Sean Payton: Saints still have 'musts' at edge rusher, tight end, receiver

The funniest exchange during Sean Payton’s media session at the NFL meetings on Tuesday came when a reporter asked him about the New Orleans Saints possibly not having the same “cachet” as other teams when it came to wooing free agents like Ndamukong Suh.

“The cachet or the cash?” Payton interjected, drawing big laughs. “I think it’s cash. Because I think we have cachet. ...

“Ultimately it comes down to, though, there’s a price point and a comfort level.”

Payton and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis both admitted to reporters on site Tuesday in Orlando, Florida, that their competitive nature makes it hard to let free-agent targets get away to higher bidders. But at the same time, they defended the Saints’ decision to stick by those “price points” when it came to high-profile players like Suh and Jimmy Graham.

“Especially the first week of the process, the numbers can get high,” Payton said. “And in our experience, oftentimes the second, third, fourth week, even the next month here, you’re able to find a player that fits at a palatable price.”

It’s hard to argue with that type of restraint, considering how many expensive free agents go bust every year in the NFL.

However, the biggest problem with that approach is that the Saints haven’t filled many of their most pressing needs yet this offseason – and pickings are getting slimmer by the week. And the Saints have only one pick in the top 90 in the draft (No. 27 overall).

Payton labeled edge rusher, tight end and receiver as “musts” for this offseason, whether in free agency or the draft.

The Saints did re-sign starting defensive end Alex Okafor, who is coming back from a torn Achilles. But he sometimes moved inside on nickel downs, so Payton said an edge rusher remains a huge priority.

“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Payton said. “We went into this process it’s a ‘must.’ And so we haven’t addressed it yet. So it’ll be important.”

Payton stressed that the Saints still have “a lot of time and a lot of opportunities” to fill those musts even before the draft. But he said it would definitely impact their draft plans if any musts remain.

“And those musts don’t have any flexibility,” Payton said. “We have to accomplish that.”

Payton said defensive tackle isn’t necessarily a must – but the entire front seven was a priority, and the Saints were intrigued by specific defensive tackles like Suh.

There are at least two free agents that we know of that are still in play at those must positions. They recently visited with their former tight end Benjamin Watson (who is a free agent again after two years with the Baltimore Ravens) and restricted-free-agent receiver Cameron Meredith. Surely, there are others on their radar, as well.

Watson would make a ton of sense, since he and the Saints were such a great fit during his first stint with the team in 2013-15. He was elected a team captain in New Orleans and had a career season in 2015 with 74 catches, 825 yards and six touchdowns. Watson is now 37 years old, and he tore his Achilles with the Ravens in 2016. But he bounced back nicely with 61 catches for 522 yards and four TDs while playing all 16 games last year.

Meredith, 25, is a 6-foot-3, 207-pounder who had a breakout year with the Chicago Bears in 2016 (66-888-4) before tearing his ACL last summer. The Bears would have the right to match any offers that Meredith signs with another team, but the Bears would get no draft-pick compensation if they let him leave.

As for the free agents the Saints did sign already, Payton shared his thought son what they liked about safety Kurt Coleman, linebacker Demario Davis and cornerback Patrick Robinson:

On Coleman: “We saw a need for a safety. Kurt’s someone I’m familiar with. We’ve played him – three times last year [with the rival Carolina Panthers]. So that’s a lot of tape study.”

On Davis: “Demario is someone we think has position flexibility, can play the Mike or the Will, and had a real good season last year. ... [A.J.] Klein’s playing the Sam in base – then in nickel, A.J. went inside. So we have to sort through how we want to play not just those three [spots]. Four or five guys really. And we’ll get that figured out.”

On Robinson, who spent his first five seasons in New Orleans in 2010-14: “I think he’s confident. He’s healthy. He’s always been one of those sharp guys, a great teammate. He can run, he’s explosive. There’s a clear vision for where we see him. And he had a heck of a year this past season [with the Philadelphia Eagles]. And I think he does a good job with his man coverage inside. I think he does a good job if he wants to pressure off the slot. He had good tape.”