Every year the New Orleans Saints seem to hit on a longshot free agent and he makes an impact for the team. This season that longshot player may well be former Fresno State outside linebacker Kyle Knox.
The 6-1, 230 pound weakside linebacker started 22 games during his last two seasons for Fresno State and he recorded 55 tackles and 6 tackles for losses as a senior.
Knox was an undrafted NFL free agent who was with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012 and some of the 2013 campaign before he was claimed off waivers by the Jacksonville Jaguars in late August of 2013.
The Jaguars waived him in early October of 2013, but Knox really seems to have picked up Rob Ryan's defense very well and he has been a standout for the Saints on special teams.
Friday night Knox played on every special teams unit and I like his aggressive play, he has excellent foot speed and he is a very instinctive football player.
The difference between Knox at Fresno State and the Knox today is that he is physically much stronger and you can see he has learned how to use his hands and arms better to shed off blockers in heavy traffic.
He has always gotten high marks for his ability to drop back into his coverage areas.
Keep an eye on Mr. Knox, especially as a special teamer. That may be his way to as head coach Sean Payton puts it "Get on the bus, any bus, to make this team."
Finally the long months of non-football has ended.
It is just preseason, but the hope of another Super Bowl run has begun for the "Who Dat Nation" and while it is just the first preseason game it is very obvious that the New Orleans Saints are major contenders to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 49.
There are four elite teams in the NFC in Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay and New Orleans and which one of those four teams can stay the healthiest and get home-field advantage will pave the way to Super Sunday in February of 2015.
Friday night was the first dress rehearsal and a couple of things stuck out to me.
First of all, if there was any question that rookie first round pick wide receiver Brandin Cooks was not the real McCoy he put that to rest real quick.
Cooks caught 5 passes for 55 yards and one score and displayed the electrifying speed and elusiveness I saw for three seasons at Oregon State.
He doesn't have much of a learning curve to maneuver around at the NFL level.
Cooks is fast, no doubt about that, but he is also a good route runner, elusive after the reception and he has sure hands.
But what really sticks out about him is his football intelligence. You can't teach someone to be a natural at what they do and to have the ability to pick up certain things quickly.
Since 2006 when Sean Payton took over as head coach the New Orleans Saints will start the season on the road for the first two games for the third time.
The Saints started both the 2006 and 2007 season on the road for the first two games and in 2014 they do it again with games on the road against the Atlanta Falcons and the Cleveland Browns.
From 1967 up until 2005 the New Orleans Saints started the season with back to back road games only once, and that was in 2001 against the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants.
The Saints started the 2005 season with back to back road games because of the affects to the Superdome due to Hurricane Katrina, but the second game in 2005 was supposed to be in New Orleans against the New York Giants and not on the Giants home turf.
It is less than a month before the NFL draft and for at least one team what they do in the three-day event in May will lead them to a Super Bowl title.
For the 2014 New Orleans Saints the reach is close. The Saints , along with the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs and the Indianapolis Colts, are the clear-cut top teams in the league today and the right choices in May could well be the catalyst to put them in the Big Show.
The Saints have addressed some obvious needs in free agency in acquiring one of the elite free safeties in the game in Jairus Byrd, one of the all-time great cornerbacks in Champ Bailey-who at 36 years old will most likely be the #3 or nickel cornerback for the squad and a heavy duty lead blocker/H-back in Eric Lorig.
The holes on this football team are depth at the center spot with second-year center/guard Tim Lelito the likely starter, a “stretch the field” wide receiver, another cover cornerback or two and another starter type at linebacker, if he were available.
In Round One most would love to see LSU’s Odell Beckham, USC’s Marqise Lee or Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks on the board for the Saints, but it is highly unlikely any of the three will be there.
There is no center in this draft class that will be picked in Round One.
So that could well mean that the Saints go the route of a linebacker or cornerback in the opening round, if they stay pat at #27 spot.
With five receivers likely off the board in Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Beckham, Cooks and Lee and tight end Eric Ebron that means a defensive player will be pushed to late first round pick status.
