NFL Nation TV gets scandalous?

March, 31, 2015
Mar 31
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Join us today at 1 p.m. ET (10 a.m. PT) for NFL Nation TV’s Spreecast 50 as we catch you up on the latest in free agency and offseason storylines, including the San Francisco 49ers cutting Jonathan Martin and bringing in a bevy of veterans for visits and the Atlanta Falcons getting fined $350,000 and losing a draft pick for piping in noise to the Georgia Dome during games.

Host Paul Gutierrez (49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by four other NFL Nation reporters throughout the expanded show.

Jeremy Fowler (Cleveland Browns reporter) will give us the latest on Browns general manager Ray Farmer’s four-game suspension and what it means for the franchise, as well as provide an update on Johnny Manziel's rehab stint.

Paul Kuharsky (Tennessee Titans reporter) will update us on the Titans’ thoughts on what to with the No. 2 overall draft pick, and if quarterback Marcus Mariota might be their No. 1 target now.

Meanwhile, Harvey and Wells will chime in with a co-Main Event to discuss lame duck coaches, from Marvin Lewis to Chuck Pagano.

The other co-Main Event features Rich Cimini (New York Jets reporter) and Mike Reiss (New England Patriots reporter) as they discuss the latest hissing match and tampering charges flying from the East Coast.

Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.

The New Orleans Saints are down to roughly $850,000 in salary-cap space according to updated information from ESPN Stats & Information and the NFL Players Association -- a decrease of $700,000 from previous estimates.

The difference comes from linebacker Dannell Ellerbe’s deal. It was originally believed that a $2.1 million roster bonus due April 1 would count against the Miami Dolphins’ salary cap. Instead, it will count against the Saints’ cap at $700,000 per year from 2015-17.

That’s not a major difference for the Saints, but every dollar counts since they’re so close to the cap. They’ll probably need to create about $2 million more in salary-cap space to fit in their draft picks, barring trades. And they’ll need even more if they plan to add any other free agents above the veteran minimum salary level.

Coach Sean Payton already referenced two ways the Saints can create more space last week. He said the team plans to rework guard Jahri Evans’ deal, which counts $11 million against this year’s cap (though Payton didn’t specify, it’s possible that could include a pay cut). Payton also said the Saints have talked with defensive end Cameron Jordan’s agent about a possible long-term contract extension, which could include a reduced cap figure in 2015 (Jordan’s $6.969 million salary for this year counts fully against the cap).

Other roster cuts or trades are also possible -- though they aren't necessary strictly for cap purposes if the Saints can use some of those other methods instead.

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Todd McShay's latest mock draft would be a great one for the New Orleans Saints.

The ESPN NFL draft analyst has the Saints landing Clemson pass-rusher Vic Beasley with the 13th pick and Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson at No. 31 in his Mock Draft 4.0Insider, which requires Insider access.

Those are two of the Saints' biggest needs, and most analysts seem to agree Beasley and Johnson are among the top options at their respective positions.

I've seen many mock draft that project Beasley to go higher -- but if he does, perhaps another top edge rusher will fall. McShay has pass-rushers Dante Fowler Jr., Randy Gregory and Shane Ray all going in his top 8.

I've written a lot about Beasley this offseason since he's been often paired with the Saints in mock drafts -- at least until he boosted his stock with a dazzling performance at the NFL scouting combine last month. The 6-foot-3, 246-pounder had 25 sacks over the past two years. He bulked up quite a bit before the combine but still ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any linebacker or defensive lineman (4.53 seconds). He also tied for the most bench-press reps of anyone at those positions (35).

Johnson (6-0, 188) started 41 games in college. He had only seven career interceptions, but ESPN Scouts Inc. rates his cover skills as "exceptional." Johnson is often described as "fluid" and his athleticism is a plus. His 40-yard dash time at the combine (4.52 seconds) was solid, but he impressed even more in the jumping drills, including a 41.5-inch vertical leap. He has decent size and length, though his physicality in run support isn't his strongest suit.

