Roughly 1,000 miles away from a typical dewy-sweet, warm and humid July morning in south Louisiana, the New Orleans Saints officially began their preparations towards another postseason run with their first training camp workout of the summer in the cool conditions at the West Virginia-based Greenbrier Resort.
A mix of clouds and sun with accompanying 64 degree temperatures greeted coach Sean Payton and his charges Friday morning, as the Saints got in a productive 3 hour workout with an afternoon walk thru to follow. Players appeared to enjoy the much cooler weather in contrast to the muggy conditions they are used to operating under this time of year. Plenty of fans were in attendance, cheering as different players stood out over the course of the morning practice. Players visited with the media and fans after the session, stopping to sign autographs and take pictures before their midday break.
Several of the Saints' more recognizable beat writers and reporters have made the trek to West Virginia, including ESPN's Mike Triplett, The Advocate's Ramon Antonio Vargas and the Times-Picayune's Larry Holder.
Here is a quick recap of Friday morning's activity at the Greenbrier:
Following the amicable conclusion of Jimmy Graham's franchise tag-gate, the Saints enter camp with a full roster in tact, although Jairus Byrd, John Jenkins and Tavon Rooks did not participate in Friday morning's workout.
Byrd, who is on the mend after a minor back operation in late May, has been placed on the active/PUP list as a precautionary measure. Payton says Byrd's recovery has gone "much like we expected," and it stands to reason that the club's prized free agent signing will be all systems go in a matter of days. The team may play it safe with the former Buffalo Bill, owner of 22 career interceptions, but there is little if any doubt that he will be ready to go for week 1.
"It is just a matter of us making sure we feel that he is ready to go at 100 percent and there is no risk of any injury,” Payton said in regards to Byrd. Jairus Byrd should be back on the practice field soon.
Jenkins, meanwhile, also enters camp on the active/PUP list as he hones in on the final stages of his recovery from offseason pectoral surgery. The team's 2013 3rd round pick has a chance to play a big role in the middle of Rob Ryan's defensive front, should he return to health and return to the fold sooner rather than later. Jenkins is expected to compete with Brodrick Bunkley for the lion's share of the reps at the nose tackle position in Ryan's base 3-4 scheme, and like Byrd, should be cleared shortly.
Rooks, the team's 2014 6th round pick, was working with Byrd and Jenkins off to the side as the trio did some light running under the watchful eye of team trainers. There was no specific reason given for Rooks' non-participation, though it does not appear to be a serious issue.
Receiver Joe Morgan, re-signed after an injury-plagued 2013 season, was full go for the first time since hurting his knee last fall. Morgan was a limited participant in the team's OTAs in May and June but is healthy and hoping to cement a roster spot as a deep threat and possible return man. Can Joe Morgan re-establish himself as a dangerous deep threat?
The one downer of Friday's practice was 2nd year receiver Kenny Stills appearing to re-aggravate a quad injury that first bothered him while working out with teammates Drew Brees and Brandin Cooks in San Diego earlier this month. Stills pulled up after chasing down a long ball from Brees, and left the field to receive treatment and attention from trainer Scottie Patton. Fortunately, Payton expressed optimism that the injury was minor in nature.
“He had a tight quad two weeks ago when he was training out in San Diego. It is the same right quad. I don’t think it is real serious," Payton said.
Recap of Team Drills
After some brief walk thru exercises, it was on to team drills.
Tim Lelito, who is competing for the starting center position alongside Jonathan Goodwin, ran with the first team while Goodwin, who was re-signed by the Saints last month, worked with the second team.
Champ Bailey, brought in this spring to help solidify the secondary, ran with the 1's at corner opposite Keenan Lewis, while Patrick Robinson also got some work with the first team. Meanwhile, Corey White and rookie 2nd round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste worked with the 2's. Victor Butler hopes to put a lost 2013 season behind him.
Victor Butler, looking to make his mark on the team after a lost 2013 season, ran with the 1st team linebackers.
Rookie wideout Brandin Cooks ran with the second team offense at first, but also worked with the 1's.
