Phoenix – There wasn't total erosion as much as there was subtle slippage.
But the slide was a damaging one. It was significant enough to help take the New Orleans Saints from an 11-5 regular season in 2013 to a 7-9 finish last season, from being a playoff team to being eliminated from the postseason, from being a team that had made a habit of not beating itself to being one that made the critical errors, at critical stages, that it largely had seen opponents make as it became one of the NFL's most successful franchises since Sean Payton became head coach in 2006.
So among the offseason improvements the Saints were looking to make was a simple one: Get back to being who they'd become under Payton.
"It was important for us to look closely at, 'Hey, let's not lose track of why we've been successful and what's been good to us,' " Payton said Wednesday morning, as he addressed the media at the NFL Meetings at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix.
"And part of that is putting highly motivated players in that locker room that care about each other," he said. "It's something that seems so simple and yet, it's been our formula – getting the right type of guys that are smart, tough football players. That certainly will be an emphasis this offseason, and going into the draft as well."
With that point of emphasis in mind, the Saints embarked on a busy offseason that has included three trades, several free agent signings and a possible narrowing of the draft focus now that several of the team's offseason personnel needs have been met.
The trades: Seattle center Max Unger and a first-round draft pick this year for Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round pick; left guard Ben Grubbs to Kansas City for a fifth-round pick this year; and Miami linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round pick this year for Saints receiver Kenny Stills.
The marquee free agent signings: Saints running back Mark Ingram and former Bills running back C.J. Spiller each agreed to terms on a four-year deal, and cornerback Brandon Browner agreed to terms on a three-year contract.
The upshot: The Saints addressed their needs for an interior lineman (Tim Lelito, who has experience at all three inside positions, has the inside track at starting at left guard) and starting cornerback, picked up a linebacker (Ellerbe) who is capable of playing the "Will" while David Hawthorne slides over to the "Mike," which Hawthorne has played, and added valuable draft picks who will help fill critical roster spots or that potentially can be used in future trades.
"The moves become, or appear, more than normal whenever there's a trade because typically in the offseason there's some trade movement, but not a lot," Payton said.
"When the season is over with, (General Manager) Mickey (Loomis) and I sat down and you look closely and, 'Here are some musts that we've got to accomplish between now and when the draft ends.' You've got to look at every way that you can possibly fill those musts. And so you have the draft as a starting point but then, there's a chance at free agency and then lastly, via trade.
"I think going into the process – skeptical is not the word, I just would have been, are we going to be able to get what we consider equal value for a certain player? All with the idea that we're able to identify what we need to do in the offseason and can we begin filling these boxes, not only filling them but filling them with players that we want to fill them with."
Payton is confident that the Saints did exactly that, without leaving themselves vulnerable.
"We feel like we've got a pretty good idea of how we're lining up," he said. "We've got a center that starts in the NFL, Lelito will play left guard, Jahri Evans is at right guard. The same way at receiver – we weren't looking to make a move that created another must."
The concentration now, Payton said, will be to find at least one defensive lineman and outside linebacker/edge rusher in the upcoming draft. The Saints currently have nine picks in the draft: two in the first round (Nos. 13 and 31 overall); one in the second (No. 44); two in the third (Nos. 75 and 78); two in the fifth (No. 148 and 154); one in the sixth (No. 186); and one in the seventh (No. 230).
"Corner, we'll be smart with regard to the draft," he said. "That (position) was a must area coming into free agency. That didn't mean it had to come from free agency but with the addition of Browner, it allows you to look closely at the best player with regard to defense. I think we're going to have to draft at least one, if not two, defensive linemen and/or outside linebacker/pass rushers.
"Offensively, we went in with an interior lineman (need). When you get Max Unger and we'll move Lelito, that's a good thing, and we'll rework a deal with Jahri. So I would still say there's a need there for an interior lineman. Receiver now is a position that heading into this equation, you might not have listed at any one of those areas. After Kenny has been traded, we think it's a deep draft at receiver and we would pay close attention there.
"The time now here between now and the draft is really looking at some of the available players that aren't going to get the quite the number maybe they expected going into the free agency, but most of the time will be spent on workouts and draft preparation."