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QB Drew Brees is lone Saint in Top 50 player merchandise sales list

New Orleans All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham may have dominated NFL news headlines while negotiating the four-year, $40 million contract extension he received earlier this month, but it’s the man throwing him the ball who’s still moving the most official Saints merchandise.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) throws a pass during a 2014 Pro Bowl practice. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) throws a pass during a 2014 Pro Bowl practice. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)

Quarterback Drew Brees accounted for the 14th-most total sales of all products officially licensed by the NFL Players Inc. from March 1 through May 31, said a news release published by the group Tuesday. He was the only member of the Saints to appear on the NFL Players Inc. Top 50 Player Sales list, topped by rookie Cleveland quarterback and first-round draft pick Johnny Manziel.

Meanwhile, New Orleans natives/Newman grads/brothers Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Broncos, and Giants QB Eli Manning landed in the Top 25. Peyton Manning, the only player in league history to win five MVP trophies, was No. 5. Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl champion, was No. 25.

Brees, for his part, was the MVP of the Saints’ victory in Super Bowl XLIV; leads the NFL in passing yards the past two seasons (10,339); and over that time has thrown more touchdowns (82) than every player except Peyton Manning (92).

The complete list is below:
*-Represents Sales from May 8-31, 2014

1. Johnny Manziel*, Cleveland Browns
2. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
3. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
4. Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
5. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
6. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
7. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
8. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
9. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
10. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
11. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
12. Jadeveon Clowney*, Houston Texans
13. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
14. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
15. Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers
16. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
17. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
18. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
19. Eric Reid, San Francisco 49ers
20. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
21. Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
22. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
23. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
24. Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins
25. Eli Manning, New York Giants
26. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
27. Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
28. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
29. Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
30. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
31. Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears
32. DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins
33. Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns
34. Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers
35. Wes Welker, Denver Broncos
36. Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys
37. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
38. Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles
39. Victor Cruz, New York Giants
40. Blake Bortles*, Jacksonville Jaguars
41. Michael Sam*, St. Louis Rams
42. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
43. Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers
44. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
45. Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks
46. Eric Decker, New York Jets
47. Darrelle Revis, New England Patriots
48. Geno Smith, New York Jets
49. Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
50. Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

My journey down South

Maybe it was the mumbles that drove me out of the North.

Four years of listening to Bill Belichick grunt, growl, and grumble through news conferences is enough to make any man hop on a highway and drive until there is nowhere left to go. You might not believe me, but trust what I’m telling you.

So, that may or may not be how I ended up at The Advocate as your new Saints beat reporter. I hear that things are run as tightly down here as they are in New England. I refuse to listen to believe it. Sean Payton has to have at least a little bit of personality.

New Orleans Saints fans dress as defensive coordinator Rob Ryan cheer in the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Martin) ORG XMIT: NYOTK

New Orleans Saints fans dress as defensive coordinator Rob Ryan cheer in the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Martin) ORG XMIT: NYOTK

In all seriousness, I’m excited to start this journey. It was a pleasure watching the Patriots operate the last few years, and Belichick was a fascinating figure when he decided to open the curtain a little bit. And watching Tom Brady efficiently lead the New England offense each Sunday was stunning to witness.

But I’m excited to see how two different limbs from the Parcells tree run their operations, and it will be nice to watch a quarterback who can consistently throw the ball down the field. Brady has to be appreciated as a complete body of work. Drew Brees, on the other hand, can drop your jaw with one pass..

And, of course, there’s Rob Ryan’s defense. Some of the best games up in New England came against Ryan’s defense. My first year on the beat, the Patriots went into Cleveland and were handed a 34-14 loss in what was supposed to be a ‘gimmie.’ That was the first time I saw Ryan’s vaunted ‘Amoeba’ defense, which, at the time, was a completely foreign concept to me. It’s going to be awesome to see what he comes up with each week.

A little about me: I’m a Pennsylvania native, I’ll be living in Uptown with my wife, and I love football. There isn’t much more to know.

