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Kristian Garic

Talk sports and more with Kristian and T-Bob Hebert on "Double Coverage!" 

Weeknights 8pm-Midnight

Twitter: @kristiangaric
Email: kristian@wwl.com


Saints defense off to fast start; Brees not worried about contract

Fast and Attacking D: Nearly every question mark surrounding the Saints headed into training camp revolved around the defense, and on the first day of camp the defense looked crisp, fast, and attacking. Dennis Allen's defensive scheme is both simple and complex, but it allowed the players to "attack and play fast" today, picking off two passes in the team portion of practice. "Everything we practiced in OTA's, we didn't change anything in camp. We've already been through installation - this is all second nature now. We were able to play fast on the very first day of camp," said safety Kenny Vaccaro. Sean Payton talked about this last night - being able to get lined up properly and knowing assignments makes it easier for players to make positive plays for the defense. With that said, some things will change when the pads go on Saturday. Today the team was in shorts and helmets.

Tougher Camp: The Saints have trained at the Greenbrier for two years working on three, and haven't had the results they've wanted, with back to back 7 and 9 finishes. Fans and media members have questioned if the training camp location is to blame. Payton and the Saints insist it has very little to do with location, but did promise a tougher camp this year than in the past two. What you're going to end up seeing is longer practices in the morning session, with more reps. On occasion Payton might decide forgo the afternoon walk through and use it on a as-needed basis. The structure of training camp has changed drastically since Payton took over in New Orleans in 2006, in large part because of the new collective bargaining agreement that places stricter rules on the length and number of practices.

Versatility: Left Tackle Terron Armstead was placed on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list prior to the start of camp. Andrus Peat is working with the first team offense at left tackle in his absence. Peat was primarily working with the first unit at right guard during OTA's and mini camp. Once Armstead returns, he'll slide back into guard. "He's smart, so he can play both and we need that flexibility on game days. He played left tackle in college so it's natural for him, yet he will go right back to guard when Terron returns," Payton said. The Saints must feel good about his grasp of the guard position to move him out to left tackle with Armstead out. Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemente worked at right and left guards with the first team offense.

Byrd Watch: Jairus Byrd did participate in practice today with the team, and in 7 on 7 drills. For the first time in a Saints uniform, Byrd was on the field for the opening day of practice. The Saints still appear to have him on a bit of a pitch count because he took very few team reps in practice, but nonetheless it's a step in the right direction. Safety Erik Harris - not Vonn Bell - appears to be the back up to Byrd early in camp, replacing him in the team portion of practice with the first team unit.

Michael Thomas: The Saints' second round draft pick built upon a solid off-season with a strong first day. Thomas caught a nice slant pattern over the middle that was contested by P.J. Williams. The coverage was tight, and both were fighting for the football, but you could see Thomas' ability to use body position and his strong hands to haul in the perfectly thrown pass by Brees. Thomas looks like he plays bigger than 6'3" and that's saying a lot because he's already just a well put together receiver.

Brees contract talks: Quarterback Drew Brees says his contract status with the team is the furthest thing from his mind as he prepares during camp and the regular season. "To clarify, there is nothing adversarial in negotiations or talks with the Saints," he added. He also mentioned that he's very confident he's going to play at a high level in his 40's: "I want to step away from this game when I want to step away from this game, not because of someone else or a decline in play." Right Tackle Zach Strief described his quarterback as "focused to a fault" when he was asked about the possibility of a looming contract situation distracting Brees and the team. "He's a weirdo," Strief said when describing Brees' hyper-focused mind. Strief also added he can't think about life without Drew Brees. "I can't fathom the idea that Brees wouldn't finish his career in New Orleans." I have no concern that a contract stalemate or impass or whatever you want to call it will distract Drew Brees this season.
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Kristian: Saints Training Camp begins - here's what I'm watching for

Where will the pass rush come from? The Saints know defensive end Cameron Jordan is a bonafide NFL pass rusher - the question is, who will be the complimentary pass rusher opposite of Jordan? You want names? I can rattle off the names, I just can't rattle them off with any degree of certainty they will fill those shoes.

