Saints offensive tackle Terron Armstead can attest to baptism by fire. Last year, he was thrown into the flames as the team's starting left tackle in the middle of a play-off run in a huge game against the Carolina Panthers. Replacing Charles Brown, Armstead struggled in the first half of that game, giving up three sacks.
Entering his first full season as the starter, Armstead says it's a night and day difference in comfort level: "Well, they say the game slows down. It's just knowing the plays. Hearing the terminology from Drew (Brees) – my first snap I could've sworn he was speaking Chinese or Spanish or something. Just letting it slow down, having veterans like Zach Strief, Jahri Evans just being with you and helping you break down film and those type of things, it's getting easy," Armstead explained.
He's not just big left tackle, he's extremely athletic. The Saints might have struck gold again in the third round in 2013. New Orleans had Armstead penciled in to start this season, and be the tackle of the future. It just so happens the future came a little earlier. One Saints executive described his athleticism to me this way: "He could play tight end, seriously. He could go run down the field and catch passes and probably turn into a Pro Bowler". Wow!
Fortunately the Saints have a pretty good tight end in Jimmy Graham. In the meantime, Armstead will just run down field and throw a devastating block for a running back or receiver. Armstead says he's working to perfect his craft as a run blocker and pass protector: "I feel like I'm a more natural run-blocker. I'm picking up the technique in pass blocking more, everything is coming together nicely."
Armstead also spent some time with one of the all-time greats and Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Willie Roaf this off-season. "It was a one day thing. I just had a few questions with him. I hung out with him before. I had a few questions like, 'Where does he carry his hands? What's he looking at?' Those types of things, trying to pick his brain a little bit."
It's very early in camp, but the addition of Armstead to the Saints offensive line might just be the difference maker in 2014.
T-Bob and I caught a few minutes with Terron after practice, take a listen:
Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan has made it very clear this offseason that he wants a championship, he wants a Super Bowl. Perhaps he’s extra motivated because the big game will be in his home town of Glendale, Arizona, or perhaps he just sees what everyone else does in the 2014 Saints: “I haven’t seen a more promising team since I’ve been here. I just have nothing but great things to say about the team. I think that this fourth year upcoming, we need it. I need it. It’s more personal than anything, and I believe with the team we have, we’ll be able to do it,” Jordan said.
Most professional athletes don’t like talking about championships. Usually we get carbon copy answers like “we just want to win our division and get in the dance, and see what happens from there,” or something to that effect. Jordan doesn’t believe in under-promising and over-delivering. “I’ve always wanted it. That’s what you come here to do. You don't come into work and say, ‘I just want to be mediocre.'
That kind of talk is refreshing; Jordan certainly wears his feelings on his sleeve and I like it. What’s wrong with saying he wants to win a championship? Don’t you want that in a player?
Jordan enjoyed his best season as a pro last year, racking up 12.5 sacks and a trip to the Pro Bowl. The three-year veteran says his work isn’t finished: “It’s just personal right now. It’s one thing to have a good year like I did last year, but I have to be better this year. Everything that I do has to be better. Everything that the team does has to be better because clearly it wasn't enough to get to the Super Bowl, and that’s what our goal is.”
Jordan continued his praise for his team and defensive line mates: “The defensive line, I think, is phenomenal - the amount of talent we have with the young guys and even some of the rookies that popped up. But again, it’s only the first week of camp, and we’ve only been in pads for a couple of days. I think with the new additions to the defensive backs and the way the linebackers have been playing, they’re starting to show a little fervor for the game. It’s going to be nice the next week or two.”
The Saints and Jordan certainly have the make-up to push for a Super Bowl, but his comments will be scrutinized pretty heavily if they don’t make it to the dance. Cam is fine with that. He has broad shoulders, very very broad shoulders.
Heated practice: We’re officially in the heart of training camp! That was very clear today, as nearly every offensive and defensive drill resulted in some pushing and shoving or trash talking. The first incident occurred when defensive end Cameron Jordan was matched up against rookie offensive tackle Tavon Rooks in one-on-one pass rushing drills. Jordan thought he was being held during the drill and pushed Rooks, and the two big guys got in each other’s face. Nothing further transpired. “He was wearing a white jersey and got in the way!” Jordan said after practice.
