. “So it comes down to that one specific play you need in short yardage, or that one defensive stand or offensive opportunity. You just don’t know when that’s going to be.”

Atlanta had a down year last season, finishing 4-12 thanks in large part to injuries. So a win for the Falcons could help them quickly start fresh in 2014 -- much like the Saints’ Week 1 victory over Atlanta did for them last year.

Payton laughed at the idea that the Saints want to avoid “letting Atlanta back in the race” since the race hasn’t even begun yet. But he said it’s obvious that they want to get off to a fast start.

And running back Pierre Thomas said the Saints know full well that Atlanta has the potential to make a drastic turnaround from last season.

“We know what they’re capable of doing. We know how big of a game it is, just like they know how big of a game it is. We know we’re going to get their A game,” Thomas said. “They give it to us every year and every time we play them. We know this is not going to be an easy game. This is going to be a tough, hard-fought game. These guys are going to be really fired up, the opener of the season, and we’re going to their Dome.

“We’ve got to be on our toes and well prepared for this team. Because it’s a whole new year, a whole new team. They’re going to be excited to get going.”

But all of that being said, as fiery Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette pointed out, the Saints are so amped to get this season rolling, the opponent is really an afterthought.

“It doesn’t matter if it was the Charlotte Bobcats,” Galette said. “Whoever’s on the field.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Although the New Orleans Saints haven’t made any official announcement, it is apparent that veteran Jonathan Goodwin has won the starting center job over Tim Lelito.

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Lelito said that is what he thinks from talking with coaches and reading the tea leaves. Though Goodwin refused to get ahead of himself, he said he did take it as a good sign that he was held out of the preseason finale along with several other veteran starters, while Lelito played in all four quarters.

"The positive thinking side of me would take it as a good sign," Goodwin said.

Lelito is thinking positive as well, though. Although the second-year pro wasn’t able to take over the job this summer, he still loves his position as a backup center and guard behind three veteran Pro Bowlers.

"I’m excited. I’m probably in the best position out of any young offensive lineman in the entire NFL," Lelito said following Thursday night’s game. "Because Ben Grubbs, Jon Goodwin and Jahri Evans, that’s probably the best three interior that you’re ever gonna see. And then you got (Zach) Strief out at right tackle, who should probably have a couple Pro Bowls himself. ...

"Who knows where I’m gonna play in the future, center or guard? But I’m just learning from Jon and Ben and Jahri, just trying to get better."

Believe it or not, Goodwin feels like he is still getting better in his 13th NFL season, as well. Last week, Goodwin talked about how he thinks this was his best training camp yet in his career spent with the New York Jets, Saints, San Francisco 49ers and back to the Saints. He reiterated that on Friday.

"A lot of guys hold on too long, and I don’t want to do that,” Goodwin said. “But I really felt like I could still play this game, and I think this last month has proven that."

The Saints should be feeling awfully positive about the center position, as well.

Nobody won this job by default. Goodwin's fountain-of-youth performance probably exceeded expectations. And they also must feel comfortable that Lelito is capable of stepping in at any of their interior line positions if needed this season.
Examining the New Orleans Saints' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
All summer, I predicted that a tie-breaker for the backup QB job would go to Griffin because of his long-term potential and the fact that it would allow the Saints to keep only two quarterbacks. But in the end, I don't think it will come down to a tie-breaker. McCown played ahead of Griffin in all four preseason games, and ultimately played better throughout the course of those four games. I still think the Saints will keep Griffin because they like his long-term potential, even though it's not ideal to keep three quarterbacks on the roster.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

I'm assuming at this point that fullback Erik Lorig will at least begin the season on injured reserve with a leg injury that has kept him completely absent from practice thus far. However, I don't know that for a fact. The Saints could also decide to save a roster spot for Lorig or place him on short-term injured reserve, designated for a return. In the meantime, I'm sticking with Johnson over veteran Greg Jones as his replacement.

