NFL Nation: Sean Payton

Sean Payton, Rob RyanAP Photo/Bill HaberSean Payton, shown with Rob Ryan, says Saints "pay attention to what is winning, who is winning."
The New Orleans Saints are evolving.

At their core, they haven't changed much since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006. The Saints are still led by a dynamic passing offense that toys with opponents inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where New Orleans was 8-0 last season.

But the Saints will win the NFC South this year because they might just have the best defense in the division, too. Adding three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd and future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey further bolstered a young defense that had a breakout year in 2013 under new coordinator Rob Ryan.

Meanwhile, New Orleans has also been embracing a more traditional run game while parting ways with offensive weapons like Darren Sproles and Lance Moore.

The Saints are showing a New England Patriots-like ability to keep adapting to stay on top.

"Everybody's always looking for ways to reinvent themselves, to improve themselves, without losing who they really are," said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, who believes New Orleans is doing just that.

[+] EnlargeByrd
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesSafety Jairus Byrd, who had four interceptions and a forced fumble last season with Buffalo, should help the Saints cause more turnovers.
"This is one of my favorite teams to watch. I like their style," Riddick, a former personnel director for the Philadelphia Eagles, said of the Saints. "Multiple is a big word in my vocabulary when it comes to football. And they're multiple on both sides of the ball. They can run it or throw it. On defense they can sit back and play zone or pressure you. I like that about them."

The Saints have only seven players remaining from their 2009 Super Bowl team. But New Orleans still should be considered a bona fide contender to get back there five years later.

"I like what they're doing," Riddick said. "I think they're positioning themselves well to make sure that they stay among the heavyweights in the NFC and try to knock some of them off and get back to the big game."

The Saints' defense was surprisingly sensational last year, led by breakout seasons from pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, cornerback Keenan Lewis and safety Kenny Vaccaro, among others. They ranked fourth in the NFL in yards allowed (305.7 per game) just one year after setting the record for most yards allowed in a season (440.1 per game).

But just as surprisingly, the Saints decided that wasn't enough.

Although conventional wisdom in New Orleans has always been that the Saints just need to be decent on defense to complement their high-powered offense, the team didn't feel that way. Especially after falling victim to the Seattle Seahawks' dominant defense twice last season.

When Payton was asked in his season-ending news conference if there was less of a need to improve the defense than ever before, he quickly shot down the idea.

"I think we try to pay attention to what is winning, who is winning," Payton said. "I think you study the San Franciscos and the Seattles, and you recognize that there is still this formula that has won in our league for a long time. And that is your ability to stop the opponent ... and then have balance in both the running and passing game."

So the Saints went all-in with a six-year, $54 million deal for Byrd. He's a ball-hawking safety who should help in the one area where the Saints' defense struggled last year: forcing turnovers.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram, Nate Allen
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsMark Ingram carried 18 times for 97 yards and a touchdown in the Saints' playoff win at Philadelphia.
Offensively, Payton also seems to be embracing that pass-run balance as much as ever. The Saints rode the run game to their first road playoff win in franchise history. They're clearly intent on finding more touches for emerging running backs Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram, who led the way that night in Philadelphia. That was one of the reasons for the Saints' decision to trade Sproles, a veteran runner/receiver, to the Eagles.

"You want to kind of be like a chameleon from week to week and do whatever is necessary to win a game, depending on what your opponent doesn't do very well," said Riddick, who remembers the Saints having a better pass-run balance when they steamrolled his Eagles during the 2009 season. "[Patriots coach] Bill Belichick has been lauded for that for years."

It's no coincidence that Payton and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis are being credited for some of the same things as Belichick. Ever since Payton arrived, they have talked openly about modeling themselves after the Patriots organization in many ways.

"What they're doing is [Patriots-like]," said former Saints and Patriots fullback Heath Evans, who now works as an analyst for the NFL Network. "And Sean's never really shied away from, 'Hey, what the Patriots do, it works. So why not to the best of your ability, with your own talent pool and your own system of thinking, try to copy what they do?'"

Evans also pointed out that copying the Patriots' model means borrowing from other teams, as well.

"You've got to go with the flow of this league. And what Seattle's done, they're really the ones that everyone needs to try to be copying," Evans said. "Because they can beat you in 15 different ways. Their quarterback doesn't have to play well to win."

In that same postseason news conference back in January, Payton also shot down another reporter's question, when he was asked if the Saints' "window of opportunity" might be closing as many of their longtime stars get older.