McShay wrote that Johnson "isn't exceptional in any one trait, but he's good in every area." CBSSports.com's Rob Rang compared him to former Saints cornerback Tracy Porter.

Although Mark Ingram was thrilled about the opportunity to be featured as a workhorse back when needed last season, he insisted he was fired up when the New Orleans Saints signed fellow running back C.J. Spiller in free agency.

Not only are the two friends, but Ingram said he loves what the explosive runner/receiver will bring to the Saints' offense.

"He's a special player," Ingram said. "He's a game-breaker, can take it to the house no matter where he is on the field, punt return, kick return, pass, run. So I'm looking forward to it."

Ingram and Spiller took in a Pelicans game together shortly after Spiller signed his new deal. Ingram said the two are "good friends" and said they've been familiar with each other since college, when they both had the same position coach, Burton Burns (with Spiller at Clemson, then Ingram at Alabama).

"So it wasn't anything strange or anything when we signed him. I talked to him before it even got announced," Ingram said during a recent interview with ESPN.com about his many blessings on and off the field in recent months.

Spiller also mentioned his familiarity with Ingram after he signed in New Orleans, saying he's always played in a two-back system since college and has no problem continuing to do so.

An unofficial projection of where the New Orleans Saints' depth chart stands after their additions, subtractions and re-signings during the past month. Click here for a look at the Saints' offensive depth chart.

DEFENSE:

DE -- Akiem Hicks, Glenn Foster

DE -- Cameron Jordan, Foster

NT -- Brodrick Bunkley, John Jenkins, Lawrence Virgil

OLB -- Junior Galette, Kasim Edebali

OLB -- Parys Haralson, Ronald Powell

ILB -- David Hawthorne, Ramon Humber

ILB -- Dannell Ellerbe, Kyle Knox, Jerry Franklin

CB -- Keenan Lewis, Terrence Frederick, Delvin Breaux

CB -- Brandon Browner, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Brian Dixon

SS -- Kenny Vaccaro, Jamarca Sanford, Vinnie Sunseri, Marcus Ball

FS -- Jairus Byrd, Rafael Bush, Pierre Warren, Kenny Phillips, Ty Zimmerman

SPECIAL TEAMS:

P -- Thomas Morstead

K -- Shayne Graham, Dustin Hopkins

LS -- Justin Drescher

H -- Luke McCown

PR -- Brandin Cooks, Jalen Saunders

KR -- Jalen Saunders

Thoughts: The first two things that jump out are how loaded the Saints are at safety and how thin they are at defensive end.

Safety is the one position the Saints can probably ignore in the draft (unless they fall in love with a specific prospect). They loaded up on safeties last year because of injuries, and now they’ve got one of those “good problems.” The battle for backup jobs will be interesting in camp.

Every other position is fair game in the draft.

Coach Sean Payton said last week that the Saints need to draft at least one or two outside linebacker/defensive end pass-rush types. A second edge rusher to complement Galette might rank as New Orleans' No. 1 need overall -- especially with those early draft picks since it's hard to find dynamic pass-rushers late in the draft or in free agency.

Defensive end stands out as the thinnest position in terms of total bodies on the roster (regardless of whether you put the Saints in a 3-4 front or a 4-3 front). Starters Jordan and Hicks are excellent. But they’ll need more young backups to supplement Foster.

The Saints also need to get younger at inside linebacker behind veterans Ellerbe, Hawthorne, Haralson and Humber.

The Saints do have several young candidates for the nickel cornerback job -- but no proven ones. So an early draft pick or even a cheap free-agent addition might be a consideration.

As for special teams, the only position I’d expect the Saints to possibly target in the draft is a kickoff returner -- though Saunders showed some nice potential when he joined the Saints in the middle of last season.

New Orleans Saints cornerback Brian Dixon was arrested in Miami early Sunday morning.

Dixon, 24, was charged with resisting an officer without violence to his person. He was released on $1,000 bail.

The Saints declined comment, but said NFL security is looking into the incident.

Dixon was pulled over for traffic violations while riding a motor scooter at 11:30 p.m., according to the police report. He was traveling down the center of the road between the northbound and southbound lanes and swerved in front of a car, causing it to stop abruptly.

