Thanks for submitting your New Orleans Saints questions to me on Twitter. Send them anytime to @MikeTriplett.


@MikeTriplett: My most popular question this week, in various forms. If you've been reading my posts over the past two years, you know I completely agree with the notion that the Saints badly need a young, athletic linebacker who can cover open space from sideline to sideline and cover tight ends. I like Curtis Lofton a lot as a thumper in the middle and think guys such as David Hawthorne, Parys Haralson and Ramon Humber are serviceable. But there's not enough variety there. They all pretty much have the same strengths and weaknesses.

As for why the Saints haven't been good at drafting and developing them, that's tougher to pinpoint. But it's a question they're no doubt asking themselves after getting so little out of mid-round picks Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell again this past season. General manager Mickey Loomis acknowledged the Saints will look at how they're scouting defensive talent, among other things while going through a detailed critical self-scouting process.

They'll also look at how they're coaching guys and "what they're asking them to do" as Sean Payton often likes to say. But I don't know if you can make any sweeping indictments on how the Saints have coached and developed the position, because they simply haven't drafted many linebackers with high picks during the Payton-Loomis era.

The only three linebackers the Saints have drafted in the first four rounds are Martez Wilson (third round, 2011), Stanley Arnoux (fourth round, 2009) and Fortt (fourth round, 2014) -- all of whom went bust. They had decent success with undrafted guys Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Jonathan Casillas. But it has mostly been a position where they've preferred veterans acquired through free agency or trade (Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Scott Shanle, Mark Simoneau, Lofton, Hawthorne, Haralson, etc.)

The Saints haven't completely opposed to the idea of using a first-round pick on a linebacker. Brian Cushing was next on their list after Malcolm Jenkins in 2009. They considered A.J. Hawk before Reggie Bush fell in their laps in 2006. But they've never made it a "must" priority high in the draft. Maybe that needs to change.


@MikeTriplett: Yes, expectations should obviously be cautious after what we just witnessed. The 2014 Saints were a prime example of why talent alone doesn't win games. But I do believe it's OK to be cautiously optimistic that they can improve those intangible things like attitude and focus and work ethic.

First and foremost, everyone got humbled last season. If players were feeling too good about themselves or thought they could just show up on the field and succeed, that's out the window now. If anyone's "reading their press clippings," they won't get a big head from doing so.

Secondly, if anyone is incapable of improving their attitude or work ethic, they'll be gone. Everyone from Payton to Loomis to veteran leaders on the team have made it an urgent priority to change the culture around the team. Brees has made several comments this offseason like what he said this week on the Jim Rome Show:

"Bottom line, we need to get back to the elements that helped establish our program back when we all first got there in 2006. I think we have lost a little bit of that," Brees said. "That's in part because of the departure of a lot of guys that have been mainstays within our team for a very long time. There's always turnover from year to year, and yet I feel we had the biggest amount of turnover last year in regards to some of the core players and leaders.

"We have talented young guys and yet I don't think we have done a good enough job of communicating exactly how we do things and how we are going to work. It's about getting back to building our organization and framework from the ground up again and make sure we are on the same page."


@MikeTriplett: I agree to an extent -- but then again, the Saints' offense lost some of that explosion even with Darren Sproles on the field in both 2012 and 2013. It's definitely something they need to regain, with versatile receiver Brandin Cooks offering their best bet to find it.

I don't think Sproles was as badly missed as people think in 2014, since the Saints' run game and short-range passing game were two of their strengths. They actually led the NFL in first downs, third-down conversion percentage and completion percentage. And while Sproles had some explosive games in the first month with the Philadelphia Eagles, he was mostly quiet over the past three months.

The area where Sproles may have been missed most, though, is how his presence affected defenses. Perhaps teams used to dedicate an extra defensive back or linebacker to shadowing Sproles more often in the past and felt more free to devote those players to deeper pass coverage in 2014.





