Like the rest of the NFL, I’m back from vacation this week as training camps have already started kicking off. The New Orleans Saints will report to their new training camp site at The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia on Thursday, with the first practice on Friday. Here’s the complete schedule of practices, which will be open to the public.
I'll kick off the week by catching up on a number of Saints-related highlights from around the web in recent days. First is this terrific extensive interview with newly-signed tight end Jimmy Graham on the Saints' website. Graham had a number of interesting things to say, starting with his reaction to signing a four-year, $40 million contract:
“I’m beyond excited. I didn’t get into to football to learn litigation,” Graham said, referring to his high-profile grievance hearing to determine whether he was a tight end or wide receiver. “I got into football to win games with my teammates, friends and coaches. I am extremely happy to get back to what it’s really about.”
Graham also talked about the deeper impact that his success in the NFL has had on his life, which began with an extremely tough upbringing. As ESPN, among other outlets, chronicled in this 2011 feature, Graham was abandoned by his mother at a foster home at age 11 before eventually being taken in by another single mother.
“It’s hard to describe, it’s surreal,” Graham told the Saints’ website. “With my childhood and how hard the road has been leading up to this point. The quote I have always lived by is that ‘you have an opportunity to turn a dream into a reality.’ I approach every day with that mindset. Every day, every game is an opportunity. That is how I approached these last 20-plus years. I see everything as an opportunity.”
Graham also talked about being away from the team all summer -- which he spent working out in Miami with close friends, including former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, whom Graham described as a “brother and teammate forever.”
And he talked about how he’ll try to cope with the NFL’s new rule prohibiting slam dunks over the goal post as touchdown celebrations.
“I am going to listen to the rules and I understand the consequences,” said Graham. “I don’t want to hurt the team but I really just don’t know what to do now [laughter]. It’s all I have ever done for a touchdown. I am trying to figure that out -- it’s still in the works. Now that I am back with the guys and we will be at camp for a month, I am sure we will figure something out.”
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Meanwhile, another former NFL great tight end, Tony Gonzalez, said he’s sure Graham was happy about his new deal and should be. But he said he still thinks Graham is underpaid compared to elite receivers who put up similar numbers. I agree, as I wrote often during Graham’s negotiations -- though I do think the Saints were fair enough to Graham by hitting that $10 million threshold despite having more leverage because of the franchise tag. The four-year length was also friendly to Graham, who can become a free agent again at age 31.
Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson broke down why the Saints’ defense can be “great” this year in this piece for ESPN.com that requires Insider access. Indeed, the Saints have a chance to be even better than their breakout performance last year since they have a young, bona fide nucleus. And they should produce even more turnovers after coming up empty in that category last year.
Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan certainly feels good about the Saints’ chances. When asked by the NFL Network if the Saints will re-take the NFC South this year, he said, “This is the year I get a Super Bowl.”
The Advocate’s Ted Lewis is “taking the over” on one Vegas line of the Saints’ win total at 9.5. I strongly agree. When predicting the Saints’ record for ESPN.com earlier this offseason, I was wavering between 11 and 12 wins, and I still feel that way.
The Advocate’s Ramon Antonio Vargas offered up an extensive breakdown of the Saints’ roster battles. Nothing too controversial there, much like my early 53-man roster projection from last week. I’m sure some undrafted free agents and other unlikely contenders will crack the roster, as they do every year. But it’s too early to project which ones will make it – or which veterans will slide because of injuries or inconsistent performances.
The Times-Picayune’s Katherine Terrell wrapped up her series, ranking the 16 most compelling games on the Saints’ schedule, with the Week 1 showdown at the Atlanta Falcons at No. 1. No arguments here. I consider the Saints a strong front-runner to win the NFC South. But none of their opponents will be “easy outs” – including the Falcons, who should bounce back from a tough 2013 season.
The Times-Picayune's Larry Holder also wrapped his series, ranking the top 20 players on the roster, with the obvious choice Drew Brees at No. 1. There were only a couple small differences between Holder’s list and my own top-20 rankings this summer. I’m surprised he ranked both defensive end Akiem Hicks and receiver Brandin Cooks higher than me, because those are the two guys I’ve been boasting about the most this offseason. Obviously that’s a popular sentiment.
The Saints' website has been counting down its top 25 reasons to get excited about training camp – including Sunday’s No. 6: Camp hitting the road again for the first extended period since 2008.