The approach I’ve always taken to my job is to try and learn as much as I can and to always be curious. I’m fascinated by the strategy of the game, and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what happened each week by watching film and asking questions. I won’t pretend to ever have it all figured out, but I do like to share what I gather along the way.

I look forward to getting to work and eventually getting to know New Orleans a little bit better after returning from training camp. As far as the team goes, looking at the roster, I have to agree with Archie Manning. This team looks stacked on paper.

It should be a fun year.

Cameron Jordan predicts the Saints will win the Super Bowl in 2014

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan was afforded the chance Friday night to predict his team would win its division this season. But he preferred to up the ante.

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ-- New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) celebrates his second quarter sack of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) in a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013.

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ– New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) celebrates his second quarter sack of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) in a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013.

Jordan outright predicted the Saints would win Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1 in Glendale, Arizona, which is fewer than 40 miles away from where he grew up in Chandler.

“This is the year I get a Super Bowl,” Jordan told NFL Total Access host Lindsay Rhodes when she asked him if he thought the Saints would win the NFC South back from Carolina, the champions of the division in 2013. “Cam Jordan going back home to Arizona, Super Bowl in Arizona.”

The colorful and outspoken Jordan is not the first Saint — current or former — to predict New Orleans will have a big year in 2014. Safety Rafael Bush, right tackle Zach Strief and even former quarterback Archie Manning were among those who have gone on the record recently about how they think this season’s version of the Saints is as loaded with talent as any before it, including the one that won Super Bowl XLIV.

But they all said there were lots of factors to account for before they’d put themselves on the championship podium, such as the team’s ability to both stay healthy and gel together after the offseason. Much less reserved was Jordan, who made his first career Pro Bowl last season after recording 12.5 quarterback sacks, fifth-most in the NFL.

Jordan listed off a number of reasons to support his claim. There’s the free-agent acquisition of three-time safety Jairus Byrd, whose 22 interceptions since entering the league in 2009 are the most among players at his position. There’s the fact safety Kenny Vaccaro is going into his second year with more experience after already standing out as a rookie in 2013, and a defensive line that was effective at rushing opposing passers last season essentially stayed intact.

Advocate staff photo by John McCusker -- Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan watches a replay as the New Orleans Saints took on the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, November 17, 2013.

Advocate staff photo by John McCusker — Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan watches a replay as the New Orleans Saints took on the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, November 17, 2013.

After the defense surrendered the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL in his first season with the Saints last year, its coordinator Rob Ryan is back for a second campaign. It’d been a while since something like that had occurred — the Saints played under three different coordinators from 2011-13, Jordan’s first three seasons in New Orleans and the NFL.

“Coordinator for the second year — that’s a first in my stint with the Saints,” Jordan said as he chuckled.

Then, on the other side of the ball, still calling the signals is quarterback Drew Brees, who leads the NFL in passing yards (10,339) and is second in touchdown throws (82) since 2012.

And the Saints on Tuesday locked up All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to a four-year contract extension, ensuring the long-term retention of a player who leads players at his position in catches (270) as well as receiving yardage (3,507) and tops the NFL in touchdown grabs (36).

“We have the team in place,” Jordan said. “We have an offense, we have Drew Brees, we have Jim Graham now, he’s happy, and that’s a huge thing for us.”

Jordan and the Saints report to their first portion of training camp at The Greenbrier in West Virginia on Thursday. They’ll be looking to improve upon a 2013 campaign that saw them win 12 of 18 games and reach the divisional round of the playoffs, their third postseason appearance since winning Super Bowl XLIV in February 2010.

