Saints mailbag: Top needs in 2015?

December, 27, 2014
Dec 27
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Thanks for submitting your New Orleans Saints questions to me on Twitter. Send them anytime @MikeTriplett.

@MikeTriplett: As expected, my mailbag was loaded with draft questions this week. I know I’ll say hundreds of times between now and April that the Saints will (and should) target the highest-rated player on the board among several positions of need. They’re going to have a top-14 pick, and it has to wind up being a Pro Bowl-caliber player they can build around for the future. So they won’t reach to fill a specific need. That’s how they always approach the draft.

That being said, I chose this question because I agree that cornerback and the interior offensive line should rank as the top two offseason priorities. Cornerback will probably be a priority in free agency, because they need someone that can come in right away and start opposite Keenan Lewis. I think that would cure a lot of ills on the defense, because better pass coverage could also benefit the pass rush.

Guard could also become a priority in free agency if the Saints decide to release either Ben Grubbs or Jahri Evans. If they keep both of those guys, then guard becomes a major draft priority. The Saints’ offensive line is getting old fast, and they don’t have many obvious young replacements waiting in the wings outside of left tackle Terron Armstead and center/guard Tim Lelito. A first-round pick would help solidify that position immediately and help rebuild for the future.

I’d rank an athletic young outside linebacker who can help in pass coverage and cover a lot of ground in run defense third. But obviously it feels like a long list after such a disappointing season.

@MikeTriplett: This will be one of the toughest decisions the Saints have to make this offseason. They have a ton of money invested in Evans and Grubbs, and they’re going to have to find places to shed salary-cap space. But they don’t have any obvious replacements waiting in the wings for those guys.

Both guards clearly underachieved this season, but they’re not exactly liabilities. Evans, especially, had a lot of very good games when I watched the tape -- particularly as a run blocker, where the Saints showed improvement this season. I’d actually be surprised to see Evans get released.

The thought of paying Evans $7.5 million in salary and bonuses and Grubbs $6.6 million is daunting. But the idea of throwing new, cheaper guys into the lineup isn’t much more comforting. It might depend on whether they like the available alternatives in free agency and the draft.

Center Jonathan Goodwin is a free agent, so the Saints might be ready to move on with Lelito there. I expect tackles Zach Strief and Terron Armstead back, but they might need to upgrade the backup left tackle spot after Bryce Harris struggled there this season.

@MikeTriplett: There’s definitely no need to panic, as I broke down last week. The Saints have a number of ways they can trim cap space, including pushing costs into future years. And you’re right that the league-wide cap figure continues to rise significantly.

I don’t believe there is one giant increase expected because of the TV contracts. But the cap finally went way up last year and is expected to do the same this year and next. The NFL sent out a notice to teams earlier this month that next year’s cap is expected to be between $138.6 million and $141.8 million. But the NFLPA quickly countered with a memo saying it believes a substantial increase will be added beyond that.

The Saints are currently projected at $161.3 million, according to ESPN Stats and Information. But they’ll trim $10 million with one tweak in Junior Galette's contract and have several other ways to trim more, even before they start releasing players.

@MikeTriplett: Based on record, the Saints could potentially wind up anywhere between the seventh and 14th pick in the draft. But the tie-breaker for teams with the same record is strength of schedule, so I haven’t been able to do the math to figure out all the scenarios. Chances are, they won’t be able to crack the top seven even if they lose.

I do know that it’s been confirmed that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can clinch the No. 1 pick with a loss to New Orleans on Sunday. But both teams insist they’ll play to win.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints placed running back Pierre Thomas and defensive end Akiem Hicks on injured reserve Friday to make room for two young practice-squad players they wanted to lock up for 2015.

Thomas
They promoted receiver Brandon Coleman and linebacker Jerry Franklin off the practice squad -- though Saints coach Sean Payton said he doesn’t “anticipate” either playing in Sunday’s season finale at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Knowing Pierre and Akiem were not going to be able to play in this game, it’s really a way to secure and put two younger guys on contract and bring them up,” Payton said.

Thomas suffered a rib injury last week against the Atlanta Falcons, while Hicks has been dealing with a nagging ankle injury. Payton said he doesn’t know if either injury is serious enough to require offseason surgery -- especially in Thomas' case.