Running back Khiry Robinson and linebacker Curtis Lofton got into a scuffle in the first portion of team vs team drills. Robinson and Lofton went to the ground, but it was quickly broken up by Drew Brees. Once the two were separated, you could hear Lofton chirping to Robinson “I got all you want homeboy!” It was one of the funnier moments of practice. “That kind of stuff is healthy for a team, it means there is real competition out there, and they’re aren’t just going through the motions” explained the Cajun Cannon Bobby Hebert.
Terron Armstead: 2nd year LT Terron Armstead might have thrown the block of camp in the running game drill. Armstead decleated defensive lineman Glenn Foster, drawing several oooh’s and ahhh’s from the fans and media. “I don’t want to put him in Canton right now, but you can see he’s playing with a lot of confidence,” said coach Sean Payton. Armstead won both of his matches against OLB Junior Galette in 1 on 1 pass rush.
P-Rob: Defensive back Patrick Robinson is clearly having the best camp of his career. The former first round draft pick has made a number of plays on the football deflecting some passes and coming up with two interceptions. “If he would just hold onto the ball, he would have about six interceptions in camp so far,” said Hebert. The Cannon is right, Robinson has missed some opportunities but you can clearly see he feels the urgency to have a preseason and is fighting for snaps and perhaps a roster spot.
The Butler Did It: I’ve been asked a lot about linebacker Victor Butler during the first week of camp. I can tell you, he’s been rotating with the 1st and 2nd team units, and at times he looks rusty. Butler missed all of last season a with an ACL injury and just doesn’t look like he has his legs underneath him yet. I think it will come, just remember he hasn’t worn shoulder pads or a helmet for 18 months.
RG4: Former Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin is staking claim to the primary backup quarterback position behind Drew Brees. Griffin has been running with the twos in camp, and has looked pretty sharp with his passes and looks like he has a good grasp on the system. Veteran Luke McCown has more experience, but the Saints want Griffin to win the job, and the preseason games will be huge for Griffin. If he plays well, then he’s virtually assured to get the gig. If he struggles, it will open the door for McCown to take the job back. For now, it’s Griffin’s job to lose.
Byrd Watching: Saints safety Jairus Byrd is officially off the PUP list! Byrd was in full pads today at practice and participated in individual drills, but did not participate in the team drills. The Saints are easing him into the practice participation: "When you rush yourself, it doesn't do anyone any good," Byrd said after practice. The Saints' prized free agent aquisition met with the media and then went back on the field for more work. "I just want to be an impact player," Byrd said. "Yeah I felt good coming back, but like Coach Payton said it was something that we wanted to be smart about. It’s a long season ahead, and I just wanted to make sure that I went through the steps to come back. I wanted to do the process right, and that’s what I did.” Byrd said.
It was nice seeing him out there, and I'm really looking forward to seeing him work with the entire defensive unit. Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan was happy to see Byrd on the field as well: “It’s great to get him out there. He has been great in the meetings. He is a great leader. I think getting him out there with his teammates is always good. We are taking our time doing the right thing. He is working really hard so everything is going really well.”
Crisp work: The Saints probably enjoyed their most efficient and prodcutive practice of camp so far. "I thought this might have been the best practice I've seen from the Saints as long as I have covered the team!" said Saints Color analyst Hokie Gajan. There were a ton of big plays that stood out for both the offense and defense.
Bubbles Screen: I've written a ton about Brandin Cooks, and don't mean to be effusive with my praise of the rookie wide out, but today we caught a sure-fire glimpse of what he can do in the open field. =Cooks caught a bubble screen pass from QB Drew Brees and darted through a hole for the score after nice block from Terron Armstaed for a would-be 70 yard touchdown. "It's like he's shot out of a cannon," said Curtis Lofton when asked how fast Cooks is on the field. "He doesn't go from gear 1 to 2 to 3.. he goes from gear 0 straight to 6."
There is the bubble screen OFF TO the races goes Cooks #Saintscamp
Injuries: The player remaining on the PUP list is NT John Jenkins (pectoral). Jenkins got some work on the sled today during his rehab drills. Rookie OT Tavon Rooks was removed today from NFI (Non-Football Injury). Wide reciever Kenny Stills (quad) and OG Ben Grubbs missed practice again. Stills was moving arond pretty well in some side drills, not at full speed but jogging, so that's a positive sign. WR Robert Meachem returned to the practice field today after missing a couple of sessions with a sore back. The Saints are off tomorrow and are back on the practice field Thursday morning at 7:50 CT.
