Senior Bowl week is rolling right along, and it’s really an up-close look at the scouting process in Mobile. It’s very informal. Following practice, representatives from each NFL team walk on the field and meet with respective players their team might be interested in. As a reporter, it’s a great treat to watch, because you can hear and see everything. You can hear scouts asking players “Is there anything in your past that you haven’t told us about?” “Do you prefer to play X or Z?" It’s the moment of truth for players, as scouts, and media bombard them with question after question. You can sense the uneasiness of the entire process, but it is the process.
The Saints spent a few moments with a few receivers from the South team following practice today at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile; Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) and Ryan Grant (Tulane). Matthews was impressive today at practice and worked with Quarterback Derek Carr for about 20 minutes following practice. “I am gonna compete whether its ping pong or football, I want to prove to the scouts I’m willing to go out and work my tail off to help the team win.” Matthews says he patterns his game after Jerry Rice. Matthews has great size at 6’3 and 206 lbs with great hands, and several scouts praise his route running ability.
Bryan Stork, Center out of Florida State, also drew the attention of a few Saints scouts, prompting a "get to know you" meeting following practice. Stork would be an interesting player to watch, considering Brian de la Puente is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March. Several scouts I spoke with say he’s similar to former Saints center Jonathan Goodwin.
Saints front office, coaches, and scouts are in Mobile, Alabama this week looking at the top seniors in the Senior Bowl. Finding new talent is always a top priority for the Saints, but the biggest priority is clearly keeping the top talent already in their building.
Tight End Jimmy Graham is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March, and General Manager Mickey Loomis said the team hasn’t had any discussions with Jimmy Graham's agent “in the last few days, but we have some time.” Time is on the team's side at the moment; typically these deals don’t get done until the 11th hour.
Asked if he was concerned about eventually working out a deal with the big TE, Loomis responded “Look, I’m concerned about it like I’m concerned about any contract with an unrestricted free agent that we would like to have back.” In other words, you never know what can happen, but it’s certainly not time to fret.
Loomis says the organization views Graham purley as a Tight End. “That’s where we play him, in our view he’s a tight end. That’s what makes him valuable.” The position comes into question because of a loophole in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that stipulates a player can not be franchise tagged at TE if he lines up at WR for more than 51% of the offensive snaps.
So what about the possibility of using the franchise tag on Graham if the two sides can’t come to an agreement? “We’ll see... look, it’s way to early to start talking about that business.” However, Loomis did say if it came down to it, the club would use the franchise tag on Graham: “We’re gonna franchise him if that’s necessary. We’re a long ways from that. I don’t know that it’s worth discussing right now.”
The Saints are projected to be $17 million dollars over the 2014 salary cap of $126 million. When you’ve had a good team for period of time like we’ve had, obviously you have good players... you have to pay the going rate to keep them. It doesn’t leave us much room, but yet, we know how to navigate and manage that.” Loomis explained.
The Saints are well into their off-season plan at this point of the year. The coaching staff, scouts, and front office members are in Mobile, Alabama taking a peek at the top seniors in the country. “It’s usually the best bowl game they have for seniors,” said Rick Reiprish, Director of College Scouting for the Saints. Invited players from various schools around the country put their skills on display in front of the NFL world. Reiprish says you can learn a lot from watching players during this week: “You learn about how a player goes about his business and handles the mental aspect of the game.” The Senior Bowl is what turned the Saints on to DT John Jenkins last year. The Saints grabbed Jenkins in the 3rd round of the draft last April, and he contributed quite a bit this season.
The NFL has announced that a record number of underclassmen will (98) enter the Draft in May. That makes it a little more interesting on Draft day. “There are going to be good players in that 98, there are going to be average players and there are guys that are coming up for various reasons. There are going to be some good players in that group!” said Reiprish. Ultimately, underclassmen are tryring to get to the second NFL contract, because there isn’t a lot of difference between 1st round money and 4th round money under the Collective Bargaining agreement.
Perhaps the most critical process of the Senior Bowl week is the one-on-one interview with teams. Some organizations place big emphasis on this facet of the scouting process. Players will be asked a variety of questions, everything from football questions to questions about everyday life. Teams are trying to learn everything they can about the players personality, demeanor, and work ethic along with their football I.Q.
The Saints are projected to be $17 million dollars over the 2014 salary cap, which is set at $126 million. General Manager Mickey Loomis is one of the best salary cap guys in the NFL "He is going to have to be Houdini to pull this one off," said Sports Agent Mark Bloom of the work ahead for Loomis and the Saints.
Audio: Sean Payton tells Angela about the toughest part of his job
Sure, the Saints can clear the cap space with several moves. It's not just about cap space to sign potential free agent targets, but also retain their own free agents. TE Jimmy Graham is the top priority and will command top dollar. Saints Coach Sean Payton says fans need not worry: "We have smart fans, they can read between the lines. They won't need to panic".
