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Another weapon appears to be emerging in New Orleans. Len Pasquarelli

Print This November 10, 2013, 10:42 AM EST
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New Orleans had eight completions of 40 yards or more in its first eight games of the season – only four clubs had more – and splendid New Age tight end Jimmy Graham accounted for three of those long balls. The identity of the only other New Orleans player with more than one, fast-improving (emphasis on the “fast” part) rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills, might surprise some people.

But not the New Orleans coaches and personnel officials, who took a chance on the former Oklahoma standout in the fifth round over six months ago, and may have unearthed the kind of long-speed dimension that they had arguably lacked since the departures of Devery Henderson and, to a bigger extent, Robert Meachem.

Make no mistake, starting wideouts Marques Colston and Lance Moore are terrific receivers, and Graham is a matchup nightmare for opponents. But during his season-long “Bountygate” banishment in 2012, head coach Sean Payton had the opportunity to view the Saints through a different, more dispassionate, prism. And he surmised the Saints needed to add a deep-ball threat if they could, a guy who could burn vertically, and clear out mid-range seams for the other receivers, while constituting an occasional boundary threat in his own right. And so Stills, regarded by some scouts as an erratic route-runner with iffy hands in college, but a guy who could “take the top off a secondary,” in the vernacular, became part of the solution after suffering through some problems as a collegian.

Not the only part, because New Orleans took some other measures as well, but clearly the most conspicuous one.

Drew BreesICONBrees and the Saints are back on top of the NFC South...and rookie Stills has had a hand in helping them get there.

The Saints actually felt they were developing such a player already in Joseph Morgan, but he tore up his knee in a summer scrimmage. Stills, admittedly an enigmatic player while at Oklahoma, and a prospect to whom some teams weren’t attracted despite a 4.38 time at the combine, stepped up. He’s averaging a gaudy 22.6 yards on 16 catches and forces opposition secondaries to honor his speed and not sit inside as much on Colston (who is superb in the middle of the field) and Moore (a consummate technician).

“Just him being out there creates more space,” Moore acknowledged. “There’s more room to work.”

But as noted, Stills was only one component utilized in the speed upgrade. He isn’t used as much, but second-year veteran Nick Toon has sneaky speed. And the return of the prodigal Meachem, quickly re-signed after he was cut by San Diego following a disappointing season with the Chargers in 2012, has helped as well. Meachem is the only other wide receiver with a 40-yard catch in the first eight games. So the speed story, in the bigger scheme of things, is more about a team generally upgrading an area most observers felt couldn’t get a whole lot better. Those sentiments aside, the Saints’ passing game, if possible, is even more explosive now.

It’s no great secret that New Orleans has been a big run-after-catch team since Payton’s arrival in 2006. In the first seven seasons of his tenure – even counting 2012, when the offensive design was his, despite Payton’s absence from the sideline – the Saints ranked in the top nine in YAC (yards after catch) every year. They were either first or second in five of the seasons. True to form, New Orleans ranked No. 5 so far this season entering this weekend’s action.

Because of the nature of the Saints’ passing game design, with so many screens, they are probably always going to rank high in the yards-after-catch category. They throw a lot of five- to seven-yard screens that turn into big gains, thanks to the running skills of tailbacks Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, and to Graham, who is also a healthy part of the screen game. But as good as the passing game was – and it has never ranked statistically lower than No. 4 under Payton, and has been first in four of seven seasons – the coaches decided it could get better. And with Stills and the other additions, and the speed they add, it has.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*As noted in the “Sunday Blitz” a few weeks ago, early draft rankings are only helpful to a point right now for several reasons: The rankings typically rate senior prospects only, change dramatically once the underclassmen are added, and there remains a ton of evaluation to do in general. Still, it’s never too early to dredge up some draft info, particularly in a few of the league’s woebegone precincts. So this nugget courtesy of several teams’ scouts:

There are probably less than 20 prospects who technically had the equivalent of first-round grades in early discussions. The ones most prominently mentioned were: CB Antone Exum (Virginia Tech), LB Dee Ford (Auburn), OT Seantrel Henderson (Miami), OT James Hurst (North Carolina), OG Gabe Jackson (Mississippi State), DE Jackson Jeffcoat (Texas), DE DaQuan Jones (Penn State), OT Taylor Lewan (Michigan), OT Jake Matthews (Texas A&M), LB C.J. Mosley (Alabama), DE/LB Trent Murray (Stanford), OG Cyril Richardson (Baylor), DT Will Sutton (Arizona State) and QB Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech).

