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Tim Lelito has found an unlikely ally in Jonathan Goodwin

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — It would be easy for Jonathan Goodwin to treat as Tim Lelito as a threat to his job, because, well, that’s exactly what he is.

The competition at center between these two men is as fierce as any battle unfolding in the New Orleans Saints’ training camp, yet Goodwin, who was imported from San Francisco this offseason after an earlier stint with the Saints, has been willing to serve as a mentor to his younger teammate.

“It’s nice to have a guy who will actually work with you and teach you things,” Lelito said. “We’re both trying to make this team better.”

It appears, at least on the surface, that the battle for the starting center position is open. Goodwin and Lelito have alternated snaps with the first-team offense throughout the first four days of camp.

Neither has pulled away in the race. Goodwin went 2-0 in one-on-one drills against the defensive line during Friday’s practice. Lelito went 1-1.

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Meachem, Grubbs could be back “in the next day or so,” Payton says

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Veteran Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem is expected to be back “in the next day or so” after missing practices Sunday and Monday, and the same is true of Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs after he was sidelined Monday, coach Sean Payton said.
Meachem had been dealing with back tightness, and Grubbs was being given veteran rest, Payton has said. They each watched Monday’s activities in shorts and without pads. Meachem had been in that attire as well on Sunday, when Grubbs was in pads and a helmet but didn’t do much.

Payton did not put the same time frame on when Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills may return from a quad strain he had during drills Friday. Stills did some conditioning work Monday.

That was also the case with safety Jairus Byrd (back) and nose tackle John Jenkins (pec, reportedly) — who are on the physically unable to perform list — as well as non-football injury designee Tavon Rooks, the rookie tackle. They each did conditioning work.

Live observations from The Greenbrier: Saints Training Camp Day 4

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints RB Pierre Thomas (23) plows ahead during the morning Saints Training Camp practice Saturday, July 26, 2014, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS — Saints RB Pierre Thomas (23) plows ahead during the morning Saints Training Camp practice Saturday, July 26, 2014, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — It feels like the fall again at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, as the Saints prepare to ramp up the fourth day of practice at their 2014 training camp under 68-degree temperatures on Monday. The pads and live contact came out Sunday, of course, and both will continue popping.

I’ll post observations from practice as I see them below. Hit refresh for the next three hours or so to get the latest.

Live observations

–9:30 a.m. : Saints wide receivers Robert Meachem and Kenny Stills as well as left guard Ben Grubbs are not participating. Meachem had back tightness Sunday and sat that session out. Stills tweaked a quad in drills on Friday and hasn’t returned, but he was doing conditioning work to the side Monday.

It is less clear what — if anything — is wrong with Grubbs. Coach Sean Payton on Sunday said the Pro Bowl guard was getting veteran rest treatment after Grubbs spent the practice observing his teammates work.

Senio Kelemete is filling in for Grubbs. Joseph Morgan and Nick Toon are seeing plenty of work with the first team with Meachem and Stills sidelined.

Meanwhile, safety Jairus Byrd (back) and nose tackle John Jenkins (reportedly, pec) — members of the physically unable to perform list — were seen doing conditioning work as they have all camp. Rookie tackle Tavon Rooks, on the non-football injury list, also was doing conditioning work.

With Byrd out, Corey White (starter at cornerback for eight total games in 2013) has been playing as a third safety with the 1s. Meanwhile, Brandon Deaderick has been filling in for Jenkins with the 2s — veteran Brodrick Bunkley is the starter at nose tackle.

Everyone else was present and accounted for.

ADDENDUM: Later in practice, rookie WR Steve Hull left drills early, walking off the field with the help of a trainer. No information was immediately available.

9:52 a.m.: Saints LB Curtis Lofton, whose specialty is tackles in run defense, got the highlight of a 9-on-7 drill when he sliced through the first-string offensive line and wrapped up Khiry Robinson for a loss. RB Travaris Cadet later got one back for the offense with the back-ups, taking a handoff right but cutting up left untouched for what would’ve been a long gain.

In fact, after Lofton’s stuff, the offense seemed to get the upper hand in the run drill. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s displeasure was audible to fans, some of whom chuckled at some of the things he said to berate his unit.

On the other side of the field, the Saints worked on one-on-one passing drills. As those drills are essentially designed to do, the wide receivers seemed to be getting the best of the defensive backs, though the DBs forced some overthrows with good coverage and notched pass breakups.

