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.

Drew Brees congratulates ex-teammates Darren Sproles, Malcolm Jenkins for roles in big Eagles win on Monday Night Football

After former Saints running back Darren Sproles and safety Malcolm Jenkins made crucial plays to help Philadelphia win at Indianapolis on Monday Night Football, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees tweeted out congratulations to his two ex-teammates.

“My boy Darren Sproles had a big night tonight,” Brees wrote on his Twitter account. “And (Malcolm) Jenkins. Happy for them both. Two great teammates! Wish them the best.”

Sproles had seven receptions for a career-high 152 yards as well as four rushes for 26 yards and a touchdown in Philadelphia’s 30-27 victory against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Jenkins intercepted a fourth-quarter pass.

They’re each in their first season in Philadelphia. The Saints traded Sproles in March to the Eagles in exhange for a fifth-round draft selection they used to acquire rookie linebacker Ronald Powell as well as to clear up salary-cap space. Jenkins signed in free agency after his contract with the Saints expired.

Sproles was in New Orleans from 2011 to 2013 and set an NFL record for all-purpose yardage in his first year with the Saints. His first year in San Diego was Brees’ last year there before he arrived in New Orleans in 2006 via free agency.

Jenkins won Super Bowl XLIV with the Saints at the end of the 2009 season, his rookie campaign.

The Eagles were 2-0 after Monday night. The Saints were 0-2 after being defeated in Cleveland on Sunday, ranking among the NFL’s best offensively but worst defensively.

Browns pass-rusher Paul Kruger bedeviled team that coveted him in free agency as Cleveland beat Saints in Week 2

CLEVELAND — Back in the 2013 offseason, before they reached an ill-fated deal with Victor Butler and Junior Galette had a breakout campaign for them, the Saints pursued former Baltimore Ravens pass-rusher Paul Kruger in free agency.

The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Kruger joined up with the Browns, however. And when the Browns hosted the Saints on Sunday and defeated them 26-24, he showed all day why New Orleans wanted him in black and gold.

It began with his first-quarter sack of Saints quarterback Drew Brees. At left outside linebacker, on a Saints first-and-10 from New Orleans’ 8, Kruger was first engaged by second-year tight end Josh Hill, who nudged the Browns defender toward veteran tight end Benjamin Watson.

Watson then tried to pick up the block on Kruger, but the defender quickly stepped to his right and around the tight end, who almost fell in his attempt to keep pace. Kruger then rumbled toward Brees unimpeded and slammed the Saints quarterback down at the 1 of New Orleans, who three plays later punted for the second of three times in a first quarter that saw Cleveland seize a 10-0 advantage.

The havoc Kruger created Sunday didn’t stop there — it continued with a second-quarter pressure on Brees that produced six points for the Browns.

The Saints had an empty backfield on that play from their 44. Lined up with his hand in the dirt on Brees’ blind side, he charged toward New Orleans’ QB with left tackle Terron Armstead in his way. Kruger briefly tussled with the second-year tackle, executed a swim move with his right arm and managed to get inside and past Armstead.

Kruger barreled into Brees an instant after the quarterback fired a deep pass down the middle of the field to tight end Jimmy Graham that appeared to be affected by the oncoming Kruger. The pass came out high, sailed over Graham’s outstretched hands and was intercepted by Browns safety Tashaun Gipson.

Gipson ran the interception back 62 yards for a touchdown that put Cleveland up 16-3 before a failed two-point conversion.

Kruger subsequently quieted for a bit but resurfaced in the fourth quarter with about seven minutes to go and New Orleans leading 24-23. On a first-and-10 from New Orleans’ 37, Kruger swatted down a quick throw Brees aimed at Watson, running an out to the right.

For the ensuing snap, Kruger lined up on the right edge of the Saints’ offensive line, and New Orleans brought left guard Ben Grubbs over from his spot to tussle with the Browns defender. Kruger nonetheless managed to work past Grubbs and hurry Brees up into throwing away a pass to avoid another sack.

