While all is mostly quiet on the western front that is your typical NFL July, noticeable blips continue to pop up on the radar out of New Orleans, where all eyes remain on Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's continued franchise tag saga. With training camp less than two weeks away, here is a quick roundup of this week's events in the Big Easy...
Graham D-Day Approaching
Just over a week after arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled in their favor, the Saints have yet to strike an agreement with Jimmy Graham on a long-term contract. As of today, an appeal to Burbank's ruling has yet to be filed on Graham's behalf. Graham's camp, buoyed by agent Jimmy Sexton, believes the deadline for such an appeal to be filed is Monday, July 14 at 3 pm Central time.
A source close to the situation told ProFootballTalk that Graham was not informed of the decision until July 3, giving him a ten-day window for an appeal. However, since that tenth day falls on a Sunday, the deadline would be extended a further day into Monday afternoon. The deadline for Jimmy Graham and the Saints to agree on a long-term contract is quickly approaching.
Of course, the other deadline at stake is Tuesday, July 15, the date which both Graham and the Saints have circled on their calendars as the final day to reach an agreement on a long-term extension. As PFT notes, Monday will be the day to keep an eye on, as Graham will either file an appeal or sign a deal with the Saints, who already have an offer on the table.
If common sense prevails, the two sides will speed up negotiations over the next 72 hours and get something done before 3 p.m. Monday. Graham may wait until the last minute to file an appeal in order to get the Saints to sweeten the pot, so to speak, though the offer New Orleans has tabled will already make him the league's highest-paid tight end.
Needless to say, this ongoing saga should finally be resolved within the next few days.
High Praise For Vaccaro
Fresh off a fine rookie campaign in which he compiled 79 tackles, an interception, a sack and a forced fumble in addition to 7 passes defensed over 14 games, rising 2nd year safety Kenny Vaccaro has garnered additional praise this offseason, in the form of NFL.com's Making the Leap feature. Vaccaro checks in at number 2 on Around the League editor Gregg Rosenthal's list of 25 players looking to take the next step in their careers as the 2014 season draws near.
The 6-0 214 Texas alum's season was cut short in week 16 when he fractured his ankle in the Saints' loss at Carolina, but he is now healthy again and was a full participant in the team's OTAs last month. Rosenthal cites defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's usage of the versatile Vaccaro as a reason why the talented DB stands to flourish as his career progresses. The Saints' enigmatic defensive alchemist deployed his rookie in a multitude of ways, using him in a variety of packages and alignments that allowed him to utilize the skills that saw New Orleans take him with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Ryan used Vaccaro as a single high safety, a two-deep safety, a slot corner and an outside linebacker across his multiple alignments and sub-packages. Though the team used Ryan's 3-4 scheme as its base defense, the Saints often found success operating out of the 4-2-5 package, which gave Ryan added flexibility to move Vaccaro around with extra defensive backs on the field at the same time. Kenny Vaccaro's skill set allows Rob Ryan to utilize him in a number of ways.
As Rosenthal goes on to add, the Saints' acquisition of prized free agent safety Jairus Byrd will allow the team to scale back Vaccaro's responsibilities, as Byrd will be able to handle the two-deep safety assignment that best suits him, while allowing Vaccaro to play closer to the box. The Saints were also able to retain Rafael Bush, matching the offer sheet that was presented to him by the Atlanta Falcons. Bush was another player who carved out a role in Ryan's defense and his presence should enhance Vaccaro's opportunity to maximize his skill set as a do-it-all safety.
The Saints' defense experienced a renaissance under the flambouyant Ryan, who took a unit that was historically bad and bottom of the league in 2012, to the NFL's 4th-best defense last season. In addition, the signing of Byrd, coupled with the retention of Bush figures to only further increase the defense's chances of improving even more in 2014. Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper are gone, but the presence of Byrd, Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis in the backfield along with the continued development of studs like Cameron Jordan, John Jenkins, Akiem Hicks, Junior Galette, and the return to health of linebacker Victor Butler should provide the front seven with plenty of juice as the defense looks to build off its solid 2013 campaign.
Rosenthal may have summed it up best with this quote: "With '3-4' and '4-3' defense monikers rendered nearly obsolete, unclassifiable players are prized. Rob Ryan doesn't want a safety. He wants a safety/cornerback/linebacker. A Vaccaro."
Furthermore, RB Khiry Robinson also made the list of 25, checking in at 19th. The former undrafted free agent, who came on towards the end of the 2013 season, figures to play a more prominent "big back" role in his 2nd season as a Saint. The 6-0 220 Robinson rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries over the course of the Saints' two playoff games.
Armstead Putting In Work
Having been thrust into duty during an embarrassing week 15 loss at the hands of the St. Louis Rams, 2nd year offensive lineman Terron Armstead, a 3rd round pick of the Saints in 2013, has been training with former Saints lineman and Hall of Famer Willie Roaf in an attempt to prepare himself for the upcoming season as the Saints' full-time starting left tackle.
The 6-5 304 Armstead, who possesses freakish athleticism for a man of his stature, took over as Drew Brees' blind side protector after Charles Brown was exposed by the Rams' formidable pass rush in that week 15 loss. After struggling in his own right against Greg Hardy in week 16 at Carolina, Armstead's play improved the following week against Tampa Bay, and into the postseason as he held his own in the wildcard win over the Philadelphia Eagles and divisional round loss at Seattle. Now that the job is his to own and lose, Armstead is attempting to put himself in the best position to hang onto it, and show that he can be a reliable player at one of the game's most important positions.
Armstead tweeted out a picture of himself and Roaf, with the caption "Great work this morning with the big homie, Hall of Famer Willie Roaf." Terron Armstead (right) and Hall of Famer Willie Roaf.
If Armstead can continue to develop and play well, he should be the left tackle for many years to come in New Orleans. The Saints brought back right tackle Zach Streif on a five-year deal in free agency, and any further progress from Armstead will be a coup as the Saints hope to establish the tandem as solid bookends to their offensive line.
Armstead's athletic traits should serve him well, as the Saints run one of the league's better screen games, meaning he will often have to block downfield in addition to his responsibilities as a run blocker at the point of attack and a pass protector. Armstead may not possess the girth of some of the game's notable left tackles, but his quick-twitch athleticism offers him a boost when matched up against some of the league's better defensive ends and outside linebackers.
Working out with Roaf, an 11-time Pro Bowler and one of the game's best ever can only help maximize his chances of becoming that reliable lynchpin on the offensive line for years to come.