The Saints also ruled out left tackle Terron Armstead for Sunday’s game with a neck injury, though he wasn’t placed on injured reserve. Armstead said earlier this week that he’s not sure if surgery is a possibility for his injury.

Defensive tackle John Jenkins (abdomen) was listed as questionable after not practicing all week. Offensive tackle Zach Strief (neck) and safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) are listed as probable after practicing on a limited basis the past two days.

Coleman, a big target at 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, was the most highly touted of the Saints undrafted free-agent signings this year after he was highly rated by some analysts coming out of Rutgers. He had some ups and downs in the summer, but Payton said he’s been happy with Coleman's development -- as well as that of fellow undrafted rookie receiver Seantavius Jones, who was promoted to the active roster earlier this month.

“He and Seantavius have really been impressive. Training camp, this whole season on the practice squad, and everything they’re doing, they’ve been real good,” Payton said. “He’s got size, he’s tough. I like the work ethic of this group. It’s a good group of young receivers when you look at him, Seantavius and then [first-round pick Brandin] Cooks.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Marques Colston was bluntly honest about his personal struggles this season. But the New Orleans Saints' all-time leading receiver declined to speculate on his future during a rare visit with the media on Friday.

“I pride myself on trying to be part of the solution. Instead this year, I feel like I was part of the problem at times,” said Colston, who has declined interview requests since Week 1.

“Clearly, it’s not a secret I didn’t play up to my own standards. I’ve got to live with that,” said Colston, who leads the Saints with 851 receiving yards but has struggled with ball security and consistency.

He began the season with a critical lost fumble in overtime at Atlanta in Week 1 and finished with about seven or eight dropped passes during the season, depending on your grading scale.

“The tape speaks for itself. Putting the ball on the ground, that’s just something that I shouldn’t be doing,” Colston said. “It’s just one of those things where it’s just been a tough year, personally, and obviously we’ve struggled as a team.”

[+] EnlargeMarques Colston, Antwon Blake
Don Wright/Associated PressA down season and a large salary-cap number might make Sunday Marques Colston's last game with the Saints.
Colston, 31, has 57 catches for 851 yards and four touchdowns this season. Although he’s played in every game without some of the same nagging health issues that plagued him in recent years, he’s on pace to have his lowest totals in catches, yards and possibly touchdowns since 2008 (when he missed five games due to injury).

He’s also due to earn $7 million in salary and bonuses next season for a salary-cap-strapped Saints team, which has led to a lot of speculation about his future in New Orleans.

Chances are, Colston would have to agree to a significant pay cut to stay. But he wasn’t interested in speculating on any scenarios Friday.

“With all due respect, that’s an irresponsible question,” Colston said when asked whether he would play for another team or retire if it came down to it. “I’m focused on playing a game in two days. It’s just not a place where I can allow my mind to go.”

And when asked if he’d consider a pay cut, Colston said, “I’m getting ready to play Tampa Bay. I understand that there’s a business side to the offseason, and I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”

He later added: “Change is tough for everybody. It's something that is coming at some point, but it's not that point yet.”

Colston has already begun to prepare for life beyond playing football by purchasing one arena football franchise in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and becoming part owner of the Philadelphia Soul in the Arena Football League. He said he has high aspirations for that burgeoning career, but he said that’s independent from his playing career.

Colston has politely declined interview requests throughout the season. He said Friday that it had nothing to do with any specific incident that occurred with him or anyone else in the Saints’ locker room, but that he had just soured on the process in general.

“Just some of the stuff that was in the media earlier in the season, and a lot of it didn’t have to do with this locker room. I just really wasn’t a fan of how it was being handled. And it just kind of went from there,” Colston explained. “My outlook on the media as a whole kind of shifted. It was nothing personal, just an overall deal.”

It wasn’t a huge shift for Colston, who has always been one of the most soft-spoken stars in the NFL -- even in good times. He sent out a statement through the public relations department last year when he broke one of his many franchise records.

His teammates have always lauded him for keeping an even keel through the highs and lows.

Longtime teammate Zach Strief said it was evident how hard Colston was on himself this season because of a few rare sideline outbursts, like throwing his helmet.

