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Saints match Falcons’ offer to restricted free agent Rafael Bush

New Orleans Saints' Rafael Bush (25) leaves the field after being injured against the Seattle Seahawks in the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, in Seattle.  (AP Photo/Scott Eklund)

New Orleans Saints’ Rafael Bush (25) leaves the field after being injured against the Seattle Seahawks in the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Scott Eklund)

The New Orleans Saints on Monday matched the two-year, $4.5 million offer the Atlanta Falcons made to restricted free-agent safety Rafael Bush on Thursday.

An NFL source confirmed the report to The Advocate about a minute before the player did the same with a reporter via an exchange on Twitter. The move then appeared on the league’s official transaction wire.

Bush earlier called attention to the situation by tweeting, “I’m still a saint yep.”

Bush signed the offer sheet from the NFC South rival Falcons as they were searching for someone to replace Thomas DeCoud, a starting safety for them since 2009 who was released in February. The Saints had until Tuesday to match the offer if they wanted to retain Bush and prevent him from leaving for no compensation.

The Saints in March extended Bush a minimum $1.4 million, one-year contract tender, which gave them the right to match any offers from other teams the safety might consider.

Last year, Bush was credited by the Saints with 45 tackles (29 solo), six pass break-ups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery over 13 games and six starts.

He also tacked on four special-teams stops as the Saints — whose defense was ranked No. 4 overall and second against the pass — won 12 of their 18 games and made it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

Bush handled an increased workload well early in the season when safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper (neither of whom are on the team anymore) were injured.

The analytics website Pro Football Focus gave Bush the 24th-highest grade among NFL safeties in 2013 and rated him as the Saints’ best player at the position.

Bush’s career began in Atlanta as an undrafted free agent in 2010, and he was on the Falcons practice squad until Denver signed him away in 2011. He played sparingly for the Broncos, who waived him at the end of August 2012. New Orleans soon claimed him.

Bush, who played at South Carolina State, played in all 16 games for the Saints in 2012 and led the special teams with 15 tackles and a fumble recovery. His role on defense initially grew after Jenkins suffered a hamstring injury and landed on injured reserve: Bush had an interception, which he returned 40 yards; forced a fumble; and recovered another fumble.

Bush will stay with a position group that includes Jairus Byrd, who was acquired in March in free agency and whose 22 career interceptions are the most among players at his position since he entered the league in 2009; and Kenny Vaccaro, a 2013 first-round pick who had an excellent rookie season.

There is also safety Marcus Ball, who signed from the Canadian Football League earlier this week. The Saints on Friday reached terms with 12-time Pro Bowl defensive back Champ Bailey, who had been a free agent since Denver released him in March.

It had been speculated that Bailey, who turns 36 in June, might play as a cornerback-safety hybrid.

Other Saints defensive backs are Corey White, Patrick Robinson, Rod Sweeting and Trevin Wade.

Champ Bailey agrees to 2-year deal with Saints

Broncos Bye Bye Bailey Football

When free agency started on March 11, the Saints immediately addressed a dearth of turnovers in 2013 by acquiring former Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd, whose 22 career interceptions since joining the NFL in 2009 are the most among players at his position.

They landed another pick-off artist on Friday, agreeing to terms on a two-year, free-agent deal with 12-time Pro Bowl defensive back Roland “Champ” Bailey, the team announced.

League sources familiar with the situation told The Advocate about the deal with Bailey about 30 minutes before the Saints’ announcement. ESPN’s Adam Schefter and NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport later reported the contract was worth up to $7 million.

Bailey’s 52 career interceptions are the third-most among active NFL players. The three-time All-Pro and future Hall of Famer had a productive 2012, but the former Bronco is coming off the worst year of his career — a preseason foot injury limited Bailey to just eight games in 2013, three of which were in the playoffs and included Denver’s loss to Seattle in the Super Bowl.

Nonetheless, it’s definitely possible that Bailey will challenge for the spot opposite Lewis, who led the Saints with four interceptions and was second on the team with nine pass break-ups.

“We are excited to be able to add a future Hall of Fame player with the addition of Champ Bailey,” Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said. “His career accomplishments mirror that of his high character, and he’s a very prideful and competitive player who we believe will add to our defense. Having spent time with him recently and in our discussions with him, I know that he’s thrilled to be joining the New Orleans Saints and starting a new chapter in his professional life.”

