Tempo: It has been a common theme at Saints training camp, and after a really intense workout yesterday, the Saints followed it up with another solid day of work ahead of tomorrow's scheduled day off. There weren't nearly as many big hits as we saw on Sunday, but we still saw a lot of energy.
Play of the Day: After having a rough first period in practice with a dropped pass from Brees, Wide Receiver Brandon Coleman redeemed and restored faith in the team portion of practice with a tough contested catch going over the defender and hauling in the pass. Coleman continues to get a lot of looks with the first team unit.
Rookie Spotlight: I thought today might have been the best day in camp so far for Rookie Linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha. He had a nice pass rushing performance in 1 on 1 drills, beating Bryce Harris at left tackle for a sack. Kikaha looked like he was playing too fast the first few days of camp, almost trying too hard. By far the most impressive rookie in camp so far? Middle linebacker Stephone Anthony.
Veteran Spotlight: Cam Jordan had a solid effort today in camp. In the team portion of practice, he's always tough to move around against the run and today bull rushed Zach Strief right into the lap of the QB Drew Brees. If they were playing in a game it would have been a sack. Jordan has been very vocal at practice, providing solid leadership for the younger defensive linemen, and setting a really good example being the first up in drills.
#Saints continue solid intensity & pace at practice today.
Struggling: This won't make a lot of Saints fans happy, but rookie tackle Andrus Peat is not a threat to veteran Zach Strief, at least not this year and in the early part of camp. Peat has struggled at times in 1 on 1 pass rushing drills, getting beat by players that might not end up making the final roster. Now in fairness to Peat, I think he's still trying to catch up on conditioning time he missed during the off-season while he was finishing school.
Quote of the day: "In a couple of years he's going to be one of those elite linebackers. He prepares, he's smart, he's physical, he understands football and has a really bright future!" That was Saints linebacker Parys Haralson, after he was asked about his impressions of rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony.
Joe Morgan: Had his best practice of camp making two really difficult grabs in team drills. Morgan is stacked behind the depth chart now, but has some advantages over some of the younger guys trying to bid for a roster spot. Morgan still has very good deep speed, knowledge of the system, and is a very willing and capable blocker at wide receiver.
Kicking update: Dustin Hopkins might have the proverbial leg up in the kicking battle with Zach Hocker at this point in camp. Hopkins has the stronger leg, and the kicks jump off his foot. Today each kicker had four attempts from inside of 44 yards, Hocker missed one, and Hopkins was perfect on all four of his kicks.
Urgency: That was the popular word of choice from the players and coaches today in practice. Today was the most physical practice the Saints have held in a while. There were several big hits that we'll talk about in a bit. "The players did a good job with the tempo of practice today," Sean Payton explained following the workout. Payton added the team put an emphasis on focus and getting the most out of each player the previous night in meetings. If a mistake was made the coaches were constantly reminding the players "move onto the next play."
Play of the day: Veteran safety Kenny Phillips logged the first interception in the team period of camp so far, jumping a deep passing play over the middle coming and picking off QB Ryan Griffin's pass. Phillips has been getting some reps with the first team defense rotating with Rafael Bush, in the absence of Jairus Byrd (PUP).
Quote of the day: "I thought I was a quiet guy until I met him!" WR Brandon Coleman explained when I asked him if he has a similar personality to Marques Colston. Coleman is having a solid camp so far... we learned today that an injury in college really hampered him last camp, but he looks fully healthy so far and has really impressed.
Rookie Spotlight: Undrafted rookie free agent defensive lineman Bobby Richardson has been a disruptive player in the middle on defense so far in the early goings of camp. Richardson has been active on run downs, getting pressure on the QB, and also swatting down a pass today at the line of scrimmage. Richardson and fellow rookie Tyeler Davison have been standouts among the young defensive lineman on the roster. The defensive line might be the best opportunity for a young player to crack the roster.
Not so special teams: The special teams period of practice is usually a good time for the media to catch up on social media posts, or write some notes. However, I've payed particular attention to the return game element of special teams in practice, and I really think you'll see improvement in the kick off and punt return element of Gregg McMahon's unit. First, I really like the options they have with some explosive players getting a chance to touch the ball in space. The Saints are using Brandin Cooks, C.J Spiller, Marcus Murphy, Jalen Saunders and Joe Morgan as kick returners. Right now it looks like C.J Spiller could be the primary guy handling kick offs.