The most of amount of quarterback sacks for the New Orleans Saints in the Sean Payton-era was 38 back in 2006.
With 5 games left in the season the Saints now have 37.
With this sort of pace the Saints look to be in the mid-40’s when the 2013 season is over with.
Give defensive coordinator Rob Ryan a lot of credit for putting the players in the right spot to make a big play defensively, but don’t overlook the emerging talents of Akiem Hicks, Cameron Jordan, John Jenkins, Glenn Foster, Junior Galette and Tom Johnson along the defensive front.
In the 9 victories this season the Saints defense has held opponents to 20 points or less in each winning contest.
When the 2013 NFL season started virtually everyone thought the offense of the New Orleans Saints would again be one of the very best in the NFL due to the return of Sean Payton as head coach and offensive play-caller and there was no sign of age or decline in the play of quarterback Drew Brees.
The Saints offensive line has played better over the past three games, but it is still an area of concern. It is easy to see this offensive line is not as stout in run blocking as the group they had in 2009 and 2011, but what is still a concern for me is the leakage happening in the pass protection part of the game.
In 2013 with 5 games left to play the Saints have given up 23 quarterback sacks. The most they have given up as a unit was 26 in both 2012 and 2010, but it has also been the hurries and pressures.
Down the stretch that is the area to watch closely.
The Saints need to do a better job protecting Brees for him to throw downfield against defenses like the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers and the St. Louis Rams.
But what I wrote about in early August has been even better than I could have imagined and that is the maturing and production increase of the Saints defensive line.
It has been a main reason why the Saints with 5 games left on the schedule have given up just 21 touchdowns.
Last season this defense gave up 53.
Keys for 2013 Saints
The New Orleans Saints will open their 2013 training camp when players report on Thursday, so it is that time of year to figure out the team’s keys to success this season.
For a team that is still enjoying the “Golden Age of New Orleans Saints football,” the keys for success aren’t really that hard to figure out this year, especially with the Saints football boss Sean Payton back in town in 2013.
Here are eight keys I think are important for the Saints this year.
1. KEEP DREW BREES HEALTHY
Saints quarterback Drew Brees is the best football player to ever wear the team’s black-and-gold jerseys.
In a time when you have signature quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and a growing group of “read-option” signal-callers in the NFL, Brees is still considered one of the elite players in the game and don’t kid yourself.
Without Brees, the Saints would’ve been luck to win four games last year.
Since coming to the Saints in 2006, he has led the team to four playoff appearances, two NFC championship games and one Super Bowl title.
He has thrown for over 4,400 yards in six of his seven years in New Orleans, which include three 5,000-yard seasons.
Brees has passed for 244 touchdowns in seven seasons, and he has completed 65 percent or more of his passes in five of those seven years.
Brees has led the team to score over 500 points twice (2009 and 2011). There have only been 17 teams since 1960 to reach that mark.
The Saints have been jackpot lucky to not have him go down to a serious injury in that span and that is again the most key for this team in 2013.
That means everyone will be watching closely what happens at the left offensive tackle spot. With Jermon Bushrod taking his talents to the Chicago Bears, Charles Brown has the opportunity to seize the moment and become the full-time starter.
Brown, the former Southern Cal standout, has had a long history of injuries since entering the league, but it is his job to lose, if he can stay healthy.
If not, then rookie Terron Armstead of Arkansas Pine-Bluff could be inserted into the starting lineup.
If the Saints can keep Brees healthy, I think they are a playoff contender, especially with Payton back in the mix.
2. GENERATE A CONSISTENT PASS RUSH
This feature has been lacking on the Saints since the 2006 season.
The Saints don’t have a signature pass rusher on the team today, and while they have some “maybe” players, there is not much on their resumes at this point.
It is amazing today to think that the Saints have been such a successful team without having a consistent pass rush. The most sacks the Saints have had in one season in the Payton-era was 38 in 2006.