NFL commissioner Roger Goodell strongly supported New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans owner Tom Benson when asked Friday about allegations that the 87-year-old is no longer mentally and physically fit to run his business operations.

Goodell twice referred to Benson as being in "complete control," though the commissioner acknowledged the family's legal battle over Benson's changed succession plan is "unfortunate."

[+] EnlargeTom Benson
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsIndications are that NFL owners won't stand in the way of Tom Benson's new succession plan, which would leave control of his business empire to wife Gayle. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is at right.
Benson was sued last week by his former heirs -- daughter, Renee Benson, and grandchildren Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc -- after he announced plans to leave control of his vast business empire to his wife, Gayle, instead of them. Benson's daughter and grandchildren are claiming that he's not mentally capable of making such a decision and that he's under the undue influence of his third wife, whom he married in 2004.

"I spoke to Tom Benson just the other day," Goodell said during his annual Super Bowl press conference in Arizona. "He was going into the office as usual. He was in complete control, energetic, excited about getting to the office, asking about league issues. As you know, he's been one of our more active owners in the league on various committees.

"They obviously have a dispute going on, which is always unfortunate. In this case it deals with succession, as opposed to the current management. And Tom Benson is a man of great integrity and a man that is enthusiastic about the NFL, the Saints, New Orleans, and somebody that has demonstrated to me he's got complete control over what he's doing to make sure that organization goes in the right direction."

Although Goodell won't be the ultimate authority in a court of law, his opinion would seem to validate what Saints/Pelicans officials and Benson's attorneys have suggested in recent days -- that they don't believe fellow NFL or NBA owners will stand in the way of Benson's wishes. Team officials and Benson's attorneys have said they don't believe there will be any hurdles among the owners in approving Benson's new succession plan, despite the fact that Gayle Benson is inexperienced as a business owner and faced several lawsuits when she was in the interior design business in the 1980s and 1990s.

It's unclear when league owners will vote to approve Benson's plan. But in order for Gayle Benson to eventually take ownership, she would have to be approved by three-fourths of NFL owners and by the same percentage of NBA owners.

NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt, who used to participate in owners meetings as a top executive with the Green Bay Packers, said, "My sense is that they will support Benson in every way possible, including his wishes with Gayle, unless the allegations of mental incompetence are proven and put the team at some risk.

"I can't say I'm very familiar with the process [of approving a new succession plan], but my thoughts are that the NFL craves stability in ownership," Brandt said. "They would like to look out upon each team and know that each is secure in solid, stable and financially secure hands. This situation obviously is uncomfortable.

"As for vetting, it is always thorough. But the owners all know Gayle from league functions, thus she comes in with that advantage."

One other note when it comes to league matters: A source within the Saints organization said Rita Benson LeBlanc is no longer part of the NFL and NBA committees that she served on, because she was terminated by the Saints and Pelicans. Benson LeBlanc previously chaired the NFL employee benefits committee, among other committees she has served on with both leagues.
No one scored more touchdowns in NFL history than receiver Jerry Rice. But one man scored twice as many points: kicker Morten Andersen.

Sure, that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. But that’s what the Pro Football Hall of Fame is about. And if ever a kicker deserved to kick down a door that has been shuttered for too long, it’s Andersen.

The Denmark native, known as the “Great Dane,” was so prolific throughout his 25-year career that he ranks as the leading scorer in NFL history, New Orleans Saints history and Atlanta Falcons history. He was a member of both the 1980s and 1990s all-decade teams.

Andersen is eligible for enshrinement for the third time on Saturday as he’s aiming to become just the second true kicker elected and the first since Jan Stenerud way back in 1991.

Andersen has remained humble about his own candidacy, but he has been candid in recent years about feeling that the time is right for a kicker to get into the Hall -- especially during an era in which he told me that kickers are “getting so good that we have to change the rules.”

As Andersen cracked in an interview with The Times-Picayune last year, Stenerud “needs a drinking buddy.”

