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Team Report - NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

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INSIDE SLANT

Arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled that New Orleans Saints star Jimmy Graham should be designated as a tight end and not a wide receiver for purposes of the franchise tag.

Graham had filed a grievance against the Saints, who designated Graham as their franchise player this offseason. The difference between the franchise-tag salary for a receiver and a tight end is $5.3 million.

Graham would receive a $7.035 million salary if he signs the franchise tender as a tight end for 2014. The teams also have until July 15 to negotiate a long-term deal.

The NFL Players Association issued a statement saying it will review Burbank's decision, and Graham could still appeal.

"We will advise Graham of his options and carefully determine the next steps in this matter," the statement read. "We will also continue to assist Graham and his representation as necessary to help the player reach a fair long-term deal with the New Orleans Saints."

Saints head coach Sean Payton testified at the grievance hearing last week that Graham should be designated as a tight end. The Saints' position is that tight ends routinely line up in the slot and that being split out is part of playing the position. Graham lined up wide for 67 percent of his snaps in 2013, but Graham was drafted as a tight end and attended position group meetings with the Saints' tight ends.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement bases a player's position on where the most snaps were taken during the season.

Graham set a new career high with 16 touchdowns last season. Through four NFL seasons, he has 301 catches for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns, averaging 12.8 yards per reception.

During workouts last month, quarterback Drew Brees said the team would not allow Graham's contract situation to become a distraction.

"We all know and love Jimmy. We know it's going to get worked out, at some point, however it gets worked out," said Brees. "It doesn't matter the result of this hearing. When he's here, I know he'll be ready."

--It isn't easy being Drew Brees.

When the New Orleans Saints dive into their first training camp practice July 25 at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, Va., it will be the third consecutive year their prolific quarterback is missing one of his top targets from the previous season.

Most obvious MIA is multi-talented runner/receiver/returner Darren Sproles, who was traded away and is now a part of head coach Chip Kelly's offense in Philadelphia. Receivers Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson went in 2012 and 2013, respectively, while Lance Moore was also released this offseason.

Still Brees seems to find a way, as he did last year by guiding the offense to the fourth most yards in the league despite a running game that ranked No. 25.

The Saints actually ranked 25th in rushing the last two seasons, which they will try to fix this year with Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas as well as a pair of undrafted halfbacks -- Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet -- who'll try to fill the void left when they traded the speedy Sproles.

Robinson and Cadet turned some heads after making the roster the past two training camps and they will get a chance to add something to what Ingram and Thomas bring to the table. But until this group proves it can get the job done, it remains the weakest unit on the team.

The run game averaged only 3.8 yards per rush, which ranked 26th, and that was WITH Sproles.

While that drama plays itself out, here are some other items of interest for the Saints to consider as they prepare for camp:

PLAYER WITH MOST TO PROVE

--Mark Ingram, RB: Last month, the Saints declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Ingram's contract for 2015, so this will probably be a make-or-break season for the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner if he wants to remain with the club.

The Saints have been happy with Ingram and he has been productive when healthy, but he's missed 11 regular-season games and two playoff games with knee and turf toes issues in three seasons -- which is why they were probably reluctant to give him a little more than $5.1 million for 2015. That means Ingram, who has steadfastly insisted over the last month that he's not angry at team officials for not picking up the option on his rookie deal, will have to earn a big contract by producing on the field -- or probably hit the road.

KEY POSITION BATTLE

--Cornerback: The Saints are set at one cornerback with Keenan Lewis, their top free-agent pickup from 2013, but there will be competition to see who starts opposite him.

Former first-round draft pick Patrick Robinson, who played in just two games last season before tearing his patellar tendon, was working with the first-team defense ahead of Champ Bailey and third-year pro Corey White in OTAs.

Bailey is fully expected to win the job going into training camp with Robinson and White likely battling for the nickel cornerback spot. Rod Sweeting, who earned a roster spot as an undrafted free agent last summer, and second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste could also be in the picture.

BEST LONGSHOT ROOKIE

--Ronald Powell, OLB, Florida, Round 5/169th overall: Powell, a fast, 6-foot-3, 237-pound athlete, was the nation's top recruit when he signed with Florida in 2010. But two ACL injuries in 2012 took the luster off his college career.

The Saints like his pass-rushing ability. Even though they appear set with Junior Galette and Victor Butler as probable starters on the outside and with veteran Parys Haralson likely filling a backup role, the Saints need an outside linebacker to groom for the future.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Saints wrapped up their offseason program with their final four days of organized team activities -- one of which was used on a paintball outing with the purpose of building team chemistry.

