New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram did just about everything he could last season to boost his value heading into free agency.

But I still think it’s possible that Ingram can remain in an affordable price range for the Saints to keep him (maybe less than $4 million per year) -- especially as the free-agent market continues to get flooded with veterans released around the league.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
AP Photo/David GoldmanMark Ingram showed in 2014 that he can handle a heavy workload.
Reggie Bush, Steven Jackson and DeAngelo Williams were the latest reported salary-cap casualties this week. And at some point, Adrian Peterson could also wind up joining a free-agent class that already includes DeMarco Murray, Frank Gore, Ryan Mathews, Justin Forsett, C.J. Spiller, Shane Vereen, Knowshon Moreno, Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden and several other mid-level guys.

On top of that, many analysts including ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. believe that this year’s draft class is deep with running backs in the middle rounds -- a cheaper route that more and more teams have started to take in recent years.

“There are a lot of guys out there [in free agency] that are proven entities, but they also have a lot of tread on the tires,” Kiper said. “I’d always go the rookie route. I would not take a running back in the first round, but I would from the second round on.”

Kiper then rattled off a list of names and projected rounds: Todd Gurley and Tevin Coleman in the second, Ameer Abdullah, David Johnson and Jeremy Langford in the third, Duke Johnson and Jay Ajayi in the fourth, T.J. Yeldon in the fifth and David Cobb, Terrell Watson and Bill Belton in the late rounds.

“So take your pick. You can find them,” Kiper said. “They’re there every year, and they’re gonna be there again this season.”

I still think Ingram should rank near the top among all those options -- especially when it comes to the Saints.

The former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round draft pick is still just 25 years old. He just made his first Pro Bowl as an alternate, running for a career-high 964 yards and nine touchdowns despite missing three games with a broken hand. And he proved his value as a workhorse back with four 100-yard games in a six-week span.

Just as importantly, the Saints are high on Ingram’s character and work ethic, as coach Sean Payton stressed last week while expressing a desire to keep Ingram in New Orleans.

Intangibles like maturity, professionalism and leadership became an issue with the Saints last season, so it would be tough for them to part with a guy who has done things the right way since they drafted and developed him. Ingram was one of a few young Saints players whose arrow was actually pointing up last season.

If the Saints do lose out on a bidding war for Ingram, however, they do have more options than usual to fall back on. So either way, they should be able to build a healthy committee of running backs that could also include incumbents Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay stuck with a pass-rusher for the New Orleans Saints in his latest mock draft (requires Insider access). But he switched from Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr. to Clemson’s Vic Beasley after both improved their stock during last week’s scouting combine.

McShay moved Fowler all the way up to No. 3.

As I wrote earlier this week, Beasley had one of the most dynamic workouts of any player at the combine. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any linebacker or defensive lineman (4.53 seconds), tied for the most bench-press reps of anyone at those positions (35) and had the third highest vertical leap (41 inches). Most importantly, Beasley did all that while weighing in at 246 pounds – up 26 pounds from last spring.

Fellow ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., however, said on a Thursday conference call that he doesn’t expect Beasley to make it out of the top 10 now after a “phenomenal” combine workout, combined with Beasley’s great college production (25 sacks over the past two years).

That’s not necessarily bad news for the Saints if they’re hoping a top pass rusher will fall to them with the 13th pick, though. If those guys rise, perhaps Nebraska’s Randy Gregory or Missouri’s Shane Ray will drop.

Or if all four of those pass rushers go high, maybe a top offensive lineman such as Iowa’s Brandon Scherff, a top defensive tackle such as Washington’s Danny Shelton or a top cornerback such as Michigan State’s Trae Waynes could fall. Kentucky pass rusher Bud Dupree and LSU cornerback Jalen Collins also improved their stocks with great combine performances and could crack the middle of the first round.

It’s still very early in the pre-draft process, but the more guys on the rise, the better for the Saints.
METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints have several major roster decisions to make before the start of the new league year and free-agent signing period on March 10. For starters, they must trim somewhere between $20 and $30 million in salary-cap space (most of which will be accomplished by converting roster bonuses into signing bonuses).