The Saints converted the ensuing third down and eventually drove as far as Cleveland’s 31 on that drive. But that’s when Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby sacked Brees for a loss of 7 on a third-and-5, forcing a punt. Cleveland (1-1) then drove for a 29-yard, game-winning field goal to vanquish the Saints (0-2), who had lost their season opener at Atlanta on Sept. 7.

Kruger’s sizable contribution to Cleveland’s victory over the Saints was not lost on Dansby. “Oh, he’s awesome — Paul is playing out of this world right now,” Dansby said of Kruger, whose sack against the Saints was his second of the season. “I love every second of it. I get to watch it up close in person.”

All of which also presented a reason to revisit the Saints’ interest during the spring of 2013 in Kruger, who was with the Ravens his first four years in the NFL from 2009-12 and helped them win a Super Bowl against the 49ers in New Orleans with nine-regular season sacks in his final campaign in Baltimore.

The Saints were reported to have expressed a high degree of interest in Kruger, alongside the Browns and Colts. The Browns outbid the Saints and Colts with a five-year, $40.5 million contract, and Kruger has since recorded 6.5 quarterback sacks for Cleveland.

New Orleans then landed Victor Butler — who had spent four seasons in Dallas — on a two-year, $3 million deal. But Butler didn’t play a single game for the Saints, sitting out 2013 with a knee injury, missing much of this year’s training camp with a hurt ankle and then being released.

Ultimately, as the Saints held opponents to the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL in 2013 and made the divisional round of the playoffs, New Orleans’ Junior Galette had a career-high 12 sacks, the sixth-most in the NFL and second-most for the Saints behind Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan’s 12.5. Galette recently signed a four-year, $41.5 million extension that will keep him under contract for the Saints through 2019 (he had been due to become a free agent in 2015).

But, at the beginning of their second year under coordinator Rob Ryan, the Saints’ pass rush has been less productive. The Saints only have a pair of sacks through their first two games — one by Galette on Sunday and another by defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker in Week 1.

The Saints averaged slightly more than three a game in Ryan’s first year.

“We’re disappointed, but we’re not discouraged at all,” Galette said in Cleveland about the Saints’ slow start in 2014. “We’re going to get this right, and we’re going to be the team that everyone expects us to be — the team we expect us to be.”

Among the reasons that Saints aren’t that at the moment was a standout day by Kruger.

Sean Payton: Supporting Devon Still a worthy cause

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton smiles before an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game in Seattle on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton smiles before an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game in Seattle on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

It was after driving home and hearing a story on the radio about a member of the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad whose 4-year-old daughter had cancer that Sean Payton ordered and purchased 100 of the player’s jerseys, the Saints coach said Thursday.

Proceeds from sales for Devon Stills’ jersey are benefitting Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and pediatric cancer care and research; and, in a statement released by the team, Payton said he was moved to support the cause because he’s a father to a son, Connor, and daughter, Meghan.

“As a parent myself, I couldn’t help to think about the situation he was in,” Payton said of Still in the statement. “What I did was just a small token to a very worthwhile cause. I wish them nothing but the best and am hoping that his daughter will make a full recovery.”

Still, a defensive tackle, was waived by the Bengals at the end of the preseason. But the Bengals signed Still to their practice squad to provide him health insurance to care for his daughter, Leah, who’s been battling cancer. Cincinnati promoted him to its 53-man roster Wednesday.

“Only one word to describe everything,” Still wrote on his Twitter account about the Bengals. “AMAZING!!”

Payton lauded the Bengals’ treatment of Still.

“I thought it was a class move by (Bengals owner) Mike Brown, (head coach) Marvin Lewis, and the entire … organization to keep him on their roster and allow him to get the proper benefits so he could give the best care to his child,” Payton said.”