2014 Saints roster maybe the strongest one ever on paper, Archie Manning says

Former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, father of Eli and Peyton Manning, addresses campers at the start of the Manning Passing Academy on the Nicholls State University campus in Thibodaux, La., Thursday, July 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, father of Eli and Peyton Manning, addresses campers at the start of the Manning Passing Academy on the Nicholls State University campus in Thibodaux, La., Thursday, July 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Archie Manning quarterbacked the Saints from 1971 to 1981 and has been one of the organization’s biggest fans ever since. He’s witnessed New Orleans’ 10 playoff teams, the five division titles, the first NFC Championship Game, and the Super Bowl victory against his son, Peyton Manning, then-quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts.

Yet it’s possible none of those New Orleans teams had a roster as promising as the one with which the 2014 Saints head into their upcoming season, Archie Manning said during a break Friday at his family’s annual quarterback camp at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux.

“The Saints are really good,” Manning said. “They’re really good — what (coordinator) Rob Ryan did with their defense last year, and they’ve still got (coach) Sean Payton and (quarterback) Drew (Brees).

“I think the Saints’ line-up on paper to start the season is maybe as strong as I’ve ever seen before.”

He certainly isn’t the only one with that opinion. Since winning Super Bowl XLIV at the end of the 2009 campaign, the Saints have been to the playoffs each of the three seasons Payton has been on the sidelines. Brees last year passed for more than 5,000 yards an unprecedented fourth time, and his 39 regular-season touchdown throws were second only to Peyton Manning’s league-record 55 for Denver.

Meanwhile, after giving up the most yards in NFL history in 2012, the Saints’ defense surrendered the fourth-fewest in its first year under Ryan last season. It seems the defense was able to at least maintain its depth by signing players such as safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey in free agency this offseason.

Byrd’s 22 interceptions are the most among NFL safeties — and No. 2 among all players — since entering the league in 2009 as a second-round draft choice by Buffalo. Bailey, meanwhile, has an astounding 52 career regular-season interceptions in a career that began in 1999.

Offensively, the Saints picked up receiver Brandin Cooks in the first round of this year’s draft. In his last year in college, Cooks had 128 catches, 1,730 yards and 16 touchdown receptions, and he won the Biletnikoff trophy given to the nation’s top receiver.

2014 Saints Drew Brees, Champ Bailey among 20 best NFL players in the 2000s

Saints quarterback Drew Brees

Saints quarterback Drew Brees

Two members of the 2014 Saints — quarterback Drew Brees and cornerback Champ Bailey — were among the NFL’s 20 best players during the 2000s, according to NFL.com.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints cornerback Champ Bailey (27) practices at the Saints Training Facility during an OTA in Metairie, La. Thursday, June 19, 2014.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON– New Orleans Saints cornerback Champ Bailey (27) practices at the Saints Training Facility during an OTA in Metairie, La. Thursday, June 19, 2014.

Brees made the list mostly because he led the Saints to their first NFC Championship Game in 2006 and then their lone Super Bowl in 2009, fewer than five years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans. He also recorded only the second 5,000-yard passing season in NFL history in 2008 (he’s since put up three more such years and is the only league player to have more than one).

Bailey landed on the list by making the Pro Bowl nine times between 2000 and 2009 earning first-team All-Pro honors each season from 2004 to 2006. His 18 interceptions combined in 2005 and 2006 were the most in a two-season span since Everson Walls had that many for the Dallas Cowboys in 1981 and 1982.

Read the complete list.

Elsewhere, NFL Network placed Saints tight end Jimmy Graham among the Top 10 of the 100 best players in the league heading into 2014. Players voted on the list.

Graham led the Saints with 1,215 receiving yards and the NFL with 16 touchdown catches during the 2013 regular season.

In a way, Reggie Bush, Jeremy Shockey and Darren Sproles helped Saints’ early triumph in Jimmy Graham grievance

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ--  New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) dunks the ball over the goal posts after his first quarter touchdown as the New Orleans Saints defeats the Tampa Bay Bucs 42-17 in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013.

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ– New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) dunks the ball over the goal posts after his first quarter touchdown as the New Orleans Saints defeats the Tampa Bay Bucs 42-17 in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013.