Andersen, who also spent time with the New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings, was a seven-time Pro Bowler and a five-time All-Pro. He holds the NFL records for points scored (2,544) and games played (382). And his 360-game scoring streak is the longest in NFL history by nearly 100 games.

Andersen even has on his resume a game-winning 38-yard overtime field goal that sent the Falcons to Super Bowl XXXIII.

The biggest knock on Andersen is probably his accuracy. He was good in that department but not elite, making 79.7 percent of his career attempts. But Andersen was hardly just a “compiler.” Andersen had one of the NFL’s strongest legs, setting then-records for the most 50-yard field goals in a career (40) and a season (eight in 1995).

And you don’t last as long as he did unless a lot of coaches have faith in you -- including the likes of Dan Reeves, Bum Phillips and Jim Mora, who has described Andersen as a “weapon.”
Another granddaughter of Tom Benson -- one who is not involved in the lawsuit against the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans owner -- said Thursday that she is “brokenhearted that other family members have chosen to publicly harass and humiliate the patriarch of our family -- the very person who is responsible for giving them everything they have.”

Dawn Jones, who is the daughter of Benson's deceased son, Robert Benson, released a statement to several media outlets, including The Associated Press, to publicly state her support for her grandfather.

Jones said she spent time with Benson recently and communicates with him regularly and has witnessed "nothing that warrants" a lawsuit asking a judge to declare him mentally incompetent to handle his own affairs.

Benson’s only living child, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc, filed suit against Benson last week after the 87-year-old owner announced plans to hand over control of his vast business empire to his third wife, Gayle Benson, in the event of his death.

Dawn Jones, who lives in Austin, Texas, has never been involved in Benson’s business matters, including the sports teams. But Benson set up a trust for her in 1991, according to the New Orleans Advocate. And she said in her statement that she has a “great relationship” with Benson and his wife.

In other Benson-related news:
  • Benson attended the Pelicans game on Wednesday night and did a brief interview with Fox Sports New Orleans sideline reporter Jennifer Hale. He answered questions about the Pelicans and Saints before being asked about the questions that have been raised about his health and mental state. “You know, people got something wrong ... there’s nothing wrong with me. I’ve been at the office every day, putting in a full day’s work, and I feel fine.” See the video here.
  • Both the Advocate and The Times-Picayune dove deeper into the topic of what it will require for Benson to pull control of the Saints and Pelicans out of a trust set up for his former heirs. Benson has the right to remove the teams and replace them with assets of equal value, though there’s a debate over what that process still needs to entail. The Advocate detailed Benson’s latest proposal to replace the teams. The Times-Picayune explained that Benson already maintains all of the voting shares in both teams.
  • The Times-Picayune’s Jeff Duncan wrote further about what kind of owner Gayle Benson is expected to be, including comparisons to other female owners of NFL and NBA teams. And The Advocate cited sources who expressed confidence that Gayle Benson will be approved by both leagues, despite a history of lawsuits filed against her when she was in the interior design business in the 1980s and 1990s.
video

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Usually art imitates life, but Thursday, life imitated art -- in record-breaking fashion.

New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees brought to life a Visa commercial to set a Guinness World Record for most one-handed catches in a minute, completing 33 on the ESPN Super Bowl set.

"He was throwing them perfect," Beckham said.

The event recreated a commercial that aired during the football season and featured Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald catching one-handed passes from Brees, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick. That commercial digitally imposed the three quarterbacks, but Thursday's event was very real.

The passes had to travel at least 10 yards. The event was officiated by Arizona Interscholastic Association football official Tyler Cerimeli and was verified by Guinness World Record adjudicator Alex Angert.


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From a New Orleans Saints perspective, the guy I’m most interested in watching on Super Bowl Sunday is Seattle Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell.

Housler
Maxwell
Although the fourth-year pro is the least-known member of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom,” he’s the only one scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the game. And he just happens to play the position that I believe ranks as New Orleans’ top free-agent need.