Officers then said he became "belligerent" and "antagonistic," saying, "You're seriously going to give me a ticket for that? I'm making a U-turn!" and later saying, "You're just doing this because I'm a black man with dreads and I look like a criminal. I'm not a criminal!"

Dixon also received two traffic citations for operating between lane/vehicle and driving on wrong side/lane of roadway.

Dixon made the team as an undrafted free agent last year.

He appeared in all 16 games and had 18 tackles and one pass defended.

ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett contributed to this report.


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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Jeff Ireland knows a good fit when he sees one. So when the New Orleans Saints’ former player personnel director, Ryan Pace, was hired away as the Chicago Bears general manager, Ireland sent a text message to Saints GM Mickey Loomis:

“Hey, keep me in mind.”

[+] EnlargeJeff Ireland
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesJeff Ireland said he's visiting about three schools per week as the Saints prepare for the NFL draft.

That led to informal interviews with Loomis and Saints coach Sean Payton to “see if we were on the same page.” And it ultimately led to Ireland becoming the Saints’ assistant GM, heading up the team’s college scouting department.

“It was a great conversation [with Loomis], had the same conversation with Sean,” said Ireland, the former Miami Dolphins general manager, who said he considered Loomis a friend and “mentor” from getting to know him over the years as a young personnel guy moving up the ranks.

Ireland also knew Payton well from their days working together with the Dallas Cowboys under Bill Parcells.

“Both sides were comfortable. … And it’s great to be part of this organization,” said Ireland, who met with the local New Orleans media for the first time since his January hire during LSU’s pro timing day on Friday.

Ireland said it’s been a “rat race,” joining the Saints this late into the scouting process. He’s been visiting about three schools per week while also getting to know the Saints’ scouts and coaches and helping to put their draft board together.

But he said it’s been a great experience after he spent last season out of football for the first time in nearly two decades.

“I was watching a lot of football, but it’s different when you’re watching football on the couch versus watching football in the meeting room and writing reports,” Ireland said. “When you’re out of football and you love football, you grow to appreciate the game more. I missed it so much. I missed the relationships that you have.

“It’s good to be back in the mix.”

Among other topics Ireland discussed:

  • Ireland said he “didn’t start the conversation” about trading for former Dolphins linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, whom Ireland had signed to a five-year, $35 million contract two years ago. But he said he was certainly part of the conversation, since he had intimate knowledge of Ellerbe. "He's a productive football player. He's a great person. He’s a good leader. He's athletic,” Ireland said. “I only got the one year with him. He's transitioning defenses. We've got to get him healthy [after he missed 15 games last year with a hip injury]. And if he gets back to full health, he's going to be a productive football player for this franchise."
  • Ireland joked that it was a “prerequisite” for him taking the job that the Saints load up with nine draft picks, including two first-rounders. But on a serious note, he said that opens up a world of possibilities. “It gives you a lot of flexibility. You can do pretty much anything you want to in the early rounds of the draft. You can slide back, you can move up, you can use a combination of picks to do anything you want. Again, that's going to be up to Mickey and Sean. I'm gonna be part of the process. My job is to put the board together and make sure we've got players in the right positions, and let them make the decisions based on what they need."
  • Ireland said “you don’t want to make a habit of trading young players away.” But he said of the bold moves the Saints made this offseason, including trading away Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills: “In this particular instance, those were some things that Mickey and Sean wanted to do, and we were all for it as an organization. And we’re looking forward to [having so many draft picks now], because we’ve got some holes to fill.”

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU's La'el Collins, who was a second-team All-American as a senior in 2014, said all the talk of him being moved to right tackle or guard in the NFL is just that for now -- "talk."

"Every team, every scout, every coach, offensive line coach from teams that have worked me out has said "definitely" I'm a left tackle," said the 6-foot-4, 305-pounder, a likely first-round draft pick who boosted his stock even further by flashing his athleticism at last month's scouting combine.

But Collins insisted Friday that he wouldn't have any problem moving inside if that's what his next employer prefers. And he only views it as positive that teams and draft analysts see that kind of versatility in him.

