Saints upbeat despite Brees' absence

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By BRETT MARTEL, Associated Press

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — With no sign of a contract breakthrough for Drew Brees on the eve of the Saints' first offseason practice, safety Roman Harper tried to look on the bright side.

"I'm actually going to really enjoy it," a grinning Harper said of practicing against backup quarterback Chase Daniel.

"We're learning a new defense and we really don't know left from right in a lot of this stuff, so you don't want to get taken advantage of with Drew," Harper continued. "You know he's going to pick us apart anyway, so why not get out here and learn what we can and can't do against Chase."

New Orleans is holding its first three offseason practices, called organized team activities, Tuesday through Thursday. Those will also be the Saints' first practices under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Daniel, who has been Brees' understudy for three seasons, has been penciled in as first-team QB until Brees is back.

"It's important to know that Chase is as ready as Drew is, and we have plenty of confidence in him," right tackle Zach Strief said. "Drew is important to this team in a million different ways, but it doesn't mean that when he disappears the wheels are going to fall off."

On Monday, several players and coaches took part in a celebrity golf game to benefit the Saints Hall of Fame, and some talked about opening offseason practice. They didn't want to downplay the importance of getting Brees back as soon as possible. They also did not dismiss the implications of the club's bounty scandal that resulted in season-long suspensions both for head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

Yet their primary message was that they are decidedly upbeat about returning to practice and are pulling together to overcome the team's turbulent offseason while keeping their sights set on the next Super Bowl, which will be played in New Orleans.

"Guys, more than ever this year probably than in the past, are trying to focus in," said defensive end Will Smith, who has been suspended four games in connection with the bounty probe. "We know Drew's not there and we've got a lot of other (stuff) going on outside of football, so we're just trying to get over all that and just focus on football.

Like Vilma and former Saints Anthony Hargrove (now with Green Bay, suspended eight games) and Scott Fujita (now with Cleveland and suspended three games), Smith has appealed his suspension. The players have disputed NFL findings that they pledged, paid or received money for big hits in which the tackler tried to injure a targeted opponent.

Asked about the prospects for their appeals, Smith said, "We all feel pretty confident and I'll leave it at that."

As for Brees, Saints players and general manager Mickey Loomis sound confident the star quarterback will return in time to have a productive season. The Saints will have two more sets of OTAs — one in late May and one in mid-June — with minicamp scheduled June 5-7. Training camp starts in late July.

Loomis, who took part in Monday's golf outing, said there was no progress to report on Brees' contract since he spoke about it on Friday, when he stressed that a deal of the magnitude Brees will get must be right for the team as well as the quarterback.

The Saints have placed an exclusive franchise tag on Brees, preventing him from negotiating with other teams, but Brees wants a long-term deal and has said he would hold out through training camp if that's what it takes.

Neither side has publicly discussed the gap between the team's offer and the quarterback's demands, but Brees was expected to seek more than the $19.2 million a year Denver is paying Peyton Manning, who is older than Brees and recovering from neck surgery that sidelined him all of last season.

In the meantime, the Saints say they do not intend to allow Brees' absence to slow them down.

"The good thing is the leadership on this team has been spread among people the last few years, so with some of the key guys missing right now, it's easy for guys like me, Roman Harper, and some other new guys as well ... to step into those leadership roles," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Chase Daniel is doing a phenomenal job with the offense, so as long as we can lean on those leaders and spread the responsibility throughout the team, I think we'll be all right."

Strief said the significance of Brees' absence at this point in the offseason has been exaggerated by some.

"Whatever the story is in the offseason, it's overblown, whether it's good or bad, because there's nothing else to talk about," Strief said. "Last year it was the lockout, and when the season started it still looked a lot like football, and the fears and worries whether anyone is going to know what they're doing weren't true. It's the same with Drew. Drew's going to come back. He's not going to forget the offense.

"Drew's absence will be weird for sure, but we all expect him to be there in training camp," Strief added. "There's a point where, yes, it becomes an issue, but we're months from that point."

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