All posts by Sheldon Mickles

Sheldon Mickles, a sportswriter with The Advocate since 1978, is the beat writer for LSU men's basketball. He also covers LSU football, track and gymnastics and is on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.

Saints sign four from rookie minicamp tryout

The Saints on Monday signed four players who attended their three-day rookie minicamp on a tryout basis.

The group includes former Tulane standout Derrick Strozier, who played running back and cornerback for the Green Wave. A native of Edgewater, Florida, Strozier was given a tryout as a running back in the minicamp that concluded Sunday.

A 5-foot-8, 181-pounder, Strozier also returned punts and kickoffs while playing the last two seasons for former Saints wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson.

As a senior, Strozier had 54 tackles, three interceptions and broke up 14 passes and had five interceptions and defended 19 passes in his career.

The Saints also signed wide receiver Steve Hull (Illinois), outside linebacker Cheta Ozougwu (Rice) and offensive lineman Thomas Welch (Vanderbilt). Ozougwu and Welch both have NFL experience.

Ozougwu, a seventh-round draft pick of the Houston Texans in 2011, has played in nine games the past two seasons with the Chicago Bears.

Welch, who was selected in the seventh round in 2010 by the New England Patriots, has played in 27 games with the Patriots, St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills.

Hull was an undrafted free agent.

The Saints also waived guard Micajah Reynolds and nose tackle Brandon McCray, who played his college football at UL-Lafayette. They were among a group of 17 college free agents signed by the Saints after the conclusion of the May 8-10 draft.

Saints sign three draft picks to four-year deals

Like many other NFL teams, the Saints have gotten a head start on signing the players they selected in last weekend’s draft.

On Friday, the day their rookie minicamp began, the Saints announced that they signed three of the six players they acquired in the draft: strong safety Vinnie Sunseri, outside linebacker Ronald Powell and tackle Tavon Rooks.

All three players signed four-year contracts.

Sunseri and Powell were selected in the fifth round with the 167th and 169th picks, respectively, while Rooks was the Saints’ sixth-round pick at No. 202.

Powell was selected with the pick the Saints obtained from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for running back Darren Sproles.

The quick signing of the three rookies on Friday continues a trend that began when the new collective bargaining agreement was hammered out in 2011 — which included a slotted wage scale for draft picks,

The Saints’ remaining undrafted draft picks are wide receiver Brandin Cooks (first round), cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste (second round) and inside linebacker Khairi Fortt (fourth round).

All six draftees are taking part in the team’s three-day rookie minicamp that began Friday.

They were joined by the free agents the Saints signed after the completion of the draft last Saturday night, assorted first-year players and other newcomers to the team as well, and a number of players who were invited to participate in the minicamp on a tryout basis.


Saints have least amount of salary cap space available

After signing veteran tackle Zach Strief to a new five-year contract on Monday, the Saints had the least amount of cap space available among the 32 NFL teams as of Tuesday afternoon.

According to NFL Players Association figures, the Saints, who agreed to a four-year contract with former Tampa Bay Bucs fullback Erik Lorig on Tuesday morning, were just $849,212 under the $133 million cap.

The Saints were the only team in the league to have less than $1 million available to them. The Pittsburgh Steelers had the second-lowest amount available at $2,174,434.

Saints’ WR Lance Moore tweets good-bye to N.O.

It appears that wide receiver Lance Moore’s time with the Saints has come to an end based on a tweet he sent out Friday morning.

One day after ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Moore, who’s been with the Saints since 2005, and running back Pierre Thomas were being “shopped” to other teams, Moore tweeted what appeared to be a good-bye on his verified Twitter account.

Moore tweeted: “Thank you New Orleans for an amazing nine years. Who Dat Nation, the best on earth!!!”

Later Friday morning, NFL Network national insider Ian Rapoport, citing a source, reported that Moore’s representatives have been informed by the Saints that they plan to release him.

Saints’ officials did not immediately confirm their plans for Moore, who was the last player remaining from the pre-Sean Payton era after linebacker Will Smith was released last month.

Moore was going into the fourth year of a five-year, $20 million contract he signed in 2011. He was due $3.1 million in base salary and carried a cap figure of about $5.07 million for 2014 when you factor in his prorated signing bonus and other bonuses.

