Sean Payton has had reminders over the past few months that he’s not the young up-and-comer he once was. And it’s not just seeing guys he’s coached forever, like Drew Brees and Thomas Morstead morph into NFL greybeards.
“You bring up a reference or a story or an artist, a TV show, and they look at you like … Then you start looking at birthdates, and you realize it,” Payton said the other day, from his office. “We were talking about Fats Domino’s death. Now, I didn’t expect them to know, but I was making the analogy that he was considered, even ahead of Elvis, the father of rock ’n roll. And I don’t know that everyone knew who Elvis was. So there’s a communication barrier every once in a while.”
The results have made navigating those differences well worth it. The Saints go to Buffalo on Sunday riding a six-game winning streak and, at least for now, it feels like the arrow could be pointing up on Payton’s program for a while. It’s been a while since that’s been the case. New Orleans is coming off three straight 7-9 seasons, and its most recent contenders had veteran foundations.
And the reason for it doubles as our lesson of the week. The answer to fix any NFL mess is easy to explain, and hard to pull off: Just draft well. The impact in New Orleans? Well, Payton’s future has been subject of much speculation the past few years. So in his 11th season, I asked him if this new crop of rookies makes him want to stay well into his second decade in New Orleans. He didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s good.” And as for whether he’s thought about this being the same sort of launching point that his first draft class was for the last generation of Saints, Payton was just as quick on the draw. “Yes, indeed,” he responded.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t see this renaissance coming, and I especially didn’t expect it when the Saints started 0-2. But Payton has seen it since summer. And it started with the acknowledgment that the staff needed to hit a grand slam in April.
“First thing, and this was critical—man, we needed to have a good draft,” Payton said. “And (assistant GM) Jeff Ireland, the scouting department, everyone involved in that process as we looked closely this year, and even a year ago, was trying to find the right fits and the right guys. … It absolutely had to be (a good class). And we made the (Brandin) Cooks trade so we’d have more ammo.”
The fit part is important. We mentioned Payton’s first group of Saints rookies, coming in the 2006 draft, and it’s easy to see the production there. Six of the team’s eight picks—Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Rob Ninkovich, Zach Strief and Marques Colston—played at least a decade in the NFL, which is staggering.
What’s tougher to find, for those of us on the outside, is the common thread tying a running back, safety, linebacker, receiver and two offensive linemen together. And so that’s part of what Payton, Ireland and GM Mickey Loomis went back in the files to study before this year’s draft.
“The football makeup of that class, those guys all played 10 years,” Payton said. “The football makeup, the intelligence, the grit, those key factors in trying to measure success, it was important that we were clear. We weren’t being hard on each evaluation, but we need that type of foundation again—of smart, tough football players that we had a clear vision for.”
The Saints also needed luck, which they got. Their top-ranked defensive back (Marshon Lattimore) and tackle (Ryan Ramcyzk) fell to them at 11 and 32 (the Cooks slot), because each had injury flags. A deep safety group allowed Utah’s Marcus Williams to slide to 42, and ditto for the running back class pushing Alvin Kamara into the 60s, before the Saints got aggressive and traded up for him at 67.
New Orleans had first-round grades on all four of those guys, so coming out of Friday night of draft weekend, the Saints were ecstatic. “Those were highly-graded, smart guys,” Payton says. Even better, by the second week of camp, the signs were there that New Orleans wouldn’t have to wait long to collect a return.
The big, long, fast Lattimore is already a top-shelf corner and leader for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Ramczyk has been a godsend, playing every snap and drawing starts at both left and right tackle, in the wake of injuries to Terron Armstead and Strief. Williams is the heady, traffic controller in centerfield the Saints envisioned, and has played in 99 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. And Kamara is a legit Swiss Army knife, averaging 6.0 yards on 52 rushes, and 9.2 on 37 catches.
On top of that, third-rounder Alex Anzalone started the first four games, playing about three-quarters of the snaps on defense before going down with an injury in London. And third-round edge rusher Trey Hendrickson has chipped in with two sacks.
“Now, all that’s not because we wished them to,” Payton says. “There’s times where you finish the draft and you think it went well and you get here, and realize, man, these guys need more work. The significance of this year’s draft class can’t be overstated. It was significant to what we’re beginning to build.”
And Payton opened up numbers the Saints keep to illustrate it. Their rookies rank first in the NFL in games played and games started by draft picks, and the team has the most draft picks to play 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 percent of the snaps. The coaches get credit, too, and not just for developing them, but also knowing, after the team fell to 0-2, that it was time to make it work for them.
“You gotta be careful because some of the group is on pre-calc and the rest is just wanting basic algebra,” Payton said. “It was trying to do the things that they do best. … And look, confidence, you talk about it all the time, but it’s only born out of proven accomplishment. You can’t think it. You can’t wish for confidence. It comes from demonstrated ability.”
Which is exactly what the Saints have gotten. Three of the six wins in a row have come by 20-point margins, and they held four of those opponents to 13 or fewer points, which wasn’t exactly normal before this year in New Orleans. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen deserves credit for that.
And if all this goes how it should, it stands to reason Payton’s young team should get better as they keep picking up experience. Maybe the most amazing thing is that we’ve gotten this deep into a story about the Saints, and Brees’ name has only come up once, and that was to illustrate how long the head coach has been around.
For the record, Payton acknowledges that Brees is good for the rookies, while saying, “They’re good for him, too,” reminding him of all the lessons he needs to keep learning. Playing well helps there, and Brees is on pace for his highest passer rating in six years. He’s also on pace for his lowest yardage total in eight years, and that’s good too, because it dates to 2009, which ended pretty well.
Add it up, and Brees, with free agency on the horizon, looks re-energized as a Saint. And he’s not the only one. His coach is with him on that.
Payton says, “Look, we have to be passionate about what we do, because if you don’t enjoy it, man, it’s hard to do it well. The hours, the grind. I think absolutely, I am [re-energized].”
Like I said, drafting well fixes everything. Easy, right?
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