Falcons win 2 of NFC’s 3 Player of the Week Awards at expense of the Saints

The Falcons won two of the NFC’s three top player awards for Week 1 at the expense of the Saints, the NFL announced Wednesday.

After setting a franchise record by passing for 448 yards to help Atlanta defeat New Orleans 37-34 in overtime Sunday at the Georgia Dome, quarterback Matt Ryan landed the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Week. He also tossed three touchdowns while completing 31 of his 43 throws against the Saints, who had the No. 2 passing defense in the NFL in 2013.

The scoring throws allowed Ryan to break the franchise mark for most touchdown passes that had been held by Steve Bartkowski.

“It’s a great honor,” Ryan said of breaking the record. “No one has more respect for Steve Bartkowski than I do … (for) he’s become a great friend since I’ve been here in Atlanta and a great mentor.”

Ryan has won five Offensive Player of the Week awards in his seven seasons with the Falcons. Those are the most in that organization’s history.

Meanwhile, Falcons kicker Matt Bryant won the NFC’s Special Teams Player of the Week award after going 3-for-3 against the Saints from 40, 51 and 52 yards out.

Bryant connected on the 40-yarder on the last snap of the first half to cut into what had been a 20-7 Saints lead. He nailed the 51-yarder as regulation expired to tie the contest. He then buried the 52-yarder to win the game after the Falcons recovered a fumble by veteran Saints receiver Marques Colston on the first possession of the extra period.

“When you think about it, the (51- and 52-yarders) don’t happen unless the (40-yarder) goes in,” Bryant said afterward. “Whenever I go to kick an extra point, I’m kicking the extra point thinking I have to kick a 51- or 52-yarder to win the game. So that way, when it gets to that time to kick a 52-yarder, I’ve already kicked it, so to speak, in my head.”

This is the seventh time Bryant has been honored as the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. He’s the only NFL player to win that award multiple times with three different teams, having done so with Tampa Bay and the New York Giants previously.

The Saints (0-1) visit Cleveland (0-1) this upcoming Sunday. The 1-0 Falcons this Sunday head to Cincinnati, also 1-0.

Pierre Thomas sets Saints record for running-back receiving yards, approaching mark for catches by running back

New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas (23) moves against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman) ORG XMIT: GAMS1  Pierre Thomas David Goldman

New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas (23) moves against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman) ORG XMIT: GAMS1 Pierre Thomas
David Goldman

ATLANTA — When the ball was snapped, Saints running back Pierre Thomas ran to the right, began pointing his body up the field and turned his head to quarterback Drew Brees.

Brees whipped the ball toward Thomas, who hauled it in at New Orleans’ 39, about three yards behind the line of scrimmage on a third-and-7 in the first quarter. Linebacker Paul Worrilow and cornerback Robert McClain were patrolling that side of the field at the Georgia Dome, gravitated toward Thomas, and made contact with the running back around the Saints’ 45.

But Thomas swiftly cut left a mere instant before McClain and Worrilow first touched him. He slipped between the two defenders, and he nearly broke through cleanly before the twisting defenders tripped him up slightly past the first-down marker at New Orleans’ 49.

The play might otherwise be forgotten as just a first down en route to a 37-34 overtime defeat in Week 1 for the Saints. However, it did represent more to people who track this kind of thing: at the end of that grab, Thomas had four more yards than he needed to secure the all-time franchise record for receiving yards by a running back that had been held by Dalton Hilliard.

Hilliard, a former LSU standout, accumulated 2,233 receiving yards for the Saints between 1986 and 1993. Thomas had 2,230 receiving yards as he prepared for Sunday’s visit to the Falcons, the beginning of his eighth season in the NFL and with the Saints.

He’d finish his day with six catches for 58 yards, which brought his career total up to 2,288 receiving yards. Thomas’ catches also brought him to within seven grabs of surpassing another franchise record: that of most receptions by a running back, which Reggie Bush set with 294 between 2006 and 2010 before becoming a Miami Dolphin and then a Detroit Lion.

