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Saints to have 15th pick in first round of NFL draft

The Saints are scheduled to have a pick in the top half of the first round of the NFL draft this spring for the first time since 2009 when they select 15th.

The Saints, who finished 7-9 this season, were in a five-way tie for the 11th-worst mark in the league. But they were pushed to the bottom of that group — which also includes San Diego, Miami, Tampa Bay and Carolina — on the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker.

Saints’ opponents this season posted a 133-122-1 record for a .521 winning percentage.

San Diego (.457 opponents’ winning percentage) got the 11th pick, followed by Miami (.500), Tampa Bay (.502) and Carolina (.516).

The Saints’ last pick in the top half of the first round was free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was taken with the 14th overall selection in 2009 after the Saints went 8-8 in 2008.

The draft will be held April 25-27 in New York City.

SAINTS SIGN FIVE: The Saints have signed five players who finished the season on their practice squad to futures contracts.

All five — defensive end Braylon Broughton, wide receivers Jarred Fayson and Andy Tanner, guard Ryan Lee and cornerback Ryan Steed — were signed to two-year deals.

CALENDAR UPDATED: The NFL has released an updated calendar for the 2013 league year, which will begin on Tuesday, March 12 at 3 p.m. CST with the start of veteran free agency.

For the first time, at least officially anyway, teams will have a three-day window from March 9-11 in which they can negotiate with certified agents of players who will be unrestricted free agents.

Other key dates are the deadline for college underclassmen to declare for the draft (Jan. 15), the scouting combine (Feb. 20-26) and the deadline for teams to make qualifying offers to restricted free agents (March 12).

Saints to pick 15th in first round of NFL draft this spring

The Saints are scheduled to have a pick in the top half of the first round of the NFL draft this spring for the first time since 2009 when they select 15th.

The Saints, who finished 7-9 this season, were in a five-way tie for the 11th-worst mark in the league. But they were pushed to the bottom of that group — which also includes San Diego, Miami, Tampa Bay and Carolina — on the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker.

Saints’ opponents this season posted a 133-122-1 record for a .521 winning percentage.

San Diego (.457 opponents’ winning percentage) got the 11th pick, followed by Miami (.500), Tampa Bay (.502) and Carolina (.516).

The Saints’ last pick in the top half of the first round was free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was taken with the 14th overall selection in 2009 after the Saints went 8-8 in 2008.

The draft will be held April 25-27 in New York City.

Panthers sack leader Hardy inactive for game with Saints

NEW ORLEANS – Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who has a team-leading 11 sacks, is inactive for today’s game with the Saints.

Hardy was absent from practice all week while dealing with a family matter, and, according to the Charlotte Observer, was told by team officials to take as much time as he needed.

Hardy did not accompany the team to New Orleans on Saturday.

His spot in the starting lineup could be taken by Southern Lab graduate Frank Alexander, a rookie who played his college ball at Oklahoma. Alexander started two games earlier this season.

PANTHERS INACTIVES: The other inactives are RB Jonathan Stewart (ankle), C Geoff Hangartner (foot), WR Joe Adams (ankle), LB James Anderson (back) and QB Jimmy Clausen.

SAINTS INACTIVES: Not dressing Sunday for the Saints are CB Jabari Greer (concussion), DT Akiem Hicks (knee), LB Scott Shanle, TE Michael Higgins, DT Tyrunn Walker, G Ricky Henry and WR Saalim Hakim.

Saints officially announce contract agreement with Payton

The Saints officially announced Saturday that coach Sean Payton has agreed to a multiyear contract extension to return following the completion of his season-long bounty-related suspension.

ESPN, citing a league source, reported Payton’s five-year contract extension is expected to pay him more than $8 million annually — which should make him the NFL’s highest paid coach.

Saints spokesman Greg Bensel confirmed Friday evening that Payton agreed in principle to an extension after the original extension he had received in September 2011 was voided by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell because of wording in the contract.

“I am pleased that Sean Payton will be our head coach for a long time,” Saints owner Tom Benson said in a team news release. “Now we can focus our attention on building on the winning tradition with the Saints that Sean has played such a large role in.”

COLSTON CLOSING IN: Saints wide receiver Marques Colston, who on Nov. 25 became the team’s all-time leader with the 56th touchdown of his career, can set another club mark in Sunday’s season finale against the Carolina Panthers in the Superdome.

Colston, a seventh-round draft pick and the 252nd overall selection in 2006, needs just six catches to break the franchise record for career receptions.

He moved into second place with 10 catches in last week’s win at Dallas, bringing his total to 527.

The Saints’ all-time leader is former LSU star Eric Martin, who had 532 receptions from 1985-93.

“He is Mr. Dependable, Mr. Steady,” quarterback Drew Brees said of Colston, a seven-year veteran. “When you need a play, I know I can always count on him.