Obum Gwachem, Davis Tull, and Kasim Edebali are three names that appear to be at the top of the list. Edebali tallied 6 sacks last year, Davis Tull spent his rookie season on injured reserve. Gwacham racked up 2.5 sacks in a reserve role last year. The pass rush is without a doubt the biggest question that is on my mind on the eve of camp. "We might have to be creative with scheme at times," explained Coach Sean Payton, but added he feels good about the aforementioned trio.

Safety Jairus Byrd's health is still a topic of conversation, despite Byrd passing his physical and getting ready to go on day one of training camp. Since signing with the Saints two off-seasons ago, Byrd has been plagued by injuries and thus a lack of production. This will mark the first time in three training camps that Byrd will be on the field and practicing on the first day of camp. Now the question becomes two-fold; will he remain healthy for the season, and can he solve the Saints turnover woes? Turnovers will be a focal point for the entire team during camp.

Will the Saints and Drew Brees reach a deal on a new contract before the Brees-imposed deadline by the start of the regular season? "My phone is on the hook, and ready to be rung," General Manager Mickey Loomis said, in a "ball is in your court" kind of gesture. Drew Brees is due to make north of $30 million dollars this season in the final year of a five year contract he signed in 2012. Brees imposed a verbal deadline of the start of the regular season back in May. Brees wants to focus on football. I don't expect this to become a distraction, Brees has an uncanny ability to compartmentalize and rid himself of off-the-field distractions. However, it does provide a more long term concern that won't be answered until 2017 when he's scheduled to become an un-restricted free agent.

The Saints placed veteran WR Vincent Brown on injured reserve with a calf injury on Tuesday and are planning to sign veteran WR Hakeem Nicks, once he passes his physical. Hicks spent time with the Giants and Colts since entering the league in 2009. Nicks played in six games last season, and provides a little veteran experience for a young but talented wide receiving corps. Loomis said the maturity of the current wide outs is not a concern.
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Keenan Lewis promises Saints will have top defense this year

Saints defensive back Keenan Lewis is rarely shy about expectations and goals. The Saints are coming off back to back 7 and 9 seasons, with one of the worst defensive performance in league history last season. 2015 was a particularly rough season for Lewis, who missed 10 games with a hip and groin injuries that ultimately landed him on season-ending Injured Reserve.

Lewis says he's on the mend and should be ready to roll when the team reports to training camp in a week. "I'm doing pretty good. I stayed in New Orleans, and did a lot of rehabbing and getting myself together. I'm very excited about this season... a lot of people have been counting me out, saying that I'm older and that the surgery is going to play a part." Lewis is coming off hip surgery and will be 30 years old this season. "That motivates me, I thank them. It's cool everybody isn't going to like me. I got it in my mind to prove them wrong. I'm going to be ready to go at 30." Lewis counts for $6.3 million dollars against the cap this season after reworking his contract in 2015. He will earn $2.7 million dollars in base salary this year.

Without question, the player in the make-or-break season is safety Jairus Byrd. The oft-injured Byrd joined the Saints in the 2014 off-season after signing a 6-year $54 million dollar free agent contract and promptly missed 12 games due to a knee injury that season, and last year was slowed by lingering effects from that same injury. Byrd has been held out of a lot of off-season workouts and OTA's this spring to ensure his readiness for training camp on July 27th. Lewis says some of the criticism on Byrd isn't really fair. "He will be ready to go, you know a lot of people have comments. Injuries do occur... to give up on someone because of injury is not OK, but you're entitled to your opinion. Jairus is a true professional putting in long hours getting himself healthy. He'll be ready to go."

During the Saints slide over the past two seasons, the defense has clearly ben the biggest eyesore on Airline Drive, prompting Sean Payton to make a change in defensive coordinator last season, from Rob Ryan to Dennis Allen. Lewis says he's confident the defense will be vastly improved "Our goal is to be number 1, period. Everybody is going to talk before the season, and the games still have to be played. Anything is possible, I'm very excited about the guys we have. Our front seven is complete, we'll be one of the top defenses; I can promise you that." If you've spent any time with Lewis you will understand that this is not just lip service, but truly how he feels because he believes in his team mates.