[+] EnlargeLa'El Collins
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesLSU All-American offensive lineman La'el Collins insists he won't have a problem moving inside if that's what his next employer prefers.

"I believe in my abilities. And I think the fact that I'm even in the conversation to be able to play guard or tackle at the next level is huge, that's value," Collins said after performing position drills in front of a packed house of NFL scouts at LSU's pro timing day (he elected to skip all of the other drills and let his combine performance speak for itself). "Being able to play both positions is something I love to carry on my shoulders. I feel like I can fit in anywhere, plug in anywhere."

Collins virtually echoed the same words that another former LSU left tackle said about him earlier in the day -- Cincinnati Bengals veteran Andrew Whitworth, who was on hand at the Tigers' indoor practice facility.

Whitworth is an ideal model and mentor for Collins since he also played guard early in his nine-year NFL career before becoming a Pro Bowl left tackle in 2012 and a second-team All-Pro in 2014.

"It's one of those things that sometimes people can get nit-picky about, but at the end of the day, he can be an excellent guard or he can be a great tackle," Whitworth said. "It depends on the system, and it depends on the atmosphere he's put in. Honestly, to me, it's more of a compliment, because that means they think you're tough and strong and physical, and that you can also play on the edge.

"If they can already consider you at two positions, that means they have a high opinion of you."

Collins' ultimate landing spot will depend on each team's specific needs. If he moves just one hour down the road to New Orleans, for example, he'll likely play guard for the Saints -- not only because they need one to eventually replace six-time Pro Bowler Jahri Evans, but because they've been ahead of the recent NFL curve when it comes to valuing the position.

Evans and Carl Nicks were both first-team All-Pro guards during the Saints' Super Bowl prime, because quarterback Drew Brees loves to climb up in the pocket.

Lately, more and more guards have gone higher in the draft league-wide -- including the Dallas Cowboys' Zack Martin, who was moved from tackle to guard after being drafted 16th overall last year and wound up being a first-team All Pro.

The year before that, guards Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper were top-10 draft picks for the Tennessee Titans and Arizona Cardinals, respectively. The year before that, the Pittsburgh Steelers' David DeCastro and Bengals' Kevin Zeitler both went in the 20s.

Another top prospect this year, Iowa's Brandon Scherff, could also be switched from left tackle to guard in the NFL.

I spoke to a few personnel folks Friday at LSU who agreed the guard position has become increasingly valued.

"If they're good players, why not [draft them high]," said new Saints assistant general manager and former Miami Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland. "If they're gonna help you win, and they're gonna be productive and consistent and they're good character people and dependable, that's important."

"I don't think it is [a stigma to be moved to guard] anymore," Whitworth said. "I think now you see a lot of the really top-end guards that are getting paid the same as tackles, or at least close. So I think that position's changing."

Collins was set to meet with the Saints after Friday's workouts, since they had almost their entire contingent of coaches and front office personnel on hand. He said he has about 15 other visits set up, though he declined to name the teams.

Though Collins was glad he generated positive buzz with his combine performance (his 40-yard dash time of 5.12 seconds ranked sixth among offensive linemen), he said it was hard to sit and watch for most of Friday's activities.

"It kinda sucks, especially for a guy like me," Collins said. "I'm a very big competitor. It got me very anxious."

Asked what he hoped to show NFL teams, Collins said, "Just be consistent and show them my game's nowhere near where I'm gonna be. There's so much more room for me to grow, show 'em that I'm coachable. You bring me in, you can coach me and train me the way you want me to be. And I'll go out there and be successful and do everything you need me to."

Stay tuned for more coverage out of LSU's pro day from ESPN SEC reporter David Ching.

Mark IngramDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMark Ingram is motivated "to be the best football player ever to play the game."

METAIRIE, La. -- Mark Ingram has been on quite a run over the past few months.

The New Orleans Saints running back got his career on the right track with a long-overdue breakout season in 2014, followed by his first Pro Bowl and a new four-year, $16 million contract.