Matthews is the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, and Jeffcoat is the son of onetime Dallas standout defensive lineman Jim Jeffcoat. Not too surprisingly, some of the assessments for a few of the players originally pegged as potential first-rounders have already changed – Exum, for instance, has battled injuries most of the season—and the deck will continue to be shuffled as the process wears on. The one thing that might not change: It looks like another big year for offensive tackles.

*On the subject of the draft, amid recent suggestions from some unnamed league scouts that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston would probably be the first overall player chosen in the 2014 draft if he was eligible for the lottery, there were some quiet rumblings in the rumor-verse last week that the Florida State star might actually consider challenging the NFL’s “three-year rule.” Sources inside the FSU program and close to Winston adamantly insisted to NFP that the speculation was totally unfounded.

Jameis WinstonIs Winston considering a challenge to the NFL's draft rules?

The rule, which simply states that a player has to be three years removed from high school before he can petition for inclusion in the draft, hasn’t been tested since the ill-fated challenge by then-Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett in 2004. Winston, of course, has been scintillating in leading the Seminoles to an undefeated season to date, and a possible spot in the national championship game, especially after Oregon’s loss at Stanford on Thursday night. Winston has 24 touchdown passes and just six interceptions, and is on pace to break Sam Bradford’s record for best completion percentage by a freshman, with a 70.3-percent hookup rate entering the Wake Forest game. But the Bessemer, Ala., native is said to have told friends and relatives that he still has a way to go in his development and enjoys the college game. That said, no one seems ready to rule out the strong likelihood that Winston will be in the 2015 draft.

*With all the attention afforded the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation of late, the recent health scares for coaches John Fox of Denver and Houston’s Gary Kubiak sort of took a back seat in the public’s consciousness of NFL matters. But there are a group of former coaches who want some of their past colleagues – men like Bill Parcells and Mike Ditka, who experienced persistent heart problems, and Dan Reeves, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery late in the ’98 season – to become more proactive in delivering the message to their successors about the health risks seemingly inherent to the profession. The discussion last week among the former coaches was how that could best be done. Reeves in particular has been very outspoken about preventive care and not ignoring warning signs.

“Guys just don’t pay attention to their bodies,” Reeves said. “Something happens and they tell themselves, ‘I’ll take care of it later, maybe during the bye (week).’ You just can’t downplay this stuff; it’s critical to get help.”

Coaches typically have physical exams yearly, but the in-season stresses can exacerbate a situation. So some of the former coaches are pushing for more regular checkups. NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth recently suggested a “7-to-7” rule, in which club facilities would not be allowed to open before 7 a.m. and had to close by 7 p.m. That might be a bit extreme for many of the workaholics in the profession, but the incidents with Fox and Kubiak may have highlighted the need for some type of action.

*New England has three defensive starters on injured reserve (not counting safety Adrian Wilson, who might not have been a starter anyway had he not sustained a hamstring injury before the season), and there’s no denying the impact of the losses of tackle Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo. But the effect of the season-ending Achilles injury that defensive tackle Vince Wilfork suffered at Atlanta on Sept. 29?

“Not having the big man, if it’s (bad), will really make a huge difference for us,” cornerback Aqib Talib told NFP the night Wilfork was hurt, before anyone knew the severity of the injury.

That was a prophetic assessment. At least according to the raw statistics – it’s impossible to gauge the intangible absence of the respected 10-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowl defender– the loss has been pretty significant. In the five games the Pats have played without Wilfork in the lineup, during which time the Pats are 3-2, the New England defense has allowed an average of 146.8 rushing yards and had three games in which it gave up 150 or more yards. Opponents have averaged 4.4 yards per carry, scored three touchdowns, and had four attempts for 20 yards or more. In the four contests in which Wilfork started, the Patriots were 4-0 and surrendered only 105.0 rushing yards per game. They allowed an average of 4.1 yards per rush, gave up only one touchdown on the ground, and the longest run by a back (not counting quarterback scrambles, the longest of which was for 19 yards) was for only 13 yards. During Wilfork’s career, the numbers are fairly similar to those for 2013. Since he became a full-time starter in 2005, Wilfork has started 126 regular-season games and missed 11 contests. In the games Wilfork has started, New England is 97-29 (.770) and has allowed 103.7 rushing yards per game. In the 11 he hasn’t, the Pats are 8-3 (.727), and have surrendered 133.2 rushing yards per game.