One of eight players on the Saints this year that was a part of the team that won Super Bowl XLIV with New Orleans at the end of the 2009 season, Thomas accounted for seven first downs with his catches as well as his seven rushes for 31 yards against the Falcons on Sunday.

“Every time my name is called, I’m trying to be positive and do positive things,” Thomas said afterward. “Same thing on the sideline — I am trying to make (teammates) feel positive. Even though there’s a lot of tension going on the sideline with the game (ongoing), I love this sport, I love having fun, I’m having fun playing the game. I want these guys (to), too.”

Nonetheless, that’d not be enough for the Saints (1-0) to avoid losing in the extra period to Atlanta (0-1) after the Falcons recovered a fumble by veteran New Orleans receiver Marques Colston. Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant booted a game-winning, 52-yard field goal three plays later.

Thomas remarked that the game was as wild and close as he expected it to be. Six or fewer points had separated New Orleans and Atlanta in eight of the 12 meetings between the Saints and the Falcons under coach Mike Smith prior to Sunday.

Sunday meant nine of the 13 games between the Saints and their main NFC South rival since Smith took charge of Atlanta in 2008 have been decided by six or fewer points.

“(Saints) Coach (Sean Payton) put up the scores of games in the past between these teams…, and you see every last one of those games where we either won by a touchdown, lost by a touchdown, won by three points or lost by three points,” Thomas said. “We knew that this would be a tough game, and that these guys would come out fighting and that we would have to do the same thing.

“You have to take your hat off to these guys (Atlanta), as they came ready to play.”

The Saints face the Falcons again on Dec. 21. They travel to Cleveland on Sept. 14 for Week 2.

Saints CB Brian Dixon gets good news: Twin makes active NFL roster

Before heading to his first regular-season game as a member of the Saints, undrafted rookie cornerback Brian Dixon received a piece of good family-related news Saturday.

His twin brother, cornerback Brandon Dixon, was being promoted from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad to their 53-man roster to improve depth at his position, according to reports. The Saints travel to Atlanta on Saturday to play the Falcons on Sunday in Week 1 of the regular season; and they face Tampa Bay at home on Oct. 5 and Dec. 28.

All of that means the Dixon brothers will be able to reunite in a few weeks and then a couple of months afterwards, if things stay as they are.

“It was (God’s) plan!” Brian Dixon said on Twitter after word circulated that Tampa Bay was waiving a player to make room for Brandon on the active roster.

The Dixons both attended and were standouts at Northwestern Missouri State. The New York Jets chose Brandon in the sixth round of the 2014 draft, but no team picked Brian.

Brian signed with the Saints as an undrafted free agent and made the team, in part because he intercepted a pass during the preseason as New Orleans went 3-1. He was one of two undrafted rookies to crack the Saints’ first 53-man roster.

But the Jets waived Brandon at the end of the preseason. He cleared waivers and subsequently agreed to join Tampa Bay’s practice squad.

Saints excited by Mark Ingram’s development in blitz pickup

Twice during a game that was the closest thing the Saints would have to a regular-season contest ahead of Week 1, a blitzing linebacker squeezed through holes in New Orleans’ offensive line and took aim at the quarterback.

Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH --Mark Ingram warms up during training camp at the Saints practice facility in Metairie, La. Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014.

Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH –Mark Ingram warms up during training camp at the Saints practice facility in Metairie, La. Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014.

Neither occasion produced the outcome the Indianapolis Colts desired in that third exhibition of 2014, which the Saints won 23-17 while giving their first-string players their most game snaps of the preseason. And the Colts can blame Saints running back Mark Ingram for that.

In one instance, after a fake handoff to him, Ingram lowered his left shoulder into the chest of linebacker Kelvin Sheppard* and knocked him off course, giving more than enough time to Saints quarterback Drew Brees to wind up and unfurl a pass that tight end Jimmy Graham caught for a gain of 38 yards.