Here’s the last in a series of 10 burning questions the Saints have to answer:

[+] EnlargeJairus Byrd
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsKey free-agent pickup Jairus Byrd missed most of the 2014 season with a knee injury.
The question: How aggressive will the Saints be in signing new free agents?

It might seem nuts to think that New Orleans could go out and spend big money on a new free agent because they’re currently further over the cap than any other team in the NFL (at least $23.3 million, if the cap is set at $143 million).

But that’s exactly what the Saints have done in each of the past three seasons, despite similar cap constraints.

Last year, they signed safety Jairus Byrd to a whopping six-year, $54 million contract (with only a $3.5 million cap charge in Year 1). Before that, it was cornerback Keenan Lewis in 2013 and the quartet of Ben Grubbs, Curtis Lofton, Brodrick Bunkley and David Hawthorne in 2012.

However, the Byrd signing didn’t work out last year (mostly because of a season-ending knee injury). And the Saints missed the veteran leadership of the guys they cut for salary-cap purposes even more than expected in 2014. So will they change their philosophy this year?

The answer: I think the Saints will again find a way to add at least one premier free agent – most likely at the cornerback position.

Although the Saints’ free-agent philosophy didn’t work out great last year, it has worked well in the past. And they need to inject at least one impact newcomer into a defense that struggled so badly last year. Maybe two or three.

As I’ve mentioned often in recent weeks, a starting-caliber cornerback should be the top priority. That won’t come cheap. But the good news is there should be plenty of quality candidates to choose from, from the most expensive guys such as Brandon Flowers, Byron Maxwell, Kareem Jackson, Tramon Williams and Antonio Cromartie to rising young players such as Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver and Buster Skrine to second-tier starters such as Bradley Fletcher, Darius Butler and Tarell Brown to aging vets such as Rashean Mathis, Ike Taylor and Charles Tillman.

Coach Sean Payton listed the Saints’ top three “musts” for this offseason as cornerback, interior offensive line and pass rusher. I don’t think the Saints will spend big on a free-agent offensive lineman unless they release one of their current starting guards (Jahri Evans or Ben Grubbs). Otherwise I expect that to be more of a draft need.

Pass rusher, however, could be on the Saints’ free-agent shopping list, especially if they’re concerned about a possible suspension for outside linebacker Junior Galette.

There are a variety of options who could be available at pass rusher, from big-ticket items such as Justin Houston to second-tier options such as Jerry Hughes, Brian Orakpo and Pernell McPhee to potential discounts such as Brandon Graham, Akeem Ayers, Derrick Morgan and Adrian Clayborn.

If the Saints follow my advice and spend big on a corner, they'd likely have to do more bargain shopping at pass-rusher.

Previous questions:
Former New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush was released in a cost-cutting move by the Detroit Lions on Wednesday. Immediately, my Twitter feed filled up with questions about whether Bush might fit back in New Orleans since the Saints were missing that runner/receiver hybrid after trading Darren Sproles last year.

It’s not entirely out of the question -- especially if the Saints lose top running back Mark Ingram in free agency and want to add a veteran to their committee approach. But I don’t know if Bush would provide a missing element to New Orleans’ offense that’s significantly greater than incumbent runner/receivers Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet. Bush turns 30 next month and has battled injuries over the past two years.

Are the Saints missing what Bush and Sproles brought in their primes? Of course -- especially when it comes to the way defenses respected their threats by devoting extra safeties or linebackers in coverage. But New Orleans did still lead the NFL in first downs, third-down conversion percentage and completion percentage last year.

Coincidentally, the Green Bay Packers also released linebacker A.J. Hawk on Wednesday. If Bush hadn’t fallen into the Saints’ laps with the second pick of the 2006 draft, they were strongly considering Hawk with that pick instead.

Benson doctors selected: The three doctors who will perform a psychiatric examination on Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson have been selected, according to various media outlets. But their names and the details of that examination will be kept confidential according to a judge’s ruling.

New Orleans Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese ruled earlier in the month that Benson, 87, would have to be evaluated by a trio of physicians to determine if there is any merit to a lawsuit filed by Benson’s estranged daughter and grandchildren to challenge his mental capacity. Each side was to select a doctor, and they were to agree upon the third. Reese said the report was to completed by March 13.