Big hits: As I mentioned earlier, the pads were really popping today at camp. WR Nick Toon had a rough day, getting lit up on two occasions from CB Brandon Browner one play, and just a few reps later Ramon Humber de-cleated him in 'pass skeleton'. Pass skeleton is a drill with just the quarterbacks and wide receivers/tight ends against the linebackers and defensive backs. In the team portion of practice the defensive side of the ball was dealing today with several big shots from guys like David Hawthorne, Kenny Stills, and Stephone Anthony.
No excuses: Saints Wide Receivers coach Johnny Morton delivered a stern butt chewing to WR Seantavious Jones today. Jones didn't know where to line up in formation, and Morton climbed up and down his back yanking him out of the play and replacing him for the play. The Saints have always maintained that you have to know what you're doing or you won't even sniff the field. Morton and Patyon both took turns chewing on Jones from the mental bust.
Contact: Finally the Saints were back to 'real football' in full pads this morning. The pace of practice was much faster than the previous two days, with a variety of different drills. You could see an uptick in energy among the players and coaches this morning at the Greenbrier.
1 on 1 Offensive and Defensive line: This is one of the better drills to watch in camp as the offensive and defensive lineman battle in the trenches, along with the Linebackers in pass rush/pass protection. The most dominant player on defense was Akiem Hicks. He bull rushed a few players on the inside. Terron Armstead didn't get beat on one single rep. Defenders have a hard time competing with his quickness and strength. "His skill set for that position (left tackle) is outstanding," said saints coach Sean Payton following practice. Anthony Spencer also flashed some pass rush skills, registering a would-be sack after a nice spin move against rookie right tackle Andrus Peat. Zach Strief is firmly in place at right tackle the way I see it right now, in case you were wondering.
Kicking competition: Let's be clear, this competition will play out over the entire course of the preseason. You'll probably get tired of reading about the updates, but several fans have asked for a peek at the kicking competition. I charted every kick today in practice, both Dustin Hopkins and Zach Hocker made their four attempts from inside the 40 yard line. Hopkins and Hocker also worked on kickoffs, and Hopkins clearly had the more consistent efforts booming kickoffs several yards further than Hocker. Neither figure to threaten Thomas Morstead who handles the kickoff responsibilities, so Payton says the emphases in the competition will be based more on accuracy of field goals and extra points. "Pretty soon you get to gather enough information where you are seeing a kind of percentage or consistency. I think there is a little bit more of a premium on their accuracy being that those point afters are going to be further away." Former Saints kicker John Carney is spending three days of camp with the team working with Hocker and Hopkins.
Quote of the day: "The Patriots asked me to take a pay cut, so it was time to get the hell up out of there," Saints defensive back Brandon Browner said. Browner almost joined the Saints last offseason before signing with the Patriots, and now's he excited about being teamed up with his former Oregon State teammate Keenan Lewis this season. He's been impressive so far in the locker room and on the field.
Play of the day: Joe Morgan flashed solid hands and blazing speed streaking down the sideline for a long bomb, running underneath the Drew Brees pass beating Delvin Breaux for a big gain. Breaux had solid coverage, but Brees dropped the ball right over Morgan's outside shoulder.
Rookie Watch: It was hard to not notice rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony today in practice. On three consecutive plays Anthony snuffed out a couple of running plays. Anthony figured to be impressive once the pads were on, and he didn't disappoint today. The physical element to his game is very noticeable. Fans are going to really like Anthony in the preseason. He arrives at the football with serious intentions.
Every team in the NFL is looking for the extra angle in film studio, or simulators, or any piece of technology they can to give their players and coaches more perspective on the game, and breaking down film. The Saints staged two cameras at field level in the middle of the field on offense and defense at practice today.
The camera can film 360 degrees, and it doesn’t interfere with the players on the field. Coach Sean Payton describes the value it brings to some of the younger players on the roster. “If you wanted to take any of the young mic linebackers, you can put that headset on and they can see every one of those formations just like it was at their eye level. They can turn to their right and actually see the outside linebacker. They could turn around and see the safeties.” Look at it as a virtual simulator. “I think the first thing that comes to mind is the quarterback, the mic linebacker, personal protector where they can get additional reps up here, maybe a little bit more significant than just the two dimensional film,” Payton added.
