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Saints still in the game, but Sean Payton now in play

NEW ORLEANS -- Sean Payton is in play. But that's the only certainty at this point.

Both Payton and the New Orleans Saints have had ample opportunity to nip this thing in the bud by now -- and they haven't. The courtship of Sean Payton is about to begin, and the suitors are already lining up.

Both the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles are preparing to make a run at Payton if the Saints make him available with two years left on his contract, according to reports by ESPN NFL Insiders Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen. Other teams are sure to follow.

I still believe the Saints remain in play. It will take the right team to lure Payton away from a good gig in New Orleans, where he has a great deal of power and a Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees, who is still producing at an elite level.

Here are three thoughts on how things might shake out:

Payton has the ball: No, the Saints shouldn't be eager to let Payton go. And I don't believe they are. But if Payton really wants to leave, they're not going to force him to stay, which is the same thing sources told me when Payton's contract was unsettled in 2012.

They want Payton to remain as their head coach. But they want Payton to want to stay.

I don't think this is a case in which Payton has reached an expiration date after 10 years in New Orleans. Maybe that was threatening to become the case last year, when players started to tune out the message and the locker room started to get away from Payton and veteran leaders. But the Saints made a determined effort to revamp the culture over the past year, overhauling half the roster. By all accounts, Payton and the players have been energized by the positive atmosphere pervading this young team and truly believe things are pointed in the right direction.

So the Saints will demand fair compensation, which shouldn't be hard to obtain if suitors compete with one another. But if it winds up being just one first-round pick or two second-round picks, I won't be shocked. A second-round pick, as Fox's Jay Glazer suggested? That has to be the bare minimum.

What does Payton want? In my mind, the Indianapolis Colts are the only team that might offer Payton a clear reason to leave -- and that's Andrew Luck. Every coach should want Indy, since they'll have a built-in advantage over every other quarterback-needy team in the league over the next decade.

The management situation is a bit cloudier with the Colts, with reports of a feud between general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano. But perhaps Payton would replace them both, depending on what kind of relationship he could cultivate with owner Jim Irsay.

The New York Giants, Eagles and possibly the 49ers could offer a bigger stage and a level of ownership stability that New Orleans can't. But Payton probably won't find more power or a better quarterback situation in any of those cities. And for a coach who loves to establish ultimate control over the message coming out of the building, I'm curious how eager Payton is to dive into a major media market.

Dallas is the one place where I would expect Payton to bolt, because of his family living there and his relationship with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. But they don't have a job opening.

Payton is in play for a reason -- whether he has a job already picked out or whether he wants to follow the mold of mentor Bill Parcells and get out before New Orleans' ownership situation turns ugly down the road if Tom Benson is no longer running things at some point.

But Payton doesn't have to rush. He'll still be a hot commodity next year, and there will be another half-dozen or more jobs open then, too. Maybe Dallas, maybe Los Angeles.

Where would Saints turn next? This is the main reason why the Saints should want to keep Payton. Who in the world wants to dive into the unknown coaching market when they already have a proven winner? That's why Payton is expected to be such a hot commodity in the first place.

There have been reports of Doug Marrone being a likely candidate, which makes sense, since he served as Payton's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach while the Saints were rising to prominence from 2006-08. Marrone is also a proven head coach who has had success at Syracuse and with the Buffalo Bills. And the Saints could maintain continuity with their tremendous offense.

I'd be more surprised to see the Saints bring in an offensive coach such as Chip Kelly, Hue Jackson, Adam Gase or Josh McDaniels, because they would likely want to introduce their own systems. And why fix the one thing that ain't broke?

It would make a lot more sense to turn to a defensive-minded coach such as the Carolina Panthers' Sean McDermott, the Chicago Bears' Vic Fangio, the Detroit Lions' Teryl Austin, the New England Patriots' Matt Patricia or Pagano, since the Saints have been so abysmal on defense for much of the past decade, burning through five coordinators in the past eight years.