Saints coach Sean Payton speaks out on Jimmy Graham, vast array of team and league issues

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton smiles before an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game in Seattle on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton smiles before an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game in Seattle on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Saints coach Sean Payton’s hour-long session with the media at the annual NFL owner’s meeting in Orlando on Wednesday produced information beat reporters in New Orleans could spend weeks of regular-season news conferences asking to get. Below are some of the highlights.

A few of these touch on topics The Advocate will revisit in future stories.

Jimmy Graham:

(Will the contract negotiations to reach a new long-term contract with All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to replace the now-expired deal he accepted as a Saints rookie in 2010 linger the way they did with quarterback Drew Brees in 2012?)

“It’s hard to put a time table on it. But I would say very similar to Drew’s, all of us felt like it was just a matter of not if but when. … We’re anxious to get it done, and he’s an important part of what we do.” Note: The Brees negotiations in 2012 dragged out until July of that year.

(On the general tone of the negotiations)

“There’s a ton of respect between a guy like (Graham’s agent) Jimmy Sexton and (Saints) General Manager Mickey Loomis. All of those things make it a positive — but difficult at times — process.”

(What if Graham holds out of preseason workouts in the event a deal isn’t done by that point?)

“Younger guys are going to get reps. He’s at a point in his career where he has a good grasp of what we’re doing.”

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) celebrates a touchdown with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) in a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON– New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) celebrates a touchdown with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) in a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013.

Note: Indeed. In 2013, Graham led the Saints in receiving yards with 1,215 and the NFL in touchdown grabs with 16. That was despite battling through foot and elbow injuries for a significant part of the season.

(Are you surprised a tight end like Graham would possibly be interested in wide receiver money?)

“I think that’s a byproduct of a little bit of an antiquated system with regards to franchise numbers. I think those will be, over the years, revisited and adjusted.”

Note: Graham spent most of his time in 2013 lining up out wide for the Saints, but the team handed him a one-year, $7 million franchise tag classifying him as a tight end, the position at which he was drafted and has been to two Pro Bowls.

A franchise tag for a wide receiver is worth $5 million more, and it’s believed he could file a grievance through the players association to be classified as a wideout, given the massive boost in pay that could result in, depending on the decision of a third party.

Graham, though, might not even play under the tag if he and the Saints can agree on a long-term deal before the season starts. The Saints have repeatedly maintained that is their aim.

Possible needs as free agency rolls and draft nears

(Brees is still elite, but he’s 35. When do you look for a successor, and do you do so in the draft?)

“I don’t know that you go into a draft and say, ‘All right, put on your gloves. Here we go. This is it.’ But you are paying attention to that market, that specific position’s market each year because it’s a little bit like that high-end delicatessen item that doesn’t come in every day, and so you’re always waiting to make sure that something’s not on the shelf. I think it’s important to pay attention to that, and we’re fortunate to have a player like Drew.

You always have one or you’re looking for one. And then I think it’s important that constant development or vision of developing one exists.”

Note: Under Brees on the depth chart are veteran backup Luke McCown as well as No. 3 QB Ryan Griffin, a 2013 undrafted rookie from Tulane who Payton said the Saints see a lot of potential in.

(What are some holes there might still be on the roster that can filled in the draft or free agency?)

“You always put a value on corners and pass rushers, defensively. … Those coveted spots, you’re always in the business for. What I mean by that is pass rushers and guys that can cover. It’s a deep draft we think at receiver, so there are a lot of teams that are going to be able to draft maybe a good player there.”

The safeties

(There were lots of three-safety packages last year, when the Saints finished No. 4 in defense overall.)

“It was an answer to the injuries we had at outside linebacker (initially). … Yet there was still some elements that we wanted (so it was kept throughout the year).”

Note: The Saints lost outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler to year-ending knee injuries in the 2013 preseason. They headed into the regular-season opener with three players at the position. That led to then-rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro lining up at various places over the field, in addition to his fellow position mates Malcolm Jenkins (now with Philadelphia) and Roman Harper (now with Carolina).

