The Saints have arrived in West Virginia. Every player is expected to be at camp on time with no hold-outs, as every player on the team is under contract. The players officially report to camp Thursday and will take a conditioning test and hit the field for the first practice of camp on Friday morning.
New Orleans has a few injuries to monitor during camp. Wide receiver Joe Morgan is coming off an ACL injury and was a limited participant in the team's offseason program. Linebacker Victory Butler is also coming off an ACL injury suffered last season, and was much further along and pretty much at full speed during the offseason. Butler could be the wild card at outside linebacker this season for the Saints. The key player to focus on is safety Jairus Byrd, who is coming off back surgery. Defensive tackle John Jenkins will start camp on the PUP (Physically unable to perform) list. Jenkins can come off the PUP list at any point prior to week 1 of the regular season.
Three key position battles loom for the Saints at cornerback,center and wide receiver. Jim Henderson pointed to the cornerback spot saying this: "They have to find someone to compliment Keenan Lewis on the other side." Champ Bailey, Corey White and Stanley Jean-Baptiste are the top three players competing for that second cornerback spot. Tim Lelito and Jonathan Goodwin will compete for the starting job at center. The wide receiver spots are up for grabs with three players will likely competing for three spots. And Robert Meachem, Joe Morgan, and Nick Toon are the three candidates for the final two spots.
Protection was an issue last season for the New Orleans Saints offensive line. After Terron Armstead got his first start in week 16 against the Panthers, I thought the big guys up front played much better down the stretch, creating running lanes for the 'backs and protecting Drew Brees. Here's how things look now in the final days before training camp.
Left Tackle: Terron Armstead returns as the incumbent starter this season. It appears to be Armstead's job with little to no competition. The coaching staff loves Armstead's athleticism and power. Marcel Jones is considered the primary back-up to Armstead at left tackle, but the versatile Bryce Harris could play there in a pinch.
Left Guard: Ben Grubbs returns for his third season with New Orleans. Grubbs made the Pro Bowl last year and helped make the transition from Charles Brown to Armstead at left tackle a little easier. He's one of the quiet leaders on the team, and really excels in the run blocking game.
Center: Tim Lelito will likely open camp with the first team unit. The second year man out of Grand Valley State was a valuable swing offensive lineman last season, spot starting for Jahri Evans due to injury. The Saints brought in some insurance in case Lelito isn't ready to handle the day-to-day responsibilities of starting center. Veteran Jonathan Goodwin will push Lelito for the starting gig. The Saints are in a really good spot with Lelito and Goodwin. If the team suffers an injury at either of three interior O-line positions, they'll have a plug-and-play guy at guard or center. Lelito can swing over to one of the guard spots, and Goodwin can take over at center.
Right Guard: Jahri Evans was hampered by leg injuries last season, but still managed to make the Pro Bowl; and while he might not be the same player he was from 2006-2012, he's still one of the best in the game. As I mentioned, his back-up will be Lelito. Evans is the longest tenured offensive lineman on the team.
Right Tackle: Zach Strief was brought back this offseason on a long-term contract, and he might have been the team's most consistent offensive lineman last season. He's not flashy, and at times looks like he's getting beat, but Strief is a team captain, and the coaching staff knows he will have his assigment down pat. Bryce Harris will be the back-up to Strief.
If you asked me where are the Saints are the thinnest in terms of depth, it would clearly be the offensive line, namely at either tackle spot. Strief and Armstead have to stay healthy, or else the O-line could be in trouble if the injury bug bites at this position.
According to the league transaction report, the Saints have placed nose tackle John Jenkins and Linebacker Cheta Ozougwu on the PUP list (Physically Unable to Perform). A player can be removed from that list at any point in training camp prior to week 1.
In addition, the Saints waived defensive lineman Moses McCray. How big of a concern is it for John Jenkins? "If it's a long term PUP situation for Jenkins, then yeah, I'm concerned. The Saints are counting on him to be big part of the nose tackle rotation this season," explained the Cajun Cannon Bobby Hebert.
The Saints might have one of the deepest teams on paper, and certainly one of the more talented rosters in the NFL. However, with some changes on defense and offense, there are some pretty interesting battles shaping up in camp. Several other teams are wondering who their starting QB might be; that's not the case in New Orleans as we know, but nonetheless here are some key areas to watch. Let's look at cornerback first.
