PHOENIX — Sometimes change brings concern, which creates panic, which creates rumors and speculation.
No one really knows what is going on, so they begin guessing. And once enough people start making similar guesses, it’s perceived as fact. This is the reality the New Orleans Saints recently found themselves in. As they read and listened and watched the reports about what was happening, or supposedly happening, in New Orleans the past few weeks, it was almost comical.
Coach Sean Payton found himself looking down on his screen, reading a report from a New York newspaper that the Jets should or could trade for Drew Brees. There was another one about Cam Jordan being shopped to the New York Giants. He heard the reports that his organization was trying to trade anyone and everyone who wore a Saints uniform last year.
It’s all false. Brees was never discussed in a trade, New Orleans is discussing a long-term deal with Jordan, and there were only a handful of players the Saints were willing to trade.
It might not look like it to the outside, but the team has a calm and measured plan to rebound from last season’s 7-9 finish. It doesn’t involve trading away the quarterback and then trading up for former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. It’s about building around Brees, finding a way to improve last year’s defense, and ultimately becoming better.
The talk is all garbage to him. It’s annoying. But it’s something Payton knows he has to deal with.
“You just wad that up and throw it in the garbage, and hopefully it doesn’t come across your eyes again,” Payton said. “How do you react to it all? You’d go nuts. So, tune it out.”
One perception is that the Saints have only created more holes on their roster. Yes, cornerback Brandon Browner and running back C.J. Spiller were brought in, but the departures of guard Ben Grubbs, wide receiver Kenny Stills, tight end Jimmy Graham and linebacker Curtis Lofton have created more holes the team needs to plug.
This is something else Payton said is not true.
“Yeah, but see, those aren’t holes. We’re not moving a player if we feel like there’s no (replacement),” Payton said. “We feel like we’ve got a pretty good idea of how we’re lining up.”
The team had a replacement in mind for each player before they went out the door. Tim Lelito will slide in at left guard, the Saints will lean on young receivers like Seantavious Jones, Brandon Coleman, and Nick Toon to take the place of Stills, David Hawthorne will move to middle linebacker, and Josh Hill will take more snaps at tight end next year.
Payton is particularly high on Hill and at one point said he “loves” him as a player, but replacing Graham isn’t a one-for-one proposition. Payton said he expects to get more offense from his receivers and whomever lines up at the joker tight end position. He also said he believes Spiller will play a major role in becoming a playmaker for the offense and provide an element that was lacking last season from that position.
But Payton understands where the concern is coming from after losing a player of Graham’s caliber, but he doesn’t necessarily agree with it.
“I think that when you go back through our history, offensively, and who we’ve had at tight end, who we’ve had at receiver, there’s like one or two constants. But Drew (is) certainly one of the constants,” Payton said. “We’ve had six or seven different tight ends in the nine years we’ve played. Running backs, guys that play that joker position for us. Our job is we look at this upcoming season, we get a guy like C.J. Spiller, we say, ‘All right, here’s a target. Here’s a weapon we can use that’s unique.’ And we’ve gotta be able to be flexible enough, no different than when we were able to draft Reggie Bush and we weren’t expecting that to happen. We changed a little bit what we were going to do.”
The Saints believe these moves have set them up to take the best players available in the draft, though Payton did list cornerback, defensive linemen and outside linebackers who can rush the passer as areas of need the team could look to address in the draft. He also said he would like to find additional depth for the interior offensive line, even with Lelito, new center Max Unger, and Evans in the fold.
Following the departure of Stills, wide receiver is another position Payton mentioned and said he likes the depth of the position in the draft. He was not as high on this year’s class of tight ends.
So, there is still work to be done. But the Saints believe they have a path mapped out with the moves already made and nine picks in the upcoming draft. It’s a new path, but the method of traveling it is familiar.
In some ways, this offseason has been about getting back to what made this program successful in the first place.
“Mickey and I said this at the start of the offseason, let’s not lose track of why we’ve been successful and what’s been good to us,” Payton said. “And part of that is putting highly motivated players in that locker room that care about each other. It’s something that seems so simple and yet, it’s not been our secret, it’s just been our formula — getting the right type of guys that are smart, tough football players. That certainly will be an emphasis this offseason, and going into the draft as well.”
It might seem confusing to observers, but it’s not to them.