Orlando, Fla. – This offseason has been anything but stagnant for the New Orleans Saints.
From the emotional releases, trades and decisions to not re-sign valued veterans who'd helped the franchise win 73 regular-season and six playoff games in Sean Payton's seven seasons as head coach, to the jubilant signing of free agent safety Jairus Byrd and re-signing of right tackle Zach Strief, the franchise has moved at a brisk pace since the season ended.
But it's a pace that the team expected and anticipated, Payton said Wednesday morning during his media availability at the NFL Meetings in Orlando, Fla. And the Saints aren't done.
"Every offseason, you kind of head into it with certain goals," he said. "I think the key component that sometimes gets overlooked is the initial period of time after your season is over with and the importance of grading your own roster.
"I think that starts the process, and then there are always the tough decisions. We've had a lot of players win a lot of games for us. This was a year where, it was probably the first cycle of guys in our first draft class in 2006, (like) Roman Harper, and you saw players like (defensive end) Will Smith, (cornerback) Jabari Greer, (safety) Malcolm Jenkins, (linebacker) Jon Vilma – those guys have been really the foundation of what we built. So it never gets easier when there's change that's made like that.
"And yet, we were able to bring in a player like Jairus Byrd, we were able to find a fullback (Erik Lorig) that we felt – initially going in, wasn't even a targeted area – but we felt was a very good football player.
"Signing Zach was important and signing (running back) Pierre (Thomas) was important. We didn't think we were going to be able to handle all the running backs. It's kind of an ongoing process and quite honestly, there's still a handful of players that are going to have value with contracts at this time in free agency, maybe more so than ever."
Payton said it was difficult for the franchise to part with running back Darren Sproles, who was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for a fifth-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Sproles was a free agent signee from San Diego in 2011 and set the NFL single-season record for all-purpose yardage with 2,696 that season.
"He is someone we've graded high," Payton said. "No. 1, he's very intelligent. I can't think of many, if any, times where he does something on the field that you're not expecting him to do, and that's a good trait. He's very competitive, he's a great teammate.
"Really, it came down to a vision as to where we were at, and us feeling like we were younger at some positions. And then the discussion of a trade comes to us, and there was more than two teams interested and all of a sudden what you were hoping for was a seven, becomes a six and pretty soon you're discussing a fifth-round pick. And in this year's draft, that's pretty considerable.
"So, I think, he's going to a good place. Ironically, a place that was one of the teams competing for his services when we signed him coming away from San Diego. He's a special guy."
That said, the Saints believe that in third-year running back Travaris Cadet, they have a player who's capable of carrying some of the load Sproles shouldered.
As an undrafted rookie in 2012, Cadet played in 13 games and returned 26 kickoffs for 690 yards, caught five passes for 44 yards and ran once for 5 yards. Last season, in limited play he caught two passes for 5 yards (and a touchdown), and returned nine kickoffs for 239 yards, with a long of 82 yards.
"Travaris Cadet is a player who has played in that role," Payton said. "Over the years now, we've had a number of key contributors to what has been a pretty good offense. There have been times we've done it without (receiver) Marques Colston. There was an offense prior to (tight end) Jimmy Graham, prior to Darren Sproles.
"One of the key components is an overall understanding, philosophically, of where guys need to be. I don't think you ever replace, specifically, a skill set like Darren's. It's unique and it's different than, really, our league has seen in a while, for a player his stature. But with regard to his touches, with regard to opportunities, Travaris is a guy that has played and is now going into his third year.
"He's got very good ball skills. He's a guy that can run the routes in that (route) tree, when you talk about a choice route, you talk about an option. He can play from in the backfield, but he can play from extended positions. He's someone that is very comfortable in that role.
"He can run; I know his first season, he kind of came into camp as a receiver and then we switched him back into running back, but he's a utility player that has gotten better at just the core skills sets of being a runner, but is very comfortable when it comes to being a receiver out of the backfield."
Another position of potential concern, center, also may have the answer on the roster. Incumbent Brian de la Puente is a free agent who has started all 32 regular-season games the past two seasons, and both playoff games last season.
"We feel like we've got some good, young linemen in the building," Payton said. "And I'm sure that as we get back to New Orleans and we continue to look at our boards, I wouldn't be surprised if there possibly is a player signed.
"But Tim Lelito (a free agent rookie last season) would be a guy that's going to be in the mix, someone competing for that opportunity. So we'll see who it is he's competing against, but we feel like he's got a chance to be that player. And yet, we think it's essential to have someone – it could very well be a guy like de la Puente, or another player who's out there."
As for Graham, Payton said he understands the tight end's desire for a lucrative contract, one that more closely resembles that of an elite receiver than that of the league's most productive tight end.
The Saints have placed a franchise tag on Graham, which would entitle him to the average salary of the top five players at his position in a one-year contract. He can seek a contract offer from other teams; the Saints have the right to match any offer. If not, the new team would owe New Orleans two first-round draft picks.
Meanwhile, the two sides can continue working on a long-term deal.
"I think (Graham's contract request) is the byproduct of a little bit of an antiquated system, with regard to franchise numbers," Payton said. "I think those (franchise numbers) will be, over the years, revisited and adjusted."
He said that, similar to last season when quarterback Drew Brees was designated a franchise player before signing a five-year deal, the feeling that Graham and the team will agree to terms is a matter of "not if, but when."