Boo Williams’ struggle with depression: Former Saints tight end Boo Williams was among those featured in ESPN NFL writer Jim Trotter’s powerful story about former players who struggle with depression. Williams opened up about the time he nearly committed suicide in 2010.

Saints hire communications director: The Saints hired Fitz Ollison as their new senior director of communications. Ollison spent the past seven years with the Miami Dolphins. Before that, he spent time with FOX Sports, the San Francisco 49ers and the Detroit Lions. Ollison replaces longtime football communications director Doug Miller, who left earlier this month to work for The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Blake Williams back in Louisiana: Blake Williams, the former Saints assistant coach and son of former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, was hired this week as defensive coordinator at Southeastern Louisiana.
METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints have several major roster decisions to make before the start of the new league year and free-agent signing period on March 10. For starters, they must trim somewhere between $20 million and $30 million in salary-cap space (most of which will be accomplished by converting roster bonuses into signing bonuses).

Here’s the latest in a series of 10 of the most burning questions the Saints have to answer:

[+] EnlargeJunior Galette
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesJunior Galette is the Saints' top pass rusher.
The question: Will Junior Galette’s pending roster bonus be affected by legal issues?

Galette is due a fully-guaranteed $12.5 million roster bonus on March 12. The Saints were almost certainly planning to convert that to a signing bonus instead, so the salary-cap cost could be spread out over the final five years of Galette’s contract. That simple tweak would save a much-needed $10 million against New Orleans’ 2015 cap.

But it remains to be seen if any of that could be complicated by Galette’s recent legal issues (a domestic violence charge was dismissed by the Kenner city attorney’s office, but a civil suit alleging years of abuse is pending).

Galette still could face a suspension by the NFL if the league finds any wrongdoing in its own separate investigation. But it’s unlikely the Saints will be able to predict that with certainty by the start of the new league year on March 10.

The answer: Most likely, the Saints will go forward as planned, converting Galette’s roster bonus to a signing bonus and leaving the rest of his contract untouched (he has five years and $40.65 million remaining on the deal).

It’s not out of the question that the Saints would consider releasing Galette if they’ve found any fault with his actions. But that seems even less likely now that he’s not facing any criminal charges. And I’m not certain if the Saints would have any recourse if they wanted to try and get out of the guaranteed money due Galette under the current circumstances.

If the Saints remain committed to Galette, he’s a key part of their young defense, which was so good in 2013 and so bad in 2014. He’s New Orleans’ best pass rusher (22 sacks over the past two season), and he was elected a captain last year by teammates. But like everyone else on defense, Galette battled inconsistency – overpursuing at times, which led to breakdowns in run defense. And he received a lot of backlash for making dismissive comments about the Saints’ former defensive leaders.

Even before he was arrested in early January, Galette stressed that last season had taught him to be humble. The Saints will need to see a commitment to that pledge, especially at a time when they’ve stressed the importance of maturity and leadership in the locker room.

Saints in search of a pass-rusher

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25

ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter Mike Triplett discusses the team's search for a pass-rusher.
Take a listen to this week's NFL Nation TV podcast as the crew breaks down the lessons it learned from last week's NFL combine in Indianapolis, as well as the latest in the push for bringing the NFL to Los Angeles.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) are joined by four other NFL Nation reporters.

Eric Williams (San Diego Chargers reporter) joins to give an idea of how feasible it would be for the Raiders and Chargers to share a stadium in Southern California. Pat Yasinskas (Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter) discusses why he thinks Jameis Winston is all but a lock to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Rich Cimini (New York Jets reporter) breaks down which direction the Jets will go with the No. 6 overall draft pick. Will they go with a quarterback? Defense? Receiver? Paul Kuharsky (Tennessee Titans reporter) weighs with his thoughts on where the Titans will turn at No. 2 if Winston is off the board.

Be sure to watch NFL Nation TV live on at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT each Tuesday, and be sure to give the show's a podcast a listen following each taping.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints have several major roster decisions to make before the start of the new league year and free-agent signing period on March 10. For starters, they must trim somewhere between $20 and $30 million in salary-cap space (most of which will be accomplished by converting roster bonuses into signing bonuses).