One player who received some extra instruction was rookie safety Pierre Warren, who has otherwise had a good camp. Playing like a cornerback, he was beat on two plays, and a coach seemed to speak to him about his positioning at the line of scrimmage.

10:05 a.m. — In a special-teams simulation, Vinnie Sunseri — the hard-hitting rookie safety out of Alabama — got a look at gunner. Obviously, he’s the kind of player whose longevity on the Saints would be boosted by his ability to contribute in special teams coverage.

10:17 a.m. — Working with the 2s in a short-yardage passing drill, Saints quarterback Ryan Griffin was efficient, connecting on passes over the middle to rookies TE Je’Ron Hamm and WR Seantavius Jones for what would’ve been first downs. … No surprise, so did Drew Brees, whose best pass was one over the middle to veteran WR Marques Colston, who stretched out for the grab. The play resembled a shorter version of the route Colston successfully ran to catch a pass that set up a game-winning field goal at Tampa Bay last year.

10:24 a.m. — Saints rookie receiver Brandon Coleman, towering at 6-foot-6, had at least a couple of nice possession-style grabs over the middle during the short-yardage passing drill working with the backups. I can’t immediately recall any drops from him this camp, which signifies progress after offseason workouts in which he had numerous ones.

10:28 a.m. — Drew Brees challenged CB Keenan Lewis in back-to-back team plays, and the defender was more than equal to the challenge. He broke up both throws for incompletions emphatically, prompting Ryan to congratulate him with “There you go, West Bank! There you go, West Bank!” Safety Kenny Vaccaro went up to Lewis after the second break-up and said, “That’s going to get us there! That’s going to get us there!” They bumped helmets.

Lewis grew up in the Cutoff section of Algiers, an area on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans.

10:32 a.m. — No babying the rookie. Brandin Cooks caught a pass over the middle working against backups in a full team drill, and CB Rod Sweeting made his presence felt with a forceful bump to the ground. Cooks was fine, though, quickly jumping up to his feet and hanging on.

Meanwhile, maybe spoke to soon about Coleman — he was spotted dropping a ball in the drill that was behind him but catchable.

10:38 a.m. — Tim Lelito and Jonathan Goodwin are liberally alternating spots on the first and second units.

Back to Coleman: a long pass over the middle from Luke McCown bounced off his fingertips, and it was intercepted by Warren. Coleman slammed his right fist in the ground. His bad moment, though, was a good one for Warren after the safety had been instructed on his technique earlier.

10:46 a.m.: Lofton opened the aforementioned 11-on-11 passing drills with a spectacular pass break-up he almost picked off. … Toon gave up on a route too soon, it seemed, on an overthrown Brees pass. He later made up for it by making a good catch along the sideline on an out-route, fighting through traffic to get it.

10:50 a.m. — Fielding a punt in a simulation drill, bubble WR Charles Hawkins showed some acceleration running up the sideline to his right and turning the corner past his defender. One reporter loudly observed, “Man, Hawkins can fly!” New Orleans native and Southern alum Hawkins is the kind of player whose way on the team is on special teams, finding himself among a crowded battle at wide receiver.

10:54 a.m.: WR Steve Hull left with an unspecified injury. He walked off with the help of a trainer, apparently favoring his left leg. … Saints CB Brian Dixon, a rookie, made a good play in punt coverage, and Payton walked off the sideline and onto the field to congratulate him.

11:05 a.m. — In 11-on-11 drills, RBs Travaris Cadet and Khiry Robinson notched good runs. Tyrunn Walker batted a pass down on Ryan Griffin.

11:11 a.m. — The wind blew strong at the end of practice. … TE Ben Watson had a nice catch over the middle. On a less positive note, Morgan lost his footing on an incomplete pass working with the 1s.

The Saints are completing their cooling-off runs. The media avail abilities with Payton and players is about to start.

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.”

Saints’ tendencies: A look at how Keenan Lewis defends against each route

As I attempt to get up to speed on all things Saints before the start of the regular season, I felt one of the better places to start was by getting a better grasp on some of the team’s tendencies.

So, over the next few weeks, when time permits, we’ll take a closer look at some of the data I was able to cobble together by watching the team’s 2013 games, perusing Pro Football Focus’ databases, and  talking to people.

Today we take a look at how cornerback Kennan Lewis performed against various routes.