“He’s a unique guy. I mean there’s not a lot of receivers that I can think of that have gone through a career with essentially never being given some of the credit that he’s due -- and never asking for any -- and as a matter of fact, hardly ever talking,” said Strief, who also praised Colston as “the toughest player I’ve ever played with” for catching so many balls in traffic over the years and elevating his game in big moments.

“And he’s as good of a guy as you could have around the locker room,” Strief added.

Quarterback Drew Brees showered Colston with a lot of the same praise for about the fiftieth time in their nine years together earlier this week, while insisting that he expects Colston back. Coach Sean Payton praised Colston on Friday as well.

But Colston insisted Friday that his quiet demeanor shouldn’t be confused for any lack of passion.

"I think there may be a common misconception that because I'm quiet I'm not an emotional guy. You can't play this game without emotion,” Colston said. “Just like every guy in this locker room, I put my heart and soul into what we are trying to do and what we're trying to build here.

“That being said, to not experience the success that you're looking to have, and you put in the work to have is tough.”
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METAIRIE, La. -- Rob Ryan said he's used to fielding questions about his job security, as the New Orleans Saints' defensive coordinator found himself doing again Friday.

But one thing Ryan said he hasn't experienced much is the kind of sophomore slump the young Saints defense has gone through this season, tumbling from fourth in yards allowed in 2013 to 31st in 2014.

And Ryan seconded what some of his players have acknowledged -- they might have gotten too caught up in the preseason praise and lofty expectations being heaped on them.

"Obviously we drank the Kool-Aid a little bit too much, I think. And if they don't think so, I think that's wrong. I think that's an honest opinion," Ryan said. "I think we forgot how we had success [last year]. You know, the 'Nola' defense, where nobody likes our ass. That's how we played better, when our backs were against the wall, when we had a lot to prove.

"I think we didn't get soft in a year's time, but certainly we could have played better and started faster. And it cost us early in some games, and then we're treading uphill the rest of the year."

Ryan didn't want to speculate much on his job security Friday. The Saints have one game remaining, Sunday at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he said he's used to it after being fired by the Dallas Cowboys two years ago and being part of staffs that were replaced in Cleveland and Oakland.

"If I get a chance, that'd be awesome. But, hey, the numbers are what they are. They don't look good," Ryan said. "But hell, it is what it is. This is a win business. And, hey, this is a 'tough-people' business, too. So I'll be great with whatever happens."


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TE Jimmy Graham: No excuses

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
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[+] EnlargeKemal Ishmael
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisJimmy Graham's 835 receiving yards and 10.6 yards per catch this season were well below his career norms.

METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham acknowledged the obvious Friday -- that his 2014 season didn't match the bar he has raised for himself.

"You know, a pretty good year for other people is a bad year for me," said Graham, who earned his third Pro Bowl invitation but still had a down year by his lofty standards -- especially down the stretch.

Graham said fighting through the shoulder injury he suffered in Week 5 was "a battle every game." But he added that everyone plays hurt and he's not going to make any excuses.

He acknowledged that, "Once you've been All-Pro, people guard you a little different, so you've gotta work a little harder to get open." 

And Graham laughed when asked if missing the offseason because of his extended contract negotiations had any effect.

"Well, you know, it's been a long year," said Graham, who ultimately signed a four-year, $40 million deal in July. "But I haven't really had time to really sit back and evaluate the entire year itself. But I'll have that next week and for the next three months to really see kind of the beginning to the end of this year and to do whatever it takes not to repeat that. 

"I'm gonna get it right in the end."


(Read full post)


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The New Orleans Saints (6-9) were radically unpredictable even when they were still in playoff contention. So I really have no idea what to expect now that they've been officially eliminated.

Maybe they'll show up like a dejected college team playing in the wrong Florida bowl game.

But I’ll still pick the Saints to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-13) because there’s no way to predict which team will be more motivated, and I think New Orleans is the better team.

The Saints have outgained the Buccaneers by more than 120 yards per game this year (416.3 to 292.8). They’ve outscored them by more than a touchdown per game (25.2 points to 17.1). Drew Brees’ passer rating is nearly 30 points higher than Josh McCown’s (99.2 to 70.5).