However, I don't see it happening.

Several experts and talk show hosts (myself included) don't think much of the Saints chances of returning to the post-season this year. Lewis says everyone talks this time of year but he knows his teammates have a chip on their shoulder and is confident the team will respond. "A lot of people are sleeping on us. Our guys really bought in, we are all dark horses and are ready to shock the world." Shocking the world might be difficult to do, but I'd be shocked if the Saints win more than 8 games this season.

Keenan Lewis is holding his annual football camp this Saturday at City Park for all ages from 10am to 2pm, It's free and they accept walk up registration. ​

To hear Keenan Lewis' interview on SportsTalk, click the link below.

FULL AUDIO: Keenan Lewis with Bobby and Deke

Photo via USA Today

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People : Dennis AllenJairus ByrdKeenan LewisRob RyanSean Payton




 

Kristian: Status of Saints training camp still unknown admist floods

West Virginia, in particular Greenbrier valley, and White Sulphur Springs has suffered from significant flooding at the Greenbrier resort and surrounding communities.  “America’s Resort” is closed until further notice, and 60 roads in the area are still closed.  

The waters are receding, but the region is also plagued by thick sludge that piled up because of the flood waters.  Tens of thousands are still without power, and Greenbrier Classic PGA tour event has been canceled.  

The Saints are scheduled to report to West Virginia on July 27th for training camp.  No decision has been made at this point as to how the flooding will impact the Saints holding training camp at the resort.   The team says they are monitoring the situation in West Virginia.  

“You can see mud for miles, over 100 homes have been swept off their foundation.  The economy is crumbling in this area and you have to wonder if people are going to stay long term here,” Tim Carrico from WVNS TV in West Virginia explained to me this morning.
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Saints tweak roster, sign DT CJ Wilson

The Saints announced today they've placed CB Kyle Wilson on reserve/Injured list and have signed DT C.J. Wilson.

Kyle Wilson signed last off-season with the Saints and played a role as reserved defensive back last season.  C.J. Wilson comes to New Orleans after splitting the 2015 season between the Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions. He opened the year appearing in four games with one start for the Raiders and recorded five tackles (two solo). In eight games for Detroit, he posted eight tackles (six solo) and one sack.

Originally a seventh round choice (230th overall) of the Green Bay Packers in the 2010 NFL Draft out of East Carolina, the Belhaven, N.C. native has played in 78 career games with 19 starts over six seasons with the Packers, Raiders and Lions, accumulating 150 tackles (84 solo), 6.5 sacks for a total loss of 27 yards, one pass defensed and one fumble recovery. The East Carolina standout appeared in eight postseason games with three starts for the Packers from 2010-2013, recording 24 tackles (14 solo) and one sack, and was part of Green Bay’s Super Bowl XLV championship team.

The Saints report to training camp on July 27th, and hold the first practice at training camp on July 28th.
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Locations : DetroitNew OrleansNorth Carolina
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Kristian: Which Saints player is in a make-or-break season?

This question is easy to answer. If Player X doesn't perform, he's likely out of New Orleans following the season.  Player X would be Safety Jairus Bryd.  

Since Byrd arrived in New Orleans during the 2014 off-season after signing a 6 year, $54 million dollar contract, he's been a significant source of frustration for the fans, and perhaps the team.  Byrd played in just 4 games his first season with the Saints 2014 and last year appeared in 13 games with 12 starts.  The Saints handed Byrd the big money contract because they hoped he would solve their inability to force turnovers.  That hasn't played out as of yet, and I'm pretty certain it won't ever manifest.

Byrd has forced three turnovers in 2 seasons in a Saints uniform.  One interception, and two forced fumbles.   That's awfully low production for the price.  If you are thinking the Saints should just cut their losses and say goodbye to Byrd right now, that's logical in terms of production, but illogical in terms of cost and salary cap ramifications.  This year Byrd will count for $10.9 million of cap space, and if the team parted ways him it would create $17 million in 'dead cap' space.  

