I had the opportunity to both attend the Black and Gold scrimmage yesterday, as well stay at the Greenbrier. I will be here until Tuesday, so it will be a nice way to get some news. My initial impression of the scrimmage was the tempo. Drew Brees did not play due to a strained oblique muscle and that allowed Luke McCown, Ryan Griffin and Logan Kilgore to get all the reps at quarterback. When Kilgore was in with the 3rd string offense, the tempo and quality of play dropped significantly. No real surprise there. I don’t blame Kilgore necessarily as much as just the unit as a whole not being fully dialed in and on the same page. A lot of young players in that group. But when McCown and Griffin had control of the offense the tempo was incredible. Both QBs were in and out of the huddle extremely fast, the substitutions came seamlessly, and it lead to the defense being on their heels early. I was impressed by how comfortable both quarterbacks were in the offense and they clearly have good command of the playbook. This team feels very prepared for this stage of the season.
Between Griffin and McCown, neither was perfect, but Griffin was often outstanding. McCown held on to the ball a bit longer, settled for safety valve throws more, and had one bad interception to Marcus Ball. Those were the negatives, but overall I was impressed by McCown too. The playmakers that stood out were Jimmy Graham and Brandin Cooks. Sometimes you forget how good Graham is because he’s on our team, but he was dominant. No one could cover him. Cooks, to me, was the MVP of the scrimmage. His blazing speed in open space is shocking, but he also makes guys whiff like Darren Sproles used to. He has that quick change of direction cut speed that you can’t teach. It’s amazing that as a rookie he already seems completely ready to make a MAJOR impact. I left that scrimmage completely convinced that Cooks will be the NFL rookie of the year, barring injury. I don’t throw that out lightly.
Early on the offense was gashing the defense with huge plays. The quick tempo likely had an impact in part in creating both confusion and mismatches. Vaccaro was beaten by Graham more than once, and the offense seemed to do whatever they wanted. After a few series, though, the defense settled down and started getting stops. Junior Galette appeared to have a couple sacks and played well (you can’t tackle the QB in camp). Rafael Bush had a couple monster hits and the game was quite physical, even though the refs were very quick to blow the whistle and call the play dead to avoid severe collisions to the ground.
If the reps at running back are any indication of the reps during the season, and I hope not, we saw a lot less of Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson, and a lot more of Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet. Thomas and Cadet are clearly the passing play backs. Ingram seemed to play very little, and when he did he did not look overly impressive. He still struggled with decisiveness hitting the hole like we’ve seen in the past. Robinson on the other hand looked outstanding. The Saints need to play him early and often this year. Cadet was impressive overall, though he got hit for losses a few times. He seems to have very good hands. The Saints’ offense did seem to run way too many screens which has become more and more predictable over the years.
Chris Hawkins is another guy that looked pretty good, and he was in the mix against Cooks and Cadet in the punt return game. I think those three are the main candidates at this point, and again I thought that while all three did some nice things Cooks seems like the most likely candidate to win the job. It will be hard for Hawkins to make the roster, but his play as a receiver didn’t hurt. Surprisingly I thought the least impressive receiver in this scrimmage was Andy Tanner, who usually excels in these types of exercises. Vinnie Sunseri was in on almost all the special teams plays and he was moved around everywhere. I think the Saints have big plans for him. Derek Dimke seems to have outkicked Shayne Graham so far in the kicking competition but both have been solid.
At the resort the place is crawling with Saints players. If you hang out in the shops or lobby you can see pretty much any of them walking by. I had separate run ins/conversations with Akiem Hicks, Champ Bailey, Keenan Lewis, Austin Johnson, Josh Hill, Sunseri, Mickey Loomis, Griffin, McCown, Robert Meachem, Joe Morgan, Curtis Lofton and Zach Strief to name a few. That was in one day after practice, a pretty awesome set up. Strief remains to me the most professional, genuinely nice and talkative guy on the team. He’s a major asset from a PR standpoint as a representative of the team. I did ask Bailey about his injury and he shared that it was a foot issue, but that he’s feeling a lot better and that he didn’t consider it serious. He said “you just have to be smart” and echoed the sentiment that all that matters is being healthy and ready to go for week 1. So I wouldn’t worry too much with him or Grubbs. Both guys will make the team, and the Saints trust in what they’ll get out of them, so they don’t want to push too hard and jeopardize their ability to be ready when the lights come on. Morgan also told me that his knee is good but he deals with soreness. He told me his injury was much more involved than “just an ACL” so he’s glad to be out there competing. I got the sense he’s out there and fighting through it because his roster spot is not guaranteed, and it’s held up pretty well so far.