Saints coach Sean Payton’s past use of playmakers such as Reggie Bush, Jeremy Shockey and Darren Sproles helped New Orleans win lots of games and field some of the NFL’s most potent offenses.

But Payton probably never imagined that would one day help the Saints score an initial victory in this offseason’s franchise-tag dispute with All-Pro Jimmy Graham, at least in a small way.

New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush (25) scores during the second half in the Saints' NFC title game against the Vikings on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010, at the Superdome  in New Orleans. (Bill Feig/The Advocate)

New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush (25) scores during the second half in the Saints’ NFC title game against the Vikings on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010, at the Superdome in New Orleans. (Bill Feig/The Advocate)

Such a reality was one of the more interesting side notes to surface in Wednesday’s decision from NFL system arbitrator Stephen Burbank, which was unfavorable to Graham and his quest for $5 million more than what the Saints wanted to pay him under the tag.

The one-year tag in question prevented the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham from becoming an unrestricted free agent when the four-year contract he was given as a rookie in 2010 lapsed in March. The tag is worth more than $7 million for the 2014 season and classifies him as a tight end.

New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles points to fans after scoring on a touchdown carry in the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles points to fans after scoring on a touchdown carry in the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

But because Graham lined up mostly as a slot receiver in 2013, when he led the Saints with 1,215 receiving yards and the NFL with 16 touchdown catches, he filed a grievance in May through the league players union contending that he should get a wide receiver franchise tag worth more than $12 million.

Burbank heard the case for and against Graham during a June 17-18 hearing at a Sheraton hotel in Metairie. Among the many arguments Graham’s camp made that he was a wide receiver was to present evidence establishing that he worked alongside wide receivers in certain practice drills that simulated third-down situations (typically held on Thursdays on weeks when a game is Sunday).

FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2010, file photo, New Orleans Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey stretches before the NFL Super Bowl XLIV football game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Saints in Miami. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

FILE – In this Feb. 7, 2010, file photo, New Orleans Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey stretches before the NFL Super Bowl XLIV football game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Saints in Miami. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

Having the burden of proof in the grievance hearing, Graham claimed he was the only player listed on the Saints’ roster as a tight end to practice with the wide receivers, according to the text of Burbank’s decision. Payton challenged that, saying veteran tight end Benjamin Watson also worked out with the receivers when it was “Third Down Day” in 2013.

Payton then offered up the testimony that won Burbank over on that aspect of the case. In Third Down Day Drills in previous seasons, Bush and Sproles — listed as running backs from 2006-10 and 2011-13, respectively — and Shockey, classified as a tight end on the roster from 2008-10, similarly practiced with the wide receivers, the coach said.

Bush, Sproles and Shockey were all prolific ball catchers in Payton’s offenses, none of which have finished worse than fourth in passing yards.

No one contradicted Payton in the hearing. “I credit Coach Payton’s testimony on this point,” Burbank wrote.

Ultimately, Burbank concluded Graham shouldn’t be tagged a wide receiver but rather a tight end, mainly because the arbitrator judged the player spent most of his time in 2013 in the slot position and within four yards of the nearest tackle, traditional spots for tight ends.

Bush, Sproles and Shockey never challenged their designated positions despite working with the wide receivers on Third Down Days. But they earned handsomely.

Bush’s rookie contract as a first-round Saints draft pick was worth up to $62 million. Shockey — who, like Bush, won Super Bowl XLIV with the Saints — was due a $4.2 million base salary the year he was cut by New Orleans. Sproles had a four-year, $14 million contract before he was traded for a draft pick in March.

Meanwhile, Graham’s rookie contract averaged just $824,535 annually.

Graham can appeal Burbank’s decision but only has until about July 12 to serve notice if he will. The three-person panel that would oversee any appeal is comprised of James Oldham, a Georgetown University law professor; Richard Holwell, a U.S. District Court judge in the Southern District of New York from 2003 to 2012; and Fern Smith, a retired U.S. District Court judge who served in the Northern District of California from 1988 to 2005.