After the last workout, the Saints went their separate ways although most of them will continue to work out on their own over the next five weeks in preparation for the start of training camp on July 24.

Saints coach Sean Payton said that the players will report to their Metairie training facility on July 23 for a chartered flight to their new training camp site at The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

The players will have their conditioning tests on July 24 and get on the practice field for the first time the next day. They will spend about three weeks in West Virginia, breaking camp on Aug. 14 -- the day before their second exhibition game.

--Because he couldn't work out with his new team this spring while classes were still in session at Oregon State, wide receiver Brandin Cooks spent the better part of this week trying to catch up.

Among other things the first-round draft pick had to do: introduce himself to quarterback Drew Brees after Cooks was only able to take part in a three-day rookie minicamp in mid-May.

On Thursday, Cooks spent several minutes after practice working with Brees, who'll also work one-on-one with him in San Diego over the next few weeks to help get him up to speed on the Saints' offense.

"I just saw Drew in a corner (of the locker room), and I didn't know whether to go up and shake his hand ... or wait for meetings," Cooks said after Thursday's OTA. "But you're a grown man, so you have to go to work."

--After losing outside linebacker Victor Butler to a knee injury in last year's OTAs, the Saints were relatively injury-free this offseason although three players were noticeably absent in the workouts open to media.

Butler tore his ACL last June, right before the team was scheduled to begin a five-week break before training camp and was out for the season.

This year, free safety Jairus Byrd (back), wide receiver Joe Morgan (knee) and nose tackle John Jenkins (torn pectoral muscle) all missed OTAs and full-squad minicamp while rehabbing. But all should be ready to go by training camp.

--When training camp begins in late July, the Saints hope to have a competitive kicking duel between veteran Shayne Graham and first-year pro Derek Dimke.

Graham was signed late last season when Garrett Hartley was released and was re-signed to a one-year contract in February. Dimke, who had a tryout with the Saints at midseason when Hartley initially struggled, was signed to a futures contract in January.

On the last day of offseason workouts, both kickers were given opportunities from 33, 39 and 45 yards out. Dimke made all three of his kicks, but Graham sandwiched makes around a wide-right miss from 39 yards.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Drew Brees. Backups -- Luke McCown, Ryan Griffin, Logan Kilgore.

Brees is showing no signs of slowing down as he approaches his 36th birthday, and he showed it by throwing for more than 5,000 yards for a third consecutive season in 2013. He finished with 5,162 passing yards, 39 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions -- seven fewer than in 2012. He completed 68.6 percent of his passes and had a 104.7 passer rating. The only problem was Brees was sacked a career-high 37 times, some of which he blamed on himself for holding the ball too long, which is one of the things the Saints hope to fix this season. McCown and Griffin, an undrafted free agent in 2013, will vie for the backup spot after Griffin was given more second-team reps than expected in the off-season.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Mark Ingram, FB Erik Lorig. Backups -- Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson, Travaris Cadet, FB Austin Johnson, Timothy Flanders, Derrick Strozier.

The Saints know they need to run the ball better after finishing 25th in the league for the second year in a row. Sean Payton believes in the backfield-by-committee approach, which worked in 2009 and 2011 when they ranked sixth and won 13 regular-season games each time. The key to doing that again will lie in the health of Ingram, who averaged 5.8 yards a carry in the final nine games last season, and Thomas, a tough runner and receiver who is especially effective in the screen game. Robinson will get a chance to get the touches that went to Darren Sproles and Cadet, like Robinson, was undrafted but has been a contributor on offense and in the return game the last two seasons. Lorig, who was signed away from Tampa Bay in free agency, is valued as a lead blocker, especially in short-yardage situations.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jimmy Graham. Backups -- Benjamin Watson, Josh Hill, Nic Jacobs, Je'Ron Hamm.

Graham missed all of the off-season workout program, but the only thing the Saints are worried about his working out a new deal with the club. After being franchised, Graham filed a grievance to be tagged as a wide receive because he lined up in the slot or out side 67 percent of the time in 2013. What he's called doesn't matter when you consider his productivity, which yielded 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and an NFL-leading 16 TD catches despite playing the final 10 games with a plantar fascia injury. Watson, a solid veteran, was a nice addition last season as a threat in the passing game -- especially when teams tried to take Graham away -- and is a solid blocker. Hill also made the team as an undrafted free agent and saw a lot of action as an extra blocker.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Marques Colston, Kenny Stills. Backups -- Brandin Cooks, Robert Meachem, Nick Toon, Joseph Morgan, Andy Tanner, Charles Hawkins, Brandon Coleman, Seantavius Jones, Steve Hull.

