The New Orleans Saints put their season to bed last week.
While the rest of the NFL focused on the Sean Payton question, which, of course, was resolved Wednesday, the rest of the New Orleans coaching staff and the pro personnel department spent the week evaluating and grading each position group.
Now the Saints coaches take a week off. When they come back to work, the Saints begin the process of building the 2016 roster with a marathon meeting that sets the table for everything else to come.
“We’ll meet collectively as a personnel department and coaching staff and go through each player on the roster,” Payton said Wednesday. “Vision, grade, strengths, weaknesses (for each player) and after that meeting takes place, you transition into your scouting, the college draft, Senior Bowl and then any potential free agent we would want to coach or someone else could put their eyes on.”
For that reason, the decisions that seem to be looming over the Saints — particularly decisions on core veterans like Marques Colston and Zach Strief — are only in the beginning stages right now.
When Payton met with the players in the days after the win over Atlanta in the season finale, the focus was more on 2015 than what the team might do in 2016.
“I spent a half an hour with Marques the other day in my office, and Zach today for half an hour,” Payton said Wednesday. “Nothing about next year, the future. It was really about this past year, how they are feeling, what’s their health like, just those types of things.”
Answers to the pressing questions of whether or not veterans like Colston, Strief, David Hawthorne and others could become cap casualties will come later.
“One of the things we try to hit on with our team (is), if there are any questions, to come see us,” Payton said. “A lot of time, a lot can be written, and just pick up the phone and let’s make sure that dialogue exists. I think that’s important. It’s critical that the communication between the player and club is first and paramount.”
A week still remains before the team locks its plan into motion for the offseason.
But Payton already has a strong feeling about a few parts of the Saints’ roster. For starters, the Saints got more than 400 snaps from eight rookies or first-year players — wide receiver Willie Snead, wide receiver Brandon Coleman, tackle Andrus Peat, defensive end Bobby Richardson, defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, linebacker Stephone Anthony, linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha and cornerback Delvin Breaux — and flashes of promise from a handful of other young players who didn’t quite meet that threshold.
The Saints’ renovated roster badly needed an influx of youth this season. And even though the youngsters had their share of ups and downs this season, from breakout, star-making seasons to baby steps, Payton walked away encouraged by their contributions.
“I like this group of young players,” Payton said. “And I think time will tell with regards to how, specifically, each one of them does on the field and how their careers unfold. But I feel like when you have talked with our veteran players and they have a point of reference as to how a culture needs to be, I feel like that is strongly in place, and that gets you excited as a coach.”
The Saints’ draft preparation will be different this year. New Orleans’ overhaul extended beyond the roster last season.
“There have been some changes already this past year in personnel and scouting, with the loss of (Bears general manager) Ryan Pace, obviously (assistant general manager) Jeff Ireland coming in and (director of pro scouting) Terry Fontenot working on the pro side of it.
“We’ve got a handful of new scouts that I don’t know that you guys would recognize yet, but that you’ll get to know or have a chance to see. All of those things will be in place in Year 1. This will be the first draft that they’re working.”
Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis also know which side of the ball will likely get the most attention.
For all of the offseason speculation about the weapons around Drew Brees, the continued development of Brandin Cooks, the surprise breakout of Snead and a career performance by Benjamin Watson — who, by the way, will be a free agent — came together to keep the Saints’ offense clicking.
A defense that finished at or near the bottom of the NFL in every category will likely continue to get attention. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is likely to get a full shot at the job after taking over for Rob Ryan on the fly this season
Still, New Orleans has some clear personnel holes to fill, even after encouraging performances against Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Jacksonville down the stretch.
“The one thing that we spent time talking about was, how do we improve this defense and where do we feel like the positions are that we need to focus on?” Payton said. “We’ll spend time with Jeff and Terry on that and look closely on how we go about doing that. That has to happen, and we have to be better there to have a chance at the success that we’re discussing.”
The Saints’ goal is obvious.
After two straight 7-9 seasons, Payton wants to be back in the playoffs.
“There are still some things that were very encouraging,” Payton said. “Certainly, the locker room was more accustomed to what we have — not expected or taken for granted — but it was more accustomed to what it needs to be. We are not there yet. We really have to do a good job with the upcoming draft and in the upcoming offseason with personnel, specifically we can get into what areas defensively, what areas offensively, but more importantly, just kind of our mission statement after 10 years.”
The process begins in earnest next week.