Sean Payton understands tough decisions remain for New Orleans Saints
Sean Payton wants tackle left tackle Jermon Bushrod to play for the New Orleans Saints in 2013. He also envisions defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma remaining with the team. It's not always that simple, though, and Payton understands all of it.
Payton discussed an array of topics in an interview with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune on Friday afternoon as he's neck deep into building the Saints back into a Super Bowl contender with this offseason being one of the more critical periods since he's been in New Orleans.
"It's really important to separate your emotions from some of these decisions," said Payton, who returned to work in late January after serving a near year-long suspension from the league in connection to the bounty scandal. "It's hard to do. We're evaluating all of them. I haven't met Akiem Hicks yet, but I certainly know Will Smith and Roman Harper.
"We're going to look at those three players no differently. We're just going to go by what we see. That's one of the things that helped us. ... We really need to separate what we're attached to as opposed to what we're watching."
The futures of Bushrod, Smith, Vilma and more than a handful of other players remain as the Saints approach the beginning of free agency and then the NFL draft in late April. Payton said being as honest as possible about every aspect of the team is the only way to approach the 2013 season, especially regarding player personnel decisions.
Salary cap limitations stand as one of the primary roadblocks for the Saints this offseason as the team still lingers slightly over the $123 million cap. And yet decisions need to be made on players like Smith ($14.5 million salary cap number) and Vilma ($8.6 million) as the Saints have to be under the cap by Tuesday.
Payton said while there are no certainties, he remained adamant on how he sees Smith and Vilma playing for the Saints in 2013. Payton said he has talked to both players about their status, while General Manager Mickey Loomis has been in contact with their agents.
Payton also said the scheme change won't play a part in a decision on Smith and Vilma. He pointed out how the Saints have played in variations of a 3-4 scheme more than people may realize and he feels players can always adapt.
The decision on Bushrod is a little different as he sits as the team's primary unrestricted free agent. There haven't been any significant contract talks between Bushrod and the Saints as the two-time Pro Bowler should be highly sought after once the free-agent talking period opens at 11 p.m. Friday night.
"He has been someone who has epitomized what we look for in a player," Payton said. "Now the trick as he's been getting ready for free agency, and we're getting ready as well, is just finding that balance and that spot. A lot of times, the league will set a market price. I know exactly what we have in Jermon, and that is someone that loves being here. He's very smart, he's talented, he's been very productive.
"That answer in regards to him returning or not will come sooner than later. It won't be a long drawn out process. I know Mickey (Loomis) and his agent will have the meaningful discussion necessary to arrive at what the correct number should be. Now that correct number might be different with another club. When that happens, it's part of free agency that's no different than Scott Fujita (when he left for Cleveland in 2010)."
Payton said he doesn't think where the Saints stand with the salary cap makes it more challenging for signing someone like Bushrod. It's more about getting specifically to what the correct salary for Bushrod, at least in the Saints' eyes, should be.
"I know he wants to be back, and I know those same feelings exist on our part," Payton said. "Now it's just working through the process. I know it's always a time of apprehension for the player as well as the clubs. But you get used to it and that's just the game that exists now. The players understand. The agents understand it. Certainly the organization understands it."
New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton said the team has to eliminate how they feel about a player when evaluating what offers are made in free agency. Popular linebacker Scott Fujita, pictured with Will Smith, Roman Harper and Lance Moore at a benefit for former Saint Steve Gleason, was offered more money by the Cleveland Browns than the Saints thought they could pay.Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Payton said he feels like there are players in-house, likely referring to Charles Brown, who could compete for the starting left tackle spot if Bushrod left. But Payton also pointed out none of the candidates have compiled the same time on task or success of Bushrod's resume.
As for potential free agents outside of the Saints' roster, Payton said there's a lot of value in that second-tier free agents and it's the way the Saints have gone about finding free agents the past few seasons. Because of the salary cap situation, Payton acknowledged the Saints would follow the same formula this offseason saying the Saints "will pay close attention" to the second tier rather than breaking the bank on one player.
Payton simplified the Saints' outlook at free agency into three categories: musts, needs and wants. He qualified Drew Brees as a must, for example, when Payton felt like the Saints didn't have a quarterback in the building when he first took the job in 2006.