A big portion of salary cap relief can come from a restructuring of Drew Brees's contract. Brees accounts for roughly $18 million dollars of cap space. Brees said after the season he would be willing to restructure but hasn't been approached by the team as of yet.
Audio: Mickey Loomis discusses Brees' contract
Mickey Loomis AKA "Houdini" might not lock himself in a water tank with chains around his arms, but he will pull of a bit of a magic trick getting Graham under contract and leaving enough room for the Saints to sign a couple of other players on the market.
Drew Brees is approaching 35 years of age this month, and the Saints already have one Super Bowl Championship with he and Payton leading the charge. The Saints have been to the post-season three of the last four years, and twice have been bounced in the divisional round of the playoffs, just one win away from another Super Bowl appearance. Is time running out for the Saints to capitalize on their elite Coach/QB combo?
Not if you ask Coach Payton: "I said to our players, you are going to hear this new buzzword called 'window.' Honestly, the window, as long as I am the Head Coach here, we are trying to slam it open, always. You can take each individual player and say, 'When is the window of opportunity?' I think I have heard that term the last three years. Now, with regards to a specific player like Drew Brees, I get that, and yet that window is still all the way open and I mean that. We are always in a constant change, if you will, of taking in the new players, evaluating this team and then going through the process of assembling the 2014 team. That window for us each year is slammed open.”
Teams are structured in two ways these days; look no further than the final four teams left in the tournament. The Patriots and Broncos both have future Hall of Fame Quaterbacks (The Saints also fall into that category with Brees!) and the Seahawks and 49ers have young up-and-coming quarterbacks that haven't reached the 20-million-a-year threshold. The 49ers and Seahawks get it done with a strong running game and great defense. San Francisco and Seattle haven't had to pay their QB's, so they have more money to spend on defense. The Saints have spent their money on their franchise signal caller. The Saints might not have the depth they once had, but they've got plenty of young talented players that can help them get there.
Drew Brees definitely agrees with his Coach on the championship window being wide open: “Absolutely. You look around and look at the veteran leadership we have on this team, look at the young talent, look at the systems in which we play, this organization, the expectation level we’ve set for ourselves, the track record... and you would say that the future is as bright as we want it to be; as hard as we are willing to work. It’s all there for us now. Every year is a new year and you have to re-establish that identity every year. But the term 'window of opportunity,' in my opinion, it’s always there for us, for this team, for this organization, for this staff, for this group of players. It’s always open.”
The Saints are projected to be about 17 million dollars over the 126 million dollar salary cap figure for 2014. They've always been smart with money, and I'm sure they'll figure it out. After finishing 12 and 6 (1-1 in the playoffs) I would agree the window is wide open for the Saints. The Black and Gold are not far off. A few more complimentary pieces on offense and playmaker or two on defense, and the Saints are always in the mix with Payton and Brees. 2014 looks bright, awfully bright.
Heart and Head: I’ve wrestled with my “prediction” all week. Look, I want the Saints to win. It would be great for the city, the team, and honestly, for the NFL. I cover this team week in and week out from July until possibly February. Nothing would make me happier than for the Saints to run the table to New York. I just don’t like the match-up.
The Seahawks are the better team with more depth. However, Seattle has the pressure and the Saints are playing with house money. Outside of New Orleans, not many are picking the Saints to win this game. Do I pick with my heart or my head? My heart says New Orleans all the way; my head tells me Seattle has too much at home for the Saints.
In week 13 the Saints were embarrassed by the Seahawks in CenturyLink Field. It’s hard to forecast the impact of the weather on this game. I don’t see a 34 to 7 game that we saw on December 2nd. I think the Saints make the adjustments necessary to make this a close game. Since 2005, #6 Seeds are 6 and 2 against #1 seeds.
With that said, I’m picking Seattle in a close game 28-27 over New Orleans. I would love nothing more than to be wrong.
The seventh year (Sean missed the ’12 season) is when it sometimes happens that an NFL coach’s message gets stale, gets lost, goes unheeded by his players. It’s the time when owners become a little nervous about whether a coach who once had the “magic” with players has lost it - whether or not the coach has “lost his team.” Let’s not worry about that right now, at least when it comes to the coach of the New Orleans Saints.
Sean Payton had the Seattle Seahawks logo painted on the Saints’ indoor and outdoor practice pitches. What? Yes, that’s right, he had the enemy’s logo placed on the Saints practice fields, inside and outside their facilities, replacing the iconic fleur de lis with the flying buzzard’s image. Why? Because even though he’s a football coach by job title, what he is also a master of psychology!
It has everything to do with what psychologists term “locus of control.” What is locus of control? Well, in layman’s terms, it is power; power over things, people, thoughts, anything, that we believe we can control. If we believe we can control it, we generally aren’t intimidated by it, fooled by it, scared of it, or hesitant in any way. In fact, we’re confident we can not only control it, but it (whatever “it” is) poses little or no threat to us. By bringing the symbol of his enemy inside his own locus of control (the Saints facility and practice fields) Payton is saying, without saying anything at all, to his team: “See, here it is, here they are. Let’s run right over them, on top of them, through them, do whatever we choose. And, the Seahawks are powerless - powerless to resist!