Sean Payton is measured and controlled during Saints practices, but Joe Vitt (assistant head coach and LB's Coach) is not. He's the fiery coach that is unwavering on rookies and veterans alike, taking every possible moment to coach.
Vitt has an unmistakeable voice. "Get lined up!" he screams when the defense breaks the huddle. He shies away from the media attention, and rightfully so, but he's a riot to talk to if you ever get the chance. You just can't take him too seriously. âVitt is hell on some chewing gum, too!
While it might be GM Mickey Loomis and Coach Payton running the day-to-day operations for the team, Joe Vitt has plenty of input.
"Joe is someone that, daily, he and I will talk about schedule, where our team’s at, you name it. He provides me with things I might not always what I want to hear. That’s pretty valuable… but also what I need to hear," Payton said when asked about Vitt. The fiery coach has been in the NFL for over three decades and has just about seen it all, and he was the first guy Payton added to his staff in 2006. Vitt has been an extremely valuable member of the Saints organization during his run in New Orleans.
Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis get a ton of credit for what they do, as they should, but let's throw Joe Vitt a bone too. He's a huge part of the unprecedented success the Saints have enjoyed since Payton arrived.
The Saints have tremendous depth at safety, and an undrafted rookie free agent would be hard pressed to make this team at that position.
Even so, that didn't stop Pierre Warren from choosing to sign in New Orleans after he went undrafted out of Jacksonville State this spring. Kenny Vaccaro, Rafael Bush, Jairus Byrd, Marcus Ball and Vinnie Sunseri have the upper hand on making the Saints final roster, but Warren has done nothing but make plays early in camp.
"I just finished talking about this with the whole team: when you’re looking at the safety position, linebacker, tight end… all of these players that are trying to make an impression are having a chance to do that now. Certainly they’re going to have to do that when we start (playing) the preseason games. Every year there are going to be two guys that make it because of the kicking game. Either they cover kicks, they block a kick, (or) they’re smart and know where to be. He’s a player that would fall into that category," Coach Sean Payton explained.
Warren came up with a nice interception in Monday's practice and continues to flash: "He has good ball skills and it appears to be good reactions and someone who’s beginning to pick up what we’re doing. We just keep giving him reps, giving all these guys work. He’s one of those players though where the kicking game is going to be important" Payton added.
The preseason will be huge for Warren, and if he makes some plays on special teams that's when we'll see him get more chances on defense. Pierre Warren has an uphill fight to make the final roster, but so far he's on the right track.
9 on 7: The Saints offensive line set the tone early in practice with a physical "inside running game” drill. Defensive coaches Joe Vitt and Rob Ryan expressed their displeasure through a number of choice words that not suitable for print or the air, but let’s just say the running backs (all of them) were ripping off 5 or more yard runs routinely. Coach Sean Payton looked on with approval after practice. “I thought the pads were much lower today than yesterday,” Payton said.
Keenan can: When you think of shutdown cornerbacks, you think of Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks and Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals. The Saints have their version of a shutdown corner in Keenan Lewis. Twice today during team drills, Saints quarterbacks targeted receivers on his side of the football, and were twice denied. Lewis batted away a comeback pass from Drew Brees to Andy Tanner, and got his hands on another, just missing an interception off Luke McCown. Lewis is also a steady voice in the secondary, mentoring young rookie CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste during timeouts and breaks.
Cooks-ing with gas: Sure, the obvious feature rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks brings to the Saints is speed, but he also runs precise routes. Today in one-on-one CB vs WR drills, Cooks won every match up against various defensive backs. “You can see how smooth he is! He runs great routes and catches the ball effortlessly,” said the Cajun Cannon Bobby Hebert. After one rep, you could hear Drew Brees say “Nice job, nice adjustment,” to Cooks after hooking up on intermediate pass route.
Brandin Cooks having a Hell of day 1 on 1 vs DB WON every match up
Music: The Saints decided to add some music to the practice mix today and you could tell it energized the players. The staff had the speaker system going in the team portion of practice today not only to act as crowd noise, but to test the players focus.
Offensive line vs Defensive line: The one-on-one pass rushing drills are always interesting to watch in camp. Offensive tackle Terron Armstead was matched up against OLB Junior Galette on a few snaps today, and cleary won the battle. Cameron Jordan and Zach Strief had some heated battles on the other side, with Jordan winning a few and Strief winning a few.