It doesn’t stop there, the Saints are also using a Cryotherapy Chamber to help players recover after practice. Payton said he tried it out today. “Rather than water, it is a freezing air mixture that you will be in for three minutes. It is a long three minutes. But none the less coming out of it I know how it feels. I know how these guys feel about it. It is something that we spent some time on in the offseason, Mickey (Loomis) and I. We will have that available, one for our team, one for the Pelicans. All of these things are just to help with recovery.” Some players prefer to use the cold tub, but Payton is hoping all the players find use for the Cryotherapy Chamber. For the record, I don’t think I could last the three minutes. Technology is so cool though.
Colston Off PUP: Wide Receiver Marques Colston made an appearance at this morning’s walk through portion of practice, hauling in a pass from Drew Brees. Colston started camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list with an undisclosed injury, and while he didn’t participate in the team drills at practice today, it was good to see him moving around. “We’ll be smart about it - the good thing about Colston is you know exactly what you have in him,” said coach Sean Payton following practice. Payton didn’t say definitively that Colston was removed from the PUP list. The CBA spells out the ‘Active PUP’ rules; once they are medically cleared to play, they can practice immediately.
Studs: The early candidates for the ‘stud’ category have to be Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner at cornerback. For the second consecutive day the ‘twin spans’ made their presence felt batting down a few footballs. Defensive End Akiem Hicks also stacked together another strong practice today racking up another would be sack in the team portion of drills. Hicks joked that his weight is down from last season “I’m trying to get on the cover of GQ magazine.” Hicks played most of last season with an ankle injury and for a big guy, that’s tough to deal with and keep your weight at the ideal spot.
Duds: It might be a big unfair to call him a dud, but rookie QB Garret Grayson is clearly struggling with the mental aspect of practices. “You can see him thinking out there, he looks unsure because he’s seeing new things,” explained the Cajun Cannon Bobby Hebert. Ryan Griffing received a bulk of the work with the 2nd team offense, and looked crisp at times and certainly displayed his command of the teams playbook.
Rookie Observation: At the risk overhyping any one particular player, I’m focusing on at least one rookie each day. Today it was running back Marcus Murphy. He’s smooth, fans are going to like watching this young man run. He’s got a different gear in the return game, and once he’s in the open field he’s tough to catch. I’m anxious to see the pads on for Murphy, he’s light and not very big. The running back position is solid with Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller, and Khiry Robinson, but there is some value for Murphy as a return guy.
Play of the day: There were several big plays on offense and defense, and Khiry Robinson had a long touchdown on a screen play. Defensively, I will give it to Safety Rafael Bush breaking up a perfectly thrown seam pass to Benjamin Watson. He played the ball perfectly, and went around Watson to deflect the football away despite Watson having leverage.
Watch out for Watson: Speaking of Watson, I know he won’t be Jimmy Graham but it looks like he’s going to get plenty of opportunities in the passing game this season. “In two practices, he’s been targeted about 12 different times, he’s going to be a busy guy. Drew Brees loves to throw to the tight end position,” said Saints color analyst Hokie Gajan. In contrast, Josh Hill has been very quiet during camp with hardly even a look his way.
Man in the middle: With MLB Donnell Ellerbe sitting out (undisclosed injury), rookie Stephone Anthony stepped in at the ‘mic’ linebacking spot calling the defensive signals and looked like he belonged. If an injury to Ellerbe lingers, Anthony looks poised to step right in and earn a starting spot, in fact I kind of expect that to happen.
Wet Practice: The Saints started training camp getting tested right away, with a steady rain falling throughout the first half of practice. The skies cleared toward the back end of practice and several players started making plays. Aside from one fumbled center-QB exchange and a fumble on a passing attempt from Luke McCown the weather didn’t effect practice that much.
Play of the day: Saints defensive back Keenan Lewis had a diving intercepting today on a deep pass from QB Ryan Griffin. Lewis later deflected another deep pass from Drew Brees a few plays later. Brees did however find a streaking Nick Toon down the sideline later in practice victimizing rookie P.J Williams, on a perfectly thrown pass. Brandon Browner was also very active getting his hands on some footballs, deflecting a couple of passes.