Ingram drove himself into the thighs of linebacker D’Qwell Jackson on the other occasion, tripping up the Colts defender and buying enough seconds for backup Saints QB Luke McCown to throw a pass to Graham. Graham dropped the ball, but what would’ve been a sack several yards behind the line of scrimmage instead resulted in an incompletion and no loss of field position.

Those two plays from Ingram were not the flashiest of a preseason that saw him carry the ball 22 times for a touchdown and 156 yards (an astounding 7.1 yards per rushing attempt). Ingram also posted a 23-yard scoring reception as the Saints went 3-1.

Yet it’s possible those two blitz pickups he put on the film of the trip to Indianapolis in pass protection were as exciting for the Saints as any of his carries or either of his touchdowns, especially as they all spent this week together preparing to open the regular season at Atlanta on Sunday.

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton talks with quarterback Drew Brees (9) on the sidelines in the first half of an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Scott Eklund) ORG XMIT: OTK

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton talks with quarterback Drew Brees (9) on the sidelines in the first half of an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Scott Eklund) ORG XMIT: OTK

“The first challenge is always just our (quarterback) protections … because they become very one-dimensional if they can’t block the blitz,” Saints coach Sean Payton said after a recent practice when asked about how Ingram had improved in the passing game over th years. “I think Mark picked it up very quick. … He understands, and he is physical enough and he’s been a guy that we feel blocks pressure well, matches up with linebackers well, and I think that has helped him.”

It should assist his teammates, too. Several days before the exhibition at Indianapolis, Saints veteran Pierre Thomas said he wanted some of his fellow running backs to show they could get involved in snuffing out blitzes because he didn’t fancy the idea of being the lone one out there protecting the quarterback.

Like clockwork, Ingram halted Sheppard and Jackson a few days later. Sustaining that competence in blitz pickup he displayed in Indianapolis would permit the Saints to mix up their personnel and more effectively hide the kinds of plays they intend to run in certain situations.

They could line Ingram up on obvious throwing downs without tipping their hand by exclusively relying on someone like Thomas, who explained he is better versed in New Orleans’ pass protection schemes simply because he has been with the organization since 2007.

Nonetheless, Thomas assured Ingram is closing the gap in that area, as the outing in Indianapolis suggested was the case.

“He’s taking time out to really read … how the defenses are playing against us,” Thomas said of Ingram, a 2011 first-round draft choice for the Saints. “That’s one of the biggest things he needs to work on, … (and) he’s developing into … not just a back that runs the ball all the time. He wants to be that all-around back — and that’s what you need.”

Ingram attributed his flash in blitz pickup to a combination of film study and merely being given more snaps in that role.

“You just need reps,” Ingram said. “You get out there and get experience and … you understand what you’re doing. You’re confident in it.

“It’s … just being able to be out there in those situations, making mistakes, being able to correct them and just growing from it.”

For Ingram individually, fostering that growth can only boost his professional prospects. The Saints didn’t exercise a fifth-year option on the contract Ingram accepted from the team as a rookie, which would’ve paid him $5.2 million in base salary in 2015.

New Orleans chalked it up to the smartest business decision that could’ve been made with a running back who’s averaged a pedestrian 118 carries and 487.3 rushing yards per regular season while scoring a total of 12 touchdowns (including the playoffs). Ingram has also missed 11 regular-season games and two playoff contests in all with foot injuries.

All of that set up 2014 as Ingram’s contract year, for he is set to become a free agent next offseason.

*=The Colts ultimately released Sheppard

Comparisons to past Saints playmakers flatter him, but Cooks intends to start making own name at Atlanta on Sunday

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks (10) tries in vain to pull in a long pass in the second half of a NFL preseason football game against the Tennessee Titans in New Orleans, Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks (10) tries in vain to pull in a long pass in the second half of a NFL preseason football game against the Tennessee Titans in New Orleans, Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

Rookie Saints receiver Brandin Cooks is flattered by the comparisons he drew all preseason to past New Orleans playmakers such as Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles, who produced all-purpose yardage by buckets.