Other cornerbacks competing for the job of complementing Lewis are 2012 fifth-round pick Corey White, who took over starting duties after the now-released Jabari Greer suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 12; and Patrick Robinson, who is heading into his fifth campaign with the Saints but hurt his knee in the second game of 2013 and missed the rest of the year.

If Bailey doesn’t win that job yet still makes the roster, there’s no question the Saints will hope he provides heaps of veteran guidance to the secondary. Aside from the aforementioned players, other pieces to the secondary include safety Kenny Vaccaro, entering his second year; cornerback Rod Sweeting, also a rookie in 2013; and cornerback Trevin Wade, a seventh-round pick by Cleveland in 2012 who joined New Orleans as a free agent in the middle of last season.

The Saints in March extended a one-year, $1.4 million tender to restricted free-agent safety Rafael Bush, who’s been with the Saints since 2012. But Bush recently signed an offer sheet from the Atlanta Falcons, and the Saints have to match it by April 8 or the safety will leave them for no compensation. Bush played with Bailey in Denver in 2011 and in the 2012 preseason.

Bailey, who has 15 seasons of NFL experience and will be 36 in June, spent his first five years in the league with Washington and was traded to Denver in 2004.
He has four career interception returns for touchdowns, the last of which was in 2006. That year, he picked off a career-high 10 passes for a personal best 162 return yards.

Denver released Bailey at the beginning of March to save about $10 million in salary-cap space.

Saints coach Sean Payton recently said cornerbacks talented in coverage and at creating turnovers are always at a premium in the NFL. Bailey in his best years would’ve certainly fit that bill for a defense that finished fourth overall and second against the pass in 2013 but also fourth from the bottom in takeaways, of which New Orleans had 19.

Bailey’s visit to New Orleans began being widely reported upon on Tuesday. Those reports were prompted by Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis’ decision to post a photo of himself posing next to Bailey at team headquarters on the social media service Instagram, and there were accounts of the two working out together later in the week.

In an interview on Wednesday with The Advocate’s content partners at WWL-TV, Lewis said introducing a player like Bailey to the roster “would definitely help me uplift my game.”

“He’s a great guy,” Lewis said. “He’s been doing it for some years now, Pro Bowl-caliber player and whenever you have an opportunity to add guys like that to the roster, it’s always beneficial.

“I’ve got a lot of faith in Rod Sweeting, Patrick Robinson, Corey White — the guys we have, but (being around Bailey) would definitely help me uplift my game. … He’s a championship guy, so anytime you’ve got a guy like that in your locker room, it only boosts you further to your goals.”

Saints players flocked to Twitter to celebrate the acquisition of Bailey.

Byrd tweeted, “Yessir! ..welcome to the squad,” tacking on his new teammate’s handle, @champbailey. White added, “Grew up watching the (future Hall of Famer) Champ Bailey now I have (a) great opportunity to play with him. Glad to have him (be) part of (the) #WhoDatNation.”

Tight end Benjamin Watson — who, like Bailey, attended the University of Georgia for college — tweeted, “Great to have another (Georgia Bulldog) on the team!”

Running back Khiry Robinson chimed in, “(Lewis) on one side and Champ Bailey on the other, Oh yeah WHODATnation it’s down this Season! WE COMING! YOOO Bless!!”
Fox 8’s Sean Fazende and ESPN’s Mike Triplett were the first to report Bailey’s deal with the Saints.

USC’s Marqise Lee says he’ll visit Saints, rival Panthers

There likely will be more, but at the very minimum, the Saints are hosting one wide receiver who many think could be selected late in the first round of the 2014 draft in May.

USC’s Marqise Lee told the program Pro Football Talk Live he has visits set up with New Orleans and its NFC South rival, the Carolina Panthers. The Saints have the 27th overall pick of the upcoming draft, and the Panthers have the 28th.

Lee also said he’s worked out privately for “a couple of teams” but didn’t disclose who they were.

The 6-foot, 192-pound Lee caught 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2012 and won the Biletnikoff Award for best receiver in the nation. His quarterback was Matt Barkley.

But his numbers were significantly less impressive his junior year with the Trojans: 57 grabs, 791 yards and four scores during a campaign in which coach Lane Kiffin was fired after five games.

