With Drew Brees back healthy, the New Orleans Saints are free to work on the little things that can make the difference between a Super Bowl run and something less.
Rolling through the preseason at 3-0, the Saints still have to choose a placekicker, settle on a starting center, figure out veteran defensive back Champ Bailey's role and determine Brees' backup.
They don't have to worry about Brees, though. After throwing two touchdowns in the first quarter against the Colts on Saturday in his return from a strained left oblique, Brees missed Monday's practice, but not for health reasons. Rather, he was excused to be with his wife, Brittany, who is expecting their fourth child.
Brees' absence gave Luke McCown, an 11-year veteran, and second-year undrafted free agent Ryan Griffin plenty of snaps in Monday's workout. McCown took advantage, hitting tight end Jimmy Graham deep down the middle of the field in tight coverage for one of several on-target completions.
"I felt good," McCown said. "Tempo is always the buzzword through training camp, but that's what you want to see. I felt like our tempo was good from the onset to the last throw in the 2-minute drill."
McCown started the first two exhibition games and played before Griffin against Indianapolis, but coach Sean Payton said not to read anything into the order. McCown has completed 22 of 40 preseason passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Griffin is 35 of 57 for 404 yards with three scores and one interception.
"Ryan will get a ton of work this week," Payton said.
Center Jonathan Goodwin worked with the first-team offense in practice Monday after starting against Indianapolis, appearing to move ahead of Tim Lelito. Still, Payton said that competition was not done, either.
Lelito is in his second year. Goodwin, entering his 13th season, is in his second stint with the Saints after starting from 2008 to 2010.
"They both provide position flexibility," Payton said. "They are two different players in their careers. We will see where that's headed, but we are getting pretty good consistent play and that is encouraging."
The competition between kickers Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke will continue, too, with Payton saying it likely would go to the final cut day.
Graham replaced former Saints kicker Garrett Hartley for the final two regular-season games of 2013 and the playoffs, converting six of eight field-goal attempts, including a game-winner at Philadelphia in the wild-card round. Dimke has not kicked in a regular-season game.
Neither has missed a field goal in the preseason, with Graham going 4 of 4 and Dimke 2 of 2.
"Both of them have done well in practice," Payton said. "Tomorrow we will try to create a competition period again and then give them plenty of work on Thursday. We've not made a decision."
Payton was happy just to get a chance to look at defensive backs Patrick Robinson and Bailey, who are trying to carve out roles in the secondary, with one of them possibly starting at cornerback. Both returned from undisclosed injuries last week and played against Indianapolis. Robinson, a first-round pick in 2010, started ahead of Bailey, a 15-year veteran released by Denver in March.
"We are getting healthier, and that's good," Payton said. "We have some good competition."
NOTES: With Brees unavailable, Payton stepped in to take some snaps at quarterback in Monday's practice, which was not in full pads, and then moved to cornerback briefly, "With safety help," he quipped. The 50-year-old Payton played quarterback in college for Eastern Illinois, and was briefly a replacement player with the Chicago Bears during the 1987 players' strike. . The Saints waived WR Andy Tanner, S Ty Zimmerman and OT Ty Nsekhe on Monday afternoon, a day before rosters go down to 75.
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