"Honestly, the 'window,'" Payton said, "as long as I am the head coach here, we are trying to slam it open always."
With so many toys at Jay Gruden's disposal in Robert Griffin III, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts, Jordan Reed and DeSean Jackson, how does Alfred Morris fit in offense?

In his three years as the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator, Gruden had two 1,000-yard rushers in Cedric Benson (1,067 in 2011) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1,094 in 2012). The Bengals ran for 1,788 yards, 1,745 yards and 1,755 yards in Gruden’s three years as coordinator.

But he also had A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu at receiver. In the playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers, he got pass-happy.

“Jay sees the offense through the eyes of the quarterback, and having played the position, he has a great deal of respect for the position,” said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said at the NFL owners meetings in this Washington Post story. “He’ll say these guys are the luckiest guys because he would’ve given his right arm – left arm, I guess – to have the opportunity to be an NFL quarterback. So, he really is conscientious of that. He really has things unfold through the eyes of the quarterback."

Because he sees things as a quarterback, will he rely more on the passing game? It has been an argument used against Jason Garrett for his years as the playcaller with the Dallas Cowboys. Sean Payton was a quarterback and he leans more to the pass with the New Orleans Saints.

It’s only natural.

But Morris offers Gruden a better running back than what he had in Cincinnati. He rushed for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns as a rookie in 2012. He followed that up with 1,275 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013.

Was it a function of Mike Shanahan’s scheme and the coach’s ability to find running backs anywhere and everywhere?

The NFL is a passing league these days, but Gruden can’t get away from Morris and become too pass-happy if the Redskins want to be successful.
New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton had a funny analogy when describing his team's free-agency courtship of safety Jairus Byrd.

"The risk is just like asking him out on a date," Payton said Wednesday at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla. "He might say no, and you have to be comfortable in trying to go after someone and approaching. ...

"In the case of Jairus, it was one of those where from afar, you just keep waiting. 'Alright, who else is waiting? Who else is going to visit with him first?' Or, 'His plane has landed? OK, perfect.' And you celebrate that process when all of a sudden there's a decision that's been made."

The Saints wooed Byrd with a six-year, $54 million contract -- the richest ever for a safety in the NFL. As for why they were so determined to land the three-time Pro Bowl safety, Payton said it was more about his specific skill set than targeting the safety position in general.

Payton said Byrd's ball skills and his ability to generate turnovers (22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in five years) are what made him so appealing.

"Every season you guys hear us say, 'Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers.' So you really begin to value those guys," Payton said. "The ball finds them. [Byrd] is one of those players that seems to be around the ball a lot."

Asked about the evolution of the safety position in the NFL, Payton said it's clear that more money is being invested now -- as opposed to the money that used to go to running backs, for example.

"I'd say the importance of good secondary play has grown. The amount of passes and things they're defending now with the rules changes, it's kind of a ball up here and having ball skills," Payton said. "Offenses play close attention to ball skills on the other side of the ball and really attack those players that don't have it."

Payton of all people should know that -- since he's one of the NFL's most aggressive attackers on offense.

The Saints have now invested in two standout safeties over the past two years, using their first-round draft pick last year on Kenny Vaccaro, who had a stellar rookie season.

One of Vaccaro's great strengths last year was his versatility. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan moved him all over the field -- in slot coverage, in deep coverage, sometimes as a pseudo-linebacker. But that was partly due to injuries. And now that Byrd is entrenched as the Saints' free safety/center fielder, Payton said Vaccaro's role should be even more defined going forward.

"As for Jairus and Kenny, I think there's a clear vision of how we want you use them, and that's important," Payton said. "Kenny played in a lot of spots last year. I think he'll play in less of those spots this year. ... That vision this year will be a little more clearer."
Sean Payton was asked Wednesday about one of the few longtime veterans still remaining on the New Orleans Saints' roster -- receiver Marques Colston. Payton praised the way Colston finished strong last season despite continuing to battle soreness in his foot, among other injuries.

Colston, 30, has battled a number of nagging knee injuries over the years. And his production was down a bit last season. But it speaks highly of him that the Saints remained committed to him while parting ways with so many other aging players. Colston is due $5.6 million in salary and bonuses this year.

Payton said the key for the Saints will be to keep Colston fresh.

"He played some of his better football late in the season. So he battled some soreness in his foot, and that wasn't easy, but he's such a target and competitor inside," Payton said. "I think the key is just monitoring his snaps during training camp. The thing you have to start doing with a player like him during the season with regards to practice time. I know he's someone inside who's very strong-handed, very disciplined with his routes. He knows all the positions, so he's been a very consistent, steady player at this time."