Lee blamed his drop in production on leg injuries that kept him out of three games. “I didn’t have my full on season from that end,” he said to PFT Live.

He also mentioned the battle for starting quarterback at the beginning of the 2013 campaign between Cody Kessler (who won) and Max Wittek (the backup) as a negative factor. “Even that was kind of a struggle as far as getting that repetition and getting that flow with the quarterback,” Lee remarked. “I didn’t get the chance to really get that going.”

At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Lee clocked a 40-yard dash of 4.52 seconds — the fastest time in the event among wideouts was 4.33, and the slowest was 4.75. His broad jump of 10 feet, 7 inches was the best at his position.

According to CBSSports.com draft pundit Rob Rang, one of Lee’s top strengths is explosive straight-line speed that makes it difficult for cornerbacks to press him. Weaknesses are his slight frame and the fact that he struggled with injuries in 2013, “raising legitimate questions about his ability to remain healthy against NFL competition,” Rang wrote.

The Saints for now only have three receivers with meaningful NFL experience: veteran Marques Colston, second-year player Kenny Stills and third-year player Joe Morgan.

Colston caught 75 passes for 943 yards and five touchdowns in 15 regular-season games in 2013. He is the franchise leader in receptions (607), receiving yards (8,337) and receiving touchdowns (63), but coach Sean Payton recently said Colston battled through foot soreness for much of last season.

Stills — with 32 catches for 641 yards and five touchdowns — led the NFL in yards per reception (20).

Morgan sat out the 2011 and 2013 seasons with knee injuries; but, in 2012, he had three touchdowns and 379 yards on 10 grabs. His jaw-dropping 37.9 yards per catch would’ve easily been the best in the NFL if he had enough grabs to qualify for the league’s leader boards.

Meanwhile, the Panthers’ top two receivers at the moment — Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood — are far from the NFL’s most decorated.

Drew Brees tapped for Tulane President’s Medal; Saints Hall of Fame hosting benefits

FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2012, AP file photo, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) watches from the sidelines during the first half of an NFL wild card playoff football game against the Detroit Lions in New Orleans.

FILE – In this Jan. 7, 2012, AP file photo, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) watches from the sidelines during the first half of an NFL wild card playoff football game against the Detroit Lions in New Orleans.

Tulane will honor Saints quarterback Drew Brees with a President’s Medal at the university’s 2014 commencement ceremony the morning of May 17, the school announced Friday.

The award will recognize the former Super Bowl MVP’s work with the Brees Dream Foundation, which has donated more than $20 million to charitable causes and academic institutions in New Orleans, where he’s played since 2006; San Diego, where his NFL career began in 2001; and West Lafayette, Ind., where he attended Purdue in college.

The medal will also laud Brees’ on-field merits. Aside from leading the Saints to their sole Super Bowl championship less than five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and helping the team capture three division titles, he is the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than 5,000 yards in four separate seasons.

No other league quarterback has had more than one such season.

The ties between Tulane and the Saints are well-documented. Notably, former Payton assistant Curtis Johnson is the Green Wave’s head football coach; former Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin is one of Brees’ backups; and ex-Tulane QB coach Mike Neu is now the Saints’ QB coach.

Another President’s Medal recipient at Tulane’s commencement will be renowned jazz clarinetist and university alum Michael White. The President’s Medal recognizes individuals who have contributed to the well-being of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, Tulane will also hand honorary degrees to Carnegie Corporation President Vartan Gregorian, World Bicycle Relief founder F.K. Day and musician Wynton Marsalis at the ceremony.

Saints Hall of Fame to host May benefits

The 23rd annual edition of a golf tournament whose proceeds benefit the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame will be May 19, the team said.

Meanwhile, officials have set a Hall of Fame reception and auction for May 18 that will do the same.

The Saints Hall of Fame Celebrity Golf Classic will start May 19 at 9 a.m. at Chateau Golf and Country Club in Kenner. Participants are supposed to include Coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis, Saints players, assistant coaches, team Hall of Fame inductees and other team alums.

Restaurants and caterers will be at all 18 holes, at the check-in area and at a post-event awards ceremony, the Saints said.

Groups of five — four individuals plus a Saints celebrity — can participate for a cost of $1,500; or it’s $1,200 for a foursome, the team said. Individuals are $300, and everything is on a first-come, first-serve basis. All participants will receive a Saints golf shirt and cap.

