Busy Saints offseason leaves Sean Payton nostalgic about past, excited about future

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton talks with New Orleans Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills (84) after  pass intended for him was intercepted by Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher (24) in a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Penn. Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton talks with New Orleans Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills (84) after pass intended for him was intercepted by Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher (24) in a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Penn. Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014.

Letting key players go a difficult decision

“Jairus Byrd we felt was ... a player we didn’t know if we’d be able to swing it, and everything worked out great.” SEAN PAYTON, Saints coach

ORLANDO, Fla. — In a perfect world, Saints coach Sean Payton would’ve been able to keep all the players who helped him win a Super Bowl or field a record-setting offense while also adding some of the best free agents his team could identify for the 2014 season.

But the NFL isn’t perfect, so Payton is left with conflicting feelings — nostalgia and optimism — as some of the men with whom he won New Orleans’ only league championship await other opportunities while the Saints welcome different players who they think can aid the team’s goal of winning a second title.

“You can’t have it all and then go out and sign players” such as Jairus Byrd, considered by the Saints and many others to be the best safety available in free agency, Payton said Monday. “You lose players that you think are good football players.”

In an interview that touched on a variety of offseason topics during a break in the annual owners meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes hotel, Payton reiterated how painful it was to release players such as defensive end/linebacker Will Smith, cornerback Jabari Greer, strong safety Roman Harper (a Panther now) and wide receiver Lance Moore (today a Steeler), all of whom were on the Saints team that won Super Bowl XLIV.

The same went for safety Malcolm Jenkins (who left for Philadelphia in free agency) and linebacker Jonathan Vilma (an unsigned free agent), also Super Bowl champions. And the same went for running back Darren Sproles (traded to the Eagles for a fifth-round draft pick) and fullback Jed Collins (off to Detroit as a free agent), who both formed part of an offense in 2011 that set an NFL record for yards.

“Those are difficult players to part ways with because of how much they’ve contributed,” Payton said. “Those guys are pillars of where we’re at now and have their names on a lot of our success.”

Nonetheless, even with a salary cap of $133 million for 2014, the fact remains it would’ve been impossible to keep all of those players while bringing in free agents such as Byrd and fullback Erik Lorig while retaining right tackle Zach Strief.

There was also no way to hang on to those who were let go while doing the same with less-touted yet valuable role players such as receiver Joe Morgan and linebacker/special-teams stalwart Ramon Humber, who both went on the open market but re-signed one-year deals.

Of all the Saints’ moves this offseason that resulted in a player ending up on New Orleans’ roster for 2014, perhaps the one Payton is most excited about is the acquisition of Byrd.

Payton said both the Saints’ scouting department and the coaches had high grades in their evaluations of Byrd, whose 22 interceptions are the most among safeties since he entered the league in 2009 as a second-round pick for Buffalo. The Saints pinpointed him long ago as a player they wanted to acquire, but there were a number of factors out of their control, such as whether Buffalo would put him under a franchise tag in 2014 the way it had in 2013.

When the Bills passed on franchising Byrd, the Saints made signing him their top priority, Payton said. Byrd soon signed a six-year deal worth $54 million, with $28 million guaranteed.

As pundits wracked their brains trying to figure out how the Saints would be able to accommodate such a contract, they dealt Sproles to Philadelphia, clearing $3.5 million in salary cap space while also getting the extra draft pick. Then, the breakdown of Byrd’s contract made its way around the media, and it all made sense: His 2014 cap figure basically matched the savings gained from the Sproles trade.

The Saints also created cap space by giving running back Pierre Thomas a two-year extension and by restructuring cornerback Keenan Lewis’ deal.

“Jairus Byrd we felt was ... a player we didn’t know if we’d be able to swing it, and everything worked out great,” Payton said. “To (General Manager Mickey Loomis’) credit, he was able to make it happen. ... It’s exciting, because you add a talented, young free safety with ball skills.”

Payton said it was the latest example of the synergy the Saints’ coaching staff, its scouting department and the front office have enjoyed since he took over in 2006.

While he was answering questions when discussing the other moves, Payton didn’t sound any less enthusiastic when talking about Strief, Lorig, Morgan and the upcoming draft.

Strief had ‘best season’

About Strief, Payton said: “I would say he had the best season of his career last year. He’s been one of our leaders.”

Strief was an offensive captain in 2012 and ’13. Last year, Pro Football Focus awarded him and quarterback Drew Brees the highest overall ratings for New Orleans players.

He has started 42 games for the Saints, including the playoffs, since 2011, after which New Orleans has been to the divisional round of the playoffs twice and won the NFC South once. He hit unrestricted free agency March 11 but, six days later and without setting up visits with any other teams, he re-signed on a five-year deal.

“That was ... someone we wanted to re-sign,” Payton said. “That doesn’t mean you know you’re going to be able to, but fortunately for us we were.”

Lorig impressed on film

Concerning Lorig, who spent his first four years in the NFL with Tampa Bay and agreed to a four-year deal on March 18, Payton said the Saints were impressed with him while reviewing game film.

Lorig’s main accolades are that he blocked for two 1,000-yard rushers, LeGarrette Blount (2010) and Doug Martin (2012). A Bucs running game that featured him as its lead blocker still picked up more than 100 rushing yards per contest after losing Martin six match-ups into the 2013 season.

But he has never rushed the football in the NFL; all of his touches have gone for 30 receptions, 193 yards and one touchdown. That’s different from Collins, who can catch, block on passes and runs, pick up short-yardage first downs on the ground, had four TD receptions and rushed for three scores during his time in New Orleans.

“Jed was a good performer for us,” Payton said. “Erik can play a ... different type role, and yet he’s still a guy we look at as a fullback.”

Morgan understands program

Regarding Morgan, he signed a deal paying him a base salary of $495,000 on March 18, hours after he entered a diversion program in connection to a DWI arrest from last summer. Diversion programs offer participants facing nonviolent charges monitoring and social services such as counseling as an alternative to undergoing trial.

Morgan missed the 2013 season with a year-ending, preseason knee injury. He missed the 2011 season with a similar injury. But in 2012, he caught three touchdown passes and registered a mind-boggling 37.9 yards per catch on 10 grabs and emerged as a deep threat.

Payton said the Saints “felt pretty good about ... where Joe was at being a teammate and being a member of the organization” prior to offering him a new contract.

“We’ve felt this is a player who understands our program, understands right from wrong and has really made a conscientious effort to rehab his knee, to do all the things that are necessary,” Payton said.

Deep college talent pool

Payton declined to hint at precisely who the Saints’ top draft prospects are or what their positions are. But, like other experts have, he described the 2014 draft class as unusually deep.

He noted that the Saints don’t have a seventh-round pick after trading it to San Francisco for linebacker Parys Haralson late in the 2013 preseason. But they have an extra fifth-round pick from the Sproles trade, and that’s a portion of the draft where the Saints have enjoyed success under Payton.

Players such as receiver Kenny Stills (2013), Pro Bowl punter Thomas Morstead (2009) and All-Pro guard Carl Nicks (2008) were all taken in that round during the Payton regime.

“Those are significant selections in a draft like this,” Payton said about the extra fifth-round pick.

A deep draft also means the crop of undrafted prospects should be better. And last year, six undrafted free agents — running back Khiry Robinson, defensive end Glenn Foster, linebacker Kevin Reddick, cornerback Rod Sweeting, guard/center Tim Lelito and tight end Josh Hill — played well enough to make the Saints’ 53-man roster.

“Those are great finds,” Payton said. “That’s an important part of the process.”