Indianapolis – As New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton looked ahead to evaluating players at this year's NFL Combine who potentially will be several of the latest additions to the Saints' roster – along with his coaching staff, General Manager Mickey Loomis and the team's front office executives – he also took time Thursday to reflect on another offseason of change.
Specifically, the Saints released guard Jahri Evans, one of the most decorated players in franchise history, on Feb. 7. And New Orleans reportedly is preparing to do the same with receiver Marques Colston, the franchise's all-time leader in receptions (711), receiving yards (9,759) and touchdowns (72).
Evans (fourth round, No. 108 overall) and Colston (seventh round, No. 252 overall) were members of Payton's first draft class as Saints coach, in 2006.
In those 10 seasons the Saints had their most prolific decade of offensive production, did not finish lower than sixth in the league in total offense and won six playoff games, including Super Bowl XLIV.
"You're talking about two unique, unique players, special people to our program, guys that were in our first draft class and I would say, the pillars of a lot of the success we've had," Payton said. "Jahri, who came here as a fourth-round draft pick and immediate starter, he's going to be a Hall-of-Fame candidate type of player. His numbers speak for themselves.
"And with all that Marques has accomplished – and Marques, officially, nothing has happened with him yet; I think here in the next week or two, we'll have a little bit more closure on that – for me, as a head coach, to have an opportunity to work with guys like that, I've been real fortunate. They've been nothing but consummate professionals."
Evans and Colston helped establish a Saints level of performance and culture that the franchise continues to embrace. The 2015 draft class and free agent rookies also appear to have provided a substantial foundational block for future Saints teams, and Payton said that the hope for the 2016 class is that it similarly will be productive.
"There are some traits that we just can't compromise," he said. "Finding guys that are team-oriented, guys that are driven to be special players, guys that understand the time and commitment it takes to have success in our league.
"I think it's a fairly deep draft at some positions, specifically the defensive line. Later in the week we'll have a chance to see these guys. We have to improve our defense. The six picks we have this year, we've got to be spot on with them."
The pursuit of defensive help could make the need/best available athlete debate a bit easier to decide this year.
"Every once in a while a magnet sits there, uniquely in a different spot, and you've always got to pay attention to that," Payton said. "That would be the best available player. And then when, I don't know that two players are exactly alike, but when you've got a clump of players and you feel like the grades are similar, the convictions are similar, then you probably lean a little bit more toward the need if you felt like they were very close."
The Saints kept all nine draft picks last season. Five started games (offensive tackle Andrus Peat, linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha, defensive tackle Tyeler Davison and defensive back Damian Swann) and another (Willie Snead) was the team's primary kick and punt returner.
"We played more rookies last season than any other team in the league," Payton said. "You go through some growing pains when you do that. But I think Andrus Peat, we're going to see a lot more from him in Year 2. And Steph Anthony was a starter for us for the season.
"Hau Kikaha played quite a bit, (linebacker Davis) Tull will be coming back off of injury, (defensive back) P.J. (Williams) will be coming back off of injury, (and) we were excited about some of the latter part of that draft. When you see guys like Swann come in and play the nickel, Garrett (Grayson) is a young prospect that we're working with at quarterback.
"There are a lot of things that are exciting and yet, there is a lot of improvement that we've got to make, not specifically with that class but with our team."
The entrance of that class will hopefully soften the exit of Evans and, potentially, of Colston.
"It's kind of today's game," Payton said. "It's always a little bit more difficult when it involves a player like Jahri, or potentially a guy like Marques, because those are 10-year guys that were Day 1 (players).
"Those are all guys that we built a program around and you're forever indebted to players like that."