An early order of business will be to evaluate young talent; not just the youth already on the roster in New Orleans, but also the NFL prospects on display in Mobile, Ala., this week at the Senior Bowl.
Why is youth so important?
It’s actually all about Drew Brees and his mammoth five-year, $100 million contract that he signed in the offseason last year.
Brees’ cap hit to the Saints this year will be $17.4 million, a huge jump from his $10.4 million cap figure from 2012. That means there’s likely not enough money to go around to the 20 to-be free agents on the Saints roster.
Tough decisions are going to have to be made on starters like defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, wide receiver Devery Henderson and left tackle Jermon Bushrod and key backups like defensive end Junior Galette and running back Chris Ivory.
The youth movement is so important because with less money to sign existing players or bring in talent from the outside, Payton is going to have to either find starting-quality players from the bench of his roster or find new talent in the upcoming draft.
Payton is also going to have to shore up his coaching staff.
He’s getting a late start as many of the teams in the league have already pounced on available coaching talent. Payton must decide who’s to remain on staff and who will go. A huge question mark for Payton is on the defensive side of the ball with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Spagnuolo’s defense gave up a league-record 7,042 yards from scrimmage in 2012, which equates to 440.1 yards per game allowed. The Saints finished as the No. 24 defense in 2011 and had the fourth-best unit in 2010. So you can see the free-fall was extensive.
Will Payton stay with Spagnuolo and hope he can fix the defense, or will Payton get rid of the defensive coordinator?
These aren’t easy decisions, but they are time sensitive. It’s good for the Saints that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell let Payton return to the team two weeks earlier than expected.
Payton’s going to need every extra second to get the nuts and bolts of player acquisition and coaching turnover settled so he can set in on prepping the installation of the offense and defense for 2013.
It’d be extremely easy for Payton to wallow in pity, lamenting the fact that Goodell stole an entire season—not to mention nearly $6 million in salary—from him. Assistant coach Joe Vitt already said he’d “never forget” what the NFL did to the Saints, and I truly believe this mentality can be healthy.
If Payton can channel that animosity and use it as something akin to bulletin board material, this team may find ways to overachieve in 2013, possibly as much as it underachieved in 2012.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.