When asked about "musts" for this offseason going into free agency, Payton mentioned left tackle and backup quarterback as possibilities because Bushrod and Chase Daniel may sign with other teams. But Payton said he didn't want to specifically identify "musts."
Payton said he feels like the Saints possibly could find some value players that could fit in the "need" category at outside linebacker, defensive end and tight end.
Payton said it's important to hit on draft picks every year, but stressed how important it will be for the Saints to hit on their selections this year. He pointed back to the 2006 as a draft where the Saints hit on numerous draft picks, along with acquiring center Jeff Faine and defensive tackle Hollis Thomas in trades.
Of course, new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and the change to a 3-4 defensive scheme will be the overriding on-field storyline throughout the offseason and into the season. Payton said he understands the reservations from outsiders from his hiring of Ryan when presented with the success of the teams Ryan served as defensive coordinator.
Ryan has only led his defense to one top-10 ranking in total defense in his nine seasons as an NFL defensive coordinator. Oakland finished third in total defense in 2006, but 18th in points allowed as Oakland finished with a 2-14 record.
Ryan did win two Super Bowls as the Patriots' linebackers coach in 2001 and 2003, but has never made the postseason as a defensive coordinator. In the nine seasons Rob Ryan has served as defensive coordinator, his teams have a combined record of 46-98.
"That applies to a lot of us prior to coming into the right fit," Payton said. "There's players that we've had and assistant coaches that we've had where that same would apply. I think in his case, I think we're getting an outstanding defensive coordinator. I think we're getting a guy who is passionate about football, a guy that cares about his players, a guy that's really good in the framework of the coaching staff. And that compatibility issue I've grown to really value as a coach. And the framework of 17, 18 coaches, it's critical that we are united and can work together because the players can sense in a second when that's not taking place.
"I spoke to a dozen people in regards to what are his strengths, what does he do well, how will he fit in the framework of the staff. The feedback just kept coming back positive. It was outstanding. I like his enthusiasm. I like that his players will have confidence. Certainly, all of us recognize there's some challenges for us logistically defensively to improve.
"I think that probably falls on us doing a better job for us coaching them, us acquiring more talent and the players doing a better job executing the scheme. It falls across the board. When you finish last in the league in a category, it's not just one facet. It's not just the players, it's not just the coaches. It's across the board. It's yours and you have to own it. I really like what we have in him.
Sean Payton said he is excited about working with new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who was on the Dallas Cowboys staff last season.Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
"The public opinion about that hire ... we have to make decisions constantly regardless of how they're going to be viewed. The minute we start making decisions out of popularity, we would have been making mistakes. ... Those are important things we have to hold onto. We're not running for public office. What's popular is winning. That's what is popular. I'm anxious to work with him and so is the staff. He's been outstanding."
Payton said he didn't know with 100 percent certainty that he felt he had to fire former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and secondary coach Ken Flajole before he was reinstated in late January during the Senior Bowl.
"I knew we struggled, but I think in those next 48 hours or 2-3 days I felt like we needed to make a change," Payton said. "That was really hard because in fairness to Steve, I hired him to come in and work with us, being me as well as the head coach, and he didn't have that opportunity. That was difficult because he was a heck of a football coach.
"So if there's one person, add Kenny to that, that kind of got the short end of the stick, certainly they did at their first year and their only year in our organization with two different interim coaches. The penalties took place after he had signed on to come here. That was tough, and in a lot of ways there were parts that weren't fair to him and Kenny."
The topic of leaving town for training camp has come up, including going back to Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., which was where the Saints held training camp from 2006-2008, since Payton has returned to the team. But Payton said there are some logistical issues in scheduling that won't make it possible to return to Millsaps.
He said unless the Saints are able to find another place - and the team's "eyes and ears are open" - then training camp would remain at the team's practice facility in Metairie.
Payton also said the "Do Your Job" banner with a picture of a not-so cheerful Payton remains on the wall of the indoor practice facility, but added with a laugh, "That thing is coming down. It's on my list, but I've got 20 other things more pressing."
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