His release will save the Saints just more than $2.7 million on the salary cap this season.

As of Thursday, the Saints were close to the $133 million cap that goes into effect Tuesday after franchising tight end Jimmy Graham and offering a one-year tender offer to safety Rafael Bush, a restricted free agent.

Moore joined the Saints in 2005 when Jim Haslett was in his final season as the Saints’ coach. After joining the team’s practice squad that season, Moore blossomed in Payton’s potent offense.

He spent most of the 2006 season on the practice squad and had just one reception for 10 yards, but worked his way onto the field in 2007 and had 32 catches for 302 yards and two touchdowns.

Overall, he caught 346 passes for 4,281 yards and 38 TDs with the Saints. His best seasons were in 2008 when he caught 78 passes for 928 yards with 10 TDs and 2012 when he had a career-high 1,041 yards and six scores on 65 receptions.

Moore, who will turn 31 before the start of the 2014 season, missed three games with a hand injury last year and had his snaps cut later in the season. He wound up with 37 receptions for 457 yards and two TDs.

Saints shopping Moore, Thomas according to ESPN report

With the start of free agency and new NFL year just five days away Thursday, the Saints were reportedly trying to create salary cap space by “shopping” wide receiver Lance Moore and running back Pierre Thomas.

Citing a source, ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted the Saints were trying to deal Moore and Thomas, two of the more tenured players on the roster, and possibly running back Darren Sproles.

Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis did not respond to an email about the ESPN report, and agents for Moore and Thomas did not return phone calls to The Advocate.

The Saints were believed to be about $1.5 million under the $133 million salary cap Wednesday evening, but need more cap room to sign All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and perhaps retain some of their other potential unrestricted free agents.

Graham had the franchise tag applied to him a week ago, a designation that carries a $7.035 million price tag for a tight end.

But Graham and his representatives are expected to file a grievance for him to be paid as a wide receiver because he lined up more at that position than at tight end last season.

If the grievance is filed and an arbitrator rules in Graham’s favor, the one-year deal would jump to the wide receiver franchise salary of $12.132 million for 2014 — unless he and the club agree on a long-term contract by July 15.

The Saints last month gained some cap relief by terminating the contracts of three veteran defenders — outside linebacker Will Smith, cornerback Jabari Greer and strong safety Roman Harper.

That, coupled with a $7 million increase over the projected 2014 salary cap, gave the Saints enough breathing room to tag Graham as a tight end.

The Saints also announced that inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who’ll become an unrestricted free agent on Tuesday afternoon, will not be re-signed.

They have only 11 unrestricted free agents remaining after signing linebacker Keyunta Dawson and kicker Shayne Graham and announcing Vilma would not be re-signed. The Saints likely want to keep some of those UFAs — a group that includes tackle Zach Strief, free safety Malcolm Jenkins, center Brian de la Puente and wide receiver Robert Meachem.

Also, defensive end Kenyon Coleman, who spent the entire 2013 season on injured reserve, was told he won’t be re-signed and has indicated that he’ll retire.

Freeing themselves of the contracts of Moore, Thomas and/or Sproles would mean substantial savings for the Saints this season.

At the same time, it would subtract some players that have made significant contributions to an offense that has led the NFL in total yards four times and finished no lower than sixth since coach Sean Payton took over in 2006. All three played on the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning team in 2009.

Moore, Thomas and Sproles all signed their current deals in 2011. Moore received a five-year contract that runs through 2015, while Thomas and Sproles received deals that expire after the upcoming season.

Moore has a cap figure of about $5.07 million, while Sproles and Thomas are on the books for cap hits of $4.25 million and $2.9 million, respectively.

If the Saints were to part with them, either via trade or termination of their contract, they would save $3.5 million on Sproles, $2.9 million on Thomas and $2.711 million on Moore.

All three have been productive players in Payton’s offense, but Moore and Sproles will be 31 when the regular season starts and Thomas turns 30 at the end of the season.

Moore, who joined the Saints as a street free agent, caught 37 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns last year while missing three games with a hand injury.