Carolina Panthers' Ted Ginn (19) is knocked out of bounds by New Orleans Saints' Kenny Vaccaro (32) as they run into Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, back, in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

Carolina Panthers’ Ted Ginn (19) is knocked out of bounds by New Orleans Saints’ Kenny Vaccaro (32) as they run into Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, back, in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

(Stemming from the previous point, it’s apparently not the plan for the hard-hitting Vaccaro to play all over the field in 2014. Payton suggested he’s eager to see him play off new safety Jairus Byrd, who was acquired in free agency and whose 22 interceptions are the most among safeties since he joined the NFL in 2009).

“As for Jairus and Kenny, I think there’s a clear vision of how we want you use them, and that’s important. … Kenny played in a lot of spots last year. I think he’ll play in less of those spots this year. … That vision this year will be a little more clearer.”

(The risk of pursuing an elite free agent such as safety Jairus Byrd, whom the Saints succeeded in signing):

“The risk is just like asking someone out on a date. He might say no, and you have to be comfortable in trying to go after someone and approaching. So Mickey was good during this time.”

Training camp at Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia

(How valuable is it to bond in a less-than-familiar place for a football team?)

“I like that. … I think that’s important, and I think this is a venue that can provide that. It’s separate from a lot of existence. You’ve got to find it really.”

(Optimum conditions there?)

“I don’t want to say optimum conditions because it’s pretty warm anywhere you’re at (that time of year in the country). It’s just a little cooler than the humidity we might get for the full five weeks in Metairie.”

Note: Payton said the Saints will start their 2014 training camp at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.V. and stay there through the second preseason game. They’ll then return to their training facilities in Metairie for the rest of camp. This is different from what a Saints spokesman said earlier, which was that the camp would be at The Greenbrier for a latter portion.

Miscellaneous:

(Reaction to the NFL’s intention to prohibit dunking a football over the crossbar, which has been Jimmy Graham’s post-touchdown celebration):

“I didn’t really think too much of it.”

(Taking care to not overwork Marques Colston, who’s heading into his ninth year in the NFL and with the Saints):

“He played some of his better football late in the season, so he battled some soreness in his foot. That wasn’t easy, but he’s such a target and competitor inside. I think the key is just monitoring his snaps during training camp — the thing you have to start doing with a player like him during the season with regards to practice time.”

Note: Colston caught 75 passes for 943 yards and five touchdowns in 15 regular-season games in 2013. He is the franchise leader in receptions (607), receiving yards (8,337) and receiving touchdowns (63).

(On left tackle Terron Armstead, entering his second year)

“It was nice to have had a chance to evaluate Terron and then see the production we got from him. That clears things up a little bit as you approach the draft as opposed to getting through the season possibly not playing and maybe not having the exposure, too. I think he got better each week.”

Note: Armstead was inserted into the starting line-up after left tackle Charles Brown was benched following a Week 15 loss at St. Louis. He played four games, including two playoff contests. Brown is a free agent at the moment.

(on former quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi, now the offensive coordinator in Detroit):

“I think he’ll do well, especially with his success and track record in New Orleans, the wins, and the playoffs, those experiences will do well. I think it’s just — I’ve just been in his position before, and when you come in as a young coordinator or play-caller, I think the players are really interested in winning and can you help us do that. I think very quickly he’ll answer that question.”

Note: Lombardi became the Saints’ QB coach in 2009, at the end of which the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV. When he left in January for his job in Detroit, Brees had posted three of his four 5,000-yard seasons. The Saints went to the playoffs in four of the five campaigns Lombardi was QB coach, which are the experiences Payton alluded to.

(Would Saints players be open to a gay teammate?)

“(Former NFL coach Bill) Parcells said it best last year. He said winning teams and winning locker rooms open (up) to players of all diversity. They really do. It can help them win. Their doors are wide open. They tend to push out those players they feel like can’t help them win. …

“As an organization and as a locker room, we look at diversity to include a gay football player. I just know how our locker room is, and it’s something we spend time on : the respect of others and the mission statement being winning. And if those things are pointed in the right direction, then the other stuff is not that important really.”

Note: Such questions have been asked at virtually all NFL-related gatherings ever since draft prospect Michael Sam came out in February. He is trying to become the first openly gay player to make the NFL.