Boca Raton, Fla. – The New Orleans Saints didn't enter free agency with a plan to make tight end Coby Fleener their marquee signing thus far. But when the team wasn't able to make an addition at guard, and the opportunity opened to add Fleener's skill set to the offense, Coach Sean Payton said the Saints jumped.
Payton spoke Wednesday morning at the annual NFL owner's meetings from the Boca Raton Resort and Club.
"I don't think we felt, 'We're going to target one player and then begin to wait,' " he said. "I think when (free agency) began, we paid close attention to the guard market. For us, that was important. Fleener became available, and not just because Ben (Watson) had left, but we had to look closely at him because of his age (Watson turned 35 last season).
"And I said to (General manager) Mickey (Loomis), 'Look, I've got a vision that's very, very clear for (Fleener).' I know his college coach (Stanford's David Shaw) well, we've spoken. If you had said before free agency, 'Do you think you might sign a free agent tight end,' I would have thought, 'Nah.' But with where he was at and where we were at, there was really a good fit.
"All the while we're looking at a couple of the guards and a couple of the defensive players. (But) there's a process that's still ongoing with this. You have that early portion of free agency, there's a couple of players that we targeted and then the other things fell into place.
"We're still going here, but looking closely at the right-fit players. The mistake or the concerns would be that we don't have the proper vision for a guy right now and I think in each case, when we've signed a player – and we've signed a handful of linebackers – the vision is clear for what we want to do."
Payton watched the last two seasons Fleener played with the Colts, when he totaled 105 catches for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"He can run," Payton said. "He's exceptionally fast. He's a guy who's real good in creating separation with his routes. I would say he's an elite route runner.
"He knows the system that we're running, it'll be a little bit more vertical in it for him with regard to some of the seam routes, but he's a big target. I think he knows how to separate from defenders. When I see him in man or match coverage, I watch him do the right thing every time.
"There are games where you can watch the tape and say, 'If we threw it to him eight times in a row, we're going to have eight completions.' After seeing the first season (of film that he studied), I remember having the discussion with Mickey, thinking, 'I know exactly how we'll use this player, and I'm confident he'll have success.' "
Among the free agent linebackers the Saints have agreed to terms with are James Laurinaitis, Nate Stupar and Craig Robertson.
Laurinaitis, a seven-year veteran, is the all-time leading tackler for the St. Louis Rams. He started all 112 games he played for the Rams and set a franchise record with 1,015 tackles. He also posted 16.5 sacks, 10 interceptions, 36 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries.
Stupar, a three-year veteran, has appeared in 43 games, with three starts. He has 60 tackles, one sack, two passes defensed, one fumble recovery (returned for a touchdown) and 28 special team tackles and played the last two seasons with the Falcons. Robertson started 37 of 58 games in four years with Cleveland, and had 336 tackles, four sacks, six interceptions, 15 passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
"Stupar and Robertson both are players we've seen, played against, they're young," Payton said. "They played in the kicking game so I know how many snaps they're going to get at a minimum.
"When you look at some of the depth this year, from David Hawthorne to Ramon Humber (being released), these are two young players that can play four core special teams and both of them have played and started games, will have a chance to compete."
Laurinaitis brings to the Saints leadership, a veteran presence and the option to move second-year linebacker Stephone Anthony from "Mike" to "Sam."
Last year, as a rookie, Anthony received and relayed the defensive plays as the Mike. He started all 16 games and led the Saints with 112 tackles. He also had an interception, a sack, two forced fumbles, a fumble return for a touchdown and the first defensive two-point conversion return in NFL history, against Carolina.
"Laurinaitis, one of the things we felt we needed was someone with his experience that can help on gameday with the overall understanding of what we're doing, and what they're doing," Payton said. "That might move some players around.
"(Anthony playing the Mike), that's a lot on the plate of a first-year player when he's getting the signals, making the calls, doing all of that. I think that's one of the things that Laurinaitis is very comfortable at.
"We'll look at that, and if we're moving (Anthony) to Sam, what type of Sam is he, off the ball or on the ball. The comment I made is we've got to mindful and flexible enough to adapt what we're doing defensively or offensively with the signing of a player."
Payton addressed several other topics Wednesday morning during his hour-long media availability, including the strength at the top of the upcoming draft, and the areas of need for the Saints.
He reiterated that the Saints likely will pursue defensive front-seven help, specifically a pass rusher and a three-technique lineman.
Payton appears to like the talent that the Saints have in the secondary, particularly if a better pass rush can be generated, but didn't rule out picking a defensive back in the draft.
"We've got some young players in the secondary that a year ago, didn't even play," he said, specifically referencing P.J. Williams, who missed the season while on injured reserve, and Damian Swann, whose promising season was interrupted and ultimately ended by three concussions.
"Those are two young corners in that 2015 draft," Payton said. "We'll have some flexibility and yet, it wouldn't preclude us from drafting a player, whether at safety or corner. (But) that front, still, for us – that pass-rush position, that three-technique position – there are some empty holes there, at least on paper, and those are must positions."
Of the team's lack of experience and proven production beyond top three receivers Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman, he said, "We feel this draft is going to offer a few different players that we think can help in that area, too."
Regarding the Saints' release of cornerback Brandon Browner, following a season filled with struggles and penalties (Browner committed 21 accepted penalties):
"I think we weren't good enough overall as a defense, our front struggled. The pass rush, it's that perfect storm and the surrounding parts for us weren't as strong as they needed to be. At times, some of the under coverage, there'd be a play that you might see on tape and it would appear that it's Brandon's play, and it's really one of the inside linebackers' play.
"As a coach, you have a vision of how you want something to unfold, but you've got to let that happen. For us to have had success, one of those things last year defensively was for him to have played well and us to have given him a chance to play well because he's a leader that's wanting to lead, and it's hard to when you're becoming a target. It's hard to do that.
"But I think there were a lot of hands in that. No different than the quarterback that's not getting the time. I think for a defense, (and) a secondary, that clock in the head for the passer has to be a little bit quicker, and all of a sudden you'll be amazed at the balls that become available."
He also said that negotiations with quarterback Drew Brees on a contract extension have been ongoing.
"It always takes a little longer than you want it to and they're never the same," Payton said. "This one's a different type of contract and negotiation than the last one. But I know that there's been quite a bit of dialogue."