And as bad as New Orleans’ defense has been this year, the Bucs’ D hasn’t been much better – even before star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy landed on injured reserve.

As inconsistent as the Saints have been all year, they’ve actually won their last three road games. And Tampa Bay hasn’t won a home game all year.

My prediction: Saints 23, Buccaneers 20

Know the enemy: Saints on Mike Evans

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
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METAIRIE, La. – The best thing about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ dismal season has been the emergence of rookie receiver Mike Evans, a big, physical target who will cause headaches for the New Orleans Saints defense for years to come.

Evans (6-foot-5, 231 pounds) was the seventh pick in the draft out of Texas A&M. And though he hasn’t gotten quite as much pub as some of the other members of the greatest rookie receiving class in NFL history, Evans has absolutely delivered on his potential.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesMike Evans needs just 3 yards receiving against the Saints to reach 1,000 for the season.
Evans has 63 catches for 997 yards and 11 touchdowns. He missed one game with a groin injury – in Week 5 against the Saints. So they’ll be facing him for the first time. But they’ve clearly been impressed by what they’ve seen on film.

Here’s what the Saints had to say about Evans this week:

Coach Sean Payton:“He has a huge catching radius. And I think he’s taken that production you saw on college film, and very quickly you see the confidence in his big plays down the field. He’s someone that you can be in position in coverage, and he can still go up and high point a ball. Obviously he’s a threat in the red zone. And in the last six weeks, their big-play differential in regards to the big passes has really spiked. And he has a lot to do with that. He’s really good.”

S Kenny Vaccaro: “I just like his ability to go up and get the ball, his 50-50 ability. He gets it at the highest point. He’s physical. And I haven’t seen a cat block like this cat, like his willingness to block on the perimeter. He’s getting after you whether it’s run or pass. And I respect that, because a lot of guys you’ll see that are big-time receivers turn a little prima donna when they’re not getting the ball. But when I saw him plant Terence Newman one time, I was like, ‘All right, this cat’s for real.’”

CB Keenan Lewis: “Big guy, a guy who plays with a lot of passion, a lot of heart. Can make plays, can move in space like a quick guy. So he’ll be dominant in this league for a long time. He’s also got a great mentor in Vincent Jackson, the same size, type of receiver. So you’ve got a tandem like those two, they’ll be tough.”

LB Curtis Lofton: “I think he’s a very special player. I think he’s a big playmaker for them. And he’s pretty tall, so he gives the quarterback a wide catch radius. You know, he throws it up to him, and he makes him right most of the time. He’s having a heck of a rookie year, and I can’t say enough good things about him.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Offensive tackle Zach Strief said he’s not sure if too many guys bought into the preseason hype and lofty expectations surrounding the New Orleans Saints this year.

Strief said he’s been around long enough to know that those things don’t mean anything. But he knows he doesn’t speak for everybody -- and he has been very blunt this season about how not everyone on the team “understood the amount of intensity, the amount of work and energy that’s needed to be successful in this league.”

I wrote about this idea on Thursday, how I think motivation can play at least a small role in a team’s success -- comparing it to the way the Saints played in 2010 in their “Super Bowl hangover” year. And I think that hype particularly affected a young defense that had such a breakout year in 2013 before falling back this year.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis acknowledged Wednesday that, “A lot of guys, we read a lot.” And high expectations can be a negative if you get “caught up into that and you’re feeling yourself.” And safety Kenny Vaccaro has been open about his own second-year struggles and how he needed to get back "that dog in me."

“I’ll tell you this, we won’t have to deal with it next year,” Strief said. “We won’t have any questions about, 'Did you read the press clippings?' in the offseason going into next season. And that’ll probably be a more comfortable situation.”