Colston missed one game last season with a knee injury and also appeared on the injury report at times with foot and back ailments. The foot injury has been nagging for at least two years now since he had a plantar fascia issue. But that can be spun both ways:

On one hand, you could say Colston has been injury-prone. On another hand, you can say he has consistently shown an ability to play through nagging ailments.

Colston finished last season with 75 catches for 943 yards and five touchdowns. It was the first time since 2008 that he finished with less than 1,000 yards or seven TDs. But as Payton said, he did finish strong. Colston caught 28 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns over the final four regular-season games. He then caught 11 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown in the playoff loss at Seattle.

Payton didn't expand much on some of the Saints' other injuries. But he was generally positive when asked about players such as Kenny Vaccaro, Patrick Robinson and Victor Butler, who finished last season on injured reserve.

"They're rehabbing. All of it is going well," Payton said.

That's not surprising since all three players are expected to fully recover in plenty of time for offseason practices.
The New Orleans Saints could still “very well” re-sign center Brian de la Puente or another veteran in free agency, coach Sean Payton said Wednesday at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla.

Payton spoke highly of second-year lineman Tim Lelito as a possible contender for the role, as well. And he said it appears to be a good draft class for interior linemen. But he said the Saints have not finalized their plans for the position yet.

“It’s still unfolding, so it’d be premature to say, ‘Hey, here’s our plan today,’” Payton said. “We feel we’ve got some good young linemen in the building, and I’m sure that as we get back to New Orleans and we still continue to look at our boards, I wouldn’t be surprised if there possibly is a player signed.

“But Tim Lelito would be a guy that’s gonna be in the mix, someone that will be competing for that opportunity. Well see who he’s gonna be competing against. But he’s someone that we feel has a chance to be that player. And yet we think there could be the potential to have someone (else). And it could very well be a guy like de la Puente or another guy who’s out there.”

De la Puente visited with the Washington Redskins last week, and other teams have shown interest. The Saints remain in play as he mulls his options, according to league sources.

That list of other veteran possibilities includes former Saints Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin, who remains unsigned after three years with the San Francisco 49ers.

Or the Saints could wind up drafting a potential center. Payton briefly mentioned the interior line positions while discussing what holes the Saints still have to fill and what their priorities might be in the NFL draft.

“You always put a value on corners and pass rushers, defensively,” Payton said. “I think offensively we’ve been able to hit on some young linemen. We had six (undrafted) free agents from last year’s class make the team. So I think that you look at your linemen and you look at the board, and are we going to be able to find an inside player potentially. You don’t stop looking for a tight end. … It’s a deep draft we think at receiver, so there are a lot of teams that are going to be able to draft maybe a good player there.”

One position that won’t be a priority for the Saints in the draft is left tackle after Terron Armstead finished strong in that role during his rookie season in 2013. Payton made it clear that the Saints plan to stick with the third-round pick from Arkansas-Pine Bluff going forward.

“I think that Charles (Brown) came in and did a good job for us (last season), but it was nice to have had a chance to evaluate Terron and then see the production we got from him,” Payton said. “That clears things up a little bit as you approach the draft, as opposed to getting through the season possibly not playing and maybe not having the exposure, too. I think he got better each week.”
New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton seemed to agree with the notion that Jimmy Graham shouldn’t be labeled strictly as a tight end.

The Saints officially placed the franchise tag on Graham as a tight end earlier this month. But when asked Wednesday if he’s surprised that Graham would be interested in receiving “wide receiver money” in his next contract, Payton said: “I think that's a byproduct of a little bit of an antiquated system with regards to franchise numbers. I think those will be, over the years, revisited and adjusted."

Of course, Graham and his camp may have to force the issue if the two sides can't agree on a long-term contract extension within the next month. So far, Graham hasn’t filed a grievance to challenge the tight-end designation. But he must do so by mid-April if he wants to be declared a wide receiver instead.

That deadline could certainly speed up the long-term negotiations between the two sides.

One way or another, Payton stressed Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., that he is confident a deal will get done eventually -- calling it a matter of “when, not if.”

And if a deal does get worked out in the short term, Payton pointed out that the tight end/receiver debate ultimately won’t even matter.

“We're all optimistic,” Payton said. “It's really a matter of getting through this process, and (Graham's agent) Jimmy Sexton, (Saints general manager) Mickey Loomis, those guys have a great relationship. I think our fans are smart enough and understand there's always some time involved.