RECEIVERS (6)

I think Morgan has vaulted himself ahead of both Toon and Meachem in the pecking order this preseason based on both playing time and performance. That puts Meachem in jeopardy since he and Morgan have similar skill sets (excellent blockers and deep threats). But I'm sticking with six receivers since Stills' quad injury might keep him out in Week 1. ... Rookies Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones seem more like practice-squad candidates.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

I still like undrafted rookie Nic Jacobs' potential as a massive blocker, but the practice squad seems a more likely fit for him.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

No change here after the preseason finale. I'm giving Jones the slight edge over Senio Kelemete for that final roster spot because of his versatility as a guard/tackle and because he seemed to play a little better recently. It's very close, though, and it wouldn't be a shock for them both to make the team.

DEFENSIVE LINE (6)

No changes here, either. Veteran backup Brandon Deaderick has played well at both tackle and end this summer, so he's absolutely a good bet to crack the roster. But I think the Saints have enough depth with their six returning players.

LINEBACKERS (9)

Edebali is a new addition to this list after the Saints released Victor Butler and Kevin Reddick earlier in the week. The German-born undrafted rookie has made his mark both on special teams and as a pass rusher this summer. The only reason it took me this long to add him to this list was because the Saints were so loaded at linebacker. But that's less of an issue now. I also left off rookie Khairi Fortt, assuming he'll get the "injury redshirt" treatment. And I wouldn't rule out rookie Todd Davis, who has played well on special teams and defense.

CORNERBACKS (5)

No changes here. Trevin Wade and rookie Brian Dixon are possibilities. But now that these five guys are all healthy, there might not be room for anyone else on the roster.

SAFETIES (5)

Undrafted rookie Pierre Warren made one last compelling case with an interception and a nice open-field tackle in Thursday's preseason finale. But I'm still barely leaving him off the list. That could change if Ball's unspecified injury is serious enough to land him on injured reserve.

SPECIALISTS (3)

The kicker battle is still too close to call. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Saints go with Graham or Derek Dimke or consider other options cut elsewhere. But I'm sticking with Graham because Dimke didn't do enough to clearly outshine him this summer. ... Dimke was the only one who got a chance to play in Thursday's preseason finale (making field goals from 49 and 23 yards and missing one from 54 that was nullified by a penalty). But coach Sean Payton explained that the plan was for Dimke to kick in the first half and Graham to kick in the second half. The Saints just didn't have any opportunities in the second half.

Graham, Brees in #NFLRank top 6

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
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It should come as no surprise that the most prolific touchdown connection in the NFL over the past three years was well represented on ESPN’s #NFLRank list of the league’s top offensive players. But it is a surprise to see the order in which New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and quarterback Drew Brees finished.


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 Graham ranked fifth and Brees sixth on the list, which was decided by a panel of 90 ESPN analysts who rated players on a 1-10 scale. They were separated by one-hundredth of a point (9.53 to 9.52).

They actually both wound up with exactly 51 “10” ratings. But Graham received only three “8” ratings, while Brees received four.

I’m shocked by that last detail. I find it hard to believe anyone would grade Brees lower than a 10, much less lower than a 9. I don't have a big problem with Brees being ranked below fellow mega-stars like Calvin Johnson, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson. But Brees' grade should be higher.

And for that reason, I do think Brees should be ranked higher than Graham. But I certainly have no problem with the amount of respect Graham received in this poll.

I sang Graham's praises all summer during the debate over whether he deserves elite wide receiver money. I made what I considered a strong pro-Graham argument that he should be ranked among the top 6-10 pass catchers in the NFL, in the neighborhood of guys like Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald.

In this case, however, it clearly actually helped Graham to be labeled a tight end. I have to imagine that he wound up getting more 10s and 9s because he’s clearly considered the No. 1 player at his position.

But that’s just nit-picking. In general, both players clearly deserve the elite recognition they received, similar to when they both cracked the top 10 in the NFL Network’s ranking of the Top 100 players in the league earlier this summer (Brees at No. 6 and Graham at No. 10).