Here’s the latest in a series of 10 of the most burning questions the Saints have to answer:

The question: Who will be the Saints’ center?

Last year’s starter, Jonathan Goodwin, is 36 years old and an unrestricted free agent. The Saints could bring him back on another one-year deal. They could turn to third-year apprentice Tim Lelito. Or they could look for an upgrade in free agency or the draft.

Goodwin was decent last season and looked like he had discovered the fountain of youth in training camp while beating out Lelito for the job. But then he started battling a variety of minor injuries throughout the season, which led to some ups and downs as both a pass protector and run blocker.

The Saints seem to value Goodwin’s veteran experience since they continued to plug him in as the starter despite the injuries. But coach Sean Payton listed the interior offensive line as the Saints’ No. 2 "must" for this offseason, so change will likely come somewhere in the starting lineup.

The answer: Goodwin is the most likely starter to be replaced. But a lot will depend on what the Saints decide to do with veteran guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, both of whom could be in line for releases or pay cuts.

If the Saints keep both Evans and Grubbs, it’s hard to imagine them spending big on a center in free agency. However, if they release Evans or Grubbs, they could consider investing in a center and sliding Lelito into the starting lineup at guard instead.

One way or another, the Saints absolutely must start developing younger talent throughout the interior offensive line -- whether that’s through the draft or a younger free-agent investment. Because all three of their current starters will need to be replaced within the next year or two.

The top free agent centers include Oakland’s Stefen Wisniewski, Kansas City’s Rodney Hudson, and former Saints starter Brian de la Puente. De la Puente wouldn’t appear to be a top option, since the Saints let him get away for cheap last year without putting up a fight in free agency. Then again, perhaps they regretted that decision after their interior line play dropped off.

NFL Nation TV wraps up the combine

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT for NFL Nation TV's Spreecast as we return from a one-week hiatus for episode No. 45 with a decidedly combine feel.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by four other NFL Nation reporters throughout the show.

Eric Williams (San Diego Chargers reporter) and Gutierrez will attempt to make sense of the notion that the Chargers and Raiders, who have both called Los Angeles home in the past and have been fierce rivals since their AFL inception, could share a stadium in nearby Carson.

Pat Yasinkas (Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter) will also let us know what the Buc's might do with the No. 1 overall pick after James Winston's showing at the combine.

Staying with the QB vibe, Rich Cimini (New York Jets reporter) will give us an update on what he thinks Gang Green will do at No. 6 overall in the draft if both Winston and Marcus Mariota are off the board.

And Paul Kuharsky (Tennessee Titans reporter) opines on what the Titans might do at No. 2 overall, go with one of the QBs or perhaps rising USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams, or might they go in an entirely different direction?

Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.

Two of the most dynamic performances at the NFL scouting combine could be of particular interest to the New Orleans Saints.

Clemson pass rusher Vic Beasley and Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes both dazzled during drills, which could help them crack the top 13 picks in the NFL draft (the Saints pick 13th), unless they land even higher.

Beasley was widely praised as one of the combine’s best overall performers. He turned in the fastest 40-yard dash time of any linebacker or defensive linemen (4.53 seconds), tied for the most reps in the bench press among those position groups (35) and finished third in the vertical jump (41 inches).

Beasley measured in at 6-foot-3, 246 pounds -- up 26 pounds from last spring. That 220-pound weight was my biggest question mark with Beasley when ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. first mocked him to the Saints in January, but he obviously carried the extra pounds well. Beasley will still need to convince NFL teams he’s versatile enough to defend the run and drop back in coverage on occasion. But mix in his combine performance with his college production (a school-record 29 sacks), and he’s a serious prospect.

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay wrote in this Insider post that Beasley solidified himself as a top-25 pick. ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian talked about him as a top-10 prospect on "NFL Insiders."

[+] EnlargeTrae Waynes
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergTrae Waynes' blazing 40 time at the combine makes him an attractive prospect for the Saints at No. 13.
“This guy, he’s gold plated. He’s ready to go,” Polian said, calling Beasley a “four-down defensive end” who might be able to convert to 3-4 linebacker, although he’s more comfortable with his hands down.