“This one's a little uniquely different in regards to the position classification, and yet that still may not even be an issue."
Sean Payton said the decisions to trade running back Darren Sproles and re-sign running back Pierre Thomas should not be viewed as signs that the New Orleans Saints plan to become more run-oriented.

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Payton said while addressing the media Wednesday morning at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla.

Payton said it had more to do with the Saints’ stockpile of youth at the position with young backups Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet.

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AP Photo/Steven SenneSaints coach Sean Payton says running back Travaris Cadet, 39, will get more opportunities following the trade of Darren Sproles.
“Really it came down to a vision as to where we were at, and us feeling like we were younger at some positions,” Payton said, adding that, “Signing Pierre was important. We didn’t think we were gonna be able to handle all the running backs, both Pierre and Darren, and they’re uniquely different.”

Payton still spoke highly of Sproles, though.

“He is someone we’ve graded high,” Payton said. “No. 1, he’s very intelligent. You know, I can’t think of many, if any, times where he does something on the field that you’re not expecting him to do, and that’s a good trait. He’s very competitive, he’s a great teammate. ...

“And then the discussion of a trade came up, and there was more than two teams interested. And all of a sudden what you were hoping for was a seven becomes a six, and then all of sudden you’re discussing a fifth-round pick. And in this year’s draft, that’s pretty considerable. And I think he’s going to a good place. ... But he’s a special guy.”

As for replacing Sproles in the Saints’ offense, Payton said third-year pro Cadet is certainly in line for more opportunities, and could be used in some of the same ways that Sproles was used.

But Payton stressed that no one player will specifically “replace” a unique playmaker like Sproles.

"Over the years, offensively we've had a number of key contributors to what's been a pretty good offense. There's been times where we've done it without Marques Colston. There was an offense prior to Jimmy Graham, prior to Darren Sproles. And one of the key components is an overall understanding philosophically of where guys need to be,” Payton said. “I don't think you ever replace a skill set like Darren's. It's unique, and it's different really than our league has seen in a while with a player of his stature. But with regards to his touches, with regards to opportunities, Travaris is a guy that has played and is now going into his third year. ...

"(Cadet has) got very good ball skills. He's a guy that can run the routes in that tree, when you talk about a choice route, you talk about an option. He can play from in the backfield, but he can play from extend positions. That doesn't mean necessarily he's a wide receiver. It just means he's a running back in space.”

Payton said Cadet will remain in the mix for the Saints’ lead kickoff returner job. But he said the punt returner job (which used to be manned by Sproles and receiver Lance Moore) remains open.

“We’ll have to see how that competition plays out,” Payton said. “It’s something we’ll pay close attention to.”
Owner Tom Benson expressed confidence that his New Orleans Saints will be able to close the deal on two of the biggest issues facing his franchise and city this offseason -- re-signing tight end Jimmy Graham to a long-term contract extension and bringing the Super Bowl back to New Orleans in 2018.

Benson met with the New Orleans media during the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday. Here are recaps from The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.

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AP Photo/Ric TapiaSaints owner Tom Benson expects the Saints to come to an agreement with Jimmy Graham eventually.
Benson joked about the Graham negotiations, saying he might have to "kick him a little bit" or bring in his secret weapon to close the deal -- his wife, Gayle. On a serious note, Benson admitted the talks could take a while like the Saints' talks with quarterback Drew Brees in 2012. But the owner said he was confident an agreement will be reached eventually.

"He's a hell of a good player, but he's also a good person," Benson said. "I'm confident we'll work out something. We just have a little bit of time to do it, that's all."

As for the Super Bowl, New Orleans would seem to be a leading contender to bring the game back for a record 11th time. The other candidates to host Super Bowl LII are Indianapolis and Minnesota. The decision is expected to be made at the next set of league meetings in May.

Benson said he doesn't believe the infamous "blackout" inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome during Super Bowl XLVII will hurt New Orleans' chances after the rest of the week was so successful.

"I feel good about it. You never know, but I feel real good about it. I plan on being there shaking a few hands just to make sure," Benson said. "I think that everybody likes New Orleans. New Orleans is known as a party town, but hey, we put on a good show for everybody."

Loomis also complimented general manager Mickey Loomis for the way he has managed the Saints' tight squeeze against the salary cap, including the recent signing of free-agent safety Jairus Byrd.

Benson, Byrd on Wilson: Benson and granddaughter Rita Benson LeBlanc issued statements on the passing of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson on Tuesday. Benson called Wilson a "valued friend and colleague" and said the NFL "lost one of its visionaries today."