Checks as well as the names and contact information of participants can be mailed to the Saints Hall of Fame, P.O. Box 640394; Kenner, LA, 70064-0394.

As for the Fox 8 Saints Hall of Fame Reception/Auction, that will be May 18 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the team indoor facility and cafeteria off Airline Drive in Metairie. Pigeon Caterers, Impastato’s Restaurant and Bud Light will provide all-you-can-eat food and drink at the event, and patrons will have the chance to take pictures with Payton, the Super Bowl XLIV trophy and others.

There will be about 20 auction items, among them Saints memorabilia, tickets to upcoming games, sideline passes, jerseys and a restaurant package.

The cost is $50, and it’s payable by check to the aforementioned mailing address.

The Saints Hall of Fame is located at Gate B on the Plaza Level of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. For more information, call Ken Trahan at 504.471.2192 or email kentrahan@aol.com.

Don’t blame Rafael Bush for positioning himself to get a deserved reward: Commentary

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints free safety Rafael Bush (25) watches the final minutes of the 23-15 loss in a NFL NFC divisional football playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks at Century Link Field in Seattle, Wash. Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON– New Orleans Saints free safety Rafael Bush (25) watches the final minutes of the 23-15 loss in a NFL NFC divisional football playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks at Century Link Field in Seattle, Wash. Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014.

With his play last season, Rafael Bush earned a contract that was for more than one year and $1.4 million. And it appears the Saints’ restricted free-agent safety is going to get it, whether it’s from New Orleans or its archenemy, the Atlanta Falcons.

Last month, the Saints handed Bush a minimum $1.4 million, one-year contract tender that ensured they’d have the option to match any offers from other NFL teams the safety might consider. Some pundits optimistically speculated that might be a high enough price to discourage teams from whipping up an offer sheet for Bush.

However, as the pro football world learned Thursday, it wasn’t. Having cut Thomas DeCoud (their starting safety since 2009) in March, the Falcons were in need of a possible replacement, and they handed Bush an offer sheet.

He signed it. Now the Saints have until April 8 to match the offer. The details of the Falcons’ offer weren’t disclosed, but it’s almost certainly for more money and more time than New Orleans’ tender.

Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis was tight-lipped about his front office’s intentions with Bush.

“We received the offer sheet and will make a decision before (April 8),” he wrote in an email to The Advocate.

No one can blame the Falcons for trying to poach Bush, who they brought into the NFL as an undrafted free agent and put on their practice squad in 2010. No one can blame the Falcons for at least forcing their NFC South rivals — who were about $2.2 million under the 2014 salary cap of $133 million — to spend more than they wanted to on Bush.

If the Saints opt to let Bush leave, it wouldn’t be because they’d get something in return (they won’t, because the tender was the minimum one). It also won’t be because they don’t value him.

In 2013, his second year with the Saints, Bush was credited with 45 tackles (29 of which were solo), six pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery over 13 games and six starts. He also had four stops on special teams as the Saints won 12 of their 18 games and made it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
When safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper (neither of whom are with the Saints anymore) missed games with injuries, Bush more than adequately kept the fort. The analytics website Pro Football Focus gave Bush the 24th-highest grade among NFL safeties in 2013 and rated him the Saints’ best player at the position.

But it goes well beyond his numbers and PFF grade, or the fact that the Saints at the moment have only three safeties under contract: Jairus Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler acquired in free agency; 2013 first-round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro, who excelled in his rookie year; and Marcus Ball, signed Thursday from the Canadian Football League.

Bush is capable of doling out thunderous hits to opponents, even when he’s playing in some of the most difficult territories in the NFL.

In a last-minute Week 6 loss at New England, where the Patriots had won 20 of their 21 games in October heading into the contest, Bush hammered Danny Amendola when the wideout took the ball on a reverse and tried to run around the left end.

Amendola lost consciousness, left the game and was scratched from the next week’s contest. Not celebrating the injury here, but the fierceness of Bush’s hit left countless observers in awe.

Another example: During the divisional playoff defeat in Seattle, where the home team has lost once since 2012 and the Saints had been drubbed 34-7 in December, Bush set his aim on Percy Harvin, who was trying to catch a deep pass on the Seahawks’ opening possession. Bush barreled into Harvin; the pass fell incomplete; and officials whistled the safety for a hit on a defenseless receiver — a penalty many did not agree with.

