Sean Payton

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton looks at a play card during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium in London, Sunday Oct. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

The New Orleans Saints wanted to clear the board.

There was a sense of urgency when members of the team brass spoke at the NFL annual meeting last month about the remaining holes on the roster. They existed in several areas, meaning that for the first time in a while, the team was in danger of getting backed into a corner.

But the Saints worked hard to clear the deck. First, they signed receiver Cam Meredith and then re-signed Brandon Coleman. Tight end Ben Watson returned to New Orleans after spending the past two seasons in Baltimore, eliminating another need.

Signing those players took the edge off, but the team still isn’t satisfied with its roster.

“There’s a few we still have that we haven’t checked off,” coach Sean Payton said. “Hopefully we can address that in the next week.”

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The team still needs to handle two spots. One of those is the sixth offensive lineman. The other is a “pressure player.”

The importance of having depth on the offensive line can’t be overstated. Senio Kelemete, who signed with the Houston Texans this offseason, played more than 60 percent of the snaps last season. The Saints have to hope Terron Armstead is healthy and plays all 16 games, but recent history has shown they need to have a contingency plan.

The Saints have some flexibility in how they approach the position, as guard Andrus Peat can play on the inside or out at tackle. Payton said this draft is a little deeper with interior players, but it could go either way.

"Pressure player" is an interesting term. That could mean someone who rushes off the edge. It could also mean an interior defensive lineman. While it seems likely the Saints covet a player who fits into one of those two boxes, Payton has previously referred to safety Kenny Vaccaro as a pressure player.

So there is also some flexibility there. New Orleans could fit the player in at either spot. If Alex Okafor returns from his Achilles injury at full strength, the Saints could bring in another edge player and move Cam Jordan inside in some passing situations. Or, if the team drafts an interior rusher, there’s a clear fit next to Sheldon Rankins in the sub rush.

Though the Saints have musts, Payton made it clear they won’t force a pick — even if they don't have a selection in the second round.

“It has to be who we feel like we have the highest grade on,” Payton said. “We feel like we have some flexibility. A year ago we had three or four picks it seemed like in the first 90. We’ll be smart, and we’ll look closely at the back end of this first round.”

New Orleans will work to identify that player. It’s probably a little harder for the Saints to peg the board this year, picking 27th instead of within the first third of the draft, as they were the previous three seasons. But the team has its board set and will spend the next two days putting players into groups to determine values.

Of course, everyone wants to know if this is the year the team selects a quarterback early. The Saints strongly considered it last season when they planned to take Patrick Mahomes. But, with some other needs, Payton was asked if it was unlikely for the team to take a quarterback early in the draft.

“I wouldn’t say that. It would be no different than any other year,” the Saints coach said. “I would say based on the grades; it’s hard to anticipate what happens at 27. Without a second-round pick, if you go to 3-27, then you’re dealing with a lot of variables. There’s a lot of talented players in the draft. Some of them are quarterbacks.”

So, we wait. The answers will come Thursday night. The Saints haven’t given themselves a clean slate entering the draft, but it’s close enough that they won’t be boxed into making a decision just because a prospect plays a certain position.


Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​