It gets better: Ingram's daughter, Myla, was born in late December and his father, former NFL receiver Mark Ingram Sr., was released from prison in early 2015 after serving six years for bank fraud, money laundering and jumping bail.

"It's been very special," Ingram said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "God's been very good to me. I'm extremely blessed just to be in the situation I am, to have a beautiful daughter, a great girlfriend, all my family supporting me and my father getting out and starting his life again. Getting a new contract, being in a city that I'm familiar with, with the team that drafted me.

"I'm blessed and I'm thankful."

Ingram, 25, has experienced a great deal of highs and lows in his young football career, from a Heisman Trophy and national championship at Alabama to a frustratingly slow start in the NFL. Though he occasionally let his frustrations spill out on the field, Ingram has often been lauded by teammates and coaches for staying persistent and driven -- a drive that led Ingram to insist last summer that he still intends to be the "best back to ever play the freakin' game of football."


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Releasing linebacker Curtis Lofton was both a football and financial decision, according to New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton.

Although Lofton was a team captain who ranked fourth in the NFL with 144 tackles last year, the Saints didn’t feel the value was right as he was due $7.25 million in salary and bonuses this year.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesSean Payton said every offseason requires tough decisions based largely on salaries.

Payton’s description of how the decision played out was reminiscent of the way Payton explained that the Saints decided they had to part ways with one of their expensive guards (ultimately trading Ben Grubbs to the Kansas City Chiefs).

Payton made it sound like Lofton, 28, balked at the idea of taking a pay cut. Meanwhile, fellow veteran linebacker David Hawthorne agreed to a pay cut to $3.25 million in salary and bonuses this year, and veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe agreed to a new, reduced contract as part of the Saints’ trade with the Miami Dolphins. Since Miami is eating some of the money, Ellerbe’s deal will cost the Saints only $1.2 million this year and a total of $11.6 million over three years.

Hawthorne will slide over to Lofton’s middle “mike” linebacker spot, while Ellerbe will play the other inside “will” linebacker position.

“I think overall, there were a few players we knew from a numbers standpoint, there was going to have to be something done,” Payton said during the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. “It’s hard. Every offseason at some point your boss calls you in and says, ‘Look, we feel like you need to improve in this area, this area and this area. And you need to be better here, here and here. And by the way, we want to pay you 70 percent of what you made last year.’

“Essentially, to some degree, the market fluctuates within our game with contracts. We felt like an inside linebacker was going to be someone we definitely had as a ‘must.’ We didn’t know if it would be a mike or a will. I do feel like Dannell Ellerbe has played both and has that flexibility.

“With Curtis, there was obviously ‘X’ amount of dollars due to be made. We felt that was going to be the best way to go.”

Lofton, meanwhile, made out just fine by signing a three-year, $18 million deal with the Oakland Raiders that includes a guaranteed $6.5 million this year and $10 million in total guarantees.

Payton also referenced other Saints players that signed elsewhere during his hour-long interview session with the media:

  • Although the Saints decided not to tender restricted free agent running back Travaris Cadet (which would have cost $1.54 million), Payton said the Saints would have wanted him back if they had not signed free agent runner/receiver C.J. Spiller instead. Cadet wound up signing with the New England Patriots. ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss shared more of Payton’s thoughts on Cadet here.
  • Payton was asked several times about defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker, another non-tendered restricted free agent, who wound up signing with the Detroit Lions. Payton kept repeating how much he liked Walker’s versatility and intelligence, calling him “one of the smartest guys in that room” and describing him as “the guy you want to sit next to on the English exam.” Payton also cited financial reasons for letting Walker go. But when asked about him for the third time, he joked, “I’m starting to miss him now. I’m starting to think, ‘Why’d we let him out of the building?’”
  • Payton didn’t specify why the Saints decided to let cornerback Patrick Robinson get away in free agency, where he signed with the San Diego Chargers. But he spoke glowingly about the former first-round draft pick. “He can run. He’s got long arms. He was hampered with some injuries throughout his career. I’m a huge Patrick Robinson fan, though. He’s a great person," Payton said. "I’m anxious to see how he does. And I think all of us are pulling for a guy like him.”