Harvin left the game, was examined for a concussion and returned before he was knocked out of the contest for good on a later play. Again, not reveling in Harvin’s injuries, but Bush — who was fined — quickly assuaged doubts at the time about whether New Orleans could match the vaunted Seattle secondary’s physicality.

So, as much as you can’t blame the cap-strapped Saints or the safety-starved Falcons in this drama, you can’t fault Bush for signing Atlanta’s offer sheet.

He’s merely positioned himself to get what was coming to him — from one team or another.

Will Smith will reportedly visit New England; Grubbs softball game pushed back: Saints mid-day notes

Advocate staff photo by John McCusker -- Will Smith, 91, takes down Raiders quarterback Matt Flynn in the second} quarter as the New Orleans Saints faced the Oakland Raiders in pre-season action in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Friday, August 16, 2013.

Advocate staff photo by John McCusker — Will Smith, 91, takes down Raiders quarterback Matt Flynn in the second} quarter as the New Orleans Saints faced the Oakland Raiders in pre-season action in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Friday, August 16, 2013.

Former Saints defensive end/linebacker Will Smith is in New England for a free agent visit with the Patriots on Tuesday, ESPN’s John Clayton is reporting.

Smith, a first-round draft pick out of Ohio State for the Saints in 2004, led New Orleans in sacks in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009. The Saints won their lone Super Bowl trophy in the last year he led the team in sacks. He even intercepted a pass in the team’s 45-14 victory against Arizona in an NFC divisional playoff game in 2009.

Smith spent most of his career as a 4-3 defensive end, but last year he was asked to become a 3-4 outside linebacker after Rob Ryan took over as New Orleans’ defensive coordinator. He tore an anterior cruciate knee ligament in a preseason exhibition game and missed the rest of the season, during which New Orleans’ defense finished ranked fourth.

With Smith set to turn 33 in July and due a base salary of more than $10 million in 2014, the Saints released him in February.

Smith’s 67½ career sacks trail only Rickey Jackson’s 115, Wayne Martin’s 82.5 and Pat Swilling’s 76.5 in Saints record books. Only Jackson (38) and Swilling (24) forced more fumbles for New Orleans than did Smith (20).

A few days after his release, Smith told The Advocate he wasn’t ready to retire. “I definitely want to play until I don’t have the passion,” Smith said. “I want to play until I can’t at a high level anymore.”

At defensive end, New England has Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette. Andre Carter, who spent 2013 with the Patriots, is a free agent.

Grubbs softball game pushed back

Originally set for May 15, Saints guard Ben Grubbs’ second annual charity softball game at Zephyr Field is now scheduled for May 21 at 6 p.m. More than 30 current New Orleans players are supposed to participate.

Proceeds from ticket sales will benefit local Boys and Girls clubs. The public can purchase tickets at Ticketmaster (800.745.3000 by phone or Ticketmaster.com online) and at the Zephyr Field box office.

Washington signs new OL who’s played center — but it wasn’t Brian de la Puente

New Orleans Saints center Brian De La Puente (60) points before a snap during the first half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, in Chicago.(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

New Orleans Saints center Brian De La Puente (60) points before a snap during the first half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, in Chicago.(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Washington on Friday signed a new player that has previously started at center, but it was not free agent Brian de la Puente, who’s been the Saints’ first-stringer at the position since 2011.

Mike McGlynn — who was a free agent after starting 11 games at right guard and three games at center for Indianapolis in 2013 — agreed to a deal with Washington on Friday afternoon, the team announced via Twitter. He had previously visited Washington, which de la Puente had also done.

It remains to be seen whether the news is any indicator that Washington might no longer be a landing spot for de la Puente, as at least one writer there — ESPN’s John Keim — believes McGlynn constitutes more of a depth signing than the acquisition of a starter.

During the annual NFL owners meeting in Orlando earlier this week, Saints coach Sean Payton said the Saints were still interested in re-signing de la Puente, though second-year offensive lineman Tim Lelito would be given the chance to win the starting job at center this preseason.

Separate from that, a league source confirmed the Saints’ continued interest in de la Puente to The Advocate during the owners meeting.

De la Puente started 44 games during the Saints’ last three seasons. He made a base salary of $2.02 million in 2013 while flanked by Pro Bowl guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans.