Who's going to line up opposite of Keenan Lewis at Corner when the Saints are in their "base?" Being a starter at cornerback in the NFL is sometimes misleading, or maybe not always important. For the Saints the cornerback is up for grabs, but so is nickel back and dime back. The Saints have tremendous flexibility with Kenny Vaccaro at safety, with his ability to play inside on slot receivers.
Champ Bailey: Champ certainly has the experience element in his favor. The future hall of famer came to New Orleans to win a championship, and brings a ton of knowledge to a relatively young group. Bailey was one of the first shut down cornerbacks in the NFL. He's played 15 seasons in the league with the Redskins and Broncos. If he has the gas left in the tank, he'll likely be the starter opposite Lewis this season. Teams will test him early and often to find out if he's even close to 100% recovered from his foot injury that plagued his play last season.
Corey White: White was thrust into the starting line up last season after Jabari Greer went down with an injury in the middle of the season. The 3rd year pro played well at times, but was clearly the target of offensive game plans during the back half of the season. Let's be clear, the Saints wouldn't have added two players to the position group if they had complete confidence in White. NFL analyst Mike Detillier thinks White is more of a complimentary guy than a starter. "He's a nickel player; he can help you in the slot but he's vulnerable as the starter. White's not dominant in one particular area but solid in most." White will likely make the final roster, but as a nickel or dime back.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste: The Saints followed the trend and went for a super sized cornerback in the 2nd round of 2014 Draft, grabbing Jean-Baptiste. First, when you have a hyphened last name it's always cool. The Saints have typically brought rookies along slowly and I expect that to continue this year with Stan. The Saints love his size, but will find a very safe role for him this season in the nickel and dime packages. He's a future starter for New Orleans, just not the 2014 future. He's a monster at 6'3" 200 lbs, but still has some things to learn.
Rod Sweeting: Sweeting saw his role increase from special teams to more and more snaps on defense last season. He'll scratch and claw his way to the final 53 roster, but his impact will be felt on special teams. Sweeting is a good insurance policy if the Saints suffer some injuries at CB. He's got good size at 6' and 190, but lacks the ideal tools to be starter in the league according to Detillier: "He's tough, and he's smart but doesn't lack the elite skill set to make him one of the starters. He could be a nickel guy or spot starter if needed, but you will see teams test him every time he's in there until he proves himself." Think special teams with Sweeting.
Patrick Robinson: It's amazing to think Robinson is the teams former first round pick in 2010. Robinson's season was cut short last season with a knee injury in week 2 of the season. P-Rob is a bit of an afterthought in this conversation. He's never really lived up to his 1st round status, but at the same time, he hasn't been terrible either. Robinson is fighting for his roster spot in this training camp. Consider that White and Sweeting are both cheaper to keep, and that could be the deciding factor if the play on the field is equal.
As I mentioned before, the Saints are going to keep three safeties and that will impact how many cornerbacks they'll keep in 2014. Kenny Vaccaro's versatility provides the Saints with great flexibility in terms of the numbers they operate with this season. I expect Lewis, Bailey, White, Jean-Baptiste, and Sweeting to make the final roster. The Saints need some roster depth for special teams and offensive line.
Yeah, yeah, general managers are never in the running for Most Valuable Player in the NFL, and Saints GM Mickey Loomis isn't a player in the traditional sense. He doesn't block, he doesn't tackle, he doesn't catch or throw touchdowns. What he does do, however, is negotiate contracts and select the players that block, tackle and score touchdowns for the team. He enjoys his role as the team's GM, and stays out of the spotlight.
You could make the argument Loomis is the most valuable "player" in the organization. Sure, Sean Payton is the head coach, and without him the Saints wouldn't be the force they are.. but where would the Saints be without Loomis? I shudder to think of it.
The one-time "cap guy" has turned moving money around into an art form. How many times over the last three offseasons have you said "How are the Saints going to pay (insert players name here?)" I know I've said it a bunch. Let's take a look at the work Loomis has done in just that short span.
Sign Drew Brees to a long term deal (check). Bring free agents Ben Grubbs, Keenan Lewis, and Jairus Byrd (check) lock up tight end Jimmy Graham to a smart but fair deal (check). Oh, did I mention working out a 7-year contract extension for coach Sean Payton?
For kicks, what about the discovery of Sean Payton during the coaching search in 2006? Loomis doesn't look for the credit; he rarely appears on national radio or TV interviews. He's got a poker face that would intimidate the best of them.