Graham hasn’t made any public remarks on Burbank’s ruling or his intentions moving forward. His agent, Jimmy Sexton, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Saints and Graham can also reach agreement on a new long-term contract to replace the expired one he accepted from the team as a rookie in 2010 any time before a July 15 deadline. Many pundits believe he should still get a deal that annually pays him more than a six-year, $54 million one given to New England’s Rob Gronkowski, the NFL’s highest paid tight end, even if Burbank’s ruling likely cost Graham the leverage he needed to command the millions more per season a franchise wideout could.

After July 15, Graham can only either sign the franchise tag and play under its terms or sit out 2014.

Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis on Thursday told The Advocate that the team had no comment on either Burbank’s ruling or contract negotiations with Graham.

Saints take aim at each other, renew paintball tradition

Saints punter Thomas Morstead published this self-portrait with his teammate milling around paintball gear in the background on Tuesday, June 17, 2014.

Saints punter Thomas Morstead published this self-portrait with his teammate milling around paintball gear in the background on Tuesday, June 17, 2014.

When the Saints convened for work on Tuesday, the NFL’s mandate against live tackling was still in place. But they introduced more contact than might be typical this time of year by renewing a tradition: leaving their practice facility in Metairie and playing some paintball.

The Saints divided themselves into a gray squad and a black team after arriving at Paintball Command across Lake Pontchartrain and near Mandeville on Tuesday, the third-to-last day of organized team activities (“OTAs”). A video posted by rookie tight end Je’Ronn Hamm on the social media service Instagram showed team members sitting around boxes of equipment and receiving instructions on how to properly use it before presumably taking aim at each other on the renowned outdoor paintball field.

“Annual Saints Competition!!!” tweeted Hamm, who snapped a photo of Paintball Command’s sign. “We bout to go after the Grey team!!! #blacksquad.”

Meanwhile, Saints punter Thomas Morstead published a self-portrait on his Twitter account of team members preparing to gear up. From the looks of the punter’s photo and Hamm’s video, team members wearing black also included Morstead, running back Mark Ingram, backup quarterback Ryan Griffin and defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Outside linebacker Junior Galette later put up a photo on Twitter that had him posing with running back Khiry Robinson and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton. All were wearing black. Galette said he got shot about 100 times but got some of his own strikes back on opponents.

Team members in gray included right tackle Zach Strief and backup quarterback Luke McCown.

Under coach Sean Payton, the Saints often shake up their offseason and preseason routines by taking days away from the practice field to bond over recreational activities. Aside from playing paintball, they’ve ridden go-karts and splashed around in water parks.

The Saints had completed seven days of voluntary OTAs and a mandatory minicamp from June 10-12 ahead of Tuesday. They have OTA sessions scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.

They then take a break and report to training camp at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia on July 24.

Knowing it’s never too early to execute well, Saints offense does in final minicamp drive: Quick observations

It was third-and-goal from the defense’s 4, there were fewer than 20 seconds left, and Saints quarterback Drew Brees shouted at his teammates, “Dig deep!”

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) goofs around with New Orleans Saints quarterback Ryan Griffin (4) between drills at minicamp at the Saints Training Facility in Metairie, La. Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON– New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) goofs around with New Orleans Saints quarterback Ryan Griffin (4) between drills at minicamp at the Saints Training Facility in Metairie, La. Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

Then, after the snap, Brees saw Kenny Stills slip inside and behind safety Rafael Bush, and he connected with the second-year receiver for a touchdown that capped off a 13-play, 70-yard, two-minute drill drive at the conclusion of the Saints’ three-day minicamp on Thursday.

It’s worth noting players weren’t allowed to make contact, and helmets were the only equipment they were wearing. Conditions were far from ones that are found in actual games.

Yet the man who caught Brees’ final pass Thursday declared, “It’s important we can execute that way this time of year,” nearly three months away from the first week of the 2014 regular season. And there’s no arguing that has to be encouraging for New Orleans.