*Every franchise claims to hate penalties, but some seem to grudgingly tolerate them a little more than others. “Sometimes (the penalties) are kind of a reflection of how tough and physical you are,” one veteran Seattle front-seven defender told NFP last week. “I mean, look at the Raiders in their heyday. They were probably the most ‘flagged’ team in the league for a lot of those years, but they were among the best, most physical teams. They didn’t take any (stuff) from anybody. I actually think the penalties were like a badge or something for them. Our coaches (complain) at us all the time, especially about the pre-snap stuff . . . but they also seem to know some of the penalties are a part of who we are.”

Seattle has been penalized the second most times in the NFL (71) and leads in penalty yards (649), but the Seahawks are 8-1. The team is tied for the most defensive pass interference penalties in the NFL (nine) and the defender said that “only adds” to the perception of the Seattle secondary as a physical bunch. Surprisingly, four of the top 11 clubs in terms of penalties (there is a tie for the 10th spot) currently have winning records.

*Maybe his release by San Francisco last week, with the 49ers needing to clear a roster spot for cornerback Eric Wright, who was activated from the non-football injury list, didn’t end the career of 11-year veteran Nnamdi Asomugha. But an NFC personnel director, who had pored over video of Asomugha’s last couple years before taking our call, claimed there are “maybe three or four” cornerbacks on his “emergency list” he would think about signing before considering the onetime Pro Bowl defensive back. That’s not to say some club desperate for an experienced corner or a veteran presence at the position won’t bite. “(But) it’s just not there,” the personnel director said. “His speed is down, he can’t play the slot, he’s not nearly as physical a presence as he was a few years ago. And I don’t see him moving inside (to safety).”  

Nnamdi AsomughaIs Nnamdi Asomugha's career finished?

Indeed, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t all that long ago that Asomugha was regarded as one of the NFL’s top two cover defenders. In 2011, he signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Eagles, and that deal was felt by some to represent a steal of sorts. But since the end of the 2010 season, Asomugha has been cut loose now by three teams – although it should be noted that Oakland, which had fashioned a byzantine contract that allowed both sides to have an out, let him walk for financial reasons – and it’s fair to say that the perspective league-wide is that he is in steep decline.  Asomugha, who registered only two tackles and two passes defensed while appearing in three games for the Niners, has been pretty quiet since his release. So it’s not yet known if the corner, at age 32, wants to continue his career. And it’s just as unclear if any team wants him to keep playing.

*When journeyman Seneca Wallace replaces the injured Aaron Rodgers in the Green Bay lineup on Sunday against Philadelphia, it will extend a strange streak of sorts for the league. It will mean that in every week this season –with the exception of Week 1, of course, which set the “baseline” – at least one “replacement” quarterback has made his first start of the season. Wallace will become the 46th different starter in 2013. Teams will actually have started 47 different signal-callers, but Josh Freeman started for two teams, Tampa Bay and Minnesota. The different “new” starters by week: Chad Henne (Jacksonville), Week 2; Brian Hoyer (Cleveland), Week 3; Matt Cassel (Minnesota), Matt Flynn (Oakland) and Mike Glennon (Tampa Bay), Week 4; Ryan Fitzpatrick (Tennessee), Week 5; Thaddeus Lewis (Buffalo) and Nick Foles (Philadelphia), Week 6; Case Keenum (Houston), Week 7; Kellen Clemens (St. Louis) and Jason Campbell (Cleveland), Week 8; Jeff Tuel (Buffalo) and Josh McCown (Chicago), Week 9; and Wallace for Week 10. 