They’re the only pair of teammates ranked in the entire top 15 on the #NFLRank list of offensive players – much less the top 6. And they’re two awfully compelling reasons why the Saints should be considered bona fide Super Bowl contenders again this year.
NEW ORLEANS -- For a long time this summer, New Orleans Saints receiver Joe Morgan talked about taking "baby steps" in his recovery from a 2013 knee injury. He didn’t even begin practicing until training camp.

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Lately, however, Morgan has been in a dead sprint.

No Saints receiver has stood out more during the past three games than Morgan, who caught another four passes for 33 yards in Thursday’s preseason finale against the Baltimore Ravens.

He appears to have gone from the roster bubble to possibly even starting in Week 1 if Kenny Stills is still nursing a quad injury.

Morgan didn’t want to get ahead of himself, saying only that he thinks he’s done enough to prove he belongs on a roster somewhere in the NFL, whether in New Orleans or elsewhere since the decision is out of his hands.

But he did admit that these past few weeks have felt great following a long rehab process. Morgan has never specified all the details of his knee injury, but he said it was more than just an ACL tear and required two surgeries.

"Honestly, I’m excited, I’m confident. I mean, it’s been a long year. It’s been really trying. I’ve been through a lot," Morgan said. "So to be able to come out and even do a little bit has been truly a blessing."

Morgan’s best catch Thursday came on a 16-yard crossing route during the opening touchdown drive. And in some ways, it was even better than one of his classic deep catches.

Morgan said he has worked hard to prove that he can be used on short and intermediate routes in addition to just using his speed to run deep (which became his signature while catching 10 passes for 379 yards two years ago).

Morgan is also a standout blocker, which is why coach Sean Payton stressed recently that the Saints don’t consider him a "one-trick pony."

"I think they were just trying to mess up my average a little bit," Morgan joked of his short and intermediate catches Thursday. "But to be serious, it is important. That's one thing I’ve been harping on since I’ve been here. ... That just shows I’m capable of running the entire route tree."
NEW ORLEANS – Lesson learned this preseason: Write off Luke McCown at your own peril.

It should have been known the veteran New Orleans Saints quarterback wouldn’t be so easy to get rid of. Maybe his 11 years spent bouncing around the NFL with five different teams should have been the first clue. He’s a survivor.

Luke McCown
Rogelio Solis/Associated PressLuke McCown has made his presence felt this preseason for the New Orleans Saints.
And by the way, that runs in the family (see: fellow journeyman Josh McCown, now a starter in Tampa Bay at age 35).

Despite having spent most of the summer predicting that second-year pro Ryan Griffin would unseat McCown as the Saints’ backup this year, I’ve changed my mind.

The last clue was McCown’s terrific finish to a solid preseason during Thursday night’s 22-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. McCown started and played just one series -- leading the Saints to a touchdown on their opening drive. He was a perfect 4-for-4 for 29 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown strike to running back Travaris Cadet.

Griffin had a nice preseason, too (despite a so-so performance on Thursday). Griffin likely has a roster spot as the Saints’ No. 3 quarterback and a future as their backup.

But McCown kept dropping clues all summer that he wasn’t going to hand over his spot to the young guy. The 33-year-old has never considered himself a placeholder.

“I play to win, I compete to win, to be the starter,” McCown said. “As I said early in camp, I’m not just competing for a spot on this team, I’m not just competing to be the backup. I want to start. And obviously Drew [Brees] has got that pretty well under hand. But that’s the mentality you have to have.”

McCown’s numbers didn’t jump off the page this preseason. He completed 26 of 43 passes (60.5 percent) for 240 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. But he looked particularly good on the opening drives against Tennessee in Week 2 and Baltimore in Week 4. And he said he thinks his third summer with the Saints was probably his best. He said it’s only natural to get more comfortable, to develop a better understanding of the offense.

McCown said he first heard the classic NFL cliché, “You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse” from former coach Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay. And he took it to heart.

After struggling as a rookie starter with the Cleveland Browns in 2004 -- then getting traded to Tampa Bay after the season -- McCown learned quickly.

“Nobody has to announce, ‘Hey, there’s an open competition for this spot or that spot. You should have the understanding as a player that, ‘If I don’t perform today, they might look to replace me,” McCown said. “You never want to plateau or get to a point where you’re complacent or you’re content or you say, ‘Hey, man, I’ve done enough and I’m good now.”