“He’s got speed. He can turn speed into power. He’s got length and can turn the corner. He has the ability to get by a blocker and get to the quarterback,” Polian said. “He really helped himself.”

For more on the dynamic group of pass rushers who took turns shining at the combine -- including Kentucky’s Bud Dupree and Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr. -- check out the breakdowns by McShay and ESPN NFL Nation reporter Jeff Legwold.

As for Waynes, the 6-foot, 186-pounder was already hovering as a possible top-15 prospect even before he turned in a blazing 40 time of 4.31 seconds Monday, the second fastest of any player at any position at the entire combine.

McShay said Waynes was his second-best cornerback prospect based solely on game tape, only behind Washington’s Marcus Peters. But Peters comes with more question marks after being kicked off his college team (something he’s been taking ownership of in interviews).

McShay said the lack of elite cornerbacks in Round 1 could bump up the stock of a guy like Waynes even more. He mentions the Minnesota Vikings (11th pick) and Saints as two possible destinations on the high end of his range.

Legwold broke down Waynes' impressive combine performance and also shared some interesting insight on how playing for Michigan State could boost his stock even more in teams' eyes.

Polian was similarly high on Waynes as he was on Beasley.

“When you look at the tape, he’s a complete player,” Polian said of Waynes on “NFL Live.” “He can tackle, he can play the ball. He can play man, he can play zone. The question was how fast was he gonna run. (At 4.31) he’s not gonna be the 14th pick in the draft with that kind of a number, he’s gonna be picked higher than that, and he should be.” reported Monday that the New Orleans Saints were "initially prepared" to release guard Jahri Evans, according to league sources, but they've recently reached out to Evans' camp in an attempt to keep him at a discounted rate.

Evans, 31, has two years left on his deal, but he's due a whopping $7.5 million in salary and bonuses this year.

[+] EnlargeJahri Evans
Duane Burleson/AP PhotoSix-time Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans is among a select group of Saints' veterans who are facing possible release or a drastic pay cut.
The report isn't a huge surprise, since it sounds like pretty typical negotiating tactics. And it's been widely noted that Evans' salary sticks out like a sore thumb for a team with significant salary-cap constraints. The Saints have to create some sort of leverage if they want him to agree to a pay cut -- which they likely will attempt, even though I've gotten no indication they've made any specific request yet.

However, the report is noteworthy if the Saints truly are considering the extreme option of releasing their six-time Pro Bowler and longtime centerpiece of their offensive line. As I've written before, I still think that would be a big surprise -- even though Evans has clearly started to regress in recent years.

Evans showed inconsistency in pass protection last season (three rough games against Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Atlanta marred his season). And he's battled a variety of nagging injuries over the past two years. But he has still played very well at times, especially as a run blocker.

More importantly, the Saints don't have any in-house candidates waiting to replace him, and they can't be guaranteed of finding an upgrade for cheaper in free agency.

If I'm in Evans' camp, I'd be tempted to "call the Saints' bluff" and refuse a pay cut for those reasons. I think Evans is less vulnerable than receiver Marques Colston, by comparison (I think Colston must accept a pay cut to stay in New Orleans). And in the worst-case scenario, Evans should still be able to command a good contract from another team if he winds up on the open market.

Then again, there's no way Evans would make $7.5 million from another team on the open market. So the mere threat of a release might be enough for him to agree to a discount.

Stay tuned. Whether or not Evans is part of the solution, the Saints will certainly have to release or work out pay cuts with a handful of veterans before the start of the new league year on March 10.

The Saints aren't in as much salary-cap trouble as it appears on the surface (they can shave more than $20 million off their cap with some simple bonus restructures). But some sacrifices will have to be made for them to shave another $5 to $10 million.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints have several major roster decisions to make before the start of the new league year and free-agent signing period on March 10. For starters, they must trim somewhere between $20 and $30 million in salary-cap space (most of which will be accomplished by converting roster bonuses into signing bonuses).

Here’s the latest in a series of the most burning questions the Saints have to answer:

The question: Should the Saints extend Cameron Jordan's contract?