Worth a click:
  • Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan wrote an awesome Christmas Day story about how Drew Brees has personally inspired so many fans who have named their children after him – including a baby born this month with a rare genetic disorder.
  • Former Saints kicker Garrett Hartley shared an emotional personal story with Cleveland.com about how he and his girlfriend lost their baby due to complications in the mother’s pregnancy. Hartley gave the eulogy for his daughter two days before returning to the NFL to kick for the Browns this past Sunday.
  • Rookie Saints cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste talked more in-depth to The Advocate’s Ted Lewis about the frustrations of not playing this season. “I really don’t know what the plans are for me. I’m feeling lost right now,” Jean-Baptiste admitted.
  • The NFC South is not the worst division in NFL history, according to FiveThirtyEight.
  • For information on this week’s opponent, check out ESPN’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers team page here. And follow Bucs reporter Pat Yasinskas on Twitter @PatYazESPN.
Worth repeating:

Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown had some good stories about the intense brotherly rivalry between him and Saints backup QB Luke McCown growing up. The best was the time when Josh was admittedly not being a good sport after beating Luke in basketball and rubbing it in -- which caused their older brother Randy to shove Josh to the ground. And Josh inhaled a grass burr, which led to a trip to the hospital.

“Whatever game or sport we were playing was just a precursor to the fight, that’s all it was,” Josh said. “All the game let us do was let us know who was going to throw the first punch, that’s what the game did.”
video When: Sunday, 1 p.m. Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa TV: Fox

While the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons play for the NFC South championship Sunday, there’s another division game that means absolutely nothing.

The New Orleans Saints play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season finale for both teams. The Saints were eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to Atlanta last Sunday. The 2-13 Bucs were out of contention long ago.

ESPN Saints writer Mike Triplett and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview Sunday’s game.

Yasinskas: Mike, with the playoffs out of the question, how will coach Sean Payton approach this game? Will he play his starters, and how motivated will they be?

Triplett: Payton said the starters will play and that they’ll approach it like any other game that counts. But the motivation is obviously tough to predict. Players have insisted that there are plenty of reasons to play, from their pride and competitive nature to the fact everyone is being evaluated for the future. But this will be a tough week for them since they had realistic playoff hopes up until last Sunday. This game will definitely have an “Outback Bowl” feel to it -- to use terms that Tampa fans can appreciate.

I’ll ask you the same question. I’m guessing 100 percent of Buccaneers fans would love to see them “tank” for the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. But it seems like NFL teams have never embraced that approach.

Yasinskas: Yes, Tampa Bay fans are rooting for the first overall pick, even if it comes at the expense of the Bucs' win-loss record. But coach Lovie Smith has made it clear the Bucs are playing to win. I wouldn’t expect anything else. Teams don’t tank in the NFL, and the Bucs aren’t about to break the trend. We’re talking about professional athletes with a lot of pride, so they’re going to play hard. Besides, the Bucs have some incentive in this one. They’re trying to avoid going winless at home. The only other time the Bucs didn’t win a home game was 1976, their expansion season.

Back in the preseason, I viewed the Saints as a playoff team and maybe even a Super Bowl contender. They have a ton of talent. But, obviously, things haven’t gone well. What’s been the biggest problem for the Saints this year?

Triplett: Do we have a word limit? The problems have obviously been widespread to reach this point. The biggest was their defensive collapse. They went from fourth in yards allowed last year to 31st this year. They blew coverage assignments, missed tackles, didn’t force enough turnovers, didn’t get enough pressure. It’s stunning because they had most of the same core players as last year, plus they added safety Jairus Byrd (who struggled before suffering a season-ending knee injury).

In general, I’d chalk it up to a “sophomore slump.” They were counting on a lot of young guys, and I think a lot of them expected to just naturally take that next step. Either they weren’t as motivated or offenses had a better plan for them, etc. I still think it can be salvaged, but we’ll see.

Meanwhile, the offense also underachieved on a smaller scale with Drew Brees forcing way too many passes that turned into crucial interceptions in big moments and Jimmy Graham not making as big of an impact as he should have on a consistent basis.

Again, I’ll throw the same idea back at you. I predicted the Buccaneers to finish second in the NFC South because I think they have so much talent on defense, and I thought the veteran coach and QB would stabilize them. Is there still hope this team can contend in the division as early as next year?

Yasinskas: I predicted the Bucs would go 8-8 and thought they might even be able to get a win or two more. I thought the arrival of Lovie Smith, combined with some good defensive talent already in place, would be enough to fuel a quick turnaround.