Screens: Two targets, one completion, minus -3 yards
Quick outs: Three targets, two completions, 2 yards
Slants: Six targets, three completions, 22 yards, one TD
Outs: 10 targets, five completions, 57 yards,
In: Three targets, two completions, 19 yards
Comeback: Five targets, three completions, 43 yards
Hitch: 14 targets, 10 completions, 112 yards, one TD, one INT
Post: Four targets, three completions 69 yards
Go: 14 targets, three completions, 91 yards, three INTs
Crossing: Five targets, five completions, 43 yards, one TD

Looking at these numbers, Lewis appears to be most vulnerable when covering hitches, posts, and crossing routes. The majority of his opportunities for turnovers came against go routes, where he picked up three of his four interceptions.


Saints’ tendencies: A closer look at the nickel package

As I attempt to get up to speed on all things Saints before the start of the regular season, I felt one of the better places to start was by getting a better grasp on some of the team’s tendencies.

So, over the next few weeks, when time permits, we’ll take a closer look at some of the data I was able to cobble together by watching the team’s 2013 games, perusing Pro Football Focus’ databases, and by talking to people.

Up first is the Saints’ nickel defense.

Like many other teams in the now pass-first NFL, the Saints spent more time in their nickel defense, a 3-3-5 alignment than in their 3-4 base. Out of 988 defensive snaps last season, 319 were in nickel, 269 were in base, and 212 were in dime (3-2-6).

Looking at the nickel packages, the breakdown is as follows:

Number of times used again passes:
– First down: 83 times
– Second and long: 51
– Second a medium: 23
– Second and short: 5
–Third and long: 9
– Third and medium: 4
– Third and short: 2
– Fourth down: 1
– Extra points: 0

Against the run:

– First down: 77
– Second and long: 26
– Second and medium: 26
– Second and short: 9
– Third and long: 2
– Third and medium: 0
– Third and short: 1
– Fourth down: 0

Number of pass rushers sent:

– Three: 10 times
– Four: 132
– Five: 32
– Six: 7
– Seven: 3
– Eight: 2

Blitzes by down and distance:

– First downs: 17
– Second and short: 0
– Second and medium: 6
– Second and long: 10
– Third and short: 2
– Third and medium: 1
– Third and long: 9
– Fourth down: 0
– Extra points: 0

Total sacks: 12

Outtakes on Rob Ryan

WHITE SULPHER SPRINGS, W. Va. — I did not have enough space to include all the good nuggets about Rob Ryan in today’s story about the defensive coordinator. So, instead of leaving them on them on the cutting room floor, we’ll share a few of the better ones here.

Sean Payton on what he’s learned about Ryan: “The biggest thing is with not having worked with Rob before is that you get a better idea of the person, the personality and his passion for football because half of his staff I would say, I probably worked with or coached with somewhere else and half of his staff when they were hired, it was off of recommendation and (job) interviews.  It is mixed.  But with Rob, it really was a lot of what I had heard from other coaches that had worked with him when I spoke with them prior to interviewing them.”

LB David Hawthorne on Ryan: “We know Rob Ryan is real creative, and good players will play. No matter what you do, he’s going to find a spot for you. We’re all kind of like giving each other a run for it.”

Ryan on how he expects to grow this year:  “I think I have to be a lot better. The nice thing is, with our staff, it’s easy to be really good. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to learn our team as fast as we can. I think that’s the biggest thing. Preseason is making sure you keep the right players, and evaluating them, getting their strengths, and finding out exactly our identity on defense. Every year is different. We’ve got a lot to prove this year, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Ryan on the need to create turnovers:  “Absolutely. We’re doing everything we can. We’ve got to be better at it. That was a weakness for us last year. We’ve identified it, we’re trying to coach it better than we did last year. We’re trying to play it better than we did last year. It has to pay off for us. We need to improve in that area if we want to be a great defense.”

Payton on trusting the defense:  “Yes, I think as coaches we always wanted to pay attention to what they are seeing.  We aren’t just out there freelancing.  There’s a call we make and we play it.  There are some adjustments we come off of it.  But as you prepare for a game, one important thing we have to do is quickly gather what do our players do best?  What are they most comfortable in?  Because when you get in those big spots you want to give them calls defensively and offensively and in the kicking game that they know by heart.  You want to give them calls that they don’t have to hesitate.  A player that knows what he is doing is going to execute faster.”