INDIANAPOLIS — Like many of his players, Sean Payton believes one of the reasons his team struggled last season was due to a lack of leadership.
The Saints coach was not shy about sharing his feelings during an interview with Pro Football Talk on Thursday at the scouting combine when asked if he’s figured out why his team finished 7-9.
“I think we struggled with some leadership positions. I think, overall, there was a big change when guys like Will Smith, John Vilma, Jabari Greer, Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, those are a number of players — Darren Sproles — in one offseason leave. I think losing that experience and leadership hurt us some.”
Payton said he met with general manager Mickey Loomis on Wednesday evening and talked about finding smart and tough football players. He did note, however, that he thinks the majority of the players on his roster fit into that category.
But even though Payton believes he has the right kind of players, the leadership never materialized last season, and he said he is looking into figuring it out and that it starts with himself. To fix that issue, Payton said he will look both inside and outside the organization.
“I think both,” Payton said. “I think there’s going to have to be a few guys we look at in free agency. I also think we have a good, young nucleus of players — a good locker room, by and large, but you can never take that for granted.
“We just keep paying attention to what’s winning. Again, you at New England, the success they’ve had, the consistency that they’ve done it with. There’s been a formula for them, and it’s something we tried to emulate when we got here in ’06.”
In a possibly related question, Payton was asked what his team’s biggest needs are. He listed cornerback, interior offensive line and “potentially” a pass rusher as three areas of concern.
Payton also noted he would like to see running back Mark Ingram return next season.
“Now it’s just asserting or figuring out where’s that number going to be for him,” Payton said. “I’m sure if you’re Mark and you’re Mark’s agent, you’re looking closely at it. Hopefully, he’s someone that’s back in the Black and Gold.”
Payton on staff changes
Payton does not believe there will be an issue with Rob Ryan and Dennis Allen both overseeing the defense.
Allen, who previously served as the coach of the Oakland Raiders, was brought in last month to work as an assistant coach focusing on defense. But Payton said measures have been taken to ensure both men know their roles.
“We probably spent a week just going through the dynamics of the room,” Payton said on a video released on the team’s official website. “Here’s Dennis, whose got experience at this, and certainly that’s Rob’s role. He’s the defensive coordinator, and he’ll be the guy calling our defense on game day. But Dennis gives him another veteran set of eyes and can help him and the defensive staff.”
Payton said he understands people questioning how the situation will work and is aware it is a unique situation, but he believes both men are willing to make it work and that having both will only make the Saints stronger.
“It’s not a normal situation where you’re able to bring in a coach like that and say, ‘Hey, you and Rob are going to work together,’ ” Payton said. “It works because both Rob and Dennis are guys that are passionate about and understand this is something that benefits both of them and the team.”
With Payton viewing offensive line help as one of his team’s three primary needs this offseason, it seems likely the team will address that position either through free agency or the draft.
If the team goes the draft route, it could lead the Saints to former Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff, who is one of the top-rated offensive linemen in this draft class.
And if the Saints were to take Scheff with the 13th pick, it sounds like he would relish the opportunity to protect Drew Brees.
“Drew’s a great quarterback; it would mean the world,” Scherff said. “Whether it’s tackle or guard, I’ll play wherever they give me the chance to play.”
If Scherff were to come to New Orleans, he likely would be asked to play on the inside — where Payton said the team has one of its biggest needs.
This creates an interesting scenario because New Orleans currently has guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs under contract. Both players have salaries that could put them in the cross hairs this offseason, but right now there is not an immediate opening.
Scherff was scheduled to have a formal meeting with New Orleans on Thursday evening. Each team can meet with 60 prospects at the scouting combine.