But when the Saints kick off their 2014 season at Atlanta on Sunday, Cooks will welcome the arrival of his chance to begin becoming what he called “my own type of player.”

“Those guys are special …, but I’d like to think I add my own different taste to the game,” he said about being likened to past dynamic Saints players in his last meeting with reporters prior to the Week 1 opener. “I kind of want to mold into my own name here.”

Cooks, of course, won’t be used identically to the way coach Sean Payton utilized Bush from 2006-10 and Sproles from 2011-13. Though Bush and Sproles frequently lined up as receivers and caught screens, they were running backs.

Cooks won’t be running routes, taking handoffs or collecting pitches out the backfield in the manner Bush and Sproles did. But he’ll be targeted for screens and returning punts on special teams, which could afford him the opportunity to generate all-purpose yards in the way Sproles and Bush did in their best years.

That was 2006 for Bush, when the Saints made their first NFC Championship Game as he had 1,307 yards from scrimmage and 216 yards returning punts to lead the team in the regular season. Now with Detroit, Bush left New Orleans with 4,984 all-purpose yards, 29 rushing-receiving touchdowns and four punt return scores in five regular seasons — not to mention a ring from Super Bowl XLIV.

Sproles’ prime was in 2011, when he set an NFL single-season record with 2,696 all-purpose yards to help the Saints reach the divisional playoffs. Returning both kickoffs and punts, he departed New Orleans for Philadelphia via a trade in March with 5,546 all-purpose yards, 21 rushing-receiving touchdowns and a punt return score in his three regular seasons with the Saints.

For his part, first-round draft choice Cooks dazzled in training camp, scoring off bubble screens tossed to him around midfield more than once. He had his moments as the Saints went 3-1 in four exhibitions, ending up second on his team in catches (nine) and third in receiving yards (101) with a touchdown.

However, observers have yet to see the best of the former Oregon State star running back punts, returning two for five yards in the exhibitions. Cooks can’t wait to show it, describing his excitement level over his looming NFL debut as “off the charts.”

“Everybody on the field is obviously going to be great because they’re starting in the league,” Cooks said about facing Atlanta. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

Ramon Humber unfazed by hex of sorts that’s affected recent Saints special-teams captains

New Orleans Saints' Ramon Humber (53) reacts after recovering an onside kick against the Carolina Panthers in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

New Orleans Saints’ Ramon Humber (53) reacts after recovering an onside kick against the Carolina Panthers in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

Saints backup linebacker Ramon Humber says he doesn’t believe in curses. That’s a good thing for him, as his recent appointment to become one of New Orleans’ special-teams captains for the 2014 season will force him to try to interrupt a strange trend that’s taken hold of his organization.

The Saints have chosen to part ways with four players who have been one of the captains of special teams during the previous five seasons — Troy Evans in 2009, Pierson Prioleau in 2010, Courtney Roby from 2011-12 and Will Herring in 2013. Evans was cut in 2010; Prioleau was released in 2011; Roby’s contract was terminated in 2013; and Herring wasn’t re-signed when he became a free agent this offseason.

Humber has a chance to break that streak after his teammates voted him as one of the team co-captains alongside quarterback Drew Brees and tackle Zach Strief for offense; linebackers Curtis Lofton and Junior Galette for defense; and, for special teams, punter Thomas Morstead, who served in that capacity in 2013 with Herring.

Yet Humber said the fates of his predecessors don’t preoccupy him as he prepares to kick off the 2014 regular season with the Saints at Atlanta on noon on Sunday.

He called his designation as a special-teams captain “a privilege,” explaining, “There’s a lot of great leaders here. For your team to call you out and want you to be a captain is … an honor.”

