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Sean Payton may have had difficulty getting players to report for offseason work two years ago when he arrived in New Orleans. But not anymore.
All but one of his players — defensive end Will Smith — reported for offseason workouts, and while some have needed a few days off here and there, Payton called the attendance "outstanding."
"I've had guys that have had things come up," Payton said, referring to running back Deuce McAllister's wedding last weekend. "I visit with them and discuss with them and they move on and get right back in it. Everyone that I've talked with has been there. I've had one player that hasn't been. Everyone else has been there. It's been encouraging."
Smith is the only straggler. The former first-round pick, who has 33 ½ sacks in his four years in New Orleans, appears to be seeking a long-term deal with the Saints. He has a contract that voids after 2008.
Payton said recently that he spoke to Smith about the situation.
"I think for me, I get more excited about 99.9 percent of the team being there," Payton said. "If any given season there's one player who's not, it's a pretty good offseason program. Will will stay in shape and do what he needs to do to get ready. It's part of what we deal with."
The Saints, Payton said, went out and attacked specific needs this offseason. They didn't spent a lot of money, but they worked to retain their offensive free agents, including running back Aaron Stecker and wide receivers Devery Henderson and Terrance Copper.
On defense, they looked to add talent at key areas, signing cornerback Randall Gay and linebacker Dan Morgan, along with trading a draft pick for New York Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma. The Saints have six selections in this month's draft and the conventional wisdom is that they'll select a cornerback at No. 10 overall.
"We try to be a little judicious in free agency and make sure that the player or players we have an interest in have a fit specifically," Payton said. "They fill not only a positional need, but a need we feel like benefits us with the type of player they are."
Just two seasons after his arrival, the Saints are considered one of the more talented teams in the NFL. Payton said he sought to change everything about the franchise when he arrived — the locker room, the weight room, the training room, the coaching staff, the players and the attitude.
Payton believes the work he and his staff did early in the process, in the wake of that 1-15 season in 2005, helped speed up the franchise's progress.
"What's most important is in that early period to identify and evaluate the current roster correctly," Payton said. "I think that's important. To identify what you're going to do offensively and defensively that fits that current roster and if it doesn't, how quickly will you be able to transition players who don't fit into players that do fit your system. Then usually there'll be a core player or two or three you've had experience with that you've brought in. I was able to sign a guy like Scott Fujita the first year, David Patten last year. These are guys I've been with before that you know also deliver the message. Drew Brees I'd not been with, but he delivers the message and eventually then what was one of those negative locker rooms or so-so locker rooms, you want that to become a positive for you. You want players who want to play."
The Saints have the No. 10 overall pick and will host one of the draft's top linebackers at their practice facility soon. Find out who in this article.
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Matthew Postins is the publisher of Saintsinsider.com. He is an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers Association.