Cooks dazzled teammates and coaches alike last month at OTAs with his speed, skills and big play ability. That theme carried on over into training camp as the rookie put in a great shift this morning, hauling in a nice touchdown pass from Brees despite tight coverage. In addition to his work in the passing game, the Oregon State alum also fielded punts alongside Joe Morgan.
“There is a handful, not just those two, we have a handful of guys that are all competing to show the ability to do that skill consistently and not just two out of three times," said Payton of his potential punt returners. "It is a position battle that a lot of guys will have opportunities at. Brandin certainly and Joseph, Tavaris (Cadet), Andy Tanner, there will be a bunch of guys that we look at and they will have snaps throughout the preseason until we get comfortable and make a decision." Brandin Cooks has impressed teammates and coaches throughout the offseason.
Receiver Nick Toon continued his strong offseason as the third-year man stood out in 7-on-7 drills. The Saints are hoping Toon can translate his success in shorts and shells to the gridiron this season after an injury-riddled rookie season and a second year marred my drops and inconsistency.
While Luke McCown handled the 2nd team offense, Quarterback Ryan Griffin worked with the 3's, and connected with priority undrafted free agent receiver Brandon Coleman for a touchdown in team drills, beating Corey White in the end zone. The battle between McCown and Griffin for the backup Quarterback job will be an interesting battle to watch unfold throughout camp, while plenty of eyes will be on the 6-6 Coleman, a former Rutgers standout who could develop as a viable red zone threat.
The Griffin/Coleman connection impressed the most important of spectators.
“(Coleman) is one of the young receivers that we picked up in the offseason after the draft," said Payton. "We have two big rookies that both have made some plays in minicamp. That was a big play and good to see. It was a real good throw too by Ryan (Griffin). It is just always interesting to see these younger players, how they transition from the spring or they have gotten a taste for what we are doing and all of a sudden now they get to install it or hear the install again. Hopefully they continue to progress.”
As for the specialists, both Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke were a flawless 3-3 on their field goal attempts. This could be another battle to watch as the younger Dimke attempts to push the more experienced Graham, who was brought back this spring after finishing 2013 in New Orleans after the Saints elected to replace Garrett Hartley late in the 2013 season. Shayne Graham hopes to hold off the younger Derek Dimke this summer.
Thomas Morstead continued to punt the ball with much gusto, and is still cooler than you or I will ever be.
At the end of practice, Payton reflected on what he thought was a successful first day.
“I thought it was sharp. You really look at each day. Yesterday, I felt real good after the conditioning test. We will be out here again this afternoon. I thought overall that guys moved around real well. Without pads on there’s a little bit of skill on how to practice with each other without taking guys to the ground. I thought we did a good job of handling that too.”
Players Loving the Weather
As mentioned above, the team was greeted by friendly conditions from mother nature this morning. While the temperature was already pushing 90 in New Orleans early Friday, the weather near White Sulphur Springs, WV, hovered in the mid-60's, much to the delight of players, coaches and fans in attendance.
The Saints practiced in lovely 64 degree weather Friday morning.
Linebacker Curtis Lofton had an interesting take, noting that he and teammates usually lose "8-10 pounds" in the balmy New Orleans weather this time of year. Zach Strief noted that the sharpness of the first practice was as strong as he has ever seen in his nine professional seasons as a Saint, citing the weather as a major facotr. In addition, Drew Brees expressed his delight at the conditions, noting how nice it felt to lay on cool grass during pre-practice stretches.
The forecast for the next week at the Greenbrier calls for slight chances of rain, but delightful temperatures throughout, with highs in the mid to upper 70's and lows in the low to mid 50's.
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, it remains hotter than a boudin ball in a pepper patch.
Pro Golfer Bubba Watson was in attendance for the morning workout at the Greenbrier, no coincedence as the resort is well-renowned for its luxury Golf courses.
Also in attendance was Dr. James Andrews, the highly-regarded orthopedic surgeon who has helped Drew Brees and many other pro athletes extend their careers in the aftermath of serious injuries.
In one of the lighter moments at practice, Brees lofted a near perfect pass to Watson, who promptly proceeded to drop the ball.
One Session Down
That's a wrap for the morning's activities. The team will hold an hour-long walk thru this afternoon and will be back at it again tomorrow morning with a full practice.
For reference:Your 2014 New Orleans Saints Training Camp Primer.