The temperatures had dropped into the 30s, and the wind that day made it feel even worse. But you wouldn’t know it if you looked out at the middle of the field at Tad Gormley Stadium, where C.J. Gardner-Johnson smiled, danced to music and gave out instructions to a large group of high school football players hoping to make his 7-on-7 football team at an open tryout in February.
The Saints safety seemed unbothered by the cold weather that had people wrapped in blankets on the sidelines. Why should he be? He was having a perfect day.
Gardner-Johnson is one of the NFL’s more exciting young safeties, but he is also one of the more misunderstood people in the league. But there was no confusion on that day. The setting was revealing. You can’t fake what Gardner-Johnson is doing with his Team Ceedy football team. He wants to make a difference for these kids. Not just with a one-week camp or something, but through a true investment of time and commitment.
“I don’t want to win no awards. I want to win the award from the youth,” Gardner-Johnson said. “This program is going to help kids get into school. A lot of people don’t know that. My kids (coming into this program) didn’t have offers. My kids are coming from the ground up. For us to build a foundation and build something bigger.”
Gardner-Johnson is passionate about what he’s doing, and it shows. When he was growing up, he played youth football and had people in his corner who helped him get to where he needed to be. Now, he’s trying to do that same thing for people in New Orleans. He decided to focus his efforts here because he believes the youth in this city would benefit more from his help than elsewhere.
While Team Ceedy is having success on the field, the true impact is much more significant. The team’s four seniors have received college offers. The platform is already working and making an impact on lives that will carry on beyond football.
“Where I’m from, you got that big brother, and it’s just about how you go get that guidance,” Gardner-Johnson said. “Here, a lot of guys don’t have that simply because of financial struggles or the situation living-wise. I’m not taking it away from them. I’m going to bring it to them and let them have every opportunity to make and expose every door, open every door and never have to look back.”
Here’s everything else you need to know as the Saints prepare for the draft and the rest of the offseason in this edition of The Rundown:
A change in Jameis
Every time Jameis Winston talks, he seems to say the right things. There is wisdom in his words and perspective that comes across as rare, especially for someone in his position – a former No. 1 pick who is battling in camp with a former undrafted player.
One could dismiss the things Winston is saying as words. Lip service, even. But those who have spent time around the quarterback see a change in him and have had similar reactions when watching videos of Winston speak.
“It’s just not being so much of a gunslinger and taking some unnecessary risks,” Tampa Bay wide receiver Chris Godwin said on Kyle Brandt’s “10 Questions” podcast. “It’s learning when to take your losses. Listening to him talk in interviews and stuff like that, it seems like he’s learned that. It seems like this past year has been really good for him in terms of development. I think he’s setting the tone in this situation. He has a good offense, great skill players around him.”
Drew Brees had a similar assessment when discussing Winston this week.
“I could not have been more impressed with Jameis, honestly, as a teammate, as a guy in the locker room,” Brees said. “I think everybody, they admired his love and passion for the game and the way he worked at it. And certainly, his desire to be a great player is what’s most important.”
Filling out the roster
New Orleans has a lot of work to do to put together a roster for training camp.
The team currently has 63 players under contract. If the Saints make a selection with all eight of their picks during next week’s draft (they probably won’t), they’ll have 71 players on the team. That means they need to add 19 more guys to the roster to get to 90.
That leaves a lot of room for undrafted free agents, but the Saints will also focus on some of the veteran free agents still available once they know where the holes on their roster still exist. New Orleans also has a handful of unsigned players from last season who could still get brought back.
The Saints typically like to address all of their needs in free agency before entering the draft. This year, that wasn’t possible due to the cap squeeze, which means there are still some holes on the roster that have to get filled.
When the needs get filled, that flattens things out a bit to allow the team to draft the best available players at positions of need (or positions that will soon become a need due to an aging player holding a spot). This year, especially early on, there will likely be some urgency in filling a couple of big holes. The area with the highest priority of need is clearly cornerback, which Sean Payton considered a must position. Linebacker is also a spot the team should look to handle early.
The BPA myth
I made a comment on our last podcast about how best player available (BPA) — at least in the way we often talk about it — is a myth. That led to some people asking for further clarity. So, let me explain.
What I meant by that is that too often, people look at draft through the rigid lens of “best player available.” This is a little dishonest because no one approaches the draft in that manner. There is a ranking of players and another axis putting needs in place.
The Saints aren’t going to take a right tackle in the first round just because he’s the best player on the board when a young player like Ryan Ramczyk is locking down that spot. They’ll go to the next player on their board who fits a position of need or has a chance to compete for a role.
Some recognition of position value also needs to be part of the equation. If teams were drafting strictly off of grades, many quarterbacks wouldn’t go in the first round, and teams would be taking a lot of run-stuffing defensive tackles before cornerbacks and offensive tackles and pass rushers.
More to offer?
Brees doesn’t think that we got an accurate look at what Taysom Hill can do at quarterback during the four games he started last year.
“Listen, if someone would invest in an offense in him, just like I’d say the Baltimore Ravens have invested an offense in Lamar Jackson,” Brees said. “(Jackson) has such a unique skill set, one that does not exist, and he’s kind of a once-in-a-generation type of player from that perspective. If you commit to his skill set and the things that he does well, great things can happen, right. I believe Taysom Hill is that type of player.”
Brees believes that Payton has the ability to craft that type of offense around Hill, but he also noted that he believes Winston is ready to “explode back on the scene” after serving as a backup last year. The differences between these two players and the type of offense that would best suit each creates a challenge. At some point, the team will have to commit to building the next version of the offense around one of them.
But Brees also notes that what we saw from Hill probably wasn’t the best version of him since the offense wasn’t built for his talents.
“It was four starts. You already have an offensive system in place,” Brees said. “You can’t just make wholesale changes.”
We’ll be holding a pre-draft video conference with those who signed up for the Elite plan. That will take place Saturday at 11 a.m. and last until about noon. I sent out emails with the information this week. You can change your plan here.