McCown, who did get cut in favor of Chase Daniel during his first summer with the Saints in 2012, didn’t necessarily need any new inspiration to drive him after a decade spent learning that lesson over and over again.

But he said he was obviously inspired by watching his older brother Josh catch lightning in a bottle last year with the Chicago Bears. Josh thrived as an injury replacement for Jay Cutler before signing a lucrative free-agent deal to become the Buccaneers’ starter.

“Absolutely. How can it not (inspire you)?” McCown said. “I mean, the right situations don’t come along for everybody. And for my brother and myself, they’ve not come along very often for either one of us. But that’s not to knock our abilities or our capabilities of being a leader of a team. That’s just the way the cards have fallen for us. That’s been God’s plan for us.

“With that understanding we’re competitors, and we’ve continued to compete and look for that opportunity. And Josh got a great opportunity in a great situation, surrounded by great people last year. And look what it did for him. And it revitalized his career, if you will. But the point is that he was ready for that. Because he never got down, his mentality was right, he continued to work.

“And that’s not a lesson for me, that’s a lesson for anybody that’s gone through the ups and downs of a NFL career.”

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints missed their chance to finish undefeated in the preseason for the first time in franchise history, losing 22-13 to the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Obviously that doesn’t matter a lick, considering quarterback Drew Brees and about a dozen other starters sat out the final exhibition game.

So what did matter? I can’t say that any jobs were obviously won or lost on Thursday night. But here are the clues that stood out most:
  • I still have no idea who’s going to win the kicking job. Derek Dimke got all of the work Thursday, including kickoffs. However, he missed a 54-yard attempt wide right that might have helped him lock down the job. Fortunately, a roughing penalty was called, giving him a second chance at a 49-yard attempt, which he made. … That’s kind of how it has been for both Dimke and veteran Shayne Graham all summer -- mostly good, some bad, nothing definitive.
  • Luke McCown sure looks like the front-runner for the backup quarterback job. He started again (McCown played ahead of Ryan Griffin in all four exhibition games) and led the Saints to a touchdown on the opening drive, going 4-for-4 for 29 yards, including a 3-yard TD strike to Travaris Cadet. Griffin played the rest of the game after that first drive, but he was pretty ordinary, finishing 11-of-21 for 126 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
  • Receiver Joe Morgan has been getting better every week and might have moved ahead of both Nick Toon and Robert Meachem as the fourth receiver. Morgan started and caught four passes for 33 yards (one of them a great catch down the field). I would say Meachem’s job appears to be in jeopardy, as he has fallen behind those other guys in the playing-time pecking order. But sure enough, Meachem made a fantastic 52-yard catch Thursday to help remind the Saints why they’ve always liked him so much.
  • I’m almost positive Jonathan Goodwin has won the starting center job over Tim Lelito, as Goodwin got the night off, along with many other veteran starters.
  • If anyone could have possibly lost a starting job Thursday, it might be cornerback Patrick Robinson. The Ravens picked on him quite a bit, chipping away with several mid-range gains. Baltimore virtually ignored fellow veteran Champ Bailey on the other side of the field. I think that battle will remain fluid, but it’s possible Bailey could inspire more confidence heading into Week 1.
  • Of the undrafted rookies vying for roster spots, outside linebacker Kasim Edebali continued to look the part. He started in place of Junior Galette and was in on at least three of the starting special-teams units. Edebali didn’t have any dramatic highs or lows, but it’s obvious the Saints are giving him a serious look. … Meanwhile, safety Pierre Warren made two great plays with an open-field run stop and a leaping interception on an overthrown deep ball. But he wasn’t as involved on special teams, so he’s a slightly longer shot to crack the roster. … Cornerback Brian Dixon had a nice pass break-up and tight end Nic Jacobs was in with the starters at times. But they’re also long shots.
video

Saints TE Jimmy Graham and his adopted mother Becky Vinson tells the story of Graham's difficult childhood.

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