And for all of that, Loomis gets my vote for MVP in the salary cap game!
Prior to the Jimmy Graham contract, New Orleans had about $1.7 million in cap room. After the Graham contract, the Saints saved roughly $3 million in cap space with Graham's cap hit for this season sitting at roughly $4 million dollars. The Saints are clearly "in the now" with the cap. Next season, the new TV contracts kick in and the salary cap is expected to skyrocket, creating significant money for teams. The Saints don't have any top tier players scheduled to become free agents next offseason but could still be tight against the cap in 2015.
Drew Brees' cap figure is in excess of $23 million dollars and 2014 free agent signee Jairus Byrd accounts for $10 million dollars against the cap, along with Guard Jahri Evans carrying an $11 million dollar cap figure. General Manager Mickey Loomis has been like Houdini, finding cash to distribute to key players with the Saints scratching for salary cap space. Loomis has found a way to not only pay their own players, but bring in the likes of Byrd, Erik Lorig, Keenan Lewis, and Ben Grubbs.
What about next offseason? The Saints likely won't have a franchise tagged player, or contract dispute to deal with. 2015 might usher in a contract re-structuring for Drew Brees. The first three years of Brees' deal that he signed in 2012 were guaranteed. Brees has always said "I'll do whatever it takes to help the team win, and keep a championship roster intact."
Cameron Jordan might be the next player in line for a payday. In three seasons, Jordan has asserted himself as one of the top defensive ends in the league, with 12.5 sacks in 2013 and his first Pro Bowl appearance. Jordan will be on a club option 5th season in 2015. The Saints won't have to pay Jordan until 2016, but might be looking to avoid another drama-filled offseason and pay him a year early. If Brees restructures they might be able to do that next offseason.
Ot's hard to get a read on exact cap numbers for next season and predict the TV contract impact on the salary cap, but for now, the Saints will be in decent shape heading into next season. Count on Mickey Loomis for shrewd but necessary moves to keep the Saints sustainable and free to spend money in effort to compete for championships.
The NFL Network has reported that Saints tight end Jimmy Graham will appeal the ruling from arbitrator Stephen Burbank, with less than 24 hours to go before the deadline to reach a long-term deal with the Saints.
Andrew Brandt, an NFL Business analyst for ESPN, joined Sports Talk to explain how the appeal strengthen's Graham's negotiating position and at the same time makes it more likely that a deal will be reached for Tuesday's 3pm deadline.
"Perhaps this gives the Graham camp a little more leverage to say, 'hey, we can negotiate this deal, but if we don't get the deal we want, we still have this appeal.'" Brandt said.
The appeal would be to a three person panel in the NFL; however, that panel has to "accept" the case if Graham and his camp can prove erroneous facts in the first hearing, or a procedural error in his initial hearing.
I don't expect this development to really change much, this is a power move by the Graham camp to ultimately drive up Graham's price. Ultimately, the appeal has no ramifications for the long-term deal getting done, at which point the appeal would be moot. So why not do it?
After a long off-season filled with conjecture and speculation, the Saints and tight end Jimmy Graham have ironed out a new contract making him the highest paid player at his position in league history. "Really, after the Saints had the leverage, I don't know what else he was going to do," said the Cajun Cannon Bobby Hebert after Jimmy Graham announced the deal via Twitter. "He's a $10 million dollar a year tight end, and he deserves that. This gives the Saints some flexibility - because of his age, he could parlay this contract into another one down the road if he stays healthy."
Graham's deal will average $10 million per season over four years, worth $40 million with $21 million in guaranteed money. Now the Saints and Graham can focus on making a run at another Lombardi trophy. Hebert didn't express any concern over Graham's lack of participation in the team's offseason condition and workouts because of the contract dispute: "I think it will take about one day for Graham to be on the same page with Brees and the offense. If he had showed up before the first game against the Falcons, Graham would be ready to roll without even playing in training camp. Graham is going to be in shape."
With the deal done, Graham is the highest paid tight end in the NFL (as he should be) and we can all exhale and look to 2014 with great anticipation and excitement!
Think about this: the Saints have now doled out a number of record-breaking deals at quarterback, guard, safety, and now tight end. The team will continue their push for another Lombardi trophy in just over a week when they report for training camp in Greenbrier, West Virginia.
It's official I'm bleeding black and gold this morning! Thank you WhoDatNation for all the support.