Since then, they have recorded 32 sacks in 2007, 28 sacks in 2008, 35 sacks in 2009, 33 sacks in 2010, 33 sacks in 2011 and 30 sacks in 2012.
In today’s game, you need to have the ability to pressure and sack the quarterback at crucial times in a game.
Right now the Saints don’t have that type player on the roster.
In all honesty the Saints thought that Victor Butler, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent from the Dallas Cowboys, might give them that element.
He suffered a season-ending knee injury during offseason workouts, and again, this part of the Saints is a mystery.
New Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is going to find out quick that not having someone like he did in Dallas in DeMarcus Ware means he will have to find some very innovative ways to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.
3. DEVELOP YOUNG PLAYERS ON DEFENSE
The Saints have a host of young and talented players on the defensive side of the ball.
I liked what I saw with the development of defensive end Cameron Jordan last season, and defensive end Akiem Hicks has the athleticism to one day be a very good starting defensive end in the NFL.
Those two young defensive ends, along with development of outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, rookie nose guard John Jenkins, cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Corey White and safety Kenny Vaccaro are keys for this defense to get better in 2013.
4. CONTROL THE CLOCK BETTER WITH RUN GAME
Last season, the Saints got away from what was so successful for them in 2011 and 2009. The Saints were sixth overall in the league in rushing in 2011, but last season they again became the Brigham Young of the NFL.
You can’t always have Brees throwing 45-50 times per game and expect to win.
The percentage of winning games when you throw more than 47 times per game drops off dramatically.
Expect the Saints to again go back to more of a run-oriented attack and balance the scales more with the rushing attack.
It also keeps a developing defense without a signature pass rusher off the field.
Watch for Mark Ingram to be the “bell cow” rusher for the Saints in 2013 with also a big dose of help from Pierre Thomas.
5. UTILIZE LEWIS AND VACCARO
New additions in Keenan Lewis and Vaccaro will have to play big for the Saints.
Lewis, a former O. Perry Walker High standout and New Orleans native, was the biggest free agent addition to the Saints in 2013.
He is the perfect size for what Rob Ryan wants in a cornerback. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback has the size, physicality and arm length Ryan craves in a cornerback.
I just wish he could catch the ball better when it is thrown in his direction. He makes a lot of knockdowns as a cover man, but making the big interception could really bolster this defense.
I have to admit I was and still am a big Jarvis Jones advocate. Jones was a superb college pass rusher at Georgia and I think that will translate very quickly to the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but I also think highly of safety Vaccaro.
The former Longhorn standout is physical, very strong in run support, he has excellent football instincts and he matches up well in one-on-one coverage spots against the very athletic tight ends.
Vaccaro doesn’t have great hands for the interceptions, but he has top-of-the-line football instincts and a knack for putting himself in a position to make a play.
I expect big things and quickly from the former University of Texas standout.
6. BEST TANDEM OF TIGHT ENDS IN THE NFL
With the numerous injuries to Rob Gronkowski and the very serious court issues surfacing for Aaron Hernandez with the New England Patriots, the Saints one/two punch of Jimmy Graham and Ben Watson gives them the best tight end tandem in the NFL today.
If there is a superstar on the Saints team other than Brees, it is Graham. He has great size, tremendous length, excellent hands and athleticism and he is a nightmare to cover in the red zone.
In Watson, the Saints are getting a crafty veteran who has excellent athletic gifts, sure hands for the catch in the medium range areas of the field and he is a very good blocker.
NFL teams have trouble matching up against one very athletic and sure handed receiving target at tight end, and the Saints have two of them to go up against.
7. FINDING A STRETCH RECEIVER
As good as the Saints offense is, it is really effective when they can stretch the deep part of the field. Devery Henderson was an effective “deep threat” for a number of years with the Saints, but last season you saw some dropoff in his play and also some loss of speed.
Joe Morgan has the speed to be that type player, but he needs to show more focus and understand the complicated Saints playbook better.
Last season, Morgan made some highlight film catches, but he was not in the lineup more because he didn’t always know what to do from play-to-play.
