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Payton: It’ll be hard to take Shayne Graham’s job, but the competition is there

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Playing in 157 games for nine different teams since 2000, Saints kicker Shayne Graham‘s career field-goal average is 85.5 percent — or a number that will make it very hard to take his job away in New Orleans, coach Sean Payton said Sunday.

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Saints K Shayne Graham (3) kicks field goals with QB Luke McCown (7) holding during the morning Saints Training Camp practice Sunday in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS –Saints K Shayne Graham (3) kicks field goals with QB Luke McCown (7) holding during the morning Saints Training Camp practice Sunday in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

“There’s competition there, but his efficiency and percentage numbers are very good, and I thought he performed very well for us last year,” Payton added about Graham — who was 6-of-8 over four games in 2013 with the Saints, including two playoff contests, after the release of kicker Garrett Hartley.

Graham’s two misses came in the Saints’ season-ending loss at Seattle in the divisional playoffs, but the weather was woefully rainy and windy.

“Those were awful conditions,” Payton said.

Despite the coach’s vote of confidence in Graham, 24-year-old challenger Derek Dimke has served up early indications that he won’t go away quietly. For example, in a drill at Sunday’s practice at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, he was perfect on three attempts from 38 yards out and another from 35; while Graham nailed all three of his tries (one from 35 and two from 38).

Then, in a drill simulating a last-second field goal with the clock running and no timeouts left for their team, both Dimke and Graham split the uprights.

Speaking to the media Sunday, Graham said he doesn’t see himself as competing against Dimke, who’s previously been on the expanded rosters of three other NFL teams but never made the final cut prior to coming to the Saints this offseason.

Instead, he’s in a competition with himself, said Graham, whose holder is backup quarterback Luke McCown.

“Even Derek thinks the same way — he knows that him and I don’t (literally) go head-to-head,” said Graham, who in the past worked out with Dimke before they were on the Saints. “We perform our best; and, really, that is all we can control.”

Graham in a sense has the home-field advantage in the battle with Dimke, whose holder is backup quarterback Ryan Griffin. He grew up in Radford, Virginia, which is fewer than 90 miles away from The Greenbrier.

“The scenery here is what I grew up with — this what I like, and the guys on the team really appreciate it, too, because they’re not used to seeing this kind of place,” Graham said.

Joseph Morgan’s autograph generousness due to Barry Sanders, Deacon Jones

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Morgan (13) runs ball with New Orleans Saints cornerback Champ Bailey (27) trying to make the tackle during there NFL football training camp in White Sulphur Springs , W. Va., Sunday, July 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley)

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Morgan (13) runs ball with New Orleans Saints cornerback Champ Bailey (27) trying to make the tackle during there NFL football training camp in White Sulphur Springs , W. Va., Sunday, July 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley)

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — The sight of Saints receiver Joseph Morgan signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans after practice is becoming as much a part of the fabric at his team’s training camp this summer as the Allegheny Mountains towering over everything in the distance.

Morgan is seemingly always the first one to them and the last to bid farewell. He traces the reason for that back to his childhood in Canton, Ohio, home of the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Game.

Morgan on Sunday said he eagerly sought autographs whenever the weekend of the game and induction came around. Some of his targets would leave if approached, but weathering that was worth it for when he inevitably landed the John Hancock of some of the NFL’s legends.

He snagged an autograph when he was 13 from Barry Sanders, inducted into the Hall in 2004 after setting a record for most 1,500-yard seasons (5); and he got a moment to sit down and speak with the late Deacon Jones, a five-time First Team All-Pro with an astounding 173 1/2 career sacks.

“That was awesome,” said Morgan, 26, in his fourth year with the Saints and in the NFL.

About fans wanting his autograph these days, Morgan explained, “I remember being in the same position. … I understand how it is when you are out there waiting for an autograph.”

Morgan missed 2011 and 2013 with knee injuries. But in 2012, he racked up a jaw-dropping 37.9 yards per catch as well as three touchdowns on just 10 pass receptions.

This year, he is competing with players such as Robert Meachem, Nick Toon and Andy Tanner for a spot at receiver under virtual roster definites Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and rookie first-round draft pick Brandin Cooks.

Meachem missed a rain-shortened practice Sunday at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia with what coach Sean Payton described as back tightness. Morgan, therefore, worked with the first string during the walkthrough and drills; and he fielded punts alongside the speedy Cooks.

Typically, in the morning on Twitter, Morgan greets his followers with the “SpongeBob Squarepants” quote, “Good morning, world and all who inhabit it!” His followers often reply with messages of support, most evident as his recovery from the second knee injury neared.

Another common sight on Twitter in recent days has been photos of Morgan hanging out with fans at The Greenbrier. The fans are the ones sharing the photos, usually accompanied with good wishes and compliments.