Even though Graham is a big part of the passing attack, Colston remains a big target for Brees. He had 75 catches for 943 yards and five TDs as the top wide receiver target even though his numbers were slightly down because Thomas and Sproles combined for 148 receptions and 1,117 yards. Stills, a fifth-round draft pick, had a nice rookie campaign in averaging 20.0 yards a catch with five on 32 receptions. His numbers should go up with the departure of Lance Moore although Cooks, who could be utilized some in the backfield, will be in the mix as an all-around threat in the slot and out wide. Meachem has lost a step of his deep speed, but is a reliable downfield blocker. Toon hasn't done much in two seasons, but had a solid off-season. He could vie for a roster spot along with Morgan, who is another deep threat if he can overcome injuries.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Terron Armstead, LG Ben Grubbs, C Tim Lelito, RG Jahri Evans, RT Zach Strief. Backups -- C Jonathan Goodwin, T Bryce Harris, G Senio Kelemete, T Marcel Jones, T Tavon Rooks, T Ty Nsekhe, C Matt Armstrong, T Manase Foketi, T Jason Weaver, T Thomas Welch.

The Saints certainly like what they have inside in Evans and Grubbs, who both made the Pro Bowl a year ago as solid run blockers and pass protectors, and on the edge with Armstead and Strief. Armstead, a third-round draft pick in 2013, was inserted into the starting lineup late in the season and was impressive after struggling in his debut. The question is at center after three-year starter Brian de la Puente didn't get the contract he wanted and left in free agency. Lelito, a former undrafted free agent who made the team last season as a backup guard, will get a shot to win the job after playing well in the offseason although the veteran Goodwin is a nice fall-back if Lelito can't nail it down. Harris and Kelemete appear to be in line as the other backups with one possible spot left for someone who can be a swing player at center/guard or tackle/guard.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Akiem Hicks, NT Brodrick Bunkley, RDE Cameron Jordan. Backups -- NT John Jenkins, E Glenn Foster, E Tyrunn Walker, T Brandon Deaderick, E Rufus Johnson, E George Uko, NT Moses McCray, E Lawrence Virgil.

Jordan, a four-year veteran, had a breakout season and made the Pro Bowl for the first time with 12.5 sacks and is the anchor of the line. Hicks, a mammoth player at 6-foot-5 inches and 324 pounds, could be ready for a breakout season as well after recording 4.5 sacks despite some back issues. Bunkley and Jenkins helped plug up the middle for a run defense that improved dramatically over the previous season. Foster, an undrafted free agent, had three sacks and was part of the rotation with Walker even though both were limited by injuries. Deaderick, a five-year veteran, was picked up to provide depth inside, while Johnson, who played defensive end in college but was tried as an outside linebacker in his rookie season in 2013, will get a look at his old spot.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Junior Galette, ILB David Hawthorne, ILB Curtis Lofton, OLB Victor Butler. Backups -- OLB Parys Haralson, ILB Ramon Humber, OLB Keyunta Dawson, ILB Kevin Reddick, OLB Khairi Fortt, OLB Ronald Powell, OLB Kyle Knox, OLB Cheta Ozougwu, OLB Kasim Edeball, ILB Todd Davis, OLB Chidera Uzo-Diribe.

This group was active and aggressive last season despite a slew of injuries -- including one to Butler, who was sidelined for the year after tearing an ACL last offseason. He's a likely starter this year opposite Galette, a speedy former defensive end who had a career-high 12 sacks off the edge last season. Lofton and Hawthorne formed a solid inside duo with 139 and 122 tackles to rank 1-2 on the team. Haralson, Humber and Dawson were all capable backups last season, but will be challenged by Fortt and Powell, who were taken in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively, of this year's draft. Knox impressed on special teams after being promoted from the practice squad late last season and Reddick made the team as an undrafted free agent. Ozougwu could make a push for a roster spot with two years of experience in the league.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Keenan Lewis, FS Jairus Byrd, SS Kenny Vaccaro, RCB Champ Bailey. Backups -- FS Rafael Bush, CB Patrick Robinson, CB Corey White, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, FS Vinnie Sunseri, SS Marcus Ball, CB Rod Sweeting, CB Trevin Wade, CB Terrence Frederick, CB Derrius Brooks, SS Ty Zimmerman, FS Pierre Warren, CB Brian Dixon.