Obviously, I was very wrong. Like you, I could write a book about everything that has gone wrong for the Bucs. But we don’t have room for a book, so I’ll try to sum it up quickly. Things got off to a rocky start in the preseason when offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford had a heart procedure. He took a leave of absence and eventually left the team. I don’t think the offense ever recovered from that. Tedford was supposed to install an up-tempo, innovative offense. We never saw that and the offense never got into any sort of rhythm.

Despite Smith’s reputation as a defensive guru, the defense struggled early in the season. It took some time to learn the Tampa 2 scheme. The defense did improve pretty dramatically in the second half of the season, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the lack of offense.

I do think the Bucs can turn things around next season. But they’ve got to find a good offensive coordinator and they have to be a lot better on offense.

You mentioned Brees forcing a lot of throws. That’s what I think I’ve seen from a distance. But I’ve had personnel people around the league tell me that Brees is on the downside of his career. What’s your take on his season?

Triplett: I honestly don’t think we’ve seen major signs of regression, Pat. I think he has at least two or three more high-level years in him. But it has been a really weird season for Brees. He leads the NFL in passing yards (4,671) and ranks second in completion percentage (69.6, which ranks seventh in NFL history). But those interceptions have been really bad -- especially considering some of the situations. This last one against Atlanta with a chance to win the game in the final minutes was one of a few real stunners this year.

Those interceptions have always been a part of Brees’ game, though -- especially in years when the defense has been bad and he feels like he needs to do it all himself. This season has been an exact replica of 2012 in that sense.

The other thing that’s disappearing is the downfield passing game. Brees’ arm strength doesn’t seem much different than past years, and his completion percentage on deep throws is still among the league’s best. But he’s not taking as many shots down the field, constantly settling for checkdown throws. I’m not sure if that’s because of defenses changing or his receivers getting older or because he has lost some of that deep-ball accuracy. I’m sure it’s a combination of all three -- but that’s probably not an area that will improve as he gets older.

What’s the Bucs’ future at quarterback? Could next year’s starter be gearing up for the College Football Playoff right now?

Yasinskas: It’s very possible that Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston could end up with the Bucs next season. The Bucs have been dismal on offense and they need to make major changes. Why not start with the quarterback position? Josh McCown is 35 and he probably is best suited to be a backup. Second-year pro Mike Glennon got a five-game look when McCown was hurt earlier this year. But it doesn’t appear that Glennon won over the coaching staff. With a high draft pick, it’s time for the Bucs to find their quarterback for the long term.

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METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees said next season is "a long way away" and he's not thinking about it at this point, with the New Orleans Saints still having one game left to play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

But true to his optimistic nature, Brees insisted Wednesday that, "This year did not dissuade me in any way from feeling the way I always have about this team and myself and what we have here and what we're continuing to build here."

[+] EnlargeBrees
AP Photo/Bill Haber"This year did not dissuade me in any way from feeling the way I always have about this team and myself and what we have here and what we're continuing to build here," Drew Brees said.
"I'm very confident," Brees said. "I look around me at this team, and I feel like we have all the pieces in place, knowing we're going to go out and add pieces as well. I'm very confident in our management, our general manager Mickey Loomis to do that, Sean Payton, our entire coaching staff."

Although Brees' comments were laced with bravado, his feelings aren't totally misplaced.

As badly as the Saints (6-9) have struggled this year, they still have a lot of core players in their prime on a roster that many thought had Super Bowl potential this season. As I've written a few times in recent weeks, I believe their salary-cap situation is manageable. But they absolutely need to get a lot more production out of those core leaders they've invested in than they did in 2014 (including Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, safety Jairus Byrd, guard Jahri Evans, defensive end Cameron Jordan and several young rising defensive players).

I also wonder how much motivation plays a part.

I don't think motivation is everything in the NFL, compared to talent and coaching. But I do believe there's a difference between feeling good about yourself vs. having that salty taste in your mouth or a chip on your shoulder or whichever cliché you prefer.

Think the Saints' 2011 season vs. 2010 (their Super Bowl hangover year).

Cornerback Keenan Lewis acknowledged Wednesday that those lofty expectations surrounding the Saints heading into the offseason could sometimes hurt a team.

"You know, a lot of guys, we read a lot. And sometimes when you get so caught up into reading, you get caught up into that and you're feeling yourself," Lewis said. "And sometimes the reality check hits you. And I'm pretty sure it did for us this year. Coming in, people had us favored to win it. It didn't turn out like that.