After all, neither rookie receiver/first-round draft choice Brandin Cooks nor All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham attended minicamp. Cooks was finishing up his junior year at Oregon State, and Graham is in negotiations for a new contract with the Saints.

Furthermore, 2013 practice squad member Senio Kelemete was filling in at left guard for Ben Grubbs, who had participated in on-field work earlier but not in the two-minute drill.

Meanwhile, the defense Brees and his colleagues operated against was No. 2 against the pass in 2013. The unit was missing safety Jairus Byrd (recovering from back surgery in late May), its marquee free-agent addition; but it otherwise had the players most expect the first string will count on in 2014.

Brees began the drive at his team’s 30 with two incomplete passes to wide receiver Nick Toon. Then, he hit on six of his next seven passes to set up the offense at the 4, getting completions to Stills, tight end Ben Watson (twice), wide receiver Robert Meachem, running back Mark Ingram and wide receiver Nick Toon.

The passes to Meachem and Stills were third-down conversions. Brees clocked the ball once.

Then, from the 4, Brees took two shots at the end zone, aiming for Watson and Toon. Both fell incomplete — cornerback Corey White had Watson covered, and a high pass to Toon bounced off his fingertips.

But then Brees linked up with Stills for a score on the next play, completing his seventh pass in 12 throws.

“As an offense, we were very happy with the way things ended today,” Stills said afterward. “We just hope we can build off that; and when it becomes game time, that becomes natural for us.”

‘D’ HAD MOMENTS, TOO

Nonetheless, before the two-minute drill between the first units Thursday, the “1s” on defense got the best of the offense a number of times.

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson (13) pulls in a pass reception in front of New Orleans Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (32) and cornerback Corey White (24) during the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Bill Feig) ORG XMIT: NUA127

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson (13) pulls in a pass reception in front of New Orleans Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (32) and cornerback Corey White (24) during the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Bill Feig) ORG XMIT: NUA127

Two moments stood out. On one in 11-on-11 drills, Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis emphatically batted away a long pass Brees intended for Meachem, whose body was facing the ball. Lewis did a good job of reaching an arm around and inside Meachem, putting up a barrier between the receiver and the ball.

On the other, during the first play of 11-on-11, second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro intercepted a Brees pass. He celebrated the play by throwing the football as if he were shooting a jump shot in basketball, as the crowd loudly whooped and applauded him.

Vaccaro later said he celebrated so emphatically because he had picked off a former Super Bowl MVP and “Hall of Fame quarterback.” He also explained defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had shown them highlight videos of ex-Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan nailing crucial shots.

Ryan instructed players to pretend they were shooting a basketball when they did something “clutch,” Vaccaro said.

About his jump shot, the safety remarked, “I did it ’cause he told us to.”

NOTABLE

– Thursday’s two-minute drill was not the first time Kelemete worked at left guard with the first team. He had stepped in for Grubbs at least one other time, at a voluntary offseason practice before minicamp that was open to the media.

Kelemete said it’s been invaluable getting looks from defensive linemen such as Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan, third-year man Akiem Hicks and Glenn Foster, in his second year.

“They’re not average linemen,” Kelemete said. “They’re good.”

–Kickers Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke were each 3-of-3 from 33, 37 and 39 yards out in drills.

–Undrafted rookie safety Ty Zimmerman had another interception, that one off a high pass from backup quarterback Logan Kilgore to Stills that bounced off the receiver’s hands in 7-on-7 drills.

PARTICIPATION REPORT

–Aside from Cooks and Graham, receiver Steve Hull and defensive back Derrius Brooks were not seen at minicamp Thursday. Both had been working at minicamp on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Spotted but not participating in drills were wide receiver Joseph Morgan (knee), nose tackle John Jenkins (reportedly, recovering from surgery on a pectoral muscle), Byrd, nose tackle Moses McCray (undisclosed) and outside linebacker Cheta Ozougwu (undisclosed).