Asked what such adulation meant to him as he vies to reclaim his 2012 role as a deep-ball threat, Morgan said, “I hate letting people down, especially the good people like the fans that we have. It’s always motivation to just work harder and try to get it.”

Jahri Evans “most definitely” wants back on the All-Pro First Team

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Saints right guard Jahri Evans won’t deny it. After missing out on a fifth-straight appearance on the Associated Press First-Team All Pro list last year, he “most definitely” is aiming to forge his way back on it in 2014, he said Sunday at the end of a rain-shortened training camp practice at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Advocate file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints G Jahri Evans

Advocate file photo by PATRICK DENNIS — Saints G Jahri Evans says it was frustrating to be held back by injuries in 2013.

“The better I play, the more accolades I get, the better we’ll be up front,” said Evans, the Saints’ fourth-round draft selection in 2006. “My goal is to be the best player I can be every day.”

That’s something the nine-year veteran couldn’t be in 2013, through no fault of his own. Evans hurt his back, hamstring and groin all in the first half of the campaign. He was sidelined for multiple practices and in Week 3 sat out the first game of his career (at home versus Arizona), ending what was at the time tied for the NFL’s third-longest ironman streak at 114 consecutive regular-season starts (not counting eight in the playoffs).

Evans later sat out a second game in Week 12 at Atlanta. He still earned a fifth-straight Pro Bowl nod and logged another two playoff starts, but he landed on the AP’s second team after making the first squad every year since the season the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV (2009).

Evans on Sunday admitted it was frustrating that his body held him back from playing at the same high level to which he’d grown accustomed. But that in itself bore its own lessons, he said.

“Just recognizing it, understanding it and doing what you had to do to get out there and perform is important, too,” Evans remarked. “With the injuries, (it’s) just getting in the training room, rehabbing it and stuff I’m doing now — maintenance stuff, making sure that everything is good and just doing the best I can do to be healthy.”

In a sense, though, Evans’ pair of absences had a bit of a silver lining. They allowed Tim Lelito — now in his second year — to make two starts at right guard as a rookie, pitting the young interior lineman against three-time Pro Bowler Darnell Dockett in the Arizona game and against Jonathan Babineaux (preparing for his 10th season) in the Atlanta one.

New Orleans won both games. Lelito is now competing against veteran Jonathan Goodwin for a chance to become the Saints’ starting center.

“He did a good job — he had some good plays, and he had some bad plays, but the good plays outweighed the bad,” Evans said. “Anytime you can get experience as a young guy, that game experience, you’re going to be a better player for it. Because I was hurt, he was able to step in, and we were able to get two wins out of his performance, so it was good.”

Saints’ tendencies: A look at how Keenan Lewis defends against each route

As I attempt to get up to speed on all things Saints before the start of the regular season, I felt one of the better places to start was by getting a better grasp on some of the team’s tendencies.

So, over the next few weeks, when time permits, we’ll take a closer look at some of the data I was able to cobble together by watching the team’s 2013 games, perusing Pro Football Focus’ databases, and  talking to people.

Today we take a look at how cornerback Kennan Lewis performed against various routes.

Screens: Two targets, one completion, minus -3 yards
Quick outs: Three targets, two completions, 2 yards
Slants: Six targets, three completions, 22 yards, one TD
Outs: 10 targets, five completions, 57 yards,
In: Three targets, two completions, 19 yards
Comeback: Five targets, three completions, 43 yards
Hitch: 14 targets, 10 completions, 112 yards, one TD, one INT
Post: Four targets, three completions 69 yards
Go: 14 targets, three completions, 91 yards, three INTs
Crossing: Five targets, five completions, 43 yards, one TD

Looking at these numbers, Lewis appears to be most vulnerable when covering hitches, posts, and crossing routes. The majority of his opportunities for turnovers came against go routes, where he picked up three of his four interceptions.

 

Saints’ tendencies: A closer look at the nickel package

As I attempt to get up to speed on all things Saints before the start of the regular season, I felt one of the better places to start was by getting a better grasp on some of the team’s tendencies.

So, over the next few weeks, when time permits, we’ll take a closer look at some of the data I was able to cobble together by watching the team’s 2013 games, perusing Pro Football Focus’ databases, and by talking to people.

Up first is the Saints’ nickel defense.

Like many other teams in the now pass-first NFL, the Saints spent more time in their nickel defense, a 3-3-5 alignment than in their 3-4 base. Out of 988 defensive snaps last season, 319 were in nickel, 269 were in base, and 212 were in dime (3-2-6).