“He’s really fought through a lot throughout his career, especially this year, just battling injuries and always being there, always being present, always being ready, always being a guy you can count on.”

THOMAS GOES ON IR: The Saints put running back Pierre Thomas, who had been ruled out Sunday’s game because of a knee injury, on injured reserve.

Thomas finishes the season with 473 rushing yards, second on the team behind Mark Ingram, and is also fifth in receiving with 39 catches for 354 yards. He had one touchdown rushing and one receiving.

To take Thomas’ spot on the active roster, the Saints promoted cornerback A.J. Davis from the practice squad.

PATERNOSTRO DIES: Former Saints strength and conditioning Russell Paternostro, a New Orleans-area native, died Friday of respiratory complications at St. Tammany Hospital.

Paternostro, 74, was the Saints strength coach from 1981 to 1996. A popular member of the coaching staff with the players, he served under head coaches Bum Phillips and Jim Mora.

HORNETS TO APPEAR: New Orleans Hornets players Anthony Davis, Greivis Vasquez and Lance Thomas will sign autographs before Sunday’s game from 10:30-11:30 a.m. on the southeast side of the Superdome on the Plaza level.

Saints, Payton agree in principle on five-year contract

While Saints’ fans won’t be seeing their favorite team in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, they did get something to be happy about Friday night.

ESPN and Fox Sports reported that coach Sean Payton, who fans feared might leave to join the Dallas Cowboys after the contract extension he received in September 2011 was rejected by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, has agreed in principle to a new deal to remain with the Saints.

Citing league sources, ESPN and Fox reported that the Saints and Payton, who is eligible to return from a season-long bounty-related suspension after the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, had worked out a new contract.

Saints spokesman Greg Bensel confirmed the extension for Payton via email to The Advocate early Friday evening.

While there were few details about the extension, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that it was a five-year contract.

Saints’ Greer, Thomas to miss season finale with Panthers

Starting cornerback Jabari Greer and running back Pierre Thomas are among three Saints who won’t play in Sunday’s season finale with the Carolina Panthers because of injuries.

Greer suffered a concussion and Thomas injured a knee in last week’s win over the Dallas Cowboys and weren’t able to practice all week as the Saints (7-8) prepared for the Panthers (6-9).

Saints interim coach Joe Vitt also ruled out defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who came out of the Cowboys game with a knee injury.

Here is the final injury report turned in to the league office by Vitt and Panthers coach Ron Rivera:

SAINTS

Out – CB Jabari Greer (concussion), RB Pierre Thomas (knee), DT Akiem Hicks (knee).

Probable – TE Jimmy Graham (wrist/finger), FB Jed Collins (knee), RB Chris Ivory (hamstring).

PANTHERS

Questionable – RB Jonathan Stewart (ankle), C Geoff Hangartner (foot), LB James Anderson (back), WR Joe Adams (ankle).

Probable – DE Greg Hardy (not injury-related), WR Brandon LaFell (toe).

Saints’ Morstead eyeing NFL net punting record for season

Over the past seven seasons, the Saints have set numerous NFL records with most of them being produced by a prolific offense led by coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees.

On Sunday, however, punter Thomas Morstead can chalk one up for the special teams when the Saints close the season against the Carolina Panthers.

Barring a long return by the Panthers, Morstead will set an NFL single-season record for net average. The four-year veteran, who Wednesday was voted to the Pro Bowl, is averaging 44.4 net yards and could erase the record of 43.99 set last season by San Francisco’s Andy Lee.

“We’ve had a lot of guys set records here such as Drew, Jimmy (Graham), Marques Colston,” special teams coordinator Greg McMahon said. “We’ve had guys who have done great things, but it’s all within the context of the team.

“It would be a great tribute to our team and the guys who are out there with him (to get the record),” he added. “Thomas would be the first guy to tell you it’s a team type of goal. It’s something you would like to achieve.”

Morstead, who leads the league in gross average as well at 50.5 yards per kick, has averaged better than 50 yards in 10 of 15 games this season and averaged 49.7 and 49.3 in two others.

EVANS PRAISED: Guard Jahri Evans, the Saints’ only other Pro Bowl pick, received high praise from interim coach Joe Vitt after being voted to the all-star game for the fourth consecutive season.

“He kind of reminds me of (former Kansas City Chiefs’ star) Will Shields, who I think will be the next guard that goes into the Hall of Fame,” Vitt said. “Jahri has that chance now with the numbers he’s put up and the work habits he has. He’s such a stable person. He knows what he has to do to get better.

“He’s not going to miss a game, not unless he’s in the hospital,” Vitt said of Evans, a three-time All-Pro pick who’s played in 119 consecutive games since being chosen in the fourth round of the 2006 draft. “He’s not going to miss a game.”