If he gets a better grasp of this offense, he is the guy to really help stretch the field. Without him doing that, the Saints will have to develop rookie Kenny Stills, who is more of a faster version of Lance Moore than a “stretch” receiver.
The Saints will also have to see if Jarred Fayson, who really impressed me in the team’s offseason workouts, or a real speed-burner but rough around the edges route runner in Saalim Hakim, can fill that void.
Teams will adjust and try to cut off the short-to-medium range areas of the field, so the Saints must find that “stretch” receiver.
8. SHORE UP SPECIAL TEAMS
Punter/kickoff artist Thomas Morstead is one of the best in the business and the best special teams performer for the Saints since Morten Anderson, but this team broke down at times last season with their coverage units and also in the return game.
Just take a glimpse of the New York Giants game and see that opposing teams spotted a vulnerable part of the coverage units.
While the return numbers for Darren Sproles and Travaris Cadet were good, there weren’t enough to be those big returns to shorten the field for the Saints offense.
Other than a turnover on defense, nothing gets a team pumped up more than a special teams score.
Kicker Garrett Hartley has shown he has the skills to be a very good kicker in the NFL, but at times, he has some focus issues. With Payton back running the show, he better not miss too many because Payton will pull the plug on him quick.
The NFL Network is finishing up its list of the Top 100 players in the league and some of the selections and non-selections are head shaking. So I thought I would give you my list of the Top 20 players on the 2013 New Orleans Saints roster.
1. Drew Brees — The signing of Brees and the earlier selection of Sean Payton as head coach in early 2006 changed the course of this franchise. Brees is the best player to ever wear the black and gold, and he is the main reason this football team is looked at as a Super Bowl contender since that signature 2006 season.
2. Jimmy Graham — If there is a superstar player on this team other than Drew Brees, it is Graham. Over the past two seasons Graham has caught 184 passes for 2,292 yards and 20 touchdowns. Only Jason Witten (Dallas Cowboys) has caught more passes at the tight end spot over the past two years, but Graham has more yards receiving and more touchdown receptions than Witten. He is amongst the league's most feared pass-catching targets at tight end along with Witten, Rob Gronkowski (New England Patriots), Vernon Davis (San Francisco 49ers) and Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta Falcons).
3. Jahri Evans — Evans is a devastating one-on-one run blocker and a superb pass protector inside. The four-time Pro Bowler from Bloomsburg State is considered one of the Top 3 offensive guards in the game along with former Saints player Carl Nicks (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Logan Mankins (New England Patriots).
4. Marques Colston — Colston is not in the same category as a Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall, Roddy White or Wes Welker, but he is just a notch below and his size, strong hands and ability to work the short to medium range areas of the field with precision gets noticed by everyone who has to play against him. In seven seasons Colston has 532 catches for 7,394 yards and 58 touchdowns.
5. Curtis Lofton — Lofton is the best player the Saints have on the defensive side of the ball. He is smart, instinctive, tough against the run, a sure open-field tackler and has really improved dropping back into pass coverage.
6. Thomas Morstead — You might think this is a bit high for a punter, but the former SMU player is arguably the best punter in the game today. His net average of 43.2 yards per punt tied him for the best net average in the league last season and his gross average of 50.1 yards per punt was second best in the NFL. His strong leg, excellent placement skills and his outstanding kickoff skills make him the most talented special teams performer the Saints have had since Morten Anderson.
7. Ben Grubbs — Grubbs had some big shoes to fill to replace Carl Nicks and is a very good starting offensive guard in this league. While he is not the huge roadgrader-type run blocker or as powerful, Grubbs is quick, very agile for a big man and is a very good pass protector.
8. Cam Jordan — He had an excellent sophomore season with the Saints. The former University of California standout was known for his stout run defense skills, but he showed a real improvement in getting off the snap quicker and has developed a good array of pass-rush moves. His eight sacks were impressive last season. He is not as talented a pass rusher as Justin Tuck is with the New York Giants, but there are some similar traits in their overall games.
