New Saints center Unger seeing change in an optimistic light
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) — Saints center Max Unger was never going to be happy about being traded away from Super Bowl-contending Seattle, where he’d made good friends and become an established leader during his first six NFL seasons.
He’s even used the word “bummed” to describe his reaction to the offseason phone call informing him he’d been shipped to New Orleans, along with the Seahawks’ first-round draft choice, in exchanged for star tight end Jimmy Graham.
Yet Unger said it hasn’t taken him long to appreciate how he could benefit personally and professionally from a new environment — particularly one that includes star quarterback Drew Brees.
“It was cool to get to move to a new part of the country and go to a franchise that’s won a heck of a lot of games,” Unger said.
Unger got to know Brees a bit when the two practiced together at the Pro Bowl following the 2012 season, so he expected to enjoy lining up in front of New Orleans’ all-time passing leader on a regular basis.
“He’s as advertised,” Unger said. “I mean, he’s a pretty special football player and it’s definitely a big opportunity for me to be able to play with a guy of that caliber.”
Although the Saints missed the playoffs last season, they fielded one of the NFL’s top offenses, as they have since Sean Payton was hired as head coach in 2006. But Payton coveted a center known not only as a strong blocker in both the run and pass, but also an exceptional communicator at the line of scrimmage — so much so that he was willing to give up Brees’ top receiving target to get one.
“He is smart,” Payton said of Unger. “He is a quick study and I think at that position that helps.”
Left tackle Terron Armstead said Unger is able to reduce the burden on Brees at the line of scrimmage by quickly helping fellow linemen identify the alignment of the middle linebacker and recognize potential blitzes.
“Max is great. Very smart. Very, very intelligent guy,” Armstead said, adding that Unger’s combination of physical ability and positional awareness “makes our zone (blocking) schemes a lot more fluent.”
Armstead also was struck by how quickly and comfortably Unger fit in with other linemen on the club.
“Max came in the first day and we clicked like I’ve been knowing him for years,” Armstead said. “He came over with complete confidence, complete positivity.”
Unger said his transition to a new offense has been smooth.
“The football’s pretty similar,” he said. “They’re not asking me to do anything here ... that I’ve never done before.”
The bigger adjustment has come off the field. Unger grew up on a ranch on the big island of Hawaii and then played college football at Oregon.
Unfamiliar with life in the American South, he said he spent a significant part of his offseason looking for a new home in New Orleans. He settled in the historic, leafy “Uptown” area, along the shop- and eatery-lined Maple Street corridor near Tulane University.
“It’s a different world,” Unger said. “I live in a cool part of the city. There’s a ton of stuff to do and I’m just getting out there and doing it.”
Unger said his morale was only further boosted by the chance to stay at the luxury Greenbrier Resort, nestled in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, where the Saints currently spend the first few weeks of training camp.
“Being able to stay in a hotel this nice (for training camp) is definitely a rarity in the NFL,” Unger said.
If Unger can help the Saints rebound from last year’s 7-9 mark and become a playoff team again, his adjustment should only get easier.
Notes: Defensive end Akiem Hicks remained absent from practice on Monday, along with safety Jairus Byrd. Also sitting out were veteran safety Kenny Phillips and rookie cornerback P.J. Williams. ... Receiver Brandin Cooks returned to practice after sitting out on Sunday. ... The Saints’ first unofficial depth chart for Thursday’s preseason opener at Baltimore shows the Saints playing a 4-3 defensive front, with Hicks and Cam Jordan listed as starting ends. Second-round pick Hau’oli Kikaha was listed as starting strong side linebacker. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has generally run a 3-4 scheme, but has been known to switch alignments to suit players’ strengths. ... Second-year reserve safety Vinnie Sunseri intercepted Luke McCown on a short pass over the middle. It was Sunseri’s third interception in 11-on-11 drills since the first practice of camp on July 30.