PRACTICE REPORT: Fullback Jed Collins, who sat out Wednesday’s practice because of a knee injury, had full participation in Thursday’s workout.

CB Jabari Greer (concussion), RB Pierre Thomas (knee) and DT Akiem Hicks (knee) did not practice again and will likely be questionable at best for Sunday’s game.

For the Panthers, DE Greg Hardy (not injury-related), C Geoff Hangartner (foot) and RB Jonathan Stewart (ankle) did not practice.

Former LSU wide receiver Brandon LaFell (toe) had full participation Thursday after being limited Wednesday.

TWO IN A ROW?: The Saints are 1-5 in regular-season finales since Payton took over in 2006.

They dropped their first five games to end the regular season before halting the streak with a 45-17 victory over the Panthers last Jan. 1.

Saints’ Evans, Morstead voted to Pro Bowl game

METAIRIE – Guard Jahri Evans, a three-time All-Pro pick, and punter Thomas Morstead will represent the Saints at the Pro Bowl game to be played Jan. 27 in Honolulu.

Evans and Morstead were the only Saints chosen as primary picks although they likely have several alternates that weren’t immediately announced when the AFC and NFC all-star squads were revealed Wednesday night.

Evans, a seven-year veteran, was chosen for the fourth consecutive year as the anchor of an offensive line that ranks third in the NFL in total yards (408.9 per game) and points (28.2 per game).

His four selections are the second-most in club history behind William Roaf, a 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee who was picked seven times.

Morstead, who is in his fourth NFL season, is going to the Pro Bowl for the first time. He leads the league in gross (50.5) and net (44.4) punting average and on Sunday could break the NFL’s single-season record for net average, which is 43.99 yards by San Francisco’s Andy Lee last season.

Morstead said his selection was as much about his teammates and special teams coordinator Greg McMahon as it was about him.

“This our fourth year together,” Morstead said of McMahon, “and I credit a lot of my growth to his coaching and his being hard on me and pushing me and trying to get me to do things that maybe I didn’t think I’d be able to do that we do now.

“It’s pretty cool … it’s something neat to share,” he said. “My fiancé is here and I get to share it with all my family. Hopefully, I’ll get to take my parents to Hawaii.”

CAROLINA AGAIN: The Saints will close the regular season against the Carolina Panthers for the fifth time in the past seven seasons when they meet Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints lost in their first three finales against the Panthers in 2006 (31-21), 2008 (33-31) and 2009 (23-10) before breaking through last season with a 45-17 victory in the Superdome on Jan. 1.

PRACTICE REPORT: Not practicing Wednesday when the Saints went back to work were CB Jabari Greer (concussion), RB Pierre Thomas (knee), FB Jed Collins (knee) and DT Akiem Hicks (knee).

TE Jimmy Graham (wrist/finger) and RB Chris Ivory (hamstring) had full participation.

For the Panthers, C Geoff Hangartner (foot) and LB James Anderson (back) did not practice, while RB Jonathan Stewart (ankle) and WR Brandon LaFell (toe) were limited. LaFell is a former LSU standout.

BREES NOMINATED: For the fifth time this season, Brees is a nominee for the FedEx NFL Air Player of the Week award after throwing for 446 yards and three TDs in a 34-31 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

Fans can vote online until 2 p.m. Friday at www.nfl.com/FedEx.

TICKETS AVAILABLE: Saints officials said Wednesday the Panthers returned a portion of their ticket allotment for Sunday’s game.

The tickets are available at the Saints ticket office at 5800 Airline Drive in Metairie and online at www.ticketmaster.com.

Saints-Panthers Scouting Report

WHEN: Noon Sunday

WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

TV/RADIO: Fox/WTGE (100.7-FM), WWL-AM (870-AM, 105.3-FM)

RECORDS: Panthers, 6-9; Saints, 7-8

LAST WEEK: Panthers defeated the Oakland Raiders, 17-6; Saints defeated the Dallas Cowboys, 34-31 (OT)

COACHES: Panthers, Ron Rivera, 2nd season (12-19); Saints, Joe Vitt, 2nd season (9-11)

NFL RANKINGS

Offense (league rank in parentheses)

Points: Panthers, 20.9 (21); Saints, 28.2 (3)

Total yards: Panthers, 349.4 (17); Saints, 408.9 (3)

Rushing: Panthers, 121.0 (10); Saints, 100.9 (24)

Passing: Panthers, 228.4 (17); Saints, 307.9 (2)

Defense (league rank in parentheses)

Points: Panthers, 21.7 (13); Saints, 27.3 (28)

Total yards: Panthers, 325.9 (8); Saints, 434.1 (32)

Rushing: Panthers, 113.2 (15); Saints, 139.2 (29)

Passing: Panthers, 212.7 (8); Saints, 294.9 (31)

KEY PLAYERS

Panthers: QB Cam Newton, WR Steve Smith, TE Greg Olsen, DE Greg Hardy, DE Charles Johnson, CB Captain Munnerlyn.