[+] EnlargeCameron Jordan
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsCameron Jordan is heading into the final year of his contract.
Jordan, 25, has one year left on his contract at a price tag and salary-cap cost of $6.969 million.

Sean Payton said last week that he doesn’t expect the Saints to work out a contract extension with quarterback Drew Brees, who has two years left on his deal. But perhaps it would make more sense to extend Jordan, since he’s heading into his final year.

By extending Jordan, the Saints could structure the deal so that it lowers his 2015 cap cost. They could also lock up one of their core young players long-term.

The answer: An extension makes a ton of sense. But the hard part will be determining Jordan's value. Jordan's camp might be willing to bet on a bounce-back season and a chance at a monster pay day in 2016.

For that reason, I’ll predict it doesn’t get done. But I think it should. Even if Jordan doesn’t come at a discounted rate right now, his price tag will only go up if he plays at his potential in 2015.

Two years ago, Jordan had 12.5 sacks, made his first Pro Bowl and became widely recognized as one of the top young defensive linemen in the NFL. Last year, however, Jordan dropped down to 7.5 sacks, and his production was far too inconsistent for a defense that badly regressed across the board.

However, the Saints are likely still high on Jordan’s potential. He’s always been excellent against the run, and he’s shown great versatility to play both inside and outside in various defensive schemes. The Saints like to reinvest in their homegrown talent, and Jordan has been one of their most successful draft picks, coming in the first round in 2011.

For comparison’s sake, some of the top defensive ends who signed multiyear deals last year in free agency fell in the $7 million to $8.5 million range (Michael Johnson, Michael Bennett, Everson Griffen and Lamarr Houston). The Saints signed pass-rusher Junior Galette to a four-year, $41.5 million extension, but that deal averaged out to $7.5 million over six years since he still had two years remaining on his previous deal.

That seems like the right neighborhood for Jordan though his asking price will likely be on the higher end, especially as the NFL’s salary cap continues to escalate.
Jeff Ireland hit the ground running when he joined the New Orleans Saints as their college scouting director last month. He had to since he had some catching up to do.

The former Miami Dolphins general manager was out of football last season. So while Ireland said, “I watched a lot of football during my time off,” he said he wasn’t writing official reports on prospects.

But Ireland told the Saints’ website during this week’s scouting combine in Indianapolis that general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton “have been great just kind of letting me do my thing.”

“It’s been quite a bit of a process, because I wasn’t in football until January,” said Ireland, who said he’s been running the Saints’ college meetings since then. “So this process has been a grind because we’ve been, one, familiarizing myself with the players, but also getting them right on the board.

“We’re trying to separate the men from the boys right now and trim the board from the guys that fit the traits that we’re looking for. So the scouts have been outstanding.”

Ireland and Payton are familiar with each other from their time with the Dallas Cowboys under coach Bill Parcells (they were both there from 2004-2006, Payton as an assistant coach and Ireland as a top scout). Ireland has never worked with Loomis before.

However, Loomis and Ireland have both said that having people with different backgrounds and opinions is a plus.

“Well, debate is healthy,” Ireland said. “In any kind of draft room, debate is always going to be healthy. I know what I’m looking for in players, and Sean and Mickey know what they’re looking for. And so we’re trying to marry that together.

“And obviously those voices count a lot more than mine. But I’m going to debate the process, because I’ve seen certain things in my career that may have worked. And it’s just trying to find out what we’re looking for and really not worrying about what everybody else is looking for. It’s what the Saints need.”

The Saints’ website posted interviews with both Ireland and pro scouting director Terry Fontenot, who has taken on a larger role since player personnel director Ryan Pace left to become general manager of the Chicago Bears.

Though Fontenot is primarily in charge of pro scouting -- the area that actually takes center stage sooner with free agency coming up next month -- he stressed that both he and Ireland will cross over into both departments at times.

Fontenot said it was “humbling” to hear that Loomis predicted Fontenot will also be a future GM. But he said those opportunities come with winning -- which is the primary objective right now.