Thomas led the Saints in rushing this past season with 549 yards and two TDs. He also caught 77 passes for 513 yards and three TDs before missing both playoff games with a chest injury.

Sproles rushed for only 220 yards and two scores in 2013, but was effective in the passing game with 71 receptions for 604 yards and two TDs.

Saints re-sign K Shayne Graham, two others

After making their first big moves of the offseason on Wednesday, the Saints have re-signed three players — including veteran kicker Shayne Graham.

 Graham, a 13-year veteran who signed with the Saints on Dec. 18 after kicker Garrett Hartley was released, was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 11.

Graham, 36, signed a new one-year contract for the 2014 season with a base salary of $955,000, according to the NFL Players Association website.

He was 2-for-2 in the final two games of the regular season and connected on all four of his field-goal attempts in the Saints’ 26-24 wild-card playoff win against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Graham hit from 36, 46, 35 and 32 yards out against the Eagles — with the last one coming on the final play of the game for the win. A week later, he missed from 45 and 47 yards in tough conditions in a 23-15 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round.

Graham has converted 85.5 percent of his field-goal attempts during his career, making 247 of 289 tries in 157 games.

The Saints also signed their two exclusive rights free agents — tackle Bryce Harris and cornerback Trevin Wade.

As two-year veterans, both players were exclusive rights free agents. They could only re-sign with the Saints if given a one-year tender offer of $570,000 each by the club.

Harris played in all 16 regular-season games with one start at right tackle against the New England Patriots. He played extensively on special teams and also lined up as an extra tight end for blocking purposes.

Wade was signed on Nov. 19 for depth after veteran cornerback Jabari Greer suffered a season-ending knee injury. Wade played in the final two regular-season games and broke up one pass and had one tackle on special teams in two postseason games.

The release Wednesday of Greer, outside linebacker Will Smith and strong safety Roman Harper became official on the NFL transactions wire Friday.

Greer and Smith officially were released because they failed physicals. Smith had a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the third exhibition game that sidelined him for the entire season.

The Saints also announced Wednesday that they will not try to re-sign inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was to become an unrestricted free agent in March. He played in only one game in 2013 after having arthroscopic knee surgery midway through training camp.

Former Saints DE/LB Will Smith makes statement

After having his contract terminated along with safety Roman Harper and cornerback Jabari Greer on Wednesday, former Saints defensive end/linebacker Will Smith issued a statement thanking the fans and team for his 10-year stay with the club.

The Saints also announced that linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next month, will not be re-signed.

“While it was always my dream to retire as a member of the New Orleans Saints, I recognize that the NFL remains a business first,” Smith said. “I will always be grateful to Mr. Benson, Mr. Loomis, and Coach Payton for the opportunity they gave me to play the sport I love in front of football’s greatest fans, amongst some of my best friends.

“We accomplished great things during my time with the Saints, including winning the first Super Bowl in franchise history, and I am proud of my contributions during the decade I wore black and gold.

“My wife Racquel and I will continue our commitment to improving lives for New Orleans’ youth no matter where my next stop in professional football takes me. I’m in good spirits, thankful and focused on training. My family and I welcome the next chapter in our NFL life. Who Dat!”

Classy move.

Saints’ Brees helps Seahawks’ Wilson prepare for big game

NEW YORK — Since winning the NFC title nine days ago, much has been said and written about the Seattle Seahawks’ lack of Super Bowl experience.

While no one on their 53-man active roster has played in a Super Bowl, second-year quarterback Russell Wilson made sure he was prepared for it when the time came.

Wilson will take his first snap in Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday when the Seahawks take on the AFC champion Denver Broncos in MetLife Stadium, but he may feel more like a seasoned veteran thanks to his experience in New Orleans a year ago.

Wilson’s main objective in going to the Big Easy wasn’t to party, but to envision what it’d be like when the Seahawks got there.

“I went to the Super Bowl just to observe and watch and do some broadcasting stuff, but my main objective within all of that was to get prepared for the situation,” Wilson said. “Just observing and noticing the time that it took in terms of pregame, in terms of halftime, you never know what may happen.