Of course, a big game by Maxwell on the NFL’s biggest stage might shoot his market value through the roof (if it’s not there already). ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan ranks the 6-foot-1, 207-pound Maxwell as the best of an impressive free-agent cornerback class that also includes enticing names such as Brandon Flowers, Kareem Jackson, Tramon Williams and Antonio Cromartie.

“It’s rare for someone of his talent and age to make it to free agency,” Caplan said of Maxwell, who turns 27 next month.

Caplan cited Maxwell’s height, arm length and ability to play in man coverage among his strengths. Maxwell took over as a full-time starter midway through last season as an injury replacement and has locked down the No. 2 cornerback job opposite Richard Sherman ever since. Naturally, he gets targeted a lot because Sherman is on the other side, but Maxwell has mostly held his own while also intercepting six passes over the past two years.

Seahawks general manager John Schneider said it’s a top priority to talk with Maxwell after Sunday’s game, but the Seahawks have already spent big bucks on the rest of their secondary and have a lot more bills coming due in the future. So it’s possible Maxwell could be picked off by another team.

The Saints obviously have cap constraints of their own, but they have shown a willingness to stay aggressive in free agency with similar cap constraints in recent years (see: Jairus Byrd, Keenan Lewis, Ben Grubbs, Curtis Lofton, etc.)

Maxwell acknowledged this week that he’s excited about the prospects of testing the free-agent market, though he said he would love to stay in Seattle as well.

“I mean definitely, you know, I’m the prettiest girl at the dance right now,” said Maxwell, who was a sixth-round pick out of Clemson in 2011.

When asked if he thinks he’s made a name for himself over the past two years, Maxwell said probably, but that he doesn’t think in those terms because he never wants to “settle.”

“The sky’s the limit. There aren’t ceilings, to be honest with you. It’s one of those things I don’t put a bar on it,” Maxwell said. “Defensive MVP of the Super Bowl would be nice. That’s what I’m saying; there’s no ceilings. I just want to take it as far as I can take it.”

Another pending free agent in Sunday’s game who will be highly coveted is New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty – though it’s hard to imagine the Saints bidding heavily on another safety with so much invested in Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro already (in terms of both dollars and draft picks).

Among guys a little more off the radar is versatile Patriots linebacker Akeem Ayers, whose career has been resurrected since being acquired in a midseason trade with the Tennessee Titans this season.

Ayers (6-3, 255) has four sacks and an interceptions since joining New England as a rotational player in Week 8. He’s mostly been used as a pass rusher on nickel downs, though he also has the versatility to play linebacker and switch between 3-4 and 4-3 looks – all of which could intrigue the Saints.

Ayers was highly touted as a second-round pick out of UCLA in 2011, but he never realized his potential with the Titans and reportedly became disenchanted as he fell down the depth chart. But the new life he found in New England could make him a more enticing possibility.

NFL Nation TV talks Hall of Fame

January, 29, 2015
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11:00
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Join us at 3 p.m. ET, 12 p.m. PT Thursday for the second special NFL Nation TV Super Bowl Week Spreecast.

Episode No. 42 will review ESPN.com's recent joint venture with Pro Football Focus, which broke down how many "above-average" players each team is from contending for the Super Bowl.

The crew will also preview the Super Bowl matchup between the defending champion Seattle Seahawks and three-time winner New England Patriots as well as break down how the Pro Football Hall of Fame's upcoming class may shake out Saturday.

Host Paul Gutierrez (ESPN Nation's San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter) and ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando, both of whom are among the Hall's 46 selectors.

 

Brees: 'Just programmed' in game

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
12:44
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[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesDrew Brees said he had "no idea" whether the Patriots intentionally did anything illegal and that "you're just programmed to go through your read, throw the ball, no excuses."

Drew Brees and Conan O'Brien had some fun with "Deflategate" during the New Orleans Saints quarterback's appearance Wednesday on O'Brien's talk show.