Lewis led an injury-decimated secondary with four interceptions and Vaccaro was an impact player from the first day of training camp until he fractured his ankle in the second-to-last regular-season game. They will again be a big part of what defensive coordinator Rob Ryan does although they will have more help in Byrd and Bailey, two ball-hawks who should help create many more takeaways after the Saints had just 19 a year ago. Bush has had a couple of nice seasons as a backup and will play a lot in the three-safety lineups Ryan utilizes. Robinson, a former first-round draft pick, appears more comfortable in the nickel. White struggled at times last season when forced into the lineup because of injuries, but could be ready to turn the corner. At 6-foot-3, Jean-Baptiste will get a chance to join the new breed of big cornerbacks after being chosen in the second round of the draft, while Sunseri, a fifth-round draft pick, will get a shot to play in certain roles and on special teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Shayne Graham, P Thomas Morstead, K Derek Dimke, LS Justin Drescher, KOR Travaris Cadet, PR Brandin Cooks.

Graham, a 13-year veteran who was signed late in the season to replace a struggling Garrett Hartley, was 6-of-6 before missing twice in the elements in the playoff loss at Seattle. He will be challenged by Dimke, a first-year player who also was impressive when the Saints twice held kicking tryouts during the 2013 season. Morstead's average fell more than three yards from 2012, but still averaged a healthy 46.9 gross yards and 42.3 net yards per kick. He again was solid as a kickoff specialist, booming kick after kick into the end zone and tying for fourth in the league with 52 touchbacks. The Saints, who were 30th in the league in punt returns and 17th in kickoff returns despite the presence of Darren Sproles, will try to fix that with Cooks and Cadet likely getting the first shot at earning those jobs, respectively. Drescher was again consistent in handling the long-snapping duties last season and will man the job again.

PERSONNEL TRACKER

FRANCHISE PLAYER: TE Jimmy Graham (tendered at $7.035M).

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)

--DE Kenyon Coleman (not tendered as UFA).

--LB Will Herring (not tendered as UFA).

--S Jordan Pugh (not tendered as UFA).

--LB Jonathan Vilma (not tendered as UFA).

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.

DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED

--WR Brandin Cooks (1/20): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (2/58): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--LB Khari Fortt (4/126): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--S Vinnie Sunseri (5/167): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--LB Ronald Powell (5/169): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--T Tavon Rooks (6/202): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

--S Rafael Bush: RFA tendered at $1.431M with no compensation; Saints matched Falcons offer; $3.8M/2 yrs, $850,000 guaranteed.

--LB Keyunta Dawson: Potential UFA; $855,000/1 yr.

--K Shayne Graham: Potential UFA; $955,000/1 yr.

--LB Parys Haralson: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.

--T Bryce Harris: Potential ERFA; $570,000/1 yr.

--LB Ramon Humber: UFA; $795,000/1 yr, $65,000 SB.

--QB Luke McCown: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.

--WR Robert Meachem: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.

--WR Joseph Morgan: Not tendered as RFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.

--T Zach Strief: UFA; 5 yrs, terms unknown.

--CB Trevin Wade: Potential ERFA; $570,000/1 yr.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--CB Champ Bailey: FA Broncos; $3.75M/2 yrs, $500,000 SB.

--S Jairus Byrd: UFA Bills; $54M/6 yrs, $11M SB/$27.9M guaranteed.

--DT Brandon Deaderick: Not tendered as UFA by Jaguars; terms unknown.

--C Jonathan Goodwin: Not tendered as UFA by 49ers; terms unknown.

--FB Erik Lorig: UFA Buccaneers; 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--LB Cheta Ozougwa: FA; terms unknown.

--T Thomas Welch: Not tendered as RFA by Bills; terms unknown.

PLAYERS LOST

--T Charles Brown: UFA Giants; terms unknown.

--FB Jed Collins: Not tendered as RFA/Lions; terms unknown.

--C Brian de la Puente: UFA Bears; 1 yr, terms unknown.

--CB Jabari Greer (released, failed physical).

--S Roman Harper (released).

--S Malcolm Jenkins: UFA Eagles; $15.5M/3 yrs, $8.5M guaranteed.

--DE Tom Johnson: Not tendered as RFA/Vikings; $845,000/1 yr.

--WR Lance Moore (released).

--DE Will Smith (released, failed physical).

--RB Darren Sproles (traded Eagles).

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