“You always have to be prepared for that. I think the biggest thing for our team is noticing that circumstances are a little bit different. At the same time, it still feels like 100 yards (long) and 53 and a third (yards wide). It doesn’t change.”

Before the Seahawks played the Saints in early December, Wilson talked about how he’s closely followed the career of Drew Brees — mainly because they’re both slight in stature compared to the prototypical NFL quarterback.

To add to his research on playing in the league’s title game, Wilson said he talked to Brees, the most valuable player of Super Bowl XLIV, last week.

“We’ve been in communication over the past week, just (talking) about the experience,” Wilson said. “Like I said, he knows that I look up to him. He’s a great individual and he was just talking about the experience.

“I’ve read his book several times … he’s just a great inspiration. He’s a guy that does things right, a guy that is a great leader and is so poised in big situations. That’s the thing you notice about him.”

EIU QB didn’t feel pressure playing in footsteps of Saints’ Payton

MOBILE, Ala. — Instead of feeling the pressure of trying to follow the two most-productive quarterbacks in Eastern Illinois University history, Jimmy Garoppolo embraced it.

More than a month after his record-setting career at EIU ended with a loss in the FCS quarterfinals, he still is.

The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Garoppolo, who is playing for the South squad in the Reese’s Senior Bowl this week, said Tuesday he enjoyed following in the footsteps of New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

“Both of their names are all over the school,” Garoppolo said with a smile. “They have posters up and everything, so the comparisons (with them) are going to be there. It was just a blessing for them to establish the tradition, and for me to try to follow them.”

Payton and Romo, who often kid around with each other about who was the better college quarterback, owned most of the school’s passing records — until Garoppolo came along.

Garoppolo shattered Payton’s career records for passing yards (13,156) and completions (1,047) and also topped Romo’s career mark for touchdown passes (118) earlier this season.

“They set a standard, and it’s up to the rest of Eastern quarterbacks that go through there to live up to that standard,” Garoppolo said.

SPEED TRAP: Another player from a smaller school, Princeton defensive tackle Caraun Reid, had an eye-opening experience Monday during the first practice for Saturday’s game in Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

The 6-2, 305-pound Reid, who is playing for the South squad, had to quickly get used to the size and speed — especially the speed — of the players he was going against.

“It’s fast-paced,” said Reid, a two-time All-American. “It’s faster than what I’m normally used to, but I made my adjustment to it on the first day and it’s been fun since.

“The guys are definitely bigger. Not many guys are 330 pounds that I’ve been going against. They’re bigger, they’re stronger and they force me to get better every day.”

THE IVY LEAGUER: Reid said he gets questions about wanting to be a football player and perhaps play in the NFL when he can do so many other things after going to Princeton.

“They just wonder why someone who can do those things wants to play football,” Reid said. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was a little boy. It’s the only thing I’ve worked for.”

Reid said he hasn’t been kidded by his South teammates about being the smart guy from the Ivy League.

“We’re all in this together. … It’s not like I’m struggling,” he said. “I’m holding my own, and I’m playing and competing so it’s not like I stand out as an Ivy Leaguer. They just don’t recognize my helmet.”

KICKING IT: Punter Cody Mandell, a Lafayette native who played at Acadiana High School, will begin his journey to what he hopes is an NFL job after a solid career that began as a walk-on at Alabama.

Mandell averaged 42.6 yards per punt for his four-year career, which ranks fourth in Crimson Tide history. He averaged 47.1 last season to rank second in school history for kickers with at least 25 punts and led the nation in net punting at 42.43 yards per punt.

But now it’s on to the next opportunity for Mandell, who noted that while there are only 32 such jobs available in the NFL, two of the current punters — the Saints’ Thomas Morstead and Indianapolis Colts’ Pat McAfee — were both drafted after playing in the 2009 Senior Bowl.

“They came here and made the most of their opportunity,” Mandell said. “So that’s what I wanted to do.”

NOT GEOGRAPHICALLY CHALLENGED: Because Senior Bowl officials try to strike a competitive balance for their game and often make changes on the fly leading up to the start of practices, players can wind up on either squad.

Which is why Garopollo and Reid are on the South team, along with Montana linebacker Jordan Tripp and North   DakotaState tackle Billy Turner.