A Texas judge who has been overseeing a part of the vast legal battle between New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson and his estranged heirs predicted Benson will have trouble removing the sports franchises from a group of family trusts.

However, that judge -- Tom Rickhoff -- is not presiding over that area of the case, and Benson's lawyers disputed his opinion.

"The sports teams' value is increasing too fast and is too high compared to [Benson's] remaining wealth," Rickhoff wrote in a March 9 letter to the two men he appointed to temporarily oversee one of Benson's family trusts in San Antonio -- which is separate from the group of trusts that contains portions of the Saints and Pelicans.

"Big businessmen are still just like all of us and cannot just sign whatever they want and think if it goes south, 'I'll just litigate.'" Rickhoff wrote, according to both The New Orleans Advocate and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune.

One of Benson's attorneys, Paul Cordes, countered by calling the judge's opinion "conjecture" and told The Advocate that Benson "is fully capable of performing on the swap when all the values (of relevant assets) are nailed down."

The Advocate's Ramon Antonio Vargas did a great job of breaking down all the issues at stake in both the Texas and New Orleans court cases. A big part of the equation will be determining the value of the non-voting shares in both teams that are included in a group of trusts (Benson himself maintains all of the voting shares) -- and whether Benson is capable of replacing those shares with assets of equal value.

These issues are also separate from the arguments about whether Benson has the mental competency to make such decisions -- which are also ongoing in a New Orleans civil court.

Benson spoke this week during the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix about his decision to remove his daughter and grandchildren as heirs to his business empire and replace them with his wife, Gayle.

The New Orleans Saints are taking a more hands-on approach to their secondary this year.

As in, they want their cornerbacks to be a lot more physical at the line of scrimmage.

That strategy became pretty obvious when the Saints targeted cornerback Brandon Browner at the start of free agency. The 6-foot-4, 221-pounder has earned a reputation as one of the NFL’s most disruptive press coverage corners during his four years with the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Browner
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesThe addition of Brandon Browner gives the Saints more of an opportunity to jam receivers at the line.

But coach Sean Payton confirmed this week that Browner is part of a greater strategy, inspired in large part by the growing number of big receivers in the NFC South, where 2015 rookie standouts Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin joined the likes of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Vincent Jackson.

“There is probably more size at the receiver position in the NFC South than any other division in football,” Payton said during the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. “And so, you don’t want to line up with 5-8 corners, bump-and-running and bumping their knees.

“I think Brandon’s comfort zone certainly would be playing up close to the line of scrimmage . . . You’re looking at really six games you’re playing the division, you know you’re gonna see big, talented receivers.”

Payton said he envisions Browner as the right cornerback, lining up across from the incumbent top cornerback, Keenan Lewis, who has size and length himself at 6-1, 208 pounds.

“I see [Browner] as a bump-and-run player. So the closer he can be to a receiver, the better,” Payton said. “And Keenan, to some degree, I think is a press player as well. Obviously we’ve gotten bigger at that position.”

Lewis often has matched up in man coverage against some of the NFL’s top receivers, including impressive performances last season against Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, Alshon Jeffery and Benjamin.

But at other times, the Saints decided to use a tandem of their No. 2 cornerback and a safety to match up against top receivers (which they did against Jones and Antonio Brown last season), while Lewis stayed in single coverage against a No. 2 receiver.

It would make a lot of sense for the Saints to employ that strategy often this year with Browner jamming top receivers at the line to try to disrupt their routes, while a safety helps over the top. The Patriots often used that approach with Browner and cornerback Darrelle Revis last year.

The Saints still have a question mark when it comes to the nickelback position, though they could revert to using three safeties in their nickel package (which they did in 2013) now that they’re loaded with depth at safety (Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro, Rafael Bush, Pierre Warren, Jamarca Sanford, Vinnie Sunseri, Marcus Ball and Kenny Phillips).

The Saints always could add another corner in the draft as well.

Or bigger roles are possible for young backup corners Stan Jean-Baptiste, Brian Dixon, Terrence Frederick and Delvin Breaux.

