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Saints' Sean Payton knows Jimmy Graham trade is tough for Drew Brees

Speaking publicly about the Jimmy Graham trade for the first time Monday, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said he knows it’s especially tough for quarterback Drew Brees. But Payton said it’s up to the coaches to make up for the loss.

Payton spoke during the NFL owners meetings with Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, who asked what Brees’ reaction was. Payton didn’t answer directly, though he acknowledged that it’s difficult for Brees to lose such a valued and familiar target.

“I think it’s tough. Especially -- and Drew’s been, shoot for nine years now, he’s played with a lot of different receivers, a lot of different tight ends,” Payton said. “And what’s lost a little bit is there’s an energy that’s required when you’re the quarterback and you’re watching film with these players and working on certain routes. And so it’s difficult.

“And yet, from a bigger picture standpoint, you’re wanting to play better defense and reduce the amount of points you may need to score to win a game. So losing players like that … those are always difficult. But they impact a quarterback, especially when it’s a tight end like Jimmy Graham. And now it’s our job as coaches to find additional targets. And we feel like we got one in (pass-catching running back) CJ Spiller, who’s a completely different position but nonetheless a playmaker when the ball’s in his hands.”

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said earlier Monday that no one player will replace Graham’s production, but the Saints are confident that a group of players including running backs Mark Ingram and Spiller, tight ends Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill and receiver Brandin Cooks can all be part of the solution.

Payton echoed Loomis’ comments that the Saints feel like their offense has always been a strength over the past nine years with Payton and Brees -- and that they felt they could use assets like Graham to help shore up other weaknesses, including the defense.

Last year, neither side of the ball was perfect for a Saints team that finished a disappointing 7-9. But the offense still ranked first in the NFL in yards gained while the defense ranked 31st in yards allowed.

The Saints sent Graham and a fourth-round draft pick to the Seattle Seahawks for center Max Unger and a first-round pick, while also freeing up some future salary-cap space just one year into Graham’s four-year, $40 million contract.

“What’s unique this year is there have been a few trades,” Payton said of a busy Saints offseason that has also included the trade of guard Ben Grubbs for a draft pick and receiver Kenny Stills for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a draft pick -- among other free agent comings and goings that Payton said are more common to the Saints’ history.

“Of course it’s a significant trade when you’re trading a guy like Jimmy Graham, who’s a Pro Bowl player,” Payton said. “It’s really looking at, hey, where are those areas where we feel like we need to improve, where are those 'must' areas, and then where are the assets that we feel we can do that? Mickey and I discussed this trade for, shoot, a week leading up to it. And we really felt strongly it was gonna require the player, Max Unger, but also a first-round pick.

“And so, you don’t go in skeptical with something like that, because typically there aren’t a lot of trades with players like that. And yet with Seattle for about a week it was able to work out. So we gotta look at, ‘How do we improve our defense, how do we improve certain weaknesses of our team?’ You don’t ever want to lose a player like Jimmy, and yet we feel like this gives us an opportunity to do that.”