Phoenix – There remains intrigue as to where the New Orleans Saints' interest in restricted free agent cornerback Malcolm Butler will lead.
But Saints Coach Sean Payton said Tuesday, from the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, that the visit by Butler to New Orleans and the Saints' practice facility less than two weeks ago was a chance for the franchise to learn more about a player with whom it already had some familiarity.
"The two things that take place," Payton said. "We have the chance to visit a player who's a restricted free agent, and we could sign him to an offer sheet and give up our 11th pick of the draft. I think the most important thing for us was getting to know this player a little bit.
"We've practiced with the Patriots, I think we've got a pretty good handle on his skill-set that we see on film and that we see in practice. But this was a little bit more of a personal visit, as much as we can trying to gather all the information to arrive at the best decision."
Butler, a two-time Super Bowl winner and second-team All-Pro last season, is considered one of the top cornerbacks in the league. While the Saints have depth at the position if healthy (Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams, Sterling Moore and Ken Crawley all started last season, though Breaux and Williams were significantly limited by injury), and this year's NFL draft class is considered deep in quality at cornerback, the addition of Butler would be a substantial upgrade for the unit.
Butler finished last regular season with four interceptions and 17 pass breakups.
"There are a few positions (in the draft) that are stronger," Payton said. "I think it's a good running back draft. Corner and safety, we feel like are strong. And there's a group of defensive linemen, pressure players at end. Hopefully as we head into our final draft board readings here in the next month, we'll be in position when the draft begins to help our team in a number of ways."
Payton also addressed a meeting he had with free agent quarterback Johnny Manziel, a former first-round pick who was released by the Browns prior to the 2016 season, and did not play last year. Manziel has had several high-profile, off-field incidents – partying, an alleged assault of a former girlfriend – that likely steered franchises clear of him.
"I think that is a little different (than visiting with Butler)," Payton said. "I wasn't involved in the draft process the year he came out. I met him and had breakfast at the Super Bowl. I was curious, really, to get to know him some.
"He's got a number of things that he's working to do to make himself available. I certainly would say, for us, it was really just a chance for me to visit with him. And that would be in a much different phase than Malcolm Butler or some of the things that we're discussing as we approach the draft. It was the first time I met him and we spent some time kind of going through his story."
The Brandin Cooks trade to New England – the Saints traded Cooks and their fourth-round pick (No. 118 overall) for New England's first-rounder (No. 32) and third-rounder (No. 103), giving the Saints five picks in the first three rounds – Payton reiterated, was made in an effort to help solidify the Saints' defense.
"I think two-fold," he said. "It's always challenging when you have a player as good as Brandin. We looked closely at our options in the offseason.
"This is a way for us to really help with two picks – the first-round pick that we acquired from New England, and the third-round pick. We think it's a good draft defensively. Time's going to tell, over two to three years, how we were able to utilize those picks and hopefully position them into acquiring players that can help our team."