The scene has played out countless times this season. Kenny Vaccaro leans back, exhales a little bit and then begins providing an answer he’s provided at least a dozen other times this season.
He’s clearly grown tired of repeating himself. He’s not tired of the person he’s being asked about — he’s actually as excited about his emergence as anyone else — he’s just sick of having to say the same thing over and over again.
“I told you guys before the season that’s who this guy was,” Vaccaro said. “It’s not really a surprise to me.”
The player in question is Delvin Breaux, who is part of a young contingent of players the Saints are hoping will be part of the foundation of the Saints’ reboot. It’s because of players like him and several others this team believes it will be able to pull itself free from the disappointments of the past two seasons.
And even though the Saints are 6-9 heading into the season finale against the Atlanta Falcons, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that there are some stepping stones potentially leading to the other side of what, at times, has felt like a river of regret overflowing with poor free agent signings and some questionable draft decisions.
For those guys to actually help the Saints get to the other side of this, it’s on the organization to continue developing those players, put them in position to succeed and bring in the right guys to put around them, whether that be via free agency or the draft.
But there’s enough of those young players in the locker room that quarterback Drew Brees, who might soon have to make a decision on whether he wants to carry forward with this organization and sign an extension or chase a title in another city, can stand at the lectern and confidently state that he feels good about the future of this organization.
“Because of the type of guys we have and kind of that transformation from last year to this year,” Brees said. “I mean I think every guy who has been here for any period of time and (have) been a part of some of those great teams that we have had and just kind of know what that feeling is. I think that they would reiterate that confidence, that we have the right type of character and leadership and a plan in place to have the type of success in the future here that some of us have had the chance to enjoy since we have been here.”
The biggest stepping stone of the bunch is Breaux, who began proving he is someone to be excited after surrendering two receptions for five yards on the 34 snaps he was matched up against Julio Jones, who is one of the better wide receivers in the NFL, the last time New Orleans played Atlanta.
He’s continued making his case in the weeks since and had one of his more impactful games during last week’s win over the Jacksonville Jaguars by intercepting a pass, tipping another ball away from a receiver that led to another pick by defensive lineman Bobby Richardson and breaking up several other attempts by quarterback Blake Bortles.
If Breaux continues on this trajectory, he doesn’t just have the potential to be good. He could emerge next season as one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. If not for a few hiccups early in the season while he was adjusting the NFL, he might already be part of that conversation.
He’s joined on defense by rookie linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha, who, despite some ups and downs this season, have shown promise throughout the year and should continue to get better heading into the future and potentially serve as building blocks on defense.
More pieces are going to be needed to transform this historically poor defense, but if cornerbacks Damian Swann (concussions) and P.J. Williams (spent the year on injured reserve) return from injuries and are as good as hoped, New Orleans could have an exciting core of young players on defense to pair with safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive end Cam Jordan.
Offensively, the Saints have several good young players such as wide receivers Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks and offensive lineman Andrus Peat to pair with cornerstones like running back Mark Ingram and Brees.
With another strong draft and some smart moves in free agency, which certainly aren’t givens, this team could get back on track this offseason. Payton also believes several of the young players should make significant growth this offseason.
Not only will the players have a year in the system, they’ll also have the benefit of being able to focus on getting in football shape instead of dropping weight and focusing on posting better workout numbers at the scouting combine this offseason.
“Whereas this first offseason now, no one cares about how you have been and where you have been selected,” Payton said. “Now it is more about getting acclimated to that club’s facility, hitting the weight room, being here with these players and preparing for their second season. I think that offseason is much different. It is a little bit quieter.”
The hope is that a quieter offseason leads to louder performances in the future.