Byrd, who spent his first five seasons with the Bills, posted a message on social media: "R.I.P. Mr. Wilson. Thank you doesn't describe how truly grateful I am for the opportunity you have me to play a game I love."

Payton on Graham, Cadet: Saints coach Sean Payton hit on a variety of topics during an interview with Cox Sports TV's Mike Nabors on Tuesday. Regarding Graham's contract talks, Payton said, "I think everybody involved in the process has handled it well." And he added, "I anticipate when we start up for training camp for Jimmy Graham to be ready to go."

Among other topics, Payton suggested that third-year pro Travaris Cadet could take on "a little more of that role" that runner/receiver Darren Sproles has played in the Saints' offense over the past three years.

I don't expect a huge leap for Cadet, since I think the Saints also want to find ways to get more touches for fellow running backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. But it makes sense to hear Payton express that confidence in Cadet. Payton singled out Cadet a few times late last season as someone he was trying to work into the offense at times.

Payton will speak for a full hour with the media Wednesday morning at the league meetings. Stay tuned for some early-morning updates since he begins speaking at 7:15 a.m. ET time.

Saints get a ‘B': A panel of ESPN NFL Insiders handed out free-agency grades for every team. The Saints earned a B, which ranks among the 10 best grades in the NFL (though the division-rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers drew the highest grade).

Analysts Bill Polian and Louis Riddick both mentioned the lofty price tag for Byrd, but they both said they expect him to make a big impact.

Rex on Rob: New York Jets coach Rex Ryan explained why his brother Rob and the city of New Orleans are such a good fit for each other in this Times-Picayune notebook. Also included is Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's thoughts on newly signed Pittsburgh receiver Lance Moore.

Baby girl for Brees: Brees said that he and his wife, Brittany, will finally have their first baby girl while guesting on E’s “The Chelsea Lately” show. They’re expecting their fourth child in August. They have three sons: Baylen, Bowen and Callen.
Mickey LoomisDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMickey Loomis hasn't been afraid to make tough personnel decisions as Saints GM.
No, this isn't a fire sale you're witnessing in New Orleans.

The New Orleans Saints aren't succumbing to the salary cap.

It wouldn't even be accurate to say they're in a rebuilding mode this offseason. Because much of the new foundation is already in place.

The Saints have remained perennial Super Bowl contenders because they haven't allowed themselves to be paralyzed by their salary-cap predicament.

Instead, they've continued to aggressively spend money in free agency in recent years on new core leaders such as cornerback Keenan Lewis, linebacker Curtis Lofton and guard Ben Grubbs -- not to mention running back Darren Sproles when he arrived in 2011.

And they'll likely make one or two similar investments in free agency this year.

Of course it's difficult -- for the fan base and the organization alike -- to see the Saints part ways with so many of their all-time great players. The Saints' recent news releases have read more like the induction of a Ring of Honor class than a series of roster cuts: Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer, with Sproles reportedly next.

But the Saints haven't been forced into any of these moves. They've been tough but calculated decisions, made when the Saints feel a player's value no longer matches his salary.

And if anything, the team should be applauded for the way it has planned ahead for these departures.

I'm not saying I love every move the Saints have made. I'm especially leery about the decision to part with Sproles, who will be much harder to replace than anyone else on the list, even if he is starting to slow down at age 30.

I was equally leery about the decision to let left tackle Jermon Bushrod get away last year, since New Orleans didn't have a proven alternative in-house. But I appreciate that those decisions were value-based.

It's also worth noting that Bushrod is the only example that comes close to the Saints being burned by a decision to let go of one of their core veteran players during the tenure of general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton.

"We're always trying to improve our team," Loomis said earlier this offseason, when I asked him about the way the Saints have stayed aggressive in free agency in recent years despite their cap limitations. "I think the biggest challenge of that is that you just can't afford to make many mistakes. That your margin for error is decreased."

Every year, people tend to determine the free agency "winners" and "losers" by the size of the haul.

But the Saints deserve credit for making so many choices that have panned out in recent years despite such a slim margin for error.

"It's exceptionally hard to do," said Bill Polian, the ESPN analyst and a former longtime general manager who raved last month about the job that Loomis and Payton have done in recent years to continually reshape the roster.

"It is this kind of cap management when you're a good team, a contending team, that is most valuable. And in almost every case it goes unnoticed," Polian said. "[Teams like the Saints that] continue to add good players deserve a great deal of credit."

Polian knows of what he speaks, having previously managed the Indianapolis Colts with quarterback Peyton Manning as their high-priced centerpiece.

The Saints made quarterback Drew Brees the first NFL player to make $20 million per year in 2011. In turn, they entered each of the past two offseasons at more than $10 million over the salary cap.