9. Keenan Lewis — Many in Pittsburgh wondered when the football light would come on for Lewis, but over the past year and a half the former O. Perry Walker High School standout has really developed into a very good one-on-one cover cornerback. Lewis' size, long arms and quick recovery speed make him a perfect fit in Rob Ryan's defensive scheme. Lewis is not known for his great hands, but what was impressive last season was his 23 pass deflections.
10. Lance Moore — He certainly doesn't get the same recognition as Graham and Colston, but he is Brees' most trusted route runner and someone he regularly targets in critical spots during games. Moore's route-running skills and his expertise in quickly getting into and out of his cuts and breaks makes him a terrific slot receiver.
11. Pierre Thomas — The Saints keep throwing people at him to knock him off the team's top running back slot and he keeps throwing them back at them. There is no debate that he is the team's best pass protector in the backfield, the best receiver coming out of the backfield and he makes more yardage after first contact than any other back on the roster today. Thomas runs with great vision and while he's no speedster, he is a tremendous inside runner and rarely puts the ball on the ground.
12. Mark Ingram — He is the guy Payton wants to be his bell-cow runner in 2013. Ingram has flashed that ability at times and is a bit of a crank runner meaning he needs eight to 10 carries to get cranked up, but he has a good array of open-field moves, runs tough in traffic and has a deceptive burst to the edge. If he can stay healthy he has a chance to go over 1,100 yards rushing in 2013 when the Saints will place more of an emphasis on running the ball.
13. Darren Sproles — Sproles completes the trifecta of backs that Payton likes to use in his offensive schemes. Sproles fought off injuries and some inconsistent play in 2013, but he is lightning quick, has outstanding open-field moves he is a nightmare to cover one-on-one as a receiver.
14. Ben Watson — We haven't seen him in practice due to an injury, but the addition of Watson gives the Saints a one-two punch at tight end very few teams can match, other than New England. The veteran tight end from Georgia can stretch the seam like few tight ends can due to his speed, and he is a sure-handed target. Watson is also a very good in-line blocker. The duo of Graham and Watson will cause some real problems for opposing teams in 2013.
15. Jabari Greer — Greer is 31 years old and has had some injuries take him off the playing field, but if healthy, the former University of Tennessee speedster is still the Saints best one-on-one cover cornerback. Greer does not have the size Ryan normally likes in a cornerback, but he is quick to get out of transition in coverage situations and has excellent closing speed to the ball. Watch out for the development of Corey White at cornerback this season. I was impressed with White's foot work and break-to-the-ball skills in practice.
16. Akiem Hicks — This is a potential pick. Hicks has the size, athleticism, bulk strength and power to develop into a very good 3-4 defensive end. He is stout in run defense and has flashed some strong inside pass rush moves at times. He is still rough around the edges as a technician, but there is no one on the team defensively with as much raw talent to develop as Hicks.
17. Kenny Vaccaro — This is another potential selection. I was big on the Saints drafting former Georgia All-American outside linebacker Jarvis Jones in Round 1, but you can't argue with what Vaccaro will bring to the Saints. Vaccaro is no ball hawk like Ed Reed or Earl Thomas, but he is physical, will excel in run support and most importantly he will match up well in one-on-one coverage spots with tight ends down field. The one thing that is obvious in the OTA sessions is that Vaccaro is a quick-study athlete, very athletic and has the best ball reaction skills the Saints have at any of the safety positions. He reminds me so much of All Pro safety LaRon Landry when he came out of LSU.
18. Will Smith — With Victor Butler out for the season due to a torn ACL, Smith becomes part of a threesome of outside linebackers that will be counted on to muster a pass rush. Being moved to the outside linebacker slot in a 3-4 defense is not a huge adjustment for Smith, and while he is not an elite pass rusher, he is still flashes moments of being a pretty good one and is very solid against the run. With all the jargon of who was practicing at the "Jack" or the strongside spot in the OTA's Smith will have to ramp-up his game or the team may have to see if they can make an expensive call to a rent player in John Abraham to fill that pass rush role.