Under him on the Saints’ depth chart was Lelito, who started in place of an injured Evans in two games last season.

At the end of 2013, de la Puente told reporters he wanted to return to New Orleans.

“I really like this team — I like the guys, I like the locker room, I like the coaches, the front office,” he said. “I think that’s big in this business.”

The Saints have reportedly been far from alone in coveting de la Puente, however. Aside from New Orleans and Washington (which cut its starting center Will Montgomery), the Giants, Broncos and Patriots have previously been reported as possibilities for de la Puente.

It’s worth noting that Tom Curran, who covers the Patriots for Comcast SportsNet New England, reported on Friday that the Pats re-signed Ryan Wendell, who’s been their starting center.

Vendor of StarCaps, which resulted in suspensions for former Saints, pleads guilty to misbranding drug

A socialite whose weight-loss supplement was linked to banned-substances suspensions for three New Orleans Saints and a few other NFL players several years ago pleaded guilty Wednesday to misbranding the drug, according to Reuters.

Nikki Haskell — known to appear at events involving Aretha Franklin and Ivana Trump — as well as her company, Balanced Health Products Inc., pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal district court to a misdemeanor count of misbranding in connection with the sale of a pill called StarCaps, whose label did not disclose the presence of a diuretic called bumetanide, Reuters reported, via Yahoo Sports.

That diuretic was banned by the NFL. In 2008, former Saints running backs Deuce McAllister as well as defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith tested positive for it, and the league issued them suspensions.

The players appealed the discipline, though, and both McAllister and Grant were out of the NFL before the proceedings were resolved. Ultimately, only Smith served a suspension, and it was for two games in 2011.

Reuters quoted Haskell’s lawyer, Chris Mancini, as saying the defendant didn’t know StarCaps contained bumetanide, which he said was added by the supplement’s manufacturer in Peru.

Both that statement and the fact Haskell admitted her drug was not branded properly are strong indications the players had no way of knowing the banned diuretic was in the StarCaps supplement. The NFL declined to give Reuters comment.

Haskell is reportedly looking at no more than a year in prison. But her lawyer, Chris Mancini, told Reuters she possibly may only need to pay a fine of $60,000 to $100,000 under a plea deal.

(H/T SaintsReport.com)

Saints coach Sean Payton speaks out on Jimmy Graham, vast array of team and league issues

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)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Saints coach Sean Payton’s hour-long session with the media at the annual NFL owner’s meeting in Orlando on Wednesday produced information beat reporters in New Orleans could spend weeks of regular-season news conferences asking to get. Below are some of the highlights.

A few of these touch on topics The Advocate will revisit in future stories.

Jimmy Graham:

(Will the contract negotiations to reach a new long-term contract with All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to replace the now-expired deal he accepted as a Saints rookie in 2010 linger the way they did with quarterback Drew Brees in 2012?)

“It’s hard to put a time table on it. But I would say very similar to Drew’s, all of us felt like it was just a matter of not if but when. … We’re anxious to get it done, and he’s an important part of what we do.” Note: The Brees negotiations in 2012 dragged out until July of that year.

(On the general tone of the negotiations)

“There’s a ton of respect between a guy like (Graham’s agent) Jimmy Sexton and (Saints) General Manager Mickey Loomis. All of those things make it a positive — but difficult at times — process.”

(What if Graham holds out of preseason workouts in the event a deal isn’t done by that point?)

“Younger guys are going to get reps. He’s at a point in his career where he has a good grasp of what we’re doing.”

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) celebrates a touchdown with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) in a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON– New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) celebrates a touchdown with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) in a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013.

Note: Indeed. In 2013, Graham led the Saints in receiving yards with 1,215 and the NFL in touchdown grabs with 16. That was despite battling through foot and elbow injuries for a significant part of the season.

(Are you surprised a tight end like Graham would possibly be interested in wide receiver money?)

“I think that’s a byproduct of a little bit of an antiquated system with regards to franchise numbers. I think those will be, over the years, revisited and adjusted.”

Note: Graham spent most of his time in 2013 lining up out wide for the Saints, but the team handed him a one-year, $7 million franchise tag classifying him as a tight end, the position at which he was drafted and has been to two Pro Bowls.

A franchise tag for a wide receiver is worth $5 million more, and it’s believed he could file a grievance through the players association to be classified as a wideout, given the massive boost in pay that could result in, depending on the decision of a third party.

