All posts by Ramon Antonio Vargas

Ramon Antonio Vargas has covered the Saints for The Advocate since 2013. He can be reached at rvargas@theadvocate.com and is @RVargasAdvocate on Twitter.

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.”

Former Saint All-Pro Carl Nicks is apparently leaving the game of football

Former New Orleans Saints left guard Carl Nicks tosses his glove to a fan after the second half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Former New Orleans Saints left guard Carl Nicks tosses his glove to a fan after the second half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Two years after leaving the Saints as one of the franchise’s best offensive lineman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Carl Nicks is apparently leaving the game of football.

The Saints selected Nicks in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, and he took over as the starting left guard after three games in his rookie year, when incumbent veteran Jamar Nesbit was suspended for testing positive for a banned diuretic. Nicks started the following 67 games over the next three seasons for the Saints, including six playoff games and the team’s victory in Super Bowl XLIV.

He Pro Bowls and was Associated Press First-Team All-Pro in 2010 and 2011.

During free agency in 2012, Nicks signed a contract to join the NFC South rival Bucs for up to five years and $47.5 million. But he only played nine games in his two seasons there.

He suffered a season-ending toe injury seven games into the 2012 campaign. Then, in that same foot he hurt, he contracted a staph infection that caused him to miss all but two games in 2013.

The Bucs on Friday then announced Nicks and the organization had mutually agreed to part ways. In a statement provided by the team, Nicks thanked the Bucks for working with him in his attempts to return to the field and remarked, “I have made the decision to step away from the game. This was by no means an easy decision, but I believe that is what is best for me any my family as well as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”

The Tampa Bay Times’ Rick Stroud reported Friday that the Bucs were believed to have reached a financial settlement with Nicks, who had a $6 million injury guarantee for 2014 under his original contract.

Saints fans: Where do you think Nicks ranks among the Saints’ all-time offensive linemen? Sound off in the comments.

Vargas talks training camp with ‘Black and Blue Report’

I went on the Saints’ and Pelicans’ official “Black and Blue Report” podcast on Wednesday to talk about the Saints’ 2014 training camp at The Greenbrier in West Virginia.

Topics host Sean Kelley asked me about were the on-field storyline I was most looking forward to observing in training camp (the secondary), Jimmy Graham’s new long-term contract, and how I believed the fans who attend workouts at The Greenbrier could be the “91st player” on the Saints’ preseason roster.

The interview runs from about the 7:05 to the 17:00 marks.

The Saints arrived in West Virginia on Wednesday. They officially report to training camp Thursday, and practice begins Friday morning.

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

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.