Looking at the nickel packages, the breakdown is as follows:

Number of times used again passes:
– First down: 83 times
– Second and long: 51
– Second a medium: 23
– Second and short: 5
–Third and long: 9
– Third and medium: 4
– Third and short: 2
– Fourth down: 1
– Extra points: 0

Against the run:

– First down: 77
– Second and long: 26
– Second and medium: 26
– Second and short: 9
– Third and long: 2
– Third and medium: 0
– Third and short: 1
– Fourth down: 0

Number of pass rushers sent:

– Three: 10 times
– Four: 132
– Five: 32
– Six: 7
– Seven: 3
– Eight: 2

Blitzes by down and distance:

– First downs: 17
– Second and short: 0
– Second and medium: 6
– Second and long: 10
– Third and short: 2
– Third and medium: 1
– Third and long: 9
– Fourth down: 0
– Extra points: 0

Total sacks: 12

Outtakes on Rob Ryan

WHITE SULPHER SPRINGS, W. Va. — I did not have enough space to include all the good nuggets about Rob Ryan in today’s story about the defensive coordinator. So, instead of leaving them on them on the cutting room floor, we’ll share a few of the better ones here.

Sean Payton on what he’s learned about Ryan: “The biggest thing is with not having worked with Rob before is that you get a better idea of the person, the personality and his passion for football because half of his staff I would say, I probably worked with or coached with somewhere else and half of his staff when they were hired, it was off of recommendation and (job) interviews.  It is mixed.  But with Rob, it really was a lot of what I had heard from other coaches that had worked with him when I spoke with them prior to interviewing them.”

LB David Hawthorne on Ryan: “We know Rob Ryan is real creative, and good players will play. No matter what you do, he’s going to find a spot for you. We’re all kind of like giving each other a run for it.”

Ryan on how he expects to grow this year:  “I think I have to be a lot better. The nice thing is, with our staff, it’s easy to be really good. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to learn our team as fast as we can. I think that’s the biggest thing. Preseason is making sure you keep the right players, and evaluating them, getting their strengths, and finding out exactly our identity on defense. Every year is different. We’ve got a lot to prove this year, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Ryan on the need to create turnovers:  “Absolutely. We’re doing everything we can. We’ve got to be better at it. That was a weakness for us last year. We’ve identified it, we’re trying to coach it better than we did last year. We’re trying to play it better than we did last year. It has to pay off for us. We need to improve in that area if we want to be a great defense.”

Payton on trusting the defense:  “Yes, I think as coaches we always wanted to pay attention to what they are seeing.  We aren’t just out there freelancing.  There’s a call we make and we play it.  There are some adjustments we come off of it.  But as you prepare for a game, one important thing we have to do is quickly gather what do our players do best?  What are they most comfortable in?  Because when you get in those big spots you want to give them calls defensively and offensively and in the kicking game that they know by heart.  You want to give them calls that they don’t have to hesitate.  A player that knows what he is doing is going to execute faster.”

 

 

 

Rob Ryan, Sean Payton praise Kenny Vaccaro

New Orleans Saints' Kenny Vaccaro (32) celebrates during NFL football training camp in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley) ORG XMIT: WVCT143  Kenny Vaccaro Chris Tilley

New Orleans Saints’ Kenny Vaccaro (32) celebrates during NFL football training camp in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley) ORG XMIT: WVCT143 Kenny Vaccaro
Chris Tilley

WHITE SULPHER SPRINGS, W.Va. — Not that he would likely be afraid to say it if it were what he thought, but Kenny Vaccaro’s teammates and coaches are not afraid to say it for him.

They believe the Saints’ second-year safety is among the best in the league at his position, and they believe that he is on the cusp of breaking out in a big way this season.

“From an X’s and O’s, he’s really football savvy,” head coach Sean Payton said. ”He’s really sharp.  He has good instincts.  He is powerful and we have seen a big skip (in his development) from year one to year two.  He was playing at an awfully high level when he got injured last year.  His offseason’s been fantastic.  He’s moving around and carrying himself like a veteran.”

Training camp is only two days old, but Vaccaro has already flashed a handful of times with pass breakups and while relying on his instincts. The coaching staff expects him to add a soundtrack of “thuds” and “thumps” to his summer highlight reel when the pads come out for Sunday’s practice.

“He’s one of our smarter players, and he’s one of our leaders,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “He’s had great growth. Coming back from that injury is awesome, to get him back out there. He looks great to me.

“Tomorrow will be his type of day, we got the pads on. He loves to play. He’ll be excited and he’ll be running around doing some things. The nice thing with Kenny is that he knows every position. With a guy like that, they’re invaluable to your defense.”

For now, with Jairus Byrd sidelined, Vaccaro will be leaned upon until his new veteran teammate comes back from a back injury. In the interim, Vaccaro and Rafael Bush have been taking the majority of snaps at safety.

In some instances during Saturday’s practice, cornerback Corey White moved back to safety while Vaccaro moved down to cover the slot. The shift could be something that is on display more often this season since the coaching staff feels White has the versatility to move about the defense.

“Again, he’s another smart guy that’s got a lot of talent, so he can play multiple spots for us,” Ryan said.