Injuries: The PUP players remain the same (OT Tavon Rooks, S Jairus Byrd, and DT John Jenkins). Wide receivers Kenny Stills (quad) and Robert Meachem (back) missed practice and guard Ben Grubbs sat out of practice today as well. Coach Sean Payton didn’t elaborate on Grubb’s injury but said “Both of those players will be back in the next couple of days.” #65 Senio Kelemte (2nd year out of Washington) worked with the 1st team unit in place of Grubbs.
Thud: The Saints finally had the pads on for today’s practice at the Greenbrier. No more shorts and a game of touch. Helmets were cracking, and the pads were popping in 9-on-7 running game drills today. The O-Line got the better of the D-line in this drill, pushing the big guys up front back and creating enough cracks for the running backs to scoot through for positive yardage.
Linebacker Junior Galette and Offensive Tackle Zach Strief exchanged a couple of words after one rep that led to Strief pushing Galette after the whistle. I found it pretty interesting that Sean Payton was keeping a close eye on the developments in the running game drill. Typically he’ll watch the one-on-one DB’s vs WR drills. You could hear the coaches reminding the defensive players “Thud up, put a thud on em and let them run!”
Brandin Cooks vs Patrick Robinson: In the WR vs DB drill, rookie wide out Brandin Cooks matched up against CB Patrick Robinson on one particular play and Cooks beat Robinson by a mile. Robinson missed the jam on the line of scrimmage, and Cooks just flew by him for a deep ball from Brees. Nick Toon also beat safety Rafael Bush on a deep ball in one-on-one drills. The receivers have the advantage in this drill, and it’s hard to tell if a player would have gotten that far open simply because there is so much ground for the defensive back to cover. Rookie WR’s Brandon Coleman (Rutgers) and Seantavious Jones (Valdosta State) received high praise from coach Sean Payton after practice “They’re both doing well, they’re big target areas for our QB's, and we like that.”
Turnovers: Forcing more turnovers has been a focus point for the Saints this off-season, and we’re getting a real taste of it now. Linebacker Ramon Humber reeled in the first interception of camp in 7-on-7 drills today. Luke McCown tried to drop one over his head, but Humber leapt into the air snagged the pass for the INT. “That was a great play from a linebacker. Here is the thing, McCown threw a good ball, Humber just made a nice adjustment and came down with it,” explained the Cajun Cannon Bobby Hebert. Later, in the team portion of practice, CB Champ Bailey stripped the ball out of FB Erik Lorig’s hands and it was scooped up by safety Rafael Bush.
Injuries: Wide reciever Robert Meachem missed practice today with what Payton described as a “stiff back.” WR Kenny Stills (quad) also did not practice today. Defensive lineman John Jenkins, offensive lineman Tavon Rooks and safety Jairus Byrd remain on the PUP list. Jenkins and Byrd both did side work working on conditioning and some light non-contact football drills.
Offensive day: The Saints' first team offense carved up Rob Ryan’s defense seemingly at will in the team portions of practice today, prompting Ryan to make the declaration “We got our butts kicked today out there, and we didn’t like it. That offense was rolling!” Drew Brees hooked up with tight end Jimmy Graham on a couple of big plays today. Graham also hauled in a nice pass from Ryan Griffin on a big play down the middle. Graham brought the crowd to their feet when he dunked the football over the crossbar on the other end of the field. That will earn a player a fine during a game, but not during practice.
Stills sits out: After injuring his quad in practice yesterday, wide receiver Kenny Stills was a spectator at today’s work out. Joe Morgan and Nick Toon took advantage of the extra reps in his absence. Toon had a couple of nice plays today on two passes from Drew Brees in the team portion of practice. Rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks is in Brees' hip pocket - you can see the two players talking after nearly every play, ensuring they are on the same page.
Weather Factor: Much has been made about the cooler climate up here in West Virginia, and the results are visible on the field. You can definitely tell the players are a little more enthused about practice, and lot more frisky. Sean Payton did not cut practice short like he did on day one.
PT Cruiser: Running back Pierre Thomas is entering his 8th season with the Saints. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long, but he’s taken a leadership role in the running back meeting rooms. "I’m not the boss, the coach is the boss, but I’m like his assistant, just making sure things go smoothly in there,” Thomas explained. He’s been working with the second team unit, but don’t read anything into that “The younger guys are going have to beat me out. They’re going to have to put me on the bench, I’m not going to just sit on the bench without battling,” Thomas explained.