WHITE SULFUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Benjamin Watson does not look old. Not even "football old."
Watson looks spry when beating defenders to the corner of the end zone for touchdowns during seven-on-sevens. He looks like a 26-year-old tough guy when stonewalling rookie pass-rusher Hau'oli Kikaha during pass-protection drills.
Watson even sounds young and enthusiastic when talking about the upcoming season or when joking about his role as an elder statesman on an offense full of them.
"The kids [young Saints players] say 'I used to play you on Madden when I was in middle school,'" Watson said after a mid-August practice. "I say, 'Thanks, guys.'"
Watson, a 12th-year veteran, is suddenly a full-time starter again, but he's not trying to do the things that departed starter Jimmy Graham used to do. Watson isn't racing up the seams for 30-yard passes or posting up in front of the goal posts in search of jump-ball touchdowns. He's outwitting defenders he cannot outrun and reminding onlookers that pass protection can be just as important as pass catching.
Watson doesn't pretend to be Graham, who was traded to the Seahawks in exchange for center Max Unger, the first-round pick that became linebacker Stephone Anthony and some much-needed cap relief.
"He is an elite player," Watson said of the Pro Bowl tight end he backed up for two seasons. "There's only one of him. He's in Seattle now. He's not here.
"Much of the offense revolved around him. I'm not saying that it has to change, but I'm saying that there are many ways to score points. It doesn't have to look the same every year."
The Saints certainly look different this year. Graham is gone. Kenny Stills, the team's receiving-yardage leader last year, was traded to the Dolphins. Longtime running back Pierre Thomas has been left by the free-agent curbside.
Graham and Stills combined for 1,820 yards and 13 touchdowns last year; Thomas amassed 6,353 yards from scrimmage in eight seasons. Their production will not be easily replaced by the Saints, who made few significant additions at the skill positions.
Yet 36-year-old Drew Brees is still the Saints quarterback, 32-year-old Marques Colston is still one of the top receivers, 34-year-old Watson is still a major contributor and Sean Payton is still the coach. The Saints traded several young stars but kept their offensive old guard, sending a clear message: For Brees and his traditional posse, this may be one of the last rides.
It's a message Watson heard loud and clear: "I think it's always do or die. But the longer you go, the more do or die it becomes, because you know the numbers are not in your favor."
There wasn't much for Brees to talk about after the Saints played an intrasquad scrimmage on a cool August morning in the West Virginia mountains. The Saints' first-team offense sliced through the second-team defense with ease. Brees' lone drive ended with Colston outsmarting sophomore cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste into biting on a double move near the goal line.
Brees spoke of his rapport with Colston, one of his top targets since 2006. "It's like riding a bike: You get back on it, and it comes back fairly quickly," Brees said. "We've been in so many situations together that we both see the same things, think the same things, and it works."
Brees spoke of his trust in Watson, who caught a pair of short passes during the drive. "He's great in the run game. He's great in pass protection, his run after the catch, his ability to catch the ball..."
With a single scrimmage drive under his belt and no pressing issues on the agenda, Brees also spoke of how things have stayed the same for so long in New Orleans—and how things have changed.
"It's pretty unusual to have four guys come in at the same time and spend so many years together," Brees said, speaking of himself, Colston, lineman Zach Strief and coach Sean Payton, who all joined the Saints in 2006. "It's pretty amazing."
The 2006 arrivals led the Saints to the NFC Championship Game immediately, formed the nucleus of the 2009 Super Bowl team and helped the Saints lead the NFL in offensive yardage in five seasons, including 2014. But Brees noted that others who went with him to the Super Bowl and multiple playoff appearances are now gone.
"Last year, [Robert] Meachem and Pierre [Thomas] left. Before that, Lance Moore and a few others. Those are guys who were around since that '06-'07 time frame, so we had been together seven, eight years.
"That's highly unusual in this league where there's so much turnover. We're lucky to have teammates like that, and to have had them as long as I had them."
Thomas and Meachem actually played for the Saints last season, though both were hurt for much of the year. Brees can be forgiven for mixing up the details after a turbulent offseason. He said in April that he was "shocked" by the Graham trade, which deprived him of a receiver who caught 355 passes and 46 touchdowns over the last four seasons.
Combined with the Stills trade, the moves reshaped the Saints roster, provided a little credit repair and changed the team's identity. The Saints are tougher in the trenches and more talented on defense, but the upgrades came at the expense of Brees' skill-position corps.
Watson noted how drastic the moves were.
"I would say that you usually don't see this much turnover when you have the same coach and owner," Watson said. "I think that Coach Payton and Mickey [Loomis, the general manager] really wanted to change some things and do something different. Their goal is always to do what's best for this football team. They have the latitude and the track record to make those decisions."
The shock of Graham's departure had faded for Brees by mid-August.
"During camp, you have young players, you have new players, you have some new schemes that you're installing," Brees said. "So it's a teaching time.