He added, “My main focus for me and the whole team is this year — whatever happens next year will happen,” he remarked in a brief interview Thursday. “We’re in it for this year to win a Super Bowl, and that’s it.

“Whatever the team wants (to do with its players), it’s their route. All you can do is your best, and it’ll turn out for you.”

Humber is certainly qualified to carry out his office in 2014, and he’ll have a viable opportunity to again be one of the guys the Saints will want to bring back whenever this season concludes for New Orleans.

He tied for third in solo special-teams tackles (six) last year for the Saints. He also recovered a pair of onside kicks. Though he wasn’t selected for the Pro Bowl, he drew almost 63,000 fan votes for the game, which was ninth among special teamers.

Humber became a free agent in March, but the Saints re-signed him, counting on him to feature in coverage on special teams and back up linebacker David Hawthorne. He finished the preseason among the Saints’ most productive players on defense in tackles with 12 total (10 solo).

The 27-year-old Humber entered the NFL in 2009 as an undrafted free agent out of North Dakota State. He arrived in New Orleans in 2010 after going to Super Bowl XLIV with the Indianapolis Colts, who lost that game to the Saints. He, Galette and cornerback Patrick Robinson are the only three members of the Saints’ defense this year who were in New Orleans in 2010.

Saints wideout Kenny Stills says strengthening injured quad could be season-long focus

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills (84) pulls in a 76-yard touchdown reception in the first half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills (84) pulls in a 76-yard touchdown reception in the first half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

By the time he met with reporters Wednesday, second-year Saints receiver Kenny Stills had accepted that strengthening the quadriceps muscle he’s hurt three times in the last couple of months would be a primary focus for him throughout New Orleans’ 2014 campaign.

The ideal way for that lingering injury to heal would be for him to not do anything. “But there’s no time I’m not doing anything,” said Stills, so the next best option is to concentrate on strengthening it with the training staff, especially with the Week 1 opener at Atlanta at noon Sunday fast approaching.

Stills didn’t reveal what percent chance he’s been given of being ready for the visit to the Falcons. “I just do what I’m told — if they want me out there, I’ll be out there; if not, then I won’t be,” he remarked.

If he’s not available Sunday, Stills said the Saints have a more than adequate garrison of pass catchers in All-Pro Jimmy Graham, veteran Marques Colston, running back Pierre Thomas, rookie Brandin Cooks, Joseph Morgan, Nick Toon and Robert Meachem.

“We’ve got plenty of guys at the skill positions that can make big plays (through the air) for us,” Stills said. “I know they’re going to be prepared when their time comes, too.”

As a rookie fifth-round draft selection out of Oklahoma in 2013, Stills finished third on the Saints with 641 receiving yards, 32 catches and five lengthy touchdown grabs, all from between 34 and 76 yards. He dropped only one pass thrown his way as the Saints won 12 of 18 games to make it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, and the 20.03 yards he gained per catch were the best among NFL players who qualified for the leader board in that category.

Yet things have not gone so swimmingly for Stills as a sophomore pro, at least initially. He first tweaked a quad in an offseason workout with quarterback Drew Brees in San Diego around late June, then messed it up even more during an early one-on-one passing drill at the first practice of training camp in West Virginia on July 25.

The 6-foot, 194-pound Stills was either sidelined or limited for the next 15 days of practice; was absent for the Saints’ preseason victories at St. Louis and vs. Tennessee; and didn’t return to full team drills until Aug. 18.

Stills suited out for an exhibition at Indianapolis on Aug. 23 and lined up for 15 snaps, but he then re-aggravated his quad trying to haul in a long pass in the first quarter and didn’t return. He missed the fourth 2014 exhibition at home against Baltimore, which New Orleans lost to finish the preseason 3-1.

He was limited in practice Wednesday, the first regular-season session media could view a portion of.