Snead Who: I realize it’s very very early, but a player that flashed a couple of times today in the passing, was Willie Snead (WR Ball State). He made a couple of nice catches high pointing the football and fighting off a defender in coverage. “He definitely stood out today, that’s what it’s about at this point in camp is make a few plays and keep stacking those solid practices one after another” explained Saints color analyst Hokie Gajan.
CJ Spiller: Looks like a really good fit for this offense, you could see several defensive mismatches he’ll present for Sean Payton to game plan around. “He’s explosive, he can do it all in the running game, and he passing game,” said fellow backfield mate Mark Ingram. I’m really interested to see him grow in the offense once the Saints get into pads and pre-season games.
No Music: Last year, the Saints had music blasting in the background during portions of practice, that was one noticeable change this year. The only noise coming from the coaches hollering at the players, not the latest hit from Lil Wayne. The music theme was actually part of the Saints playoff run in 2013 before the Eagles game that season. It appears as though it’s all a part of a renewed sense of focus around the team “After you have a year like last year, everybody is back to ground zero, we have a long uphill climb and we haven’t even started yet” said defensive end Cameron Jordan.
Closing the book on Junior: As training camp opened today for the Saints, General Manager Mickey Loomis and Coach Sean Payton were pelted with questions regarding their recent decision to release outside linebacker Junior Galette. Mickey and Sean both took the moral high ground and had nothing but positive remarks about Galette. “It’s not easy, yet at the same time, the mistake magnified is pretending it doesn’t need to be done if it needs to be. It became a decision about the team” Payton explained. “As a coach you want to see your players have success. I mean what I said, we wish him well. Yet there is a part of you that gets frustrated that you can’t make that happen while he was here,” Payton added. The decision to release Galette looks to be the right one on the surface, but in the middle of the season if the Saints are struggling to get pressure on the QB, it will be questioned.
Adversity: The Saints weren’t very good at overcoming adversity last season. General Manager Mickey Loomis is confident this team will be different. “There were some things that we didn’t anticipate last year on our team that we had to address. I think we’ve done that and we’ll see the results of that this coming season,” Loomis said. The core values and emphasis on talent and character has served them well, aside from last season. Character trumps talent in a lot of ways, but there are plenty of questions surrounding this team.
PUP list: Saints safety Jairus Byrd and Wide Receiver Marques Colston will begin the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list (PUP). The designation doesn’t spell doom for either player - in fact it’s the safe play. Byrd is coming off a knee injury last season, and Colston has started camp on the list before. Sean Payton didn’t disclose the reasons Colston or Byrd will start camp on the PUP but did say he doesn’t them expect to miss too much time. If a player starts training camp on the PUP list, and then suffers a setback while rehabbing an injury the team is forced to place him on injured reserve, and likely lose him for the season. Once a player comes off the PUP list same applies. If Colston or Byrd are on the PUP list after the final roster is determined then they would be forced to sit out the first 8 games of the season.
Soft: You’ve heard it, or perhaps thought it - ‘Did the Saints get soft from holding training camp in West Virginia?' If there is some degree of failure it’s reasonable to ask that question. “I think we’re smart enough to look at things and look closely at why. You gotta be careful you don’t start operating on the wrong parts,” Payton said. I can rattle off more issues than the venue of training camp as to why the Saints struggled last season. Team chemistry, poor leadership in the locker room, inability to get off the filed on third down, and inconsistent offense are just a couple of reasons that come to mind.
Conditioning test: As expected, Payton put the team through a conditioning test today, and said he was pleased with the results. Now the Saints will hit the field at the Greenbrier for their first practice tomorrow morning at 7:50am, and Payton said he expects this camp to be “more challenging” than last year. The collective bargaining agreement prevents teams from putting the players in pads right away, so the Saints will be in shorts & helmets (shells) for the first three practices.
Monday afternoon before they begin training camp in West Virginia, the Saints officially released Junior Galette and also signed TE Kevin Brock and G Cole Manhart and waived injured center Michael Brewster.
Both Brock and Manhart are long shots - to say the least - of making the roster. I hate to call them "camp bodies," but if there is such a thing, these two certainly meet that profile. That being said, there are guys who were brought into teams this way before that went on to make the team, so you never know Regardless, these guys are very low on the depth chart.
The Saints report to the Greenbrier on Wednesday and have their first practice Thursday.