And now they're poised to make free agent Jimmy Graham the highest-paid tight end in NFL history -- likely more than $10 million per year. But I still expect the Saints to keep an aggressive eye on the open market, as they have in recent years.

To do so, Loomis and his staff have had to become masters in mathematics, continually restructuring contracts and back-loading deals to push cap costs into future years.

Sure, the Saints are just delaying the inevitable. But they figure they can wait to pay those bills whenever Brees retires. Their window of opportunity to win titles is now.

[+] EnlargeDarren Sproles
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints may have a difficult time replacing Darren Sproles if they decide to cut him.
Not all NFL teams like to approach the cap that way. The Green Bay Packers, especially, have never liked to spend big in free agency. And former Packers executive Andrew Brandt, currently an NFL business analyst, has pointed to the way the Saints back-loaded Brees' contract as a reason for all of these recent veteran cuts.

"I was, and am, much more conservative," Brandt said recently. "You know, having Brett Favre all those years, I never wanted to leave the team with a big hole based on pro-ration of an old contract. ... You're always going to be either releasing veteran players and/or doing these cap restructures that put more pressure on the future. They're gonna continue to have challenges. I don't think they can continue to be aggressive.

"But they've got this window. And if they keep deleting and pushing out cap, I guess they can."

One thing both Brandt and Polian agreed on is that the Saints, led by Loomis and Payton, have been successful with recent choices made in both free agency and the draft. Player personnel director Ryan Pace, college scouting director Rick Reiprish and football administration director Khai Harley -- as well as others in the front office -- also deserve plenty of credit for that.

The Saints' success with personnel decisions was never more evident than last month, when they bid farewell to longtime defensive greats Smith, Vilma, Greer and Harper. Those moves didn't hurt too much, because their replacements -- Lewis, Lofton and recent first-round draft picks Cameron Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro -- are already in-house.

Now the Saints are hoping that emerging young offense playmakers such as Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Kenny Stills can help fill the voids left by Sproles and Moore.

Perhaps they're playing with fire. But that's not the same thing as a fire sale.
METAIRIE, La. -- In one sense, the New Orleans Saints have been through this already in recent years -- needing to trim more than $20 million from their salary cap by the start of the league year March 11. However, this next month will likely be the most emotionally challenging yet in the era of general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton.

It’s entirely possible the Saints could part ways with up to nine of the 13 players remaining from their Super Bowl roster.

Four are unrestricted free agents (safety Malcolm Jenkins, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, offensive tackle Zach Strief and receiver Robert Meachem). Five others could become salary-cap casualties (defensive end Will Smith, cornerback Jabari Greer, safety Roman Harper, receiver Lance Moore and running back Pierre Thomas).

[+] EnlargeWill Smith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWill Smith has been a Saint for 10 years. An 11th season in New Orleans will be possible only if he takes a pay cut.
The four Super Bowl vets who are most likely to stay on the roster are quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans, receiver Marques Colston and punter Thomas Morstead.

It’s not exactly the end of an era. The Saints are still bona fide Super Bowl contenders, led by Payton and Brees, and have done a great job of continually reshaping a talented roster. But it’s awfully close.

Payton made a point to emphasize some of the tough decisions that are looming when he was asked about the pending contract negotiations with free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham on Fox Sports 1 last week.

"The most challenging part of your job as a coach, and I share that with Mickey or anyone that has been with an organization as long as we have been, going on Year 9, is some of the tough decisions that have to be made with regards to your cap with the ability that you possibly can sign Jimmy Graham," Payton said. "It's very easy to say, 'You are certainly going to get this done.' But you have to understand there is a budget here. That's the challenging part.

"You are going to read these names that have already come across the ticker from Atlanta last week [the release of cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas], and we will be no different."

The Saints are currently projected to be around $13 million to $15 million over the salary cap. If they use the franchise tag on Graham, as expected, they’ll need to carve out about $6.5 million more (a figure that will vault closer to $11 million if Graham is later deemed to be a receiver instead of a tight end). Plus, the Saints will want to clear even more space off the books to sign other free agents and send out restricted-free-agent tenders.

Loomis and the Saints’ front office have proved capable of handling similar circumstances in recent years while remaining fairly aggressive in adding free agents from other teams.

In the process, the Saints have had to let some core players go, such as guard Carl Nicks and offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod. They’ve also restructured several contracts and agreed to pay cuts with some longtime veterans. We’ll certainly see a combination of all three again this offseason.