Brees correctly guessed the inflation level of two footballs exactly (13 and 11 pounds per square inch, respectively), although he said he wouldn't be able to do so throughout the course of a game and passed no judgment on the New England Patriots.

"You know what, I have no idea," Brees said when asked whether he thinks the Patriots did anything intentionally illegal. "I know that it seems the NFL has been on this one now for the last few weeks obviously. There always seems to be some topic going into Super Bowl week, and this one just happens to be it. So, yes, I will be asked this a thousand times.

"And to be honest with you, I just kind of chuckle because I'm just glad it has nothing to do with us."


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METAIRIE, La. – To get a scouting report on the New Orleans Saints’ newest addition – Canadian Football League cornerback Delvin Breaux – I turned to Calgary Stampeders assistant general manager John Murphy. Murphy is a longtime football scout who is based out of Metairie and keeps close tabs on the Saints.

Murphy said the first thing that stands out with Breaux (6 foot 1, 196 pounds) is that he’s a “big, physical kid,” which more and more NFL teams have started to look for in their cornerbacks.

[+] EnlargeDelvin Breaux
Claus Andersen/Getty ImagesSaints signee Delvin Breaux, the best corner in the CFL last season, brings size to the position.
“He’s tall, long arms, was willing to play physical in our league,” Murphy said of Breaux, a New Orleans native who made a remarkable comeback after breaking three vertebrae in his back while playing for McDonogh 35 Senior High School in 2006.

Breaux, 25, never played college football but played briefly with the New Orleans Voodoo in the Arena Football League before spending the past two years with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Breaux was an all-star who was widely regarded among the best players in the league, and he had more than a dozen teams schedule workouts this offseason before the Saints persuaded him to sign during his visit last Friday. Murphy said he heard the Saints were very aggressive in making sure they landed Breaux before he went on any remaining workouts.

“He’s played out on an island rather than inside against motion, so you would think that’s where they’ll use him, as an outside corner, trying to take advantage of those skills,” said Murphy – pointing out that the entire NFL and the NFC South, in particular, have been trending toward big, physical receivers (see: rookie breakouts Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin).

Murphy said the biggest question mark with Breaux is his “long speed.” Although he’s fast, Murphy said the Saints likely didn’t consider that his No. 1 trait.

And Murphy said there is always an adjustment for players to make from the CFL to the NFL, especially since they usually need to make their mark on special teams. For recent examples, Murphy pointed to two CFL players who signed with the Saints last year – safety Marcus Ball (who made the team, primarily as a special teamer) and cornerback Derrius Brooks (who didn’t crack the roster in training camp).

“But if they’re scheming it a certain way and putting [Breaux] in the right position, he has the skill set to do some of the things that they’ve been asking [veteran cornerback]Patrick Robinson and other guys to do,” Murphy said. “Guys who may seem like they’re faster or more quick-twitch athletic than Breaux, but haven’t had the success with being physical on a regular basis, which is what it seems like the Saints want.”

Breaux had 33 tackles in 2014 with five pass breakups, three forced fumbles and his first career interception, which he returned 27 yards for a score.

Breaux also won a head-to-head battle in the playoffs against another CFL standout who has received heavy attention from NFL teams – receiver Duron Carter, son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Cris Carter. Carter called Breaux the best cornerback in the CFL after being held to three catches for 25 yards.

As I wrote when Breaux was signed, it’s probably a long shot to expect him to step in right away and compete for a starting job. But the Saints’ cornerback position is a bit of a free-for-all right now behind No. 1 corner Keenan Lewis after they tried out Robinson, Corey White and Terrence Frederick in the No. 2 role during the 2014 season. And they’re still hoping for 2014 second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste to develop as more of a long-term project after he barely played as a rookie.
Rob Ninkovich has always been one of the New Orleans Saints' biggest regrets -- a storyline I've written about several times over the years for two reasons.