19. Brodrick Bunkley — The noseguard spot in a 3-4 alignment is the most critical piece of the puzzle to have and that spot right now falls in the lap of Bunkley. The 6-2, 310 pounder had an excellent 2011 season with the Denver Broncos playing most over center, but like most Saints defenders he had a very disappointing 2012 season. Bunkley's run defense skills and power make him a good prospect for the noseguard spot and he is also going to have to thwart off the challenge of a very athletic and strong John Jenkins, who is not the most technically sound player.
20. Junior Galette — No one could tell you just how good Butler was going to be on this team in 2013, but I have always thought the one player the move to the 3-4 defense would help most was the Saints best natural pass rusher — Galette. Galette has not been the most focused or the most technically sound player on defense, but he has a super quick initial burst off the edge that is impressive and excellent closing speed to the quarterback. This is the opportunity a more mature and focused Galette has long wanted.
Drew Brees — Brees is greatest player to ever wear the Black and Gold.
Willie Roaf — Roaf was the most dominant left tackle of his era.
Rickey Jackson — “City Champ” didn’t get the publicity that Lawrence Taylor did playing in New York, but he was a great football player and someone that kept offensive coordinators sleepless at night trying to contain.
Sean Payton — Payton totally changed the atmosphere of this football franchise. Jim Mora and Jim Finks put the Saints on the map, but Payton was able to breathe air in a franchise dead on its feet and he is the best offensive play-caller in the game today. Payton also blueprinted the proper plan to acquire the right “fit” players for New Orleans.
Former Destrehan High School and University of Arkansas safety Jerico Nelson beat the odds and made it to the NFL in 2012. Nelson went undrafed in 2012, but he signed a free agent contract with the New Orleans Saints and was on the Saints developmental squad for most of last season.
The 5-feet 10-inch, 215-pound strong safety was active late last season and contributed mostly on special teams, but now he is again faced with the challenge of making the Saints roster.
Nelson knows his odds are even longer as the Saints spent a first-round choice on University of Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro.
“This is a tough league and as a player you just want an opportunity to keep for a spot.” Nelson said. “All my life as a player I was never considered the top prospect or what some might consider the “star” player, but I made my dream come true in playing in the NFL and this is my passion. I love football and getting to play right in my backyard for the Saints is special to me.”
Nelson, like the rest of the Saints defense, is learning different terminology under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
“Coach Ryan is old-school. He believes in aggressive play and giving different looks to an offense,” Nelson said. “I like playing in that sort of system and understanding the different calls is what we are doing today. It’s different from last season, but I am use to this sort of defensive mentality because this is what I have played most of my football career and it hasn’t been as complicated as you might think. In the NFL there are just a lot of different sets for down and distance and being in the right position is key. That is something you perfect in the off-season because you can’t do it on the run once the season starts. Right now I am working hard on my assignment work and also perfecting my footwork in coverage sets. Just getting cleaner with my backpedal technique and breaking to the ball quicker.”
The former Destrehan star running back/defensive back also loves playing special teams.
“Well for me it is an avenue to get some playing time and also be a contributor. Special teams is such an important piece to winning at any level and I have done a lot of work college and also last season with the Saints in that area,” Nelson said. “Coach (Greg) McMahon is a tremendous special teams coach and this part of the game is about positioning and knowing your assignments fully. Some people think you just run down and try and make a tackle, but there is a lot more to it. We are blessed here with someone like Thomas Morstead as a punter and kickoff guy and he makes our job easier because of how good he is.”
Nelson is also very impressed with what he’s seen from Vaccaro.
“Kenny is a very athletic and you can see he is a very physical player,” Nelson said. “He’s a smart guy too and he has picked things up pretty quickly. The speed element is the biggest adjustment from college to pros and every week in college you weren’t playing a big-time threat in the passing game. In the NFL, there is that challenge each week. Like what they did for me, Jose Gumbs and Rafael Bush last season Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper are trying to help out Kenny right now. He’s a good football player.”
For Nelson, he just wants a chance to show the Saints he is a pretty good player also.