Graham, though, might not even play under the tag if he and the Saints can agree on a long-term deal before the season starts. The Saints have repeatedly maintained that is their aim.

Possible needs as free agency rolls and draft nears

(Brees is still elite, but he’s 35. When do you look for a successor, and do you do so in the draft?)

“I don’t know that you go into a draft and say, ‘All right, put on your gloves. Here we go. This is it.’ But you are paying attention to that market, that specific position’s market each year because it’s a little bit like that high-end delicatessen item that doesn’t come in every day, and so you’re always waiting to make sure that something’s not on the shelf. I think it’s important to pay attention to that, and we’re fortunate to have a player like Drew.

You always have one or you’re looking for one. And then I think it’s important that constant development or vision of developing one exists.”

Note: Under Brees on the depth chart are veteran backup Luke McCown as well as No. 3 QB Ryan Griffin, a 2013 undrafted rookie from Tulane who Payton said the Saints see a lot of potential in.

(What are some holes there might still be on the roster that can filled in the draft or free agency?)

“You always put a value on corners and pass rushers, defensively. … Those coveted spots, you’re always in the business for. What I mean by that is pass rushers and guys that can cover. It’s a deep draft we think at receiver, so there are a lot of teams that are going to be able to draft maybe a good player there.”

The safeties

(There were lots of three-safety packages last year, when the Saints finished No. 4 in defense overall.)

“It was an answer to the injuries we had at outside linebacker (initially). … Yet there was still some elements that we wanted (so it was kept throughout the year).”

Note: The Saints lost outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler to year-ending knee injuries in the 2013 preseason. They headed into the regular-season opener with three players at the position. That led to then-rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro lining up at various places over the field, in addition to his fellow position mates Malcolm Jenkins (now with Philadelphia) and Roman Harper (now with Carolina).

Carolina Panthers' Ted Ginn (19) is knocked out of bounds by New Orleans Saints' Kenny Vaccaro (32) as they run into Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, back, in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

Carolina Panthers’ Ted Ginn (19) is knocked out of bounds by New Orleans Saints’ Kenny Vaccaro (32) as they run into Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, back, in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

(Stemming from the previous point, it’s apparently not the plan for the hard-hitting Vaccaro to play all over the field in 2014. Payton suggested he’s eager to see him play off new safety Jairus Byrd, who was acquired in free agency and whose 22 interceptions are the most among safeties since he joined the NFL in 2009).

“As for Jairus and Kenny, I think there’s a clear vision of how we want you use them, and that’s important. … Kenny played in a lot of spots last year. I think he’ll play in less of those spots this year. … That vision this year will be a little more clearer.”

(The risk of pursuing an elite free agent such as safety Jairus Byrd, whom the Saints succeeded in signing):

“The risk is just like asking someone out on a date. He might say no, and you have to be comfortable in trying to go after someone and approaching. So Mickey was good during this time.”

Training camp at Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia

(How valuable is it to bond in a less-than-familiar place for a football team?)

“I like that. … I think that’s important, and I think this is a venue that can provide that. It’s separate from a lot of existence. You’ve got to find it really.”

(Optimum conditions there?)

“I don’t want to say optimum conditions because it’s pretty warm anywhere you’re at (that time of year in the country). It’s just a little cooler than the humidity we might get for the full five weeks in Metairie.”

Note: Payton said the Saints will start their 2014 training camp at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.V. and stay there through the second preseason game. They’ll then return to their training facilities in Metairie for the rest of camp. This is different from what a Saints spokesman said earlier, which was that the camp would be at The Greenbrier for a latter portion.

Miscellaneous:

(Reaction to the NFL’s intention to prohibit dunking a football over the crossbar, which has been Jimmy Graham’s post-touchdown celebration):

“I didn’t really think too much of it.”

(Taking care to not overwork Marques Colston, who’s heading into his ninth year in the NFL and with the Saints):

“He played some of his better football late in the season, so he battled some soreness in his foot. That wasn’t easy, but he’s such a target and competitor inside. I think the key is just monitoring his snaps during training camp — the thing you have to start doing with a player like him during the season with regards to practice time.”

Note: Colston caught 75 passes for 943 yards and five touchdowns in 15 regular-season games in 2013. He is the franchise leader in receptions (607), receiving yards (8,337) and receiving touchdowns (63).