Not only did the Saints let Ninkovich get away -- twice, as a matter of fact -- but he also won't go away.

Ninkovich
Casillas
Casillas
The versatile defensive end/linebacker has been thriving ever since he finally found a place in the NFL with the New England Patriots in 2009, and he's now set to make his second Super Bowl appearance Sunday on his 31st birthday.

Ninkovich led the Patriots with eight sacks this year, matching the eight sacks he had in 2013 and the eight sacks he had in 2012.

That's eight more than he ever had in New Orleans, despite being drafted in the fifth round out of Purdue in 2006 and spending a total of three summers with the Saints.

His first two were derailed by knee injuries. Then after Ninkovich joined the Miami Dolphins, the Saints re-signed him late in 2008 and actually tried to move him to long snapper in the summer of 2009.

"So it tells you how much I know," Saints coach Sean Payton admitted, cracking on himself last year before the Saints played at New England. "Those are the types of things that keep you up at night as a coach is having a good football player like that right under your wing twice and not being able to take advantage of it."

The Saints' biggest issue with Ninkovich (6-foot-2, 260 pounds) was finding the right fit back when they played a traditional 4-3 defense, since he was something of a 'tweener end/linebacker.

New England had no such problem, though, first using him as an outside linebacker when they played more 3-4 looks and now using him as a 4-3 end.

"The more things that you can do and the different positions that you can play, it's just going to help you in your total game," Ninkovich said during Super Bowl media day Tuesday, according to transcripts. "Being able to play defensive end and linebacker, dropping coverage, it all helps."

Ninkovich has always said the Saints' snubs helped motivate him and worked out for the best -- especially since he met his wife Paige while in New Orleans. But he has also stressed that his competitive drive never allowed him to accept the Saints' vision for him, especially when Payton insisted that long snapper was his best path to the roster. As Ninkovich repeated to the New Orleans Advocate's Nick Underhill on Tuesday, "I didn't believe anything they were telling me."

Speaking of that competitive drive, by the way, while reading up on Ninkovich, I just stumbled on this awesome story for the first time by Jackie MacMullan for ESPNBoston in 2012 about how Ninkovich first got noticed in New England by taking on veteran offensive lineman Matt Light in practice.

Another former Saints linebacker -- Jonathan Casillas -- will also suit up for the Patriots on Sunday. Casillas, a special teams specialist, had the good fortune of being traded to New England in the middle of the season from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who finished with the NFL's worst record).

Casillas spent his first four seasons with the Saints as an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin from 2009-2012 before signing with Tampa Bay. He told Underhill that Payton called him Tuesday morning to tell him he's jealous.

Casillas also talked about how much he valued his time in New Orleans, learning from veteran leaders like Jonathan Vilma, Curtis Lofton, Will Smith and Drew Brees in a "tremendous locker room." And he said he was "very surprised" to see the way the Saints' season played out in 2014, especially since they uncharacteristically lost so many home games.

"It was shocking for me to see that," Casillas said.

Unless I'm missing someone, Ninkovich and Casillas are the only two Super Bowl participants who spent any meaningful time with the Saints. At least two former undrafted rookies who spent their first summer in New Orleans are in the game, though -- Seattle Seahawks long snapper Clint Gresham and tight end Keavon Milton.

Tom Benson files dismissal motion

January, 27, 2015
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METAIRIE, La. -- Tom Benson's attorney fought back in court Tuesday, asking that the lawsuit filed against the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner by his daughter and grandchildren be dismissed.

Benson's daughter, Renee Benson, and grandchildren, Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc, are contesting Benson's recent decision to hand over control of his vast business empire to his wife of the past 10 years, Gayle Benson, in the event of his death.

Benson's former beneficiaries claimed in a lawsuit filed last week that the 87-year-old billionaire's "health and mental capacity have significantly declined" and that he has "fallen under the influence" of his third wife.