Former Saints LB Jonathan Vilma possibly joining Falcons?

This Oct. 30, 2011, file photo shows New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma on the sideline during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

This Oct. 30, 2011, file photo shows New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma on the sideline during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Because Falcons linebacker Sean Witherspoon sustained a ruptured Achilles tendon this week that’s expected to end his 2014 season, Atlanta is considering signing former Saint Jonathan Vilma as a replacement, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport.

Rapoport reported late Wednesday on Twitter that Vilma as well as free-agent linebackers Pat Angerer and Tim Dobbins were all being considered by the Falcons. But Rapoport singled out Vilma as someone Atlanta might bring in for a visit soon if he “checks out medical from afar.”

Some New Orleans fans on social media couldn’t bear the thought of having Vilma join the Saints’ NFC South nemeses. One fan wrote to him on Twitter, “If you sign w/ ATL I will die.”

Vilma replied, “Uhhh I think that’s a stretch lol.” In part of a separate tweet, he wrote, “Saints fans are a trip on Twitter.”

From 2008 to 2010, Vilma led the Saints in solo tackles resulting in failed plays for opponents, according to the website Pro Football Focus. He accounted for nine takeaways during that time span and helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV.

But Vilma, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who began his pro career with the New York Jets from 2004-07, sat out five games with knee problems in 2011. He also spent the first six weeks of 2012 on the physically unable to perform list as he recovered from an offseason knee procedure. He then missed 17 of the Saints’ 18 games in 2013 after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery prior to the season.

Early this offseason, amidst a veteran salary purge, the Saints announced they would not re-sign Vilma when his contract expired in March. The same day of that announcement, the team said it intended to release three of Vilma’s defensive teammates who helped New Orleans win its lone Super Bowl: cornerback Jabari Greer, pass-rusher Will Smith and safety Roman Harper.

Smith was signed by New England. Harper is with Carolina, another of the Saints’ divisional rivals. Greer remains unsigned.

Defensive line colleagues praise Brodrick Bunkley for unselfishly taking pay cut this offseason

Watching Brodrick Bunkley voluntarily cut his 2014 pay by nearly $2.9 million in April so the Saints could sign cornerback Champ Bailey and retain safety Rafael Bush makes John Jenkins want to “go all out” for his teammate and fellow nose tackle.

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS.   Saints DT Brodrick Bunkley (77) in 2012 training camp in Metairie, La.

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS. Saints DT Brodrick Bunkley (77) in 2012 training camp in Metairie, La.

“You’ve got to realize this is a business; and for somebody to do that and alter their livelihood for us to bring in another guy, that shows a good sense of leadership, and I’m very grateful he did that,” Jenkins, a second-year player, said recently. “That’s one of the situations where I see myself going in next year and going all out for a guy like Brodrick Bunkley.”

Defensive line coach Bill Johnson added Bunkley’s decision was just the latest illustration of how much veterans are attracted to playing in New Orleans, where the Saints have won the Super Bowl and been to the playoffs three times in the last five seasons.

“That’s the kind of guys we got,” Johnson said of Bunkley, heading into his ninth year in the NFL and third with the Saints. “People do what it takes for the team, and people want to be here; so you do what you got to do to be here.”

Originally owed $4.5 million in salary and bonuses for the upcoming season, Bunkley is due to make $1.65 million after slicing his compensation, according to information from both the NFL Players Association and various media reports.

The salary-cap space created by Bunkley’s pay cut helped the Saints ink Bailey to a two-year deal that guaranteed him only $500,000 but offered millions more in incentives; and it made it easier for the team to match a two-season contract worth up to $4.55 million that Atlanta had offered Bush, a restricted free agent.

Twelve-time Pro Bowler Bailey’s 52 career interceptions are the most among active cornerbacks. Meanwhile, after impressing in 2013, Bush is penciled in as the No. 3 safety on a Saints defense that often used three safeties last year.