The Saints obviously mean business releasing their top pass rusher less than a year after naming him a defensive captain and signing him to a huge extension last season. Galette made a series of poor decisions this off-season, involved in a domestic dispute and of course there is the video alleging Galette's involvement in a beach brawl. Galette was scheduled to make $1.2 million dollars in base salary this season through bonuses and incentives, and the Saints will have to eat about $16.2 million dollars of the 4-year $41 million dollar contract they signed him to last September.
The NFL is currently looking into the off the field incidents involving Galette, and the Saints delivered a pre-emptive strike to a possible suspension handed down from the league. Coach Sean Payton and the Saints have talked all off-season about getting the "tough, smart, and good football players" that had 'Saints values' in terms of character. Translation? They don't want to deal with a bunch of distractions, and clearly Galette became one of those distractions this year.
The move is clearly risky. Galette lead the Saints in sacks the last two seasons, and while he's a bit of a headache, the lost production is now another question mark the Saints will have to answer this season. Galette suffered a pectoral injury this off-season and would have to pass the physical before his release would become official.
This was the right move for the Saints even though it's painful to eat the amount of money. The value in not being a distraction was worth the price in the Saints eyes. If you're touting character as an attribute in your players, keeping Galette would have went against that. If nothing else, you can say Galette's poor decisions forced the Saints hand.
Last week I wrote about five things I liked about the Saints, positive things the Saints have in their favor headed into training camp. Here are some questions that remain unanswered at the moment.
1. Inexperienced WR corps: Aside from Marques Colston and Brandin Cooks, the lot of receivers that will be counted on this season for New Orleans is largely unproven, or have been inconsistent through their careers. Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Josh Morgan, Brandon Coleman, and Seantavious Jones figure to be the six players that will compete for three or maybe four roster spots. Toon has flashed some ability in the past, and was starting to turn the corner toward the end of last season. Joe Morgan has another shot after being released last season, and when he’s focused, he can be a real asset in the vertical passing game. Josh Morgan has some skins on the wall from his time in San Francisco, and could surge in camp. Brandon Coleman and Seantavious Jones are the two un-drafted prospects from a year ago that have made pretty big strides in their game. The Saints want Jones and Coleman to step up and take advantage and it looks like they recognize the opportunity. By the way, in 2006 the Saints were explosive on offense without a star-studded cast at WR. Michael Lewis, Terrence Copper, Marques Colton, and an aging Joe Horn were among the receivers on that team that made it to the NFC championship game.
2. Kicking it with youth: Zach Hocker and Dustin Hopkins are both young players with big time legs, and the kicking competition will be one of the most intriguing in camp. Hocker and Hopkins both lack the big game experience of kicking in clutch situations, but that doesn’t necessarily spell doom. Garret Hartley was an unproven kicker that bounced around before sticking with the Saints and kicking them into the Super Bowl. If a big kick is missed by one of the two players in the regular season, the fans and media will immediately second guess the decision to part ways with Shayne Graham.
3. Defensive line: The depth along the defensive line is a concern for the Saints. Broderick Bunkley has to stay healthy this season at nose tackle, and John Jenkins will have to be better in his third season if he's called upon to play significant snaps for Bunkley. Jenkins struggled last season when Bunkley went down with an injury. Akiem Hicks is the player that I will be watching closely during camp and the pre-season. Hicks was primed for one of those breakout seasons last year, and to be honest looked very average at times at defensive end.
4. Lost production from Jimmy Graham: The Saints had to pull the trigger trading Graham to Seattle. It was the only way they were going to fetch enough currency to re-make the offensive line and defense this year. I can’t get on board with the idea that it was a ‘great’ trade, simply because of the production the Saints are now looking to replace. I’ve said all along the production will be replaced by committee, at tight end, running back, and wide receiver in different ways. The biggest concern about the production lost in the Graham trade is the red-zone. Who will assume that role when the Saints are trying to score touchdowns and who presents the mismatch with size and speed in that area? Sean Payton is creative and I’m sure he’s got a plan, but I’m curious to see how effective they can be.
5. Are the Saints mentally tough? At some point early in the season, the Saints are going to be tested mentally, trailing late in the game or dealing with an injury or dropping a game they should have won. How will the Saints handle that will be key for the season. Last year the Saints seemed pretty fragile when things weren’t going their way in ball games, things kind of snowballed and mistakes kind of piled up at critical junctures. They hope the roster turnover and leadership will help remedy that issue when it comes up this year.