(On left tackle Terron Armstead, entering his second year)

“It was nice to have had a chance to evaluate Terron and then see the production we got from him. That clears things up a little bit as you approach the draft as opposed to getting through the season possibly not playing and maybe not having the exposure, too. I think he got better each week.”

Note: Armstead was inserted into the starting line-up after left tackle Charles Brown was benched following a Week 15 loss at St. Louis. He played four games, including two playoff contests. Brown is a free agent at the moment.

(on former quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi, now the offensive coordinator in Detroit):

“I think he’ll do well, especially with his success and track record in New Orleans, the wins, and the playoffs, those experiences will do well. I think it’s just — I’ve just been in his position before, and when you come in as a young coordinator or play-caller, I think the players are really interested in winning and can you help us do that. I think very quickly he’ll answer that question.”

Note: Lombardi became the Saints’ QB coach in 2009, at the end of which the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV. When he left in January for his job in Detroit, Brees had posted three of his four 5,000-yard seasons. The Saints went to the playoffs in four of the five campaigns Lombardi was QB coach, which are the experiences Payton alluded to.

(Would Saints players be open to a gay teammate?)

“(Former NFL coach Bill) Parcells said it best last year. He said winning teams and winning locker rooms open (up) to players of all diversity. They really do. It can help them win. Their doors are wide open. They tend to push out those players they feel like can’t help them win. …

“As an organization and as a locker room, we look at diversity to include a gay football player. I just know how our locker room is, and it’s something we spend time on : the respect of others and the mission statement being winning. And if those things are pointed in the right direction, then the other stuff is not that important really.”

Note: Such questions have been asked at virtually all NFL-related gatherings ever since draft prospect Michael Sam came out in February. He is trying to become the first openly gay player to make the NFL.

Tim Lelito will be given shot to earn Saints’ starting job at center, Payton says

New Orleans Saints guard Tim Lelito (68) walks the sidelines during the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the Miami Dolphins, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

New Orleans Saints guard Tim Lelito (68) walks the sidelines during the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the Miami Dolphins, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

ORLANDO, Fla. — As things stood when Saints coach Sean Payton met with the media at the annual NFL owners meeting on Wednesday, New Orleans’ plan at the center position was in no way finalized.

That’s chiefly because Brian de la Puente — their starter at center the previous three seasons — remained a free agent, and he was reportedly mulling his possibilities in New Orleans, Washington and possibly elsewhere.

However, Payton did sound sure about at least one thing on the issue: Tim Lelito, who is heading into his second year after starting two games at right guard for the Saints in 2013, will enter New Orleans’ 2014 training camp with a shot to earn the first-string job at center.

“It’s still unfolding, so it’d be premature to just say, ‘Hey, (this is) the plan today …, (but) we feel like (Lelito) has a chance to be that player,” Payton said in response to a question about the situation at center.

Payton, though, made it abundantly clear that he’d most likely be competing against more veteran competition, whether that’s a re-signed de la Puente or another free agent.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a player signed,” Payton also said. “Tim Lelito would be a guy that’s in the mix as someone competing for that opportunity, but … we’ll see who it is he’s competing against.”

Lelito, listed on the roster as a backup guard/center, certainly got experience on the offensive line in 2013 that will serve him well moving forward. After making the Saints as an undrafted rookie from Grand Valley State at the end of a preseason in which he memorably recovered an end-zone fumble for a touchdown, he filled in at right guard for two games that four-time All-Pro Jahri Evans sat out due to injuries.

The Saints won both games. In the first, against Arizona in Week 3, he surrendered three quarterback sacks against three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. In the second, at Atlanta in Week 12, he gave up a play that ended in lost yardage and was called for a holding penalty, but he noticeably improved.

More importantly, New Orleans won both games on the way to a run to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

Nonetheless, Payton declared it was “essential to have someone” at camp with Lelito. “And it could very well be a guy like de la Puente or another player who’s out there.”

Aside from de la Puente, an unrestricted free agent since March 11, another logical possibility is Jonathan Goodwin.

Though Payton didn’t mention him specifically on Wednesday, Goodwin hit the open market this offseason after playing with the Saints from 2006 to 2010. After helping the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV in his fourth year in New Orleans, Goodwin left for San Francisco in free agency and remained there for three seasons.