In fact I could make an argument that the Saints really won't want to cut him at the end of this season, if his underachieving play continues, because of the dead money issue facing the team in 2017.   Since we're having this conversation, indulge me.  If Byrd were released next off-season the Saints would only save $3 million dollars, and eat almost $8 million in dead money! Pretty painful! However if he doesn't produce this year, you virtually have to move on.

I understand why the Saints had high hopes and extended a big check to Byrd two off-seasons ago, and it's easier to second guess the decision once we've seen the result.  In five seasons with Buffalo before arriving in New Orleans, Byrd was a turnover machine, logging 22 interceptions with the Bills from 2009 to 2013.  Byrd has been a no-go in OTAs and the recently convened mini camp last week.  Clearly the Saints are taking a 'slow and steady wins the race' approach with Byrd, but if he's not on the field in week 1, or is out for an extended period of time it will only hasten the scrutiny what looks like one of the worst contract decisions the Saints have made under Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis.  

When will Byrd be a word that is looked on positively in New Orleans? I'm not so sure it will. 
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Kristian: Deuce taught me more in one Saints game than I learned in 7 years

What made Deuce McAllister special as a football player and as a human being will make him even more special as a broadcaster and color analyst for WWL and the Saints Radio Network.

If you've ever interacted with Deuce the thing that grabs you right away is just how kind and humble he is. I met Deuce for the first time back in 2003, when he was still playing. I remember how graceful he was interacting with fans and autograph seekers. This was at a charity event, and he must have had at least 300 people in line to get his signature of Saints regalia or memorabilia.

Well, after the charity event ended, who was still there signing autographs?  Deuce! I asked him years down the road, do you ever get annoyed about the demands for your autograph or picture?  "No I don't,” he said.  “You should be annoyed only when they stop asking for your autograph or to take a picture.”  That's Deuce!  
 
I had the opportunity to call a game last year with Deuce on the sidelines next to me, and it might have been the most educational experience of my life.  I was constantly amazed how quick he could diagnose and explain a play. I learned more in that one game than perhaps I did the previous seven seasons as WWL’s sideline reporter.  

That's not hyperbole either, that's the honest truth.  Of course, that is no disrespect to the late Hokie Gajan (R.I.P)...just a true testament to Deuce's knowledge of the game.  (And, I’m sure Hok would agree.)  I was also taken aback by how every one of the Saints players and coaching staff members came over to say hello to Deuce that afternoon, a sign of total respect and admiration.  
 
Deuce has been in the big league of pro football, now he's in the big leagues of radio...for a beloved team on an legendary stage.  His grit, work ethic, determination, and passion will carry him and WWL across the goal line for another signature touchdown!  Welcome Deuce...and thank you!  
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Saints announce West Virginia training camp dates

The Saints wrapped up their three day mini camp today, and will be off until training camp. Coach Sean Payton announced today that players will report to the Greenbrier in West Virginia on July 27th for physicals and a conditioning test, and the first practice will be on the 28th. 

The team has not announced a full training camp schedule complete with joint practices with New England & Houston during camp.

With training camp on the distant horizon, Sean Payton will talk to the team about being smart, staying out of trouble and keeping in good condition so they can succeed in West Virginia.  One of the no-brainer reasons players look forward to camp is to get out of the heat; that's a major plus. I talked to a couple players today who are looking foward to getting out of town, into some cooler weather and getting their mind right.

This is an important training camp after two back to back 7 and 9 seasons. The Saints are not thought of highly by national oddsmakers.

It will be interesting to see the intensity and focus they have once the hit field in July.
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Kristian: Saints looking to surprise some people this year

Oddsmakers and prognosticators are not very high on the 2016 Saints, but the Black and Gold are making it a point to prove the doubters wrong this year.

 While that ultimately won't happen until the fall and winter, it's interesting to see the chip on their shoulder. "I think you're lying to yourself if you say you don't listen to it, or you don't hear it," says veteran linebacker James Laurinaitis.  While this team is vastly different from last season's, and certainly the 2009-2011 & 2013 squads (playoff seasons) the players feel like they're putting in the work to make it back to the post-season. "We just have a great group of guys.  The environment  this year is a lot different.  Guys want to win, and guys are more motivated to do their jobs at the highest level and help this team make that jump this year," said WR Willie Snead.  