Saints: QB Drew Brees, WR Marques Colston, RB Darren Sproles, LDE Cameron Jordan, MLB Curtis Lofton, P Thomas Morstead.

PANTHERS SCOUTING REPORT

Offense: The Panthers rank only 17th in total yards, but they’re 10th in rushing behind Cam Newton’s club-leading 707 yards and eight TDs. Wide receiver Steve Smith continues to play at a high level in his 12th season with 70 catches for 1,101 yards and four TDs.

Defense: Carolina ranks eighth in total defense in allowing 325.9 yards a game and eighth against the pass. Ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are a solid 1-2 pass rush duo with 211/2 sacks. In their current three-game winning streak, they’ve given up 33 total points.

Special teams: Kicker Graham Gano has missed just one field-goal attempt since replacing an inconsistent Justin Medlock, while rookie punter Brad Nortman averages just 42.8 gross yards and 36.4 net. The Panthers haven’t distinguished themselves in kick returns or kick coverage this season,

PANTHERS FACTS

The Panthers have two players with Louisiana ties on their active roster — former LSU wide receiver Brandon LaFell and rookie defensive end Frank Alexander. The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Alexander is a Southern Lab graduate who played collegiately at Oklahoma. … Offensive line coach John Matsko served in the same capacity with the Saints from 1994 to 1996. Matsko was a college teammate of former LSU coach Nick Saban at Kent State. … Sam Mills III, the son of former Saints linebacker Sam Mills, is an assistant defensive line coach with the Panthers. … The Panthers lead the series, 18-17, but the Saints have won five of the last seven matchups.

Compiled by Sheldon Mickles

Saints’ fans relieved by report that Jones will keep Garrett

ARLINGTON, Texas – Saints fans nervous about Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones firing coach Jason Garrett and possibly pursuing Saints coach Sean Payton, whose contract status is uncertain, were able to breathe a little easier after the Saints’ 34-31 overtime win Sunday.

On Sunday morning, Fox’s Jay Glazer reported Garrett will remain the Cowboys’ coach for 2013 regardless of what happened the final two weeks of the season.

“I didn’t hear that and have not even thought about anything different than Jason being our coach,” Jones said after the game. “I know that I shared with nobody living anything other than Jason Garrett. But seriously, to be real serious about it, I have no thoughts about making a coaching change.”

SAINTS ELIMINATED: After hanging on by a thread for two weeks, the Saints were officially eliminated from playoff contention when the Minnesota Vikings beat the Houston Texans before the Saints defeated the Cowboys.

“We knew a lot of things had to happen, and we were just worrying about the things we could control,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “What could have been worse was if Minnesota had lost and we had lost.

“Instead, we both win, and we’re still happy because we accomplished what we set out to accomplish for this week.”

COLSTON GETS 1,000: Saints wide receiver Marques Colston reached the 1,000-yard mark in receiving for the sixth time in his seven seasons with a 21-yard reception from Brees in the second quarter.

Colston had 153 yards on 10 catches against the Cowboys, giving him 1,102 yards for the season. The only time he didn’t get 1,000 was in 2008, when he had 760 yards after missing five games with injuries.

MORE COLSTON: Colston’s 10 receptions on Sunday gave him 527 for his career, moving him ahead of Joe Horn’s 523 for second place on the club’s all-time list.

Colston will have a chance to break the club mark of 532 catches set by Eric Martin from 1985-93 in the season finale Sunday against Carolina.

BREES’ ACCOMPLISHMENTS: After becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for 4,500 yards in three straight seasons in the first half, Brees, who now has 4,781 yards for the season, moved up another spot on the NFL’s all-time list for completions.

He had 37 completions Sunday and with 4,025 moved ahead of Warren Moon (3,988) for fifth place.

INACTIVES: The Saints inactives were FB Jed Collins (knee/toe), RB Chris Ivory (hamstring), LB Scott Shanle, DE Turk McBride, DT Tyrunn Walker, G Ricky Henry and WR Saalim Hakim.

INJURIES: Saints CB Jabari Greer suffered a concussion in the second half and did not return.

For the Cowboys, LB Ernie Sims left in the second quarter with dizziness and did not return. LB DeMarcus Ware didn’t return after leaving in the third period with a shoulder strain.

LAGNIAPPE: Saints punter Thomas Morstead, who played at SMU, averaged 52.6 yards on six kicks to push his average to 50.5 for the season. … Three of the Saints’ four TD drives went for 80 yards or more, giving them 27 this season. … The Saints are 1-1 in overtime this season and are 10-12 in regular-season overtime games all-time.