Payton on Wednesday detailed Breaux’s journey from a serious neck injury in high school to semipro ball, to the Arena Football League and to the Canadian Football League.

“He has great size, great hands . . . I like him. He, too, is another big corner that I think can play at the line,” said Payton, who then rattled off some other names. “Of course Stanley Jean-Baptiste, we drafted last year. We like this prospect. We knew when we drafted him it was going to be a developmental player. Am I missing someone now? ‘Twin’ [Brian Dixon], another corner who played quite a bit last year actually, who can run.

“So we’ve got a good balance of young players and yet some veteran experience. Brandon’s someone, though, that definitely is going to be playing at the line of scrimmage. He and Keenan both.”

From Sean Payton to Mickey Loomis to Drew Brees and other veteran leaders, the New Orleans Saints have consistently stressed the need to improve intangibles such as leadership and locker-room culture in the wake of last year’s 7-9 season.

Payton indicated this week that those qualities remained a priority with the players the Saints added through free agency and trades – respected veteran leaders such as center Max Unger, cornerback Brandon Browner, running back C.J. Spiller and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.

The scouting reports on most of those guys often point to their toughness as well. And Payton singled out Spiller as someone who has a love and passion for the game.

[+] EnlargeBrees & Payton
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsSaints coach Sean Payton is hoping to improve the culture in the team's locker room.

“Mickey and I said this at the start of the offseason, ‘Let’s not lose track of why we’ve been successful and what’s been good to us,’” Payton said during the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. “And part of that is putting highly-motivated players in that locker room that care about each other. It’s something that seems so simple and yet, it’s not been our secret; it’s just been our formula.

“Getting the right type of guys that are smart, tough football players. That certainly will be an emphasis this offseason, and going into the draft as well.”

On the flip side, I don’t necessarily think it would be right to draw the conclusion that the players the Saints got rid of lacked those qualities.

I have never heard any strong indications that Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills, Ben Grubbs, Curtis Lofton or Pierre Thomas were locker-room distractions or malcontents, etc. And there was a specific reason that everyone was traded away.

With Grubbs, Lofton and Thomas, the moves were financially motivated (and both Lofton and Grubbs, at least, were offered the chance to stay if they took a pay cut). And with Graham and Stills, the Saints made it clear that they were valuable commodities who could generate a large return if traded – which both of them did. The Saints believed like they could afford to part with some of their offensive firepower to acquire assets to help build their defense and offensive line. Graham and Stills were the two most tradeable commodities among their offensive weapons.

However, it is fair to suggest that the Saints deemed all of those players expendable – including Graham, whose production was just as inconsistent and frustrating as many of the other players on the Saints roster who underachieved last season.

Meanwhile, the Saints’ culture change can’t just come from the newcomers. In fact, the Saints pointed to their large amount of roster turnover last year as one of the issues they stuggled to deal with (losing longtime veterans such as Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles).

An improved culture and attitude has to come from a renewed commitment within the current group of coaches and players, as well.

“Every year, every team is different," Loomis said when asked how he feels about the current state of the Saints’ culture this week. "And yet we’ve got a pretty solid core group of guys in that locker room, and I’m pretty confident that we’ll have that straightened out."

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Coach Sean Payton loves C.J. Spiller. He sees Spiller being great at screens, sweeps and inside runs, an explosive runner..

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando gathered together some of ESPN’s top talent evaluators for this detailed breakdown of each team’s performance so far in free agency (which requires Insider access).

Sando gave the Saints a B-minus, though he admitted the grade is conservative because they’ve made so many bold moves and still have a lot of draft picks that will become part of the overall picture.

I loved what ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson said on that front: "People will downgrade them in free agency and then laud them in the draft, but what they do in the draft is because of what they did in free agency.”

The other analysts – Louis Riddick, Bill Polian and Field Yates – broke down the pluses and minuses, naturally sharing concerns about trading away Jimmy Graham in his prime. But they recognized the Saints were willing to sacrifice offensive horsepower to improve their physicality and defense. And the overall tone was cautious optimism.

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