Obum Gwacham is working with the first team defense in place of the injured Hau'oli Kikaha. Gwacham is raw to the position of defense end but has been impressive in OTA's and mini camp, and if there is a player that might fill the void left by the injury to Kikaha - keep an eye on Obum.  Also, second year pro Davis Tull had a solid day today with two would-be sacks in team drills.  Tull spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve with a torn labrum.  

Usually the Saints offense wins most of the battles in practice, but not today.  The Saints defense was flying over the field, turning in a couple of sacks and interceptions. "This was by far and away the best day for the defense that we've seen this off-season.  You can tell the linebackers are really improved compared to last season.  I really like Nate Stupar and Craig Robertson," explained the Cajun Cannon Bobby Hebert.  

PJ Williams is quietly having a pretty solid off-season.  Williams missed his rookie season a year ago with toe and hamstring injuries. A third round pick in 2015 out of Florida State, he has authored several nice pass break ups in mini camp and organized team activities.  Williams will be counted upon in the Saints secondary, considering Damian Swann's concussion history, and lack of over all depth at the position outside of Delvin Breaux and Keenan Lewis. 

One Tulane player is in camp with the Saints - defensive end Roy LaFrance, who played linebacker with the Wave, is trying to make the squad as an undrafted rookie free agent.  While it's a long shot, I think he will most certainly be invited to the teams training camp in July and at times he's flashed with some pretty good pass rushing skills during OTA's and Mini Camp. LaFrance is a bit of a project player and could end up as a developmental guy on the practice squad.  

Outside of the top 3 wide outs, the Saints have a lot of roster spots up for grabs once you sift through Willie Snead, Brandin Cooks, and Michael Thomas.  What about Brandon Coleman you ask?  Well, let's just say he's not setting the world on fire and actually by each passing day I wonder if his days are numbered with the Saints.  "The problem is he doesn't play like a guy that is 6'6 - he plays like he's 5'11," said Hebert.  Coleman makes the tough catch and then drops the easy one.  The emergence of R.J. Harris has also put Coleman's future with the team in doubt.  Coleman made the active roster last season, but that's hardly a lock for this season. 
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Kristian: Robert Meachem back at Saints mini camp

The Saints are holding a reunion of sorts on Airline Drive - another "old face" is back with the team for a three day try out.  This will be Robert Meachem's third stint with the team after taking a year off in 2015.  

Meachem was originally selected by the Saints in 2007 in the 1st round out of Tennessee.  "I was overweight in my second stint, and I got back to my weight in the last year," Meachem said. He played 232 lbs in 2015 and is down to 218 for this camp.  

PHOTO GALLERY: Day One of Saints Mini-Camp

I wouldn't be surprised if Meachem ends up making it to training camp with the Saints.  One thing he has going for him is experience and age, believe it or not... he's the oldest guy in the WR room right now with an otherwise really young group.  Meachem told me he tried out with the Saints two weeks ago and clocked a 4.48 in the forty yard dash.

The Saints acknowledged last week's report that second year DE Hau'oli Kikaha did suffer an ACL injury last week in OTA's.  Kikaha has not had surgery to repair the ACL as of right now, but coach Sean Payton expects him to. "He's making sure he gets three sets of eyes on it. The first two visits, the repair and diagnoses would be the same," he explained. Payton and the team will know more next week as to when Kikaha will have surgery. "I wouldn't bet against Hau'oli, he's a pretty tough cookie.  I think he's got that mindset and that's encouraging," Payton said. Kikaha has suffered an ACL tear on his left knee for the third time, going back to college.   

Perhaps we've all underestimated the upgrades the Saints have made at the line backing position this off-season.  The Saints brought in James Laurainits, Nate Stupar, and Craig Robertson.  All three players have made a ton of plays during OTA's and through one day of mini camp.  

Also, second year player Stephone Anthony making the switch from middle linebacker to strong side linebacker has looked pretty smooth.  "You can tell he's got the physical make up to play the position.  I think he'll flourish playing fast, and not having to make calls as the 'mike' linebacker," explained Bobby Hebert. 
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