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At the Residence Inn Hotel in Oxnard, Calif., 53 miles north of Los Angeles on the cool Pacific Coast. Three reasons the Saints are here for a week before playing the Raiders in Oakland over the weekend:
One: Coach Sean Payton wanted to keep the team in training-camp mode for another few days after losing all organized practices in the offseason because of the lockout.
Two: The weather; after dealing with heat-index temperatures of about 110 degrees back in New Orleans, it was 78 and cloudless for the afternoon practice today. "I actually underdressed for practice yesterday,'' Payton told me. "It was chilly.''
Three: Bonding. Lots of new guys here, and Payton thought another week getting to know each other would be beneficial. GM Mickey Loomis concurred, and owner Tom Benson footed the bill (I'm guessing it costs about $125,000 total to come out here for a week).
1. Who has a better defensive tackle rotation of established NFL talent? The way it looks now, Shaun Rogers will play the nose and Sedrick Ellis the other DT spot, with Aubrayo Franklin rotating in. Considering that Rogers and Franklin were the best run-stuffing vets available this offseason, and the Saints got both of them, it was a good offseason for the defensive front. Franklin's got a knee tweak that kept him out of practice today, but it's not serious.
2. Mark Ingram has had an impressive camp, but he, too, is temporarily out with a sore knee. Uh-oh. Ingram had knee issues that scared a few teams away on draft day. He looks fine walking around camp and says he's fine. "He'll practice tomorrow and he'll play Sunday,'' Payton said after practice today.
What his mates say is how impressive he's been with the pads on -- he's fast padded up, and even in "thud'' practices, where tackling isn't permitted, he runs with power and a strong forward lean. He'll split carries with Pierre Thomas early, with Thomas getting the bulk while Ingram works into the lineup. "Ummm,'' said Loomis this afternoon, "how do I temper my enthusiasm with Mark? He's looked terrific.''
3. Darren Sproles doesn't look like he's lost much. Sproles lined up in the right slot this afternoon, caught the ball on a short crossing route, and ran past four Saints defenders against the grain and turned upfield as the crowd whooped it up. Look for Sproles to be used some in the run game, some in the slot as a third or fourth receiver, and some as the punt returner. I think he's a better fit for this offense than Reggie Bush -- if only because I think he's got a better chance than Bush to play 16 games.
Tight end Jimmy Graham. With the loss of fellow U of Miami product Jeremy Shockey to Carolina in free agency, Graham and the versatile Dave Thomas take over the tight end spot. If you've watched Payton, you know this is an important position with lots of variations. Thomas is the guy who knows everything his coach wants out of the position; Graham is the guy more physically gifted to carry everything out. He reported at a chiseled 272 pounds (he's down to about 265), but he looked like an imposing physical presence over the middle this afternoon.
Defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Another victim of the one-year-contract mania sweeping NFL front offices with the tight 2011 salary cap. The Saints never thought the best pure nose man in free agency would be available, and they didn't really have a major need after signing the released Shaun Rogers last winter, but the longer Franklin stayed on the market, the more curious GM Mickey Loomis was. "At some point, winning trumps money, and that's the way it was with Aubrayo,'' said Loomis, who signed him to a one-year, $4 million deal. Franklin will remember the teams that didn't pay him, and figures it'll benefit the team that did. "I will carry that with me on the field all year,'' he told me.
"I'm enjoying the food a lot,'' said Payton. Don't blame him. The Residence Inn staff has done a fine job, if my lunch is any indication: Turkey burger on an outdoor grill with a slice of cheddar, with lettuce and tomato ... giant Diet Coke in a Shaun Rogers-sized Styrofoam cup. Excellent turkey burger. Hit the spot. Luckily, with the property adjoining a golf course and foursomes playing through for the entire lunch period, I never got hit with a Maxfli on the spot. Grade: B-plus. I'm a sucker for a good grilled turkey burger.
The bad: opening at Super Bowl champ Green Bay. The good: getting a mini-bye-like, 10-day break after that game ... the fact that the final four games in a tough division like the NFC South are manageable: at Tennessee, at Minnesota, and then finishing at home with the Falcons and Panthers. If the Saints are sniffing the pennant in December, the late schedule favors them over Tampa Bay and Atlanta.