On the other hand, three players from the University of Miami are on the North team, as is Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon and Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Justin Ellis.

HALL OMEN?: Former Southern University defensive back Aeneas Williams, who participated in the Senior Bowl in 1991, was inducted into the all-star game’s Hall of Fame last March.

Williams, who went on to play 14 seasons in the NFL after playing in the Senior Bowl, is also a finalist for the third consecutive year for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Class of 2014 will be elected on Feb. 1, the day before Super Bowl XLVIII.

LATE ADDITION: Louisiana Tech’s IK Enemkpali, a 6-foot-1, 250-pound defensive end, was added to the South roster on Wednesday as an injury replacement for Virginia’s Brent Urban.

Saints’ GM glad to deny Dolphins a chance to pick up Pace

MOBILE, Ala. — After talking about the loss of quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi and how it’s inevitable the franchise will lose bright young staff members, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis was asked Tuesday about one that didn’t get away — for now.

Loomis acknowledged another team, reportedly the Miami Dolphins, wanted to interview director of player personnel Ryan Pace nearly two weeks ago. But the Saints denied the request because they were preparing for their divisional playoff game.

When asked if he could talk about Pace, who has been with the team’s scouting department for 12 seasons, Loomis jokingly said he didn’t like to.

“I kind of feel like he’s been our secret for a while … but look, he’s a great, young personnel director,” a smiling Loomis said of Pace, who was elevated to his current position this past summer.

“He’s got a great eye for talent, and (players) that fit what we are doing and what we want to do. He’s very talented. He’s a guy that we’re going to lose at some point.”

But the Saints weren’t ready to do that just yet when the Dolphins called looking for general manager candidates. They haven’t hired anyone yet, but Loomis said they’ve moved on in their search.

Lombardi, the Saints’ quarterbacks coach since 2009 and a member of Sean Payton’s staff since 2007, was named Tuesday offensive coordinator by new Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell.

THE NUMBER IS UP: After wearing jersey No. 18 this season, which has become a tradition over the last decade for the LSU football program, former Tigers linebacker Lamin Barrow has a new look for the Senior Bowl.

Barrow has worn No. 50 this week in practice sessions and will don it for the South squad in Saturday’s all-star game in Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

“It’s just a number to me,” Barrow said. “I guess everybody knows I was (number) 18 this past season, and that was a big thing for me. I’m fine with a big number. … I’m going to have to change it next year anyway. I’m just out here to do a job, so the number doesn’t matter to me.”

MOVING ON: Auburn cornerback and kick returner Chris Davis made a name for himself with one of the most shocking plays in college football history when he returned a missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown against top-ranked Alabama on Nov. 30.

The score on the game’s final play put Auburn in the Southeastern Conference Championship game the next week, which Davis said was the only thing on his mind when he awoke the next morning.

Nearly eight weeks later, Davis said hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask him about it — like this week at the Senior Bowl festivities.

“It’s something that’s brought up a lot, but I put it behind me because I’m trying to get to the next level,” he said Tuesday. “I’m asked about that play every time I turn around.

“Some day I’ll appreciate it more. Right now, I’m chasing my dream. … I’m trying to get to the next level.”

JUNIORS WELCOME: For the second year in a row, a junior in eligibility is getting a chance to take part in Senior Bowl activities.

Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard, a fourth-year junior who declared for the May draft, was allowed to participate this week because he has already graduated.

The NFL allowed two tackles — Syracuse’s Justin Pugh and Alabama’s D.J. Fluker — to play in last season’s game because they graduated and were giving up their final season of eligibility to enter the draft.

BACK AGAIN: Detroit Lions trainer Dean Kleinschmidt, a member of the Saints’ training staff for 31 seasons from 1969 to 1999, is working his 43rd consecutive Senior Bowl.

Kleinschmidt, who last month completed his 40th season as a head trainer in the NFL, is serving as the medical coordinator for both the North and South squads as he has for decades.

He first attended the game in 1971 when then-Saints coach J.D. Roberts and his staff coached one of the squads. A year later, Kleinschmidt was asked back when the New York Jets trainer couldn’t work the game and he’s returned every year since.