METAIRIE, La. (AP) Sean Payton seemed to have the Saints moving in the right direction by the end of the 2015 season, posting three victories in the final four games.
Now, the question is whether Payton wants to continue building on the roster overhaul he's conducted since last winter, or start fresh elsewhere after what wound up as his second straight 7-9 campaign.
The few Saints players left from 2006 - the season Payton arrived - expect their coach to be back. But it's hard for even them to know what other opportunities could present themselves to one of the most accomplished offensive minds in pro football.
''I'm very hopeful that we're all going to be here and prepare ourselves to make a run at it here over the next few years,'' said quarterback Drew Brees, who has one more season left on his contract, but who said he would ''absolutely'' be interested in working on an extension.
Brees said he's optimistic about Payton's return because of his understanding of ''what the mindset was a year ago in regards to building - not rebuilding - but building the foundation for what would allow us to make a run at it in the future.''
''I know that didn't result in a playoff season this year,'' Brees continued, ''but I feel like it's kind of setting the tone for what could be success in the future.''
Payton said several times this season that he sees himself coaching in New Orleans going forward. However, he got testy when asked about his future with the club after the Saints won their season finale in Atlanta on Sunday, cutting off a question by saying that if he felt the need to provide media with his itinerary, he would.
He had his annual end-of-season meeting with general manager Mickey Loomis on Monday, but did not schedule any media availability until Wednesday.
Right tackle Zach Strief, part of Payton's first draft class, said he'd be surprised if Payton left New Orleans.
''You never say never, and yet I think he knows what he has. I think he knows he's in a good situation,'' Strief said. ''He has the quarterback that he has the relationship with, like he does with Drew, and he's in a place where the owner gives him freedom to do what he thinks is best, and he has a good relationship with the general manager.''
Some things to know about the Saints' outlook coming out of the 2015 season:
AIR SUPERIORITY: The Saints ranked first in the NFL in yards passing per game (310.6), marking the fifth time since Payton and Brees arrived in New Orleans together 10 years ago that the Saints ranked first in that category. They haven't ranked worse than fourth in the past decade.
BETTER BREES: Despite missing a game with a throwing shoulder injury and playing most of the last three games with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot, Brees had one of the best seasons. Never mind the fact that the Saints traded away his top two targets from 2014 - tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Kenny Stills. Brees finished with 4,870 yards and 32 TDs against only 11 interceptions, tying his lowest interception total as a Saint. Top targets this year were second-year pros Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead, along with veteran tight end Ben Watson.
RYAN'S DOWNFALL: Rob Ryan couldn't make it through a third year as defensive coordinator, fired 10 games into a season that ended with the Saints ranked second to last in the NFL in yards allowed per game (413.8) and dead last in points allowed per game (29.8)."You want to be that defense that people fear, and that wasn't us this year,'' said defensive end Cam Jordan, who had 10 sacks. ''We have to become that.''
Ryan was replaced by Dennis Allen, who could retain that role should Payton remain.
DECIMATED DEFENSE: Injuries factored in the Saints' defensive malaise. Young players were thrust into premier roles. Some had to fill in at positions unfamiliar to them. The most prominent players injured included cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who each missed 10 games. Rookie cornerback P.J. Williams, a third-round pick, spent the whole season on injured reserve, while veteran safety Rafael Bush missed all but the season opener.
GROUND DOWN: The Saints ranked 24th in rushing (93.2 yards per game). Injuries to Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson didn't help, but veteran Tim Hightower flourished during New Orleans' last three victories to solidify his comeback from knee problems that sidelined him the previous three seasons.
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