However, Benson's attorneys argued that the petitioners failed to state a valid cause for the "extreme" and "harsh" remedy of interdiction, which they said is the legal equivalent of "civil death." The legal response stated that even if all of their "spurious allegations" were accepted as true, they would still fail to satisfy the legal standards for such a ruling.

Furthermore, Benson's response included documentation that Benson transferred power of attorney over both his medical and business decisions to wife Gayle and Saints/Pelicans president Dennis Lauscha on Jan. 7 in the event that he is no longer able to make such decisions on his own, and that both transactions were witnessed by a physician.

A source close to Benson confirmed a Times-Picayune report that the steps Benson took to transfer ownership were videotaped, with lawyers, experts and doctors in his presence, in anticipation of any legal proceedings.


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The NFL has a reputation for being a copycat league. So it makes perfect sense that the two best guard prospects in this year’s draft class spent the majority of their college careers playing left tackle – Iowa’s Brandon Scherff and LSU’s La'el Collins.

Last year, Dallas Cowboys rookie Zack Martin made that same transition, going from left tackle at Notre Dame to right guard in the NFL. And he wound up as a first-team All-Pro.

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyLa'el Collins is a first-round prospect who can play at several offensive line spots.
It’s still possible that Scherff or Collins could wind up playing tackle in the NFL, depending on where they land. But for a team like the New Orleans Saints that values the guard position so highly and needs to start building for the future behind veteran guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, those two prospects could be strong possibilities with the 13th pick in this year’s draft.

“There are trends, and you look at that and say, ‘OK, this kid [Martin] just did it and he played really well for Dallas. And he was great.’ But you’ve gotta also look at the individual player,” said ESPN/Scouts Inc. draft analyst Steve Muench, who said that neither Scherff nor Collins is as “quick on his feet” as Martin was last year.

But Muench described both as worthy first-round picks and “plug and play” guards – meaning he believes they could step right in and start at guard in the NFL.

I chatted with Muench last week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, where he said he was impressed by what he saw from the 6-foot-5, 308-pound Collins during the week of practices while Collins took turns playing left tackle, right tackle and left guard.

Scherff (6-5, 320) elected not to play in the Senior Bowl. He is projected slightly higher than Collins on most draft boards right now – often in the top 10 overall.

Muench said he has Scherff graded slightly higher right now as a guard prospect – though he believes Collins has a better chance to play right tackle in the NFL than Scherff if that’s what teams are looking for.

“I still really like Collins and thought he had a good week, but Scherff is a little more consistent with more explosive power. Both players should be good, though,” said Muench, who described Collins as a “mean run blocker” and said his only knock on him during Senior Bowl week was a few technique issues, like opening up a little too much with his feet during 1-on-1 pass-rush drills.

“Outside of the technique, I think he’s a really good player. He’s got a lot of talent. He’s got good hands, good feet, good balance. He doesn’t overreact to things in pass pro, lets it develop, stays in front of guys,” Muench said. “And then you don’t see it as much here [at Senior Bowl practices] because guys don’t fire off like they do on game film, obviously. But he’s a mean run blocker on tape, who’s got the power to move guys off, in addition to having enough athletic ability to seal guys, seal a defensive end, get up to the second level, cover up linebackers.”

Scherff was a first-team All-American and Collins a second-teamer in 2014, according to the Associated Press. But Collins, a Baton Rouge native, seems to have helped his draft stock by deciding to return for his senior season at LSU, where he won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the SEC’s top blocker and was named as the Tigers’ Most Valuable Player.

Collins said between practices last week that it doesn’t matter to him whether he plays tackle or guard in the NFL.

“I’m comfortable playing anywhere on the offensive line,” Collins said. “You’ve just gotta be ready to fit in wherever you need to be. So a guy like me, I feel like I can play inside and outside.”