“I think I’ve definitely had more of a voice. When you have a person like Ryan leave, multiple people have to step up. So, yes, we’ve had more of a voice,” Fontenot said. “But, look, we were 7-9 last year. We’re at the combine right now, and 31 teams are disappointed. There’s only one team that’s happy. So moving forward -- character, toughness, intelligence (are the characteristics the Saints look for in a player). We’ve got to bring in the right types of players, starting this offseason, to get back to that point where we’re winning championships.”
Better leadership remains a big focus for the New Orleans Saints after a disappointing 7-9 season.

It was one of the first topics Saints coach Sean Payton brought up this week when asked what led to the Saints’ struggles in an interview with Pro Football Talk. Payton said the Saints could look to players both within and outside the organization to help improve it.

“I think we struggled with some leadership positions. I think, overall, there was a big change when all of a sudden guys like Will Smith, Jon Vilma, Jabari Greer, Malcolm Jenkins, Roman HarperDarren Sproles in one offseason leave. I think the price of that experience and leadership hurt us some," Payton said of former Saints veterans who were either released, traded or unsigned in free agency last year.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsSean Payton will address leadership and maturity issues with the Saints this offseason.
“I think there’s gonna have to be a few guys we look at in free agency," Payton added. "I also think we have a good, young nucleus of players, a good locker room, by and large. And yet you can never take that for granted.”

Concerns about things such as leadership, maturity and professionalism were addressed often by veteran players late last season.

No specific players were singled out as offenders. But some of the complaints were that guys didn’t always have the right energy on game days and that too many players were letting the little things slide, such as being late to meetings or flights.

Payton said this week that the blame lies with him and other leaders of the organization as well.

“I think it’s creating the environment for leadership to flourish,” Payton said. “Sometimes that can be stifled, if you will. I’ve gotta do a better job of creating that environment, certainly better than we did a year ago.”

Payton said leadership was one of the topics discussed by him and general manager Mickey Loomis just one night earlier while they were in Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine.

“That one theme for us has always been finding the tough, smart football players, guys that love playing,” Payton said. “And I think we’ve got that by and large, and yet that leadership element is something, starting with myself and Mickey and all the way down through the club, that we’ve gotta do a better job with. …

“We just keep paying attention to what’s winning. And again, you look at New England, the success they’ve had, the consistency that they’ve done it with. There’s been a formula for them and it’s something we tried to emulate when we first got here in ’06.”

As for the other issues that stymied the Saints in 2014, Payton mentioned too many turnovers on offense, not enough turnovers on defense, being “awful” on third downs on defense and an inability to finish games down the stretch in the fourth quarter.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Well, we lost a number of close games.’ But there’s a reason why,” Payton said. “And that kept repeating itself.”
New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson sent out a letter to season ticket holders Friday. Among other topics, he announced that there will be no increase in ticket prices for 2015 and he thanked fans for their “love and support” during his legal battle with his daughter and grandchildren.

“[Wife] Gayle and I are overwhelmed by the kindness and encouragement you have given us,” Benson said in the letter. “Please know that the future success, continuity and stability of the New Orleans Saints and our Pelicans will always be our first priority and I can assure you I have never been more eager to pursue another championship for you and our great fans across the Gulf South and the world.”

Loomis on scouting changes: Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told the Saints’ website that the team “hasn’t missed a beat” with the transition in the scouting department so far. The Saints hired Jeff Ireland as their college scouting director last month after losing player personnel director Ryan Pace to the Chicago Bears. They also fired former college scouting director Rick Reiprish and lost regional scout Josh Lucas to the Bears. Loomis said pro personnel director Terry Fontenot has taken on a greater role.

“Terry, I knew he was ready for more and he has stepped up, and I would say he’s exceeding expectations,” Loomis said. “And Jeff, who I’ve known for a long time but haven’t worked with before, he has stepped right in and we haven’t missed a beat. And I like the fact that he comes at it from a little different perspective with some different ideas, and I think it’s been real good.”

Miller moving on: Congrats to Doug Miller, the Saints’ longtime executive director of football communications. He left to become vice president of marketing, sponsorship and promotions of The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, where the Saints began holding their training camp last year.

Miller, who joined the Saints in 2007 after 16 years working for the New York Jets, said he accepted “a great promotion with the Saints’ blessing” and is very thankful to the organization. He called The Greenbrier an “iconic resort” and said he plans to “help tell the story of the history and future here.”