"So next year, I'm pretty sure guys will remember this feeling and put that to the side and play ball. … You gotta be motivated, especially when you're coming off of a season like we had this year."

The Saints insist they'll remain motivated to finish this year strong, as well, with Sunday's season finale against the 2-13 Buccaneers.

But outside linebacker Junior Galette shot down the notion that they'll consider it the "first game of next season."

"No, it's not. It's the last game of this season," Galette said. "I don't want to bring anything from this season into next season, I know that."
METAIRIE, La. -- When asked what he hopes New Orleans Saints fans will see this Sunday, Drew Brees said:

“For us to play well and for us to win. Pretty simple, right? Keep it simple.”

It was an awkward question. But then again, it’s an awkward week for the 6-9 Saints, who were eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees said that the Saints have worked hard in practice despite being bounced from the playoff hunt.
They’ve missed the playoffs before -- including just two years ago in 2012. But as outside linebacker Junior Galette pointed out, they saw that elimination coming for weeks. This year, they genuinely believed they had a good shot at winning the NFC South until their 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16.

So in one sense, the feeling is similar to a playoff loss. But this time, the Saints have to muster up whatever desire or competitiveness or just plain professionalism is required to go back out and give it their all for one more week.

Coach Sean Payton and players insisted that’s possible due to the competitive nature of players, in general -- especially the ones who know they’re putting weekly auditions on tape for next year.

“I have that desire,” Galette said. “And I feel like guys came out here and practiced their tails off [Wednesday]. They didn’t just show up.”

“I see guys handling it well,” said Brees, who also said it wasn’t hard to come back to work from an emotional standpoint. “I know for me, you can’t change anything about the past. The more that you dwell on it, the more negativity you allow to kind of hang around. And that’s certainly not gonna do anything for us this week.

“So I think this is an opportunity for us to go out with a bang, and that’s what we plan on doing.”

The Buccaneers (2-13) have had to dig even deeper for that motivation this season. They were eliminated from playoff contention weeks ago and have lost five straight games.

Coach Lovie Smith and veteran quarterback Josh McCown insisted that guys are taking the right approach, though -- and McCown acknowledged that hasn’t always been the case everywhere he’s been in a journeyman 12-year career.

“I think we’ve been awesome with the ways guys work at practice, and it’s a reflection of our leadership, Lovie and the coaches and the way that their approach is. We’re getting after it,” McCown said. “It’s hard, because you know at the end of the day, regardless of what you do on Sunday, you’re not going to be rewarded. … But at the same time, I think when you look back at the times like this in your life, you’ll be glad that even when there was nothing to play for, so to speak as far as playoffs, you’ll be glad that you gave back some of that and you worked hard and you tried hard. Because I think that’s a true testament of a guy’s character is how they work and prepare right now.”

Winning can actually be counter-productive for teams like the Buccaneers -- who would secure the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft with a loss on Sunday. But NFL teams have never traditionally “tanked” for better draft picks. And Smith insisted that won’t be the case with his team.

“To me there’s no balance involved,” Smith said. “If you’re a competitor, you go out there to win. I can’t think of anybody that goes into a game not wanting to win. …

“We do a lot of ones versus ones [in practice], and it’s as competitive as you would see it could get. There’s nothing on the line. We aren’t going to get a prize or anything like that. But I think when you have one team in one color and the other in another, they’ll do anything they can to win each individual play. I know a lot of people are talking about that, but I don’t quite get that part. We’ll end up with a good pick.”
METAIRIE, La. -- The future of longtime New Orleans Saints receiver Marques Colston seems uncertain because of his declining production and rising salary (he's due $7 million in salary and bonuses next year).

Colston
Chances are, the Saints' all-time leading receiver will have to agree to a pay cut to return for a 10th season -- which is possible, since we've seen a lot of New Orleans' veterans do the same in recent years.

But we've also seen a lot of tough departures in recent years.

When asked about the premise on Wednesday, Saints quarterback Drew Brees said he expects his longtime go-to guy to remain in New Orleans next year and beyond. But he didn't pass up on the chance to sing his praises.