The second biggest decision of the summer might be on the way - or it might not. Now that we know where Lebron James is going, what about Jimmy Graham and the Saints working out a deal before the July 15th deadline? "It's 50/50 at best - I'm actually going to be a little surprised if they do it. But I do know through experience that deadlines make people move," ESPN's Chris Mortensen told me.
Mortensen wouldn't speculate on what the details might look like on a Graham/Saints deal when (and if) it comes in. "It's about guaranteed money, Gronkowski did not get a good contract. Nobody should use that as a comparison. Tell me what the guaranteed money is," Mortensen explained.
New England Patriots Tight End Rob Gronkowski inked a contract extension two years ago worth $54 million dollars over 6 years. Gronkowski was given an $8 million dollar signing bonus in that deal, and a $13.1 million in guaranteed cash. Gronkowski's deal with New England averages out to $9 million per season.
Graham and the Saints have talked about a $9.5 million dollar per year average early in the spring. As I've said before, if the Saints can promise Graham $28 million in up-front cash in the first three seasons, the deal gets done.
Hold your breath just a little longer. I think it's better than 50/50 chance that a deal gets done by the deadline on Tuesday.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham has until Monday to file an appeal of Steven Burbank's ruling last week that he is indeed a tight end for the purpose of a franchise tag salary. The appeal would be to a three person panel in the NFL; however, that three person panel has to "accept" the case if Graham and his camp can prove erroneous facts in the first hearing, or a procedural error in his initial hearing.
The panel is basically supposed to accept Burbank's ruling as fact unless it was clearly erroneous in it's finding of facts, incorrect application of the law, or abuse of discretion, according to the CBA. Simply put, if they think Steven Burbank's ruling wasn't based on the fact or "law," the three person panel can accept and overturn the ruling. In this case the law is the CBA.
It doesn't appear Graham will file an appeal, at this point it would certainly interfere with Tuesday's deadline (July 15th) for getting a long term contract worked out with the Saints. The more logical option for Graham is wait and see what the offer is like from the Saints.
As I said a few days ago, I still feel really good about Graham and the Saints working out a long term contract on or before the July 15th.
After last week's ruling by system arbitrator Stephen Burbank, the Saints not only claimed a small victory, but also a ton of leverage where negotiations with Jimmy Graham are concerned. Graham flat-out stands to lose too much money if he doesn't work out a long term deal before the July 15th deadline. The Saints hold the cards in this one, as is the case with most contract negotiations. The case is simple and the contract is not difficult for the Saints or Graham.
I fully expect a deal to be in place with Graham and the Saints on or before July 15th. Pay particular attention to the first three years of the deal. The magic number(s) for the Graham and the Saints are $10 million per season average with $28-30 million in guaranteed money over the first three years. The upfront money is what Graham and the Saints ultimately care about.
When I say the Saints hold the leverage, it doesn't mean Graham doesn't hold any leverage. He knows the price range that is market value, and if the Saints don't make him an offer in that range, then his best option is to hold off on a deal and drive the price up. The closer it gets to the deadline, the better it is for the Saints.
On July 16th, another episode of "Saints Contract Saga" will end happily ever after!
Arbritrator Steven Burbank ruled against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in his grievance against the Saints and the NFL. Burbank ruled Graham is a tight end instead of a wide receiver. Graham was franchised tagged as a tight end this past March, and he and his agent contended the Saints used him more as a wide receiver.
If Graham and the Saints do not work out a long term contract before July 15th, he will be forced to play under the 1-year designation, earning just over $7 million dollars this season. The franchise designation for a wide receiver would have come in just over $12 million dollars this season.
Graham and his agent Jimmy Sexton will likely file an appeal to a three person panel, but that appeal could linger past the July 15th deadline for a long term deal. The most logical option for Graham would be to go back to the negotiating table with the Saints and hammer out a long term contract if he receives a fair offer. I fully expect that to happen. I think you can look for a deal in the neighborhood of $60 million dollars with a $10 million per season average, on or shortly before the July 15th deadline.
Steven Burbank's ruling ultimately gives both Graham's camp and the Saints a real working barometer to iron out a contract. At the end of the day I'm extremely optimistic Graham will be with the Saints in 2014 and beyond. Once again, the Saints roll the dice a bit, and come out smelling like a rose. It's been their hallmark, their penchant over the last 8 years or so.
Give General Manager Mickey Loomis credit, he's one tough negotiator and plays hard ball with the best of them!