Indianapolis – The New Orleans Saints' offseason plan is proceeding on schedule, having exited the infancy stage of staff changes and transitioned to the phases of roster upgrading and salary cap balancing.
With football operations executives, the player personnel department, coaches and scouts in Indianapolis to attend the annual NFL Combine, the focus this week has been on evaluating the players who were invited to the event.
"It's still pretty early," General Manager Mickey Loomis said Friday from Lucas Oil Stadium. "This is one of the early steps in the process, seeing these college guys – the interviews, and watching workouts, just collecting data and information right now. That's separate from the free agency that's coming up here at the beginning of March."
The Saints, and the other NFL franchises, likely are as occupied interviewing prospects as they are in watching workouts.
"There's two phases of (the interview process)," Loomis said. "The first phase is the in-room, formal interviews that we do. We get 60 of those, we've done a bunch (on Wednesday and Thursday) nights, we'll do some more tonight, tomorrow night and Sunday night. And then there's also an opportunity for our coaches and scouts to grab players in more of a free-for-all circumstance at the hotel, so we'll get another 100 there, maybe more than that."
For the first time in 14 years, the process will take place for New Orleans without Ryan Pace. Pace, who was hired to be general manager of the Bears this offseason, was the Saints' director of player personnel the previous two seasons, and spent 13 years in the player personnel department.
His promotion to Chicago set the stage for the hiring of Jeff Ireland, who formerly was general manager in Miami from 2008-13, as director of college scouting. And it increased the responsibilities of Terry Fontenot, who has spent the last two seasons as the Saints' director of pro scouting.
"Terry, I knew he was ready for more and he has stepped up, and I would say he's exceeding expectations," Loomis said. "And Jeff, who I've known for a long time but haven't worked with before, he has stepped right in and we haven't missed a beat. And I like the fact that he comes at it from a little different perspective with some different ideas, and I think it's been real good."
Loomis said the Saints still are collecting information on players, but that he was certain the team would have an opportunity to get some good players in this draft. The Saints' first-round pick is No. 13 overall.
However, as is the case in many seasons, the first-round pick could be influenced by how successful the Saints are in free agency.
"Our approach has always been, let's fill as many of our holes and musts as we can in free agency, so that we have the opportunity to have more of a free reign once we get to the draft," Loomis said. "That doesn't always work, you're always looking to fill positions and yet, we've got to be able to take the players that we've got graded the highest, hopefully at positions of need. But that doesn't always work that way."
Regarding the salary cap, Loomis said the Saints' plan to trim off enough salary to get under the cap is proceeding.
"We've got a ways to go yet, but we're on our way with that," he said. "We've got a few things done and we've got a few more things to accomplish, but I like the progress we've made."
Associated Press photos from the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday, February 19, 2015 in Indianapolis, IN.