*There figure to be plenty of juicy subplots when Seattle visits the Georgia Dome on Sunday for a rematch of the 2012 NFC divisional playoff game in which the Falcons blew a big second-half lead, then rallied in the final minute to come back and defeat the Seahawks, 30-28. But one of the better head-to-head battles in the game might be the one between Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White and Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, two guys who are Pro Bowl-caliber performers not just on the field but in trash-talking as well. The two don’t like each other very much – and Sherman further fueled the feud last week when he replied, “What challenge?” when asked about facing White – so it should be intriguing. White has missed the last three games with ankle and hamstring injuries, snapping a streak of 133 straight appearances. He denied that the prospect of playing against Sherman spurred his rehabilitation, but it probably added extra incentive. White has only 14 catches for 129 yards this season and has yet to score a touchdown. Sherman is tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions, and there are some who feel he has supplanted Darrelle Revis as the league’s premier cornerback. It should be a fun matchup.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*At least Houston safety Ed Reed, unlike Asomugha, still has a job. For now. But the nine-time Pro Bowl safety has had his playing time, which wasn’t all that extensive to begin with, reduced considerably. Like Asomugha, Reed is just a shadow of himself, and has zero significant plays for the Texans, who looked past his chronic hip problems and signed him to a three-year, $15 million contract during the offseason. It will be surprising if Reed is back in 2014. . . . Another potential Hall of Fame safety (although the position tends to be ignored by Canton selectors), Troy Polamalu of Pittsburgh, said last week he plans to return for a 12th season in 2014, the final year of his contract. But the seven-time Pro Bowler, whose liabilities are more evident now that he’s not as explosive a player, might not be afforded the choice. The Steelers are a fiercely loyal organization, but they may have to exercise more pragmatism in rebuilding mode. And, of course, the Steelers are perennially in cap jail and might need the $8.25 million they could save by releasing Polamalu, even though he is an iconic figure in the Steel City. . . . Before shutting out the Redskins in the fourth quarter on Thursday night, Minnesota had allowed its opponents to score in 24 straight quarters, the longest such streak in more than 20 years. The Vikings surrendered 10 or more points in seven of those quarters. . . . After toying with rookie Denard Robinson at a number of positions, Jacksonville offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch has decided the former Michigan quarterback and fifth-round draft choice will spend the second half of the year as the team’s No. 2 tailback, behind Maurice Jones-Drew. The NCAA career leader in rushing yards by a quarterback, Robinson has worked at tailback at various times during the campaign, but will practice almost exclusively there for the balance of the season. Said Fisch: “Just his speed and his elusiveness alone affect the way (defenses) play you.” Robinson has recorded only 11 rushes for 25 yards to date, and not carried more than four times in a game. But with the season down the drain anyway, it’s time for the woeful Jags to see what they have in Robinson, and it the team claims he could get double-digit rushes in contests now. . . . Although they face the NFL’s lowest-rated rushing team on Sunday at Atlanta, the Seattle Seahawks worked extra last week on maintaining gap discipline versus the run. Seattle has permitted consecutive 200-yard rushing games to St. Louis and Tampa Bay, both of which featured rookie tailbacks. . . . Although Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly has publicly refused to close the door on the chances of Michael Vick starting again this season, Eagles players privately suggest only an injury to Nick Foles will get him back into the lineup. Kelly plans to ride Foles, who threw for a record-tying seven scores last week, the rest of the way, to determine if he’s the man moving forward of if the club needs to look elsewhere for a quarterback.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*One hundred and seventy-five games, 4,018 days, 11 years exactly to the day, and 291 field goal attempts by opponents. That’s how long it had been since the San Diego Chargers had blocked a field goal attempt. Of course, that was before Chargers’ lineman Lawrence Guy swatted away Kai Forbath’s 25-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter, on Washington’s initial possession of the game, in a 30-24 overtime loss last Sunday. The Chargers’ most recent blocked field goal before that Guy play came on Nov. 3, 2002, when Adrian Dingle deflected a 43-yard attempt by John Hall in a 44-13 loss to the New York Jets. San Diego didn’t have to wait nearly as long to get another one, as Corey Liuget blocked Forbath’s 59-yard try late in the second quarter. So after going 11 years without a single blocked field goal, San Diego actually blocked two straight attempts. It could be tough to get one Sunday against Denver, however, since the Broncos’ Matt Prater has never had a field goal attempt blocked in his 160 career tries.  

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