Saints' Unger valued in New Orleans, missed in Seattle

METAIRIE, La. (AP) New Orleans Saints center Max Unger finally gets to play against a defense he knows so well in a game that counts.

''It's just a lot of memories of playing the defense in practice,'' Unger said when asked what he finds most compelling about the chance to play Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, the team with which he spent his first six NFL seasons.

Unger, who was popular both in the Seahawks' locker room and with Seattle fans, concedes that he was caught off guard by the 2015 trade that sent him to New Orleans, along with a first-round draft choice, in exchange for star tight end Jimmy Graham. But if the Unger is motivated personally by the prospect of making the Seahawks pay for uprooting him from a community he liked living in and playing for, he's not letting on about it.

''There's a lot of emotions, obviously, that go across when you get traded,'' Unger said. ''You kind of have to remove that personal element. ... I'm not the first player to ever play against their former team. It happens weekly in this locker room. So it's funny to hear the stories and so this will be another one.''

While the Hawaii native and former second-round draft choice out of Oregon wasn't entirely thrilled by having to leave the West Coast, he was curious about the culture and history of New Orleans and eager to experience something different. He figured he'd get a lot out of playing with record-setting quarterback Drew Brees, and he at least knew the Saints really valued him; they must have to trade a star as prolific as Graham for him.

After practice Thursday, Unger went so far as to say he ''couldn't be happier'' than he is right now as an offensive leader with the Saints, who named him a captain this season.

''I take a lot of pride in that,'' Unger said. ''It's just a testament to doing the right things.''

When Unger was traded to New Orleans, right tackle Zach Strief reached out almost immediately, inviting Unger to watch a round of New Orleans' annual PGA Tour event, the Zurich Classic, in the spring of 2015. Strief said it makes sense that Unger would be appreciated by fans in Seattle - or anywhere.

''Fans can see and understand and respect tough guys, just like he is here. He's tough and he's steady and gives you everything you want out of a lineman,'' Strief said. ''He's not a big talker. He's not someone who's going to ask to have his face put many places, but at the same time I think people very quickly get a feel for the type of person he is by how he plays and the kind of guy he is around the locker room.''

In New Orleans, anyone who succeeds in protecting Brees is bound to be respected. Unger has fortified the front and center of the pocket, Brees said, and the results are self-evident. Brees led the NFL in passing last season. Through six games this season, he is averaging an NFL-leading 350.2 yards per game, putting him on pace for what would be an NFL single-season record of 5,603 yards passing.

''Max has been as good as I ever could have imagined, not only just his production, but his leadership ability and his toughness and the presence he brings to the locker room and to that offensive line room and to our team,'' Brees said.

Even though the Seahawks were willing to part with Unger to get an elite pass-catcher like Graham, it is also apparent they miss their former offensive lineman - and not just because they've had a little more trouble than usual running the ball and protecting quarterback Russell Wilson.

''He's awesome, one of our all-time favorite guys,'' Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. ''It's who he is - his character, his competitiveness, the smarts that he brings just a great team guy.''

Unger said he still follows how the Seahawks are doing, still has a number of friends on the team and - with the exception of this week - still enjoys seeing them succeed.

It sounds like the feeling is mutual.

''He is an incredible leader and he is an incredible ballplayer,'' Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said of Unger. ''He is reliable and he is a fantastic teammate. He is one of the better teammates that you could ask for. I think that everybody was surprised when that trade went down.''

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