Smith and Harper are the most obvious cap-casualty candidates. Smith, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is due to receive $11.55 million in salary and bonuses, and Harper is due $3.15 million. Both players could conceivably come back -- but only if they agree to drastic pay cuts, probably closer to $1 million.

I hate to add Greer’s name to that list, since I think he’s been possibly the Saints’ most underrated core player since 2009. But Greer is due $4.5 million and is rehabbing from a major knee injury suffered in November. So chances are he’ll have to agree to a pay cut to stay in New Orleans.

The next wave of possibilities includes Moore ($3.8 million), Thomas ($2.9 million) and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley ($4.5 million). Moore and Thomas have been in that same category with Greer over the years -- underrated core players and fan favorites. Thomas, in particular, may have just had his best season to date in 2013. However, all three veterans in this group play part-time roles now, which doesn’t match their lofty salaries.

Then there are the free agents. Again, it’s possible the Saints could bring back longtime starters like Strief and Jenkins -- but only if the price tag is extremely palatable. If any other team wants to outbid the Saints for their services, they probably will let them go. Strief, in particular, could be in high demand elsewhere after one of his strongest seasons. Meachem and Vilma could be back at veteran minimum salaries, but the Saints need to add youth at both positions.

Here’s the full list of Saints scheduled to become free agents next month:

Unrestricted free agent starters: TE Jimmy Graham, RT Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente, S Malcolm Jenkins, OLB Parys Haralson, K Shayne Graham

Unrestricted free-agent reserves: WR Robert Meachem, OT Charles Brown, QB Luke McCown, LB Jonathan Vilma, LB Will Herring, LB Ramon Humber, LB Keyunta Dawson, DE Kenyon Coleman, S Jordan Pugh

Restricted free agents: FB Jed Collins, WR Joe Morgan, S Rafael Bush, DL Tom Johnson
METAIRIE, La. -- Thanks for all of your New Orleans Saints questions on Twitter this week. Send 'em my way anytime @MikeTriplett:

How the Saints handle trash talking

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
I don't really know what the New Orleans Saints' policy on trash talking is -- since it really hasn't been much of an issue with this team over the years. They've especially gone against the grain at the receiver position, which is usually home to the league's brashest personalities. Saints receiver Marques Colston, whose actual nickname is “The Quiet Storm,” is about as low-profile as star receivers can get. Veteran Lance Moore likes to come up with creative dance moves to celebrate touchdowns, but he's otherwise fairly reserved publicly. And it's generally been the same for cornerbacks like longtime veteran Jabari Greer.

Tight end Jimmy Graham has brought a little more of that competitive fire to the Saints in recent years. And it reached a boiling point when he got into it with several Seattle Seahawks players before their playoff game earlier this month. There have also been a few dust-ups with the division rival Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers over the years. And Saints coach Sean Payton himself is certainly a fiery competitor. But for the most part, trash-talking has never been a big issue that the Saints have had to rein in or address publicly.

On a scale of red (not allowed), yellow (within reason) and green (go for it), I'd say Payton's stance on trash talking is probably a yellow.
IRVING, Texas -- In 2006, Sean Payton wanted to bring Tony Sparano with him to the New Orleans Saints as offensive coordinator.

Bill Parcells did not want to lose Sparano, so the Cowboys denied the request. Sparano was upset. He thought he was being blocked from a promotion even if Payton would call the plays for the Saints and the offensive coordinator was more of a title than anything else.

The Cowboys did not have a coach to take over the offensive line for Sparano in 2006. Parcells came to the Cowboys without “his guys,” but quickly established Sparano as one of “Parcells guys,” moving him from tight ends coach to offensive line coach to running game coordinator.

Sparano ended up calling the plays for the Cowboys in 2006, helping a young quarterback named Tony Romo through the final 10 games of the season.

Sparano lost the play-calling duties a year later to Jason Garrett after Parcells retired. He was upset, but three-fifths of his offensive line started in the Pro Bowl that year. In 2008 Parcells named Sparano as head coach of the Miami Dolphins.

Eight years later, the Cowboys are preventing Bill Callahan from moving on when his authority on offense is about to be usurped. According to a source, the Cleveland Browns were denied permission to speak with Callahan about joining their staff. The Baltimore Ravens were reportedly blocked from talking to Callahan as well.

With the official announcement of Scott Linehan as the play-caller in 2014, Callahan finds himself being shuffled to the back of a confusing offensive setup. This is still Garrett’s offense. Tony Romo will still have major involvement in the game-planning. Linehan will make his amendments to the passing game. Callahan is back in an offensive line role with run-game duties.

