Indianapolis – The annual NFL Combine is under way, and New Orleans Saints coaches and front office personnel again fully are invested in the process. NewOrleansSaints.com and senior writer John DeShaziercaught up with Coach Sean Paytonfor an expansive interview Thursday afternoon, with Payton addressing a variety of subjects including the trade rumors revolving around receiver Brandin Cooksand the reported release of safety Jairus Byrd.
JD:One of the hottest rumors going around this Combine revolves around Brandin Cooks, and whether the Saints are attempting to trade him or fielding offers. What's the word?
SP:I saw it this morning. I would say this: It's not uncommon, at this event, where there's a lot of discussion in regard to picks, players. I said this before, Brandin is someone we value tremendously in our system. He's been extremely productive. He's everything we were wanting when we drafted him. Now, that being said, these news items come up and there are a lot of meetings that take place here. I wouldn't say he's on the trade block but certainly when a team calls, a team that's looking for a receiver – and we're looking to improve our defense – we're always listening. I know (General Manager) Mickey(Loomis) has probably spoken to a handful of GMs or presidents with other teams, but right now I'm comfortable, we're comfortable with (Cooks) in a Saints uniform. We think the world of him and his skill-set. (Compensation for Cooks) would have to be something real significant. That's part of being at the Combine, it's one of the things that takes place here and that news certainly spreads quicker now than it would 10 years ago.
JD:Is it a distraction, or more along the lines of business as usual in a setting like this?
SP:I think we're removed from it to some degree. We'll see a report and yet, there's a lot of lunches and dinners and meetings that take place with not only general managers, but agents. Most of the focus is on this group of incoming rookies. There are discussions that eventually will lead to official discussions. I wouldn't say there are discussions now in regard to free agents, but I know this is the time of the year where, as a team, you're looking closely at your roster, how to improve your roster, and spending time on this class.
JD:Safety Jairus Byrd reportedly will be released soon. Will there be a move made with him?
SP:A week from today, free agency begins. He's someone that we've had a chance to visit with. He's going to have a chance to sign with another team. That hasn't been announced officially yet, but that's going to come here in the next, probably, three or four days. In my conversations with him, I know the most frustrating thing for him and for us was just the injury he suffered. He's an extremely talented player. News like that, I think, is important for the player to get prior to the start of free agency so he can put himself in a position to sign with a club. But at some point, I think in the next three or four days, that will become official.
JD:This draft is supposed to be pretty strong in the secondary. Does it help to have that strength at the safety position when you're looking to make a move (with Byrd)?
SP:I think one of the tricks in free agency is looking closely as to what the draft is providing. We think it's pretty deep at safety, and we think it's also deep at corner. And so, how do we best utilize our resources to improve our defense and then fill spots that we've identified offensively? That's why it's always hard with a guy like Brandin Cooks, because he's an established starter for us and an important part of what we do.
JD:Defensively, heading into the draft, you said there were some musts for the team, perhaps particularly an edge rusher. Can that be filled in this draft, or is it more of a free agency acquisition?
SP:It's always harder to get in free agency because teams don't want to part ways with pressure players. I do think there'll be a handful of prospects in this draft, whether it's in the first round or the second round, or even in the latter rounds. Those guys will typically get here (at the Combine) later in the week (defensive players are scheduled to begin arriving on Friday), and they'll work out Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. The defense is always the back half of the Combine. For us, we wouldn't count out free agency, but the likelihood would be more from the draft.
JD:The Combine is an information-gathering setting. When you go through this process, how much of it is kind a hay-is-in-the-barn on most players, or how can a player actually enhance himself here at the Combine?
SP:I would say the process is ongoing. Obviously, an important part of the process is their tape, and their production, and their ability to play football and see that on tape. But equally important is, How healthy are they? That was the very essence of the Combine, to get a chance to give the players a physical, make sure they're injury-free or if there's an injury, what kind of a time frame will it take to rehab. Secondly, it's a chance to get to know the player outside of just football: Can he learn and what's he like as an individual. Some interviews are quicker and easier, others are a little bit more challenging where you need to vet a certain event or something that took place. So the hay isn't in the barn yet, but it's one part of the equation. The next step when we leave Indianapolis will be the month of March. These players will all have workouts on their campuses. Also, it gives us a chance to see, you're looking for traits – quickness, you're looking for agility – to make comparisons. And oftentimes, whether it's a jump, whether it's a 40-yard dash, we don't overvalue that but we do look at it relative to comparisons historically – the last five years, the last 10 years. The outliers are the ones that draw attention, and that could be a positive outlier: Man, this guy just jumped this, and that's what we saw on tape but we weren't sure. And then the negative outlier would be: Man, it was disappointing, this is what he did. And if it's too low or too below the bar, history would tell you that there's a good chance that that transition into our league is going to be difficult. That's what this week provides.
JD:Something that you've addressed before, but quarterback-wise, you have your guy in Drew(Brees). How do you walk the fine line between transitioning to finding the future guy and being satisfied with what you have?
SP:I think this, it's different because of the focus on that position and yet, every year, we're looking at and evaluating the quarterback class. This year would be no different. It becomes a little bit more, not paramount, but the focus becomes a little bit more shifted in that direction, when you look at Drew's age and his experience. And yet, we saw him play at a level last year that would be hard to suggest we've seen a decline. He's doing exceptionally well. But we would evaluate this class no different than the prior. We're looking closely at who the top players are, who's here, and then really trying to grade them compared to each other, but then also grade them relative to where they would fit in any draft. That's one of the more difficult positions to evaluate.
Check out the full interview below: