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.

Sensing it could help his bank account, Vernon Davis says Jimmy Graham deserves wideout money

San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis (85) runs from New Orleans Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) and strong safety Roman Harper (41) during the fourth quarter of an NFL divisional playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, in San Francisco.  (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis (85) runs from New Orleans Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) and strong safety Roman Harper (41) during the fourth quarter of an NFL divisional playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

It’s a good thing for the Saints that 49ers All-Pro Vernon Davis isn’t ruling on the grievance tight end Jimmy Graham filed against New Orleans.

That’s because Davis believes Graham should be considered a wide receiver for the purposes of payment and is owed millions more than the Saints want to pay him under a franchise tag if it goes into effect.

“If you’re a guy who’s catching a lot of passes and you possess some of the traits that wide receivers have, then yes, I … think that (you) should get paid like a wide receiver,” Davis told ESPN on Thursday in regards to Graham.

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.

Davis also said: “He’s just a wonderful presence. He’s a great player. He has a lot of potential to go above and beyond and just go further. He is one of those guys that is a part of that TE position that are changing the game — Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, [Rob] Gronkowski.

“Those guys are some fantastic players. If it was me, if I was the owner of the team, I would give the kid everything he wants because he’s that.”

Of course, a big pay day for Graham would indirectly help fatten Davis’ wallet, in all likelihood. Folks should keep that in mind as they process Davis’ words.

Last season, the final one on his rookie contract from 2010, Graham led the Saints in receiving yards (1,215) and touchdown receptions (an NFL-best 16). He spent most of his time in 2013 lining up out wide for the Saints, but the team handed him a nonexclusive franchise tag worth about $7 million that both prevented him from becoming the most-sought unrestricted free agent and labeled him a tight end, the position at which he was drafted and has been to two Pro Bowls.

Graham in May filed a grievance through the NFL players association to be classified as a wide receiver, given the massive boost in compensation that could potentially bring, depending on the decision of an arbitrator following a hearing set for June 17-18. He has not signed the tag, has not been under contract this offseason and has not been at voluntary workouts with the Saints so far in 2014.

Note that Graham would not even play under the tag if he and Saints can agree on a long-term contract extension before the July 15 deadline. Meanwhile, any ruling issued by the arbitrator in regards to the grievance would give the winning side leverage in arguing how much money Graham deserves in contract negotiations, which could be motivation to hammer out a deal before then since neither camp can be sure of victory.

The Saints all offseason have said that a long-term extension is their goal as it concerns Graham, who many think will ultimately get a contract that pays him around $10 million annually and makes him the highest-paid player ever listed as a tight end.

Elsewhere, Davis is pushing for his own contract extension and has held out of voluntary offseason workouts this year. He has two seasons left on a six-year, $42.7 million contract he signed in 2010 and is the third-highest paid NFL tight end.

If Graham gets a contract annually paying him something that reflects the 2014 franchise tag for a wide receiver, obviously Davis would reasonably be able to demand an amount that may not be identical but could be similar.

Davis’ stats haven’t been as gaudy as Graham’s — in 2013, he had 13 touchdowns and 850 yards. But, like Graham, Davis has been to two Pro Bowls. He has also helped San Francisco reach the last three NFC Championship Games as well as a Super Bowl in 2012.

“Jimmy Graham … believes that he deserves more, and I believe that he deserves more,” Davis told ESPN.

Saints’ charity basketball game is Wednesday night, and tickets are still available

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram celebrates home run with teammates at home plate at Zephyr Field during the Ben Grubbs Foundation Charity Softball Game in Metairie, La. Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON– New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram celebrates a home run with teammates at home plate at Zephyr Field during the Ben Grubbs Foundation Charity Softball Game in Metairie, La. Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

To benefit charity, Saints players on Wednesday night are slated to participate in Black and Gold Hoops Challenge III at Jefferson Playground’s gymnasium (4100 South Drive in Jefferson). Doors open at 6; tipoff is at 7; and $15 to $20 tickets are still available.

Defensive end Cameron Jordan, running back Pierre Thomas, wide receiver Robert Meachem, running back Travaris Cadet, defensive end Glenn Foster, nose tackle John Jenkins, wide receiver Kenny Stills, cornerback Patrick Robinson and team ambassador/former kick return specialist Michael Lewis were penciled in as participants.

The Saints’ opponents in the game will be local police officers, firefighters and military members. The event will benefit Lewis’ Striding For Your Dreams Foundation, dedicated to mentoring young adults; and the healthcare-oriented nonprofit “Get Checked or Check Out!”

General admission tickets are still available and can be purchased at eventbrite.com.

The Advocate will be at the game seeking out stories to write from it. Coverage will be on Twitter @RVargasAdvocate, at www.theneworleansadvocate.com and the Thursday edition of The Advocate.

Saints about $1.72 million under cap with Jonathan Goodwin deal on books

FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2011 file photo, New Orleans Saints Jonathan Goodwin in seen on the bench in the second half of an NFL NFC wild card playoff football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle. The Saints and Goodwin have agreed to a one-year contract bringing the veteran center back to New Orleans, the club announced Tuesday, June 3, 2014. (AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)

FILE – In this Jan. 8, 2011 file photo, New Orleans Saints Jonathan Goodwin in seen on the bench in the second half of an NFL NFC wild card playoff football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle. The Saints and Goodwin have agreed to a one-year contract bringing the veteran center back to New Orleans, the club announced Tuesday, June 3, 2014. (AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)

After signing center Jonathan Goodwin and defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick on Tuesday to one-year deals that pay them base salaries of $955,000 and $730,000, respectively, the Saints have about $1.72 million in salary cap space, according to an NFL Players Association report from Wednesday.

The Saints began Tuesday about $1.935 million under the $133 million salary cap, the NFLPA had indicated. New Orleans has some of the slimmest cap space among the NFL’s teams.

During the offseason, only teams’ top 51 salaries count against their cap space.

Goodwin became a free agent after spending the last three seasons in San Francisco, helping the 49ers reach the NFC Championship Game thrice and the Super Bowl once. He was with the Saints from 2006-10 and was a Pro Bowler the year New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV. He began his NFL career with the New York Jets from 2002-05.

He will wear No. 51 for the Saints after wearing No. 76 in his first stint.

Deaderick began his career in New England from 2010-12. He was with Jacksonville last year before becoming a free agent and has recorded 5.5 quarterback sacks, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery for his career.

He will wear No. 67.