When asked why he played in the Senior Bowl despite being projected as a top-20 draft prospect, Collins said, “Because I’m a competitor, and I look to get better. This is another chance for me to elevate my game, with NFL scouts out here. Who wouldn’t want to be here? …

“Why would you pass up on chance to work with great coaches and play against great competition?”

Collins said it would be great to play for the Saints, just an hour away from home, but he stressed, “Anyone that wants to give me an opportunity, I’ll definitely be there with open arms and that will be my new home.”
Some good stories on New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees emerged from the Pro Bowl.

Brees told The MMQB’s Greg Bedard that his 14th NFL season was “my most frustrating” after the Saints’ high expectations resulted in a 7-9 dud. Once again, Brees hinted at the intangibles that sunk the Saints – like when he has talked previously about a lack of maturity and a need to get back to some of the things the Saints built their program on.

“I hate the word ‘talent.’ I hate it,” Brees said, according to Bedard, who had suggested the Saints were one of the most talented teams he saw in training camp. “Some of the best players I ever played with, or best teammates I ever played with, that wasn’t their best quality. Everybody’s talented. Their best quality was their work ethic, their leadership ability, their ability to fight through adversity, toughness, reliability. Those are the things I most value.”

The good news, according to the always-optimistic Brees, is, “I think we’ve identified the problems or the things that got us beat or the things that didn’t allow us to be as good as we know we can be, and we have the solution to fix it. ... It’s going to take a lot of work, but I know we can get it done.”

Meanwhile, the Times-Picayune’s Katherine Terrell also did a nice profile on Brees, who said his four children have become one of his top motivators at age 36. Brees said he’d love for all four of them to be able to see and appreciate what he does for a living.

Brees said he's just as excited as he's ever been about where the Saints are headed, according to Terrell. But he also knows his opportunities are dwindling.

"You just know the chances are less and less,” Brees said. “At some point, you're not going to be able to say, 'Well, there's always next year.'"

Last but not least, Brees made it clear on Twitter that he didn't like being split up from Saints teammates Jimmy Graham and Mark Ingram in the Pro Bowl -- especially since Graham wound up beating him with a late TD catch -- from rival Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan, of all people.

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ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters and Pro Football Focus both took a detailed look at the rosters of every team that failed to make the Super Bowl this season, with PFF using its grading history to determine "how far away" each team was.

I had some strong disagreements with some of PFF’s grades (especially when it came to cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker Curtis Lofton, whom they inexplicably categorized as "bad" players in 2014). Those two were on my short list of the New Orleans Saints' MVP candidates for 2014 -- a belief that was only further backed up when I chatted with some personnel folks last week at the Senior Bowl.

Lewis
Lofton
You can check out my thoughts on many of the individual grades in the report and the accompanying video.

Where I agreed most with PFF, though, was that the Saints didn’t have enough players playing at an "elite" level in 2014 -- or even at the level PFF designated as "good." They had a total of five players in those categories in 2014, with quarterback Drew Brees and outside linebacker Junior Galette listed as elite, and running back Pierre Thomas, tight end Jimmy Graham, and offensive tackle Zach Strief as good.

A strong argument could be made that the Saints had no elite players in 2014, which was their biggest problem.

As I’ve written several times in recent weeks, the way the Saints have structured their roster, they have invested heavily in six to eight guys that are supposed to be elite – including Brees, Graham, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, receiver Marques Colston, safety Jairus Byrd, Galette, and defensive end Cameron Jordan. Brees makes $20 million per year, and all the others make between $7 million and $10 million per year, if you include the 2015 option the Saints exercised on Jordan. But all of them underachieved to one level or another.

Check out the full breakdown of the Saints’ roster and other rosters around the league. It goes deeper than just the grades -- with breakdowns of the teams’ biggest needs, their best and worst values, and the good news and the bad news looking forward.

ESPN scouting analyst Matt Williamson also wrote an intriguing companion piece (which requires Insider access), ranking which NFL teams have the best talent aged 25 and under Insider. The Saints are in the middle of the pack.

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