Unlike 2006, the Cowboys have a ready-made replacement for Callahan in Frank Pollack. The linemen have a lot of trust in Pollack. Truth be told, Pollack worked more with the line in 2013 than Callahan, simply because the offensive coordinator duties pulled Callahan out of the linemen’s room.

It is well within the Cowboys' rights to keep Callahan, but in doing so they are potentially creating a miserable situation that can adversely affect the entire team.

NFLN survey/popular coach: Steelers

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
PITTSBURGH -- An ESPN NFL Nation survey identified Seattle's Pete Carroll as the coach whom players would most like to call their own.

That is not a surprise given Carroll's success in Seattle, his caffeinated and optimistic approach to coaching and his reputation as a players' coach.

What is also not surprising: that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin finished second in the polling of more than 320 players.

Tomlin collected 44 votes compared to 71 for Carroll, and he might have received more had some of the Steelers' players I polled not answered the question as the coach they would most like to play for aside from their own.

Tomlin collected five votes in the Steelers' locker room compared to four for Carroll and one for the Jets' Rex Ryan.

Tomlin's greatest strength is his ability to connect with his players and motivate them. He has done this while also maintaining a clear line between a coach and his players that is necessary for the kind of sustained success Tomlin has enjoyed, the last two seasons notwithstanding.

The seventh-year coach is cool, confident -- and, yes sometimes arrogant -- and if there is any doubt how much faith the Steelers' players have in him, witness the second half of last season.

The Steelers went 6-2 in their final eight games and came within a missed field goal by inches -- and a missed call -- of sneaking into the playoffs.

Tomlin never lost his players despite 0-4 and 2-6 starts, and there were multiple times that the season could have jumped the track but didn't.

To get an idea how his players feel about Tomlin, consider what Jerricho Cotchery said recently when talking about why he would love to stay in Pittsburgh (the veteran wide receiver can become an unrestricted free agent on March 11).

"He's just an unbelievable guy to be around and work for," Cotchery said of Tomlin. "He's a guy that you would love cutting his grass."

Tomlin should get that written in Cotchery's next contract if the latter re-signs with the Steelers.

And such effusive praise of Tomlin is pretty typical around the Steelers' locker room. It also comes from those who have played for him and are no longer on the Steelers

Tomlin can be as blunt as any coach behind closed doors but players appreciate that honesty. And I've never heard any player complain -- and we're taking off the record here -- about not knowing where they stand with him.

My guess is that Tomlin will stay in Pittsburgh as long as he wants, and that will be until he no longer wants to coach.

Here is a breakdown of the voting after the top two spots: The Broncos' John Fox (26) and the Patriots' Bill Belichick and Ryan (23) rounded out the top five. Other top vote getters included the Chiefs' Andy Reid (22), the Saints' Sean Payton (21) and the brothers Harbaugh.

The 49ers' Jim Habaugh received 16 votes and the Raves' John Harbaugh got 10 votes.

NFLN survey/popular coach: Vikings

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who was voted the coach players most want to play for in ESPN's NFL Nation confidential survey, got the same kind of affirmation in the Minnesota Vikings' locker room. Five of the 10 players surveyed said they'd like to play for Carroll, with San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh the only other coach getting more than one vote.

Part of that is probably because of Carroll's player-friendly style; his attempts to break down the stereotypical football practice atmosphere in Seattle have been well-documented. As we discussed earlier this month, NFL coaches have to use a different approach to relate to modern players than they might have in the past. But it's also worth noting that the coaches who got the most respect from players are also getting results; Carroll is coaching in his first Super Bowl on Sunday, and the runner-up (Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin) has been to two Super Bowls in the past six seasons. Next was Denver's John Fox, followed by New England's Bill Belichick and the New York Jets' Rex Ryan, and then by Kansas City's Andy Reid and New Orleans' Sean Payton. All of those coaches have either been to a Super Bowl or made multiple trips to a conference championship game. There are numerous coaching styles represented here, but all of the coaches mentioned are proving they can win.

The survey provides an interesting backdrop for the arrival of new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who will undoubtedly take a different approach than his predecessor, Leslie Frazier. Zimmer will likely be more animated in practice and on the sidelines than Frazier was, but he's won widespread praise from his players over the years, largely for his passion and his directness. If he can find the same kind of success as a head coach that he has as a defensive coordinator, he might receive votes in this survey in future years. The underlying theme for these coaches has been success, and if there's any kind of trend evident from our survey, it's that success begets respect among players.




Sunday, 2/2