As Saints veterans trickled in after the team’s final day of organized team activities Thursday, they sidestepped the horde of media waiting for Brandin Cooks at his locker, laughing and shaking their heads in relief.
They were grateful for his distracting them, so they could slip in and out and begin enjoying their time off — the team reconvenes July 26 in West Virginia for training camp — as soon as possible.
Not all players are taking a break, though. Of the 90 players who wrapped up OTAs this week, only 53 will survive camp and preseason to make a permanent place in Metairie, plus eight for the practice squad.
There’s a real possibility they won’t feel Thursday’s camaraderie returning to a locker they can call theirs. That little laminated football with their number printed on it might not be there hanging much longer. Stuck up with tape, some at haphazard angles, the tags are as easy to take down as they were to put up.
“Not vacations for me, man,” Tavon Rooks said. “Especially for a rookie. I’m just trying to get better.”
Rooks’ locker is on the other end of the long rectangular room from Cooks’. As the final draft pick in the sixth round for the Saints, the rookie tackle is far away from commanding such attention. And instead of kicking his feet up, Rooks has a laundry list of things he wants to continue to improve on during the break: his footwork, his hands, his strength and speed, his thinking process.
“I’m trying to think like a vet when I come back so I can at least get just a taste of what it’s really like to play in the NFL.”
Stationed next to Rooks is fellow tackle Marcel Jones, the Saints’ seventh-round pick from 2012 who spent his first year injured and his second on the practice squad. Rooks leans on the advice of Jones and other more established veterans to better his chances of making the cut.
“They said, ‘When you come back in here, be ready,’” Rooks said. “That’s what’s in the back of my mind. And when the time comes, it’ll be in the front of my mind, ’cause I want it.”
Thursday, with the offense practicing sweep plays, Rooks lined up with the third team. Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans sat out the last OTA, bumping the rest of the guards up the depth chart. There was no one to hunker down on the inside of Rooks, who ran out on his own little island.
Much of what makes an offensive line good is based on in individual spacing and synchronicity of movement, so practice of this sort could easily become a futile endeavor. But Rooks, and all the other players trying to climb back onto the bubble, have the importance of seizing opportunity drilled into their heads by vets and coaches alike.
“One of the things we’ll continue to stress to those guys is: do everything you can to prepare so that when you get the opportunity to take a rep, it’s not a wasted rep,” secondary coach Wesley McGriff said.
McGriff heads the Saints’ most swollen position corps. Eighteen defensive backs jockey for nine spots. This spring, Champ Bailey and Jairus Byrd brought their irresistible résumés with them, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Vinny Sunseri likely staked their claim when they were drafted.
Add them to the five returning regular contributors, and the math is not in the favor of guys like Derrius Brooks, who signed in January after a successful season in the CFL. Now, instead of showing off the skills that allowed him 35 tackles, three interceptions and six pass breakups as a Calgary Stampeder, he spent much of the team periods of the final OTA with his helmet under his arm.
“Nobody is set in stone,” McGriff still insists. OTAs are educational, a time for new faces to learn the playbook and their alignment. In shells and shorts, the physical aspect of football is out of the equation.
“(At training camp), we’ll put the pads on, and that’ll separate some guys. We’ll see which guys can make that play at the point of attack.”
Rooks, as an offensive lineman, can’t wait to get back to the trenches, which he calls “The Danger Zone.”
Like Rooks, fullback Austin Johnson can’t be himself without pads. That leaves little time to show he’s worthy of what is usually a single fullback slot, but he found other ways to show he can contribute.
When asked about a session last week in which he made several catches for long gains, he smiled and said, “I love to get out on routes and catch the ball, do a little bit of that too.” He also worked with the kickoff coverage and punt-return teams, sprinting back to pretend to block for Cooks before Cooks could blaze past him.
After a year on the practice squad, Johnson said he has a more solid grasp of the offense and felt like he played more instinctually this summer. “I’m always trying to prove myself to the coaches and the organization, that I can help the team,” Johnson said. “I felt OTAs went well, and that the team is coming together.”
With some progress under his belt, he’s leaving OTAs and allowing himself a three-day vacation to relax. Then Johnson returns home to North Carolina to begin conditioning for training camp and, he hopes, another season.
There is some reason for him and Rooks and Brooks to be optimistic: Six undrafted rookies made it to opening day last year.