Now, this has everything to do with preparation; preparing for the game, anticipating the game, practicing for the game, and nothing, nothing to do with the execution of the game itself. However, we've heard this before: "Perfect practice leads to perfect execution." Getting his players prepared to execute is his job - executing is theirs.
Moreover, it sends a message to the team that can’t be misinterpreted: "I’m going to do everything within my power to get us prepared to win. I expect you to do everything within your power as well."
Flawless: Have you ever seen the movie "Friday Night Lights?" I have watched it several times and my favorite part is at the end of the movie, when Coach Gary Gaines, played by Billy Bob Thornton, asks his team at halftime of the championship game, “can you be perfect?” The Permian Panthers were perfect in the second half and still lost in the State Championship game to Dallas Carter high school. The Saints will need an entire game of perfect play to beat the Seattle Seahawks; and that still might not be enough. If the Saints turn the ball over two times against the Seahawks, you’re probably looking at a 14-point defeat at best. The Saints have to play flawless football and hope for some breaks. New Orleans just doesn’t match up well with Seattle.
Rematch: My reasons for feeling the Saints will play better this time around against Seattle are threefold. 1) The Saints have been in that environment before, back on December 3rd in week 13. They’ll know what to expect. They know the challenges that come with playing there. They’ll be ready for that. 2) Drew Brees will get his second look at a Seattle defense that had his number in the first matchup. Veteran quarterbacks usually fare better when they have another look at personnel and schemes. 3) The Seahawks have the pressure. The Saints are the sixth seed. They’re not supposed to win. The Seahawks handled the Saints soundly in the first matchup, but it’s extremely difficult to beat an NFL team twice in the same season. Not to mention the Seahawks are the #1 seed, they’re supposed to win and host the NFC championship game.
Sequel in Seattle: The Saints will play the Seahawks much better than they did in week 13, but I’m not real sure they have enough to beat Seattle and turn the playoffs upside down. Right now, I’m leaning toward the Seahawks coming out on top. 2011 serves as a great reminder as to why nothing is promised of the No. 1 seed! 6th-seeded New York went into Altanta and knocked off the top-seeded Falcons in the divisional round that season. The Giants went onto win Super Bowl 46. It can happen! You never know in the playoffs. Drew Brees and Sean Payton make it possible. My heart says Saints but my head says Seahawks. I’ll make my final prediction on Friday.
The Saints locker room had a touch of an auto supply shop to it this week. Sure, there were helmets, shoulder pads, cleats and laundry bags... but the players also had 2-gallon gas canisters at their lockers. Is there enough gas left in the tank? Does the Black and Gold have fuel for the fight? Will the Saints run out of "juice" against a gas-burning sports car offensive attack from the Eagles? Right now, the Saints are topped off and ready for an extended road playoff push.
The Saints have everything to gain and nothing to lose. They're 2.5 point underdogs in Philadelphia. The Saints are the sixth seed. New Orleans hasn't won a playoff game on the road in the history of the franchise. The Eagles have won four straight games at home. The Saints defense can't force enough turnovers to make a difference. The Saints have the highest home/road point differential in the NFL (16.5) this season. No way they can win, right?
Not only can they win, but they can turn the playoff picture on its ear Saturday night. I can't really rationalize the reason I'm picking the Saints to win this game, other than history has to break at some point. Oh, plus I think the Black and Gold are just a better team. Did I mention the Eagles score too fast, and the Saints possess the ball for over 32 minutes per ball game? Typically, for teams facing the Drew Brees-led offense, their strategy is to keep him and his array of weapons on the sidelines as a specatator. The Eagles average under 27 minutes in time of possession per game. Brees and company will get their chances to zero in on the leagues worst-ranked pass defense.
History says the Saints can't win on the road, evidenced by their 0-5 record right? Or does it? History has a strange way of repeating itself, and also has a strange way of making prognosticators look foolish. Be careful when lumping Saints teams of the past in with this one. I've grown increasingly optimistic with this match-up. It's tailor-made for them. The Eagles are not a bruising, physical team on par with San Francisco or Carolina, and to a degree, Seattle. The Saints have the playoff experience over the Eagles. Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees all struggled in their first playoff action. Nick Foles will make his first post-season start against New Orleans.
I don't just like the Saints to win. I like them to win convincingly. I saw a team this week that has truly embraced the road mentality needed to go on the road and play well! I also saw an offense in the week 17 season finale that resembled more of the 2011 record-setting offense than at any point this season. Brees spread the football around to his vast array of weapons. The Saints operated with great rhythm and tempo in that game. Plus, they changed their pre-game meal, the flavor of the Gatorade, injected hip-hop music at practice, and they switched up the "routine" (yes, that last comment was dripping with sarcasm).
New Orleans 27-14 over Philadelphia. Sequel in Seattle, anyone?