"You're never coming out with any complacency because there's new elements to the offense that you have to master. … That part gets you excited, because you know it's not just the same stuff."
Of course, you don't get to be Drew Brees by bad-mouthing your organization's decisions. Teaching new players is all well and good, but the Saints are going to need production from someone under 30 years old, particularly in the red zone.
New Personalities, Same Personality
Brandin Cooks does not like to be called a "small" receiver. Ask him how a small (5'10") receiver like him can make a contribution near the red zone—this is personal experience talking—and he will give you a look like he wants to lower his shoulder and bash you into the forest of television-camera tripods.
"I can't do anything about people calling me a smaller receiver," Cooks said later. "They can say, 'He's not your prototype receiver,' but what's your prototype? A person who can catch the ball, run good routes. I guess the 'tall' part is the factor that I'm missing. But I can do all those other things at a high level."
As for the question about the red zone, Cooks answered it a few times in practice by catching shallow crosses and outrunning his defender to the pylon. He also demonstrated a pair of ways to make the red-zone question moot in the Saints' first two preseason games: He took a screen pass 28 yards for a touchdown against the Ravens and caught a 45-yard bomb against the Patriots.
Cooks can score from anywhere on the field. That includes inside the 20.
"Down in the red zone, I feel like I can be used anywhere: the fly-sweep-screen game, or in those shorter routes I can use my change-of-direction to get defenders on their back heels," Cooks said.
Cooks led the Saints in receptions when he landed on the IR with a hand injury after Week 11. A jitterbug in the open field as a rookie, he diversified his game in the offseason. He worked out with Brees in San Diego, and they now share some of the nonverbal communication that Brees and Colston enjoy.
Cooks also spent time with the Ravens' Steve Smith, another not-so-tall receiver with a heavyweight's approach to the game.
"I learned the way he uses his size to his advantage. We watched a lot of film together. I picked up some of the things about the way he thought about the game, the way he used his leverage, things like that."
It's easy to forget that Graham wasn't there when the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009. Neither was Watson, who caught passes and blocked for Tom Brady back then, nor Mark Ingram, who emerged as the Saints' featured runner last year.
Jeremy Shockey and Reggie Bush were among the featured playmakers that year. Deuce McAllister and Joe Horn still played major roles when Brees first took the Saints to the playoffs in 2006. Darren Sproles has come and gone during the Brees era. Even Colston has not been a constant: He missed much of the 2008 season with injuries. Lance Moore stepped in, and the Saints offense still led the league in yards.
"The personalities are different," Watson said, "but our personality, collectively, is to be the offense that goes out, attacks, scores points—all the things that the offense has always been since before half the guys, myself included, were part of it. This offense has always been a hallmark of the Saints, and we want that to continue."
Cooks can take up part of that Graham-Stills slack. C.J. Spiller, injured most of the preseason but blisteringly fast when healthy, is expected to do some of the things Bush and Sproles used to do. Josh Hill looks enough like Graham to win the occasional low-post matchup in the back of the end zone. Running back Khiry Robinson has some Pierre Thomas-like attributes.
There are lots of impressive young athletes on the receiving depth chart—Nick Toon, Brandon Coleman, Willie Snead and others—vying to be the recipients of those sneaky play-action bombs Brees used to deliver to Meachem and Devery Henderson.
Even with Graham at tight end, the Saints offense has always been about quantity as much as quality: lots of good weapons deployed in interesting combinations and configurations, not one go-to guy. The Saints veterans, noting that the offense has been tweaked a little, expect a return to the spread-the-wealth approach, at the goal line and elsewhere on the field.
"So far, we've done a little bit more in terms of moving guys around and putting them in different positions," Colston said. "So that should give teams some different looks."
Colston knows that time is catching up with him.
"Going into Year 10, physically I'm not the same as I was in 2006," he said. "With that comes some little nuances and things I can do technique-wise that can make up for some drop in ability."
Brees is fighting the same battle, though it's easier for a quarterback to fight declining skills with increased wisdom than it is for a wide receiver. Brees said last year that he hopes to play until he is 45 years old. He only backpedaled slightly from that sentiment this year.
"Physiologically, I think it can be done," Brees told ESPN.com's Mike Triplett. "I'll leave it at that. Do I think I could do it? Yes. But I'm not naive to think that it's a given."
Maybe Brees can play four years longer than even Brett Favre played. If so, he will be doing it without Colston and Watson, without anyone in the offensive huddle who remembers the 2009 Super Bowl. If the Saints stumble through another disappointing season, Brees may have to do it without Payton, or he may find that the organization that aggressively traded away a superstar this year is less than eager to extend Brees' contract beyond 2016 (its current expiration date), let alone seven more years.
Colston is also signed through 2016, though the Saints could save precious cap space next year by releasing him. But unlike Watson, Colston denies any increased urgency this year.
"No more, no less," he said. "We're here for one reason: That's to win championships."
That's what football players say every year. But if the Saints' old guard doesn't succeed this year, it may not get any more chances to say it.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.