(Rick Hickman/American Press)
Last Modified: Sunday, July 20, 2014 1:08 PM
With Jimmy Graham back in the fold all the pieces seem to be in place for the Saints.
Graham was the biggest question mark during an offseason of change. When he finally signed a 4-year, $40 million deal all things looked to have come together for another strong season under the Dome.
Graham didn’t participate in offseason workouts as he awaited a new contract. Now he is ready to go after a deadline deal made him a happy Saint as camp gets ready to open Thursday.
“Going through an offseason like I have, you learn a lot and grow from it but you stay motivated,” said Graham. “Being away from it for so long, you realize how much you missed it. It makes you appreciate your teammates, your team, the locker room even more because you miss having that. I am excited to get back in the Dome and hear every single one of our fans scream.”
While the inking of Graham — the team’s tight end and top offensive weapon — was a return to the past, the rest of the offseason saw a lot of change.
The Saints waved goodbye to a few fan favorites and began to reinvent themselves. They like the term remodeling, but the point is clear, they want to be different.
The goal is to look more like a power football team that’s built on a strong run game and an even stronger defense.
For example, look at Seattle, San Francisco and Carolina.
Three of the Saints’ losses came from that trio last year, with San Francisco almost doing in New Orleans inside the Superdome as well.
Seattle beat the Saints twice, using power football to pull off the trick. That included a playoff game in the second round when the score proved much closer than the reality.
In those losses, especially against the Super Bowl champs from Seattle, New Orleans was pushed around. Even in the win against the 49ers there were times when it was clear the Saints were not the most physical team on the field.
Head Coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis must have seen the same thing the rest of the country witnessed.
The Saints were a lot of fun to watch, but when the weather changed and they were forced outside to play, they didn’t have the right combination to get things done. This despite the fact they won the first road playoff game in franchise history during the Wild Card round in Philadelphia.
Maybe it was there that the Saints got the idea to change. A power run attack not seen much in the past fueled the fourth-quarter comeback over the Eagles. It also allowed New Orleans to run the clock out when it needed to.
Power back Khiry Robinson, who had just 224 yards on 54 carries during the regular season, gained 102 on 21 tries in two playoff games. And Mark Ingram had 97 yards in the win in Philadelphia.
That may be why the Saints have decided on running more.
“We want to be balanced,” Loomis said in the spring. “We want to be able to control the game.”
Robinson appears to be the guy who may just be able to do that. He has made strides in this offseason and the coaches have noticed.
“I would definitely say (he’s) further along,” Payton said. “The one thing Khiry has in year two is he has a year under his belt with regards to protections. Not as much so in the running game, but there is an awful lot in regards to play action protections, the drop back protections, he is definitely more comfortable in those areas.”
It’s why the team has moved in that direction, along with a much improved defense, which went from last and historically bad in 2012 to fourth in the league overall last season under first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
But 12-6 and a second-round loss wasn’t enough for the Saints to stay on course so changes were made.
Gone is Darren Sproles and Lance Moore, two of quarterback Drew Brees’ main weapons. Also gone is center Brian de la Puente and offensive tackle Charles Brown.
That’s four main contributors on the offense that will need to be replaced. On defense, safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper are gone as is defensive end Tom Johnson. The big addition on defense is safety Jairus Byrd, who was signed as a free agent from Buffalo. He will be joined in the secondary by Marcus Ball, another safety from the Canadian Football League to add depth, and aging cornerback Champ Bailey formerly of Denver.
Yet Brees is the key.
The quarterback was sacked and harassed last season like never before and that helped him struggle at times. Still, he’s the best weapon the Saints have even if he is getting a little long in the tooth.
Brees says he feels good and wants to play another four or five years.
“As long as I’m healthy and playing at a high level, then why not?,” Brees said. “I certainly don’t take it for granted and know that obviously you’ve got to prove yourself every year.”
This could be one of his last runs at a championship and the Saints front office wants to give him every chance they can to win now.
With that in mind they gave Brees a new toy to play with in speedster Brandin Cooks. The first-round pick at wide receiver out of Oregon State should gives Brees a deep option and open the underneath even more for tight end Jimmy Graham.
They moved up in the draft to get Cooks.
“He’s a playmaker,” Payton said of his new receiver. “The one thing about him that stood out is that he’s a tough player both physically and mentally. He has been very consistent, very durable. Obviously he runs well, but I like his makeup in regards to his mental toughness. His interview was fantastic.”
There’s also Travaris Cadet, a third-year back who has been impressive and could fill the shoes of Sproles as both a third-down back and kick returner.
So the Saints will still be throwing the ball, that you can count on with Payton calling plays and Brees executing them.
That is where Travaris Cadet comes in. An undrafted running back in 2012, Cadet has emerged as a guy whose hands the Saints want to get the ball in. That could mean replacing the already exited Sproles on kick returns.
In his first year Cadet played in 13 games and returned 26 kickoffs for 690 yards, caught five passes for 44 yards and ran once for five yards. Last season, in limited play he caught two passes for 5 yards (and a touchdown), and returned nine kickoffs for 239 yards, with a long of 82 yards.
“Travaris Cadet is a player who has played in that role,” Payton said. “One of the key components is an overall understanding, philosophically, of where guys need to be. I don’t think you ever replace, specifically, a skill set like Darren’s.
“It’s unique and it’s different than, really, our league has seen in a while, for a player his stature. He’s got very good ball skills. He’s a guy that can run the routes in that (route) tree, when you talk about a choice route, you talk about an option. He can play from in the backfield, but he can play from extended positions. He’s someone that is very comfortable in that role.”
Still, the Saints may have more running plays called both early and late to set a tone and finish a foe off.
It may not be as much fun or have the drama like before, but it’s a formula that has worked pretty well in San Francisco and Seattle as of late.
Now we will start to find out if the Saints can pull it off.