"First of all, I think he's gonna be here for a long time," Brees said. "But just as I talk about him as a player, as a person, as a teammate and all those things, he's everything you would want. Everything you would want. And I've been lucky to have him for nine years, and I'm gonna be lucky to have him for a few more.

"I mean he's a mainstay. There's not any person who I've ever played with who has been more steady, more consistent in every way. He's the consummate teammate."

Colston, who typically declines to talk to the media, is expected to speak at some point this week.

Another Saints player whose future is in doubt, running back Mark Ingram, declined to get too deep into the subject matter on Wednesday. Ingram will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

"I'm just really trying to finish out the season strong and address that after the last game and the offseason," said Ingram, who needs 93 rushing yards Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to reach 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.

"I feel like there's always room for improvement. I could have did some better things better. I think the season has been pretty good if you want to look at it individually, I guess," said Ingram, who was asked if he thinks it was good for him to put on tape how he could handle the role of a leading back. "I think that's a good thing, just seeing that I can carry the ball and that I can be out there doing whatever you ask me to do for a stretch of time and be healthy."
METAIRIE, La. -- Six players were held out of team drills for the New Orleans Saints on Wednesday: offensive tackles Terron Armstead (neck) and Zach Strief (neck), running back Pierre Thomas (ribs), defensive end Akiem Hicks (ankle), nose tackle John Jenkins (abdomen), and safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring).

It’s too early in the week to determine if any of them will be able to play Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Armstead particularly seems like a long shot after he was held out last week and has been dealing with the injury for the past three weeks. Thomas left last Sunday’s game in the first half and did not return, which also makes him highly questionable.

It will be interesting to see what the Saints do if they have to play without both of their starting tackles. They only have one experienced backup on the roster in Bryce Harris. Other options would include tackle Nick Becton and guard/tackle Senio Kelemete.
METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints said they’re playing to win in Week 17 and won’t use the game to audition young players for next year. So it’s unclear if we’ll see any additional playing time for second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Either way, this season essentially turned out to be a “redshirt” year for the cornerback from Nebraska, who has played sparingly in only four games.

That’s a bit of a head-scratcher – if not a downright disappointment – since the Saints used so many other inexperienced cornerbacks during the season. Current starter Terrence Frederick began the year on the practice squad. And undrafted rookie Brian Dixon has played extensively in nickel and dime packages.

Jean-Baptiste
But the Saints insist that it’s not a knock on Jean-Baptiste’s long-term potential.

Coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan reiterated last week that they always saw the long and lanky 6-foot-3, 218-pounder as a raw, developmental prospect who began his college career as a receiver.

“When we made that selection, we kind of understood exactly what we were receiving from an experience standpoint,” Payton said. “I like what I’ve been seeing from him. … For us, we like a lot of the characteristics we value in that position, and he has them. I think with the selection there were certain things we understood regarding him, and you have to have a vision. I think we had that.”

Scouting analysts in the media were divided on Jean-Baptiste’s potential leading up to the draft, with some even projecting him as a possible first-rounder because of his physical makeup, while others dismissed him as overrated.

The idea was that he was reminiscent of the long, physical press corners that have become more successful in the NFL – especially with the Seattle Seahawks.

But as Ryan explained, it was understood “that we’re going to teach him our way how to play different than how he played in college, and we knew it was going to be this.”

“We drafted this young man for that spot to whatever you guys want to call it, a redshirt or whatever. We’re developing him, so that hasn’t hurt us a bit,” said Ryan, who has described Jean-Baptiste multiple times this year as a “raw piece of clay.”

Ryan said Jean-Baptiste’s attitude has been “excellent.”

“He’s a hard -working kid and he’s as long as the Nile River. He’s going to be good, it just takes a while. These big, tall guys take a while,” Ryan said. “Keenan Lewis did not start in the league right away. He took a while to develop, and I’m sure the young man will too.”

Jean-Baptiste admitted it has been tough to see other guys promoted ahead of him. And he said it was good to hear that Payton and Ryan spoke so highly about their long-term vision for him, since they never really laid it out to him in those terms.

But he said coaches have remained very encouraging about his development and have continued to tell him to be ready and "Keep my head up, keep working hard." And he said he feels like he continues to learn ad develop every time he steps on the practice field.

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