Payton said the Saints actually went into the free-agent market looking closely at the guard position, which remains an “important” position for them after they didn’t find the right fit.
Payton also listed a pass rusher and a three-technique tackle as “musts” for the Saints this offseason, though he said they may look to the draft to address them.
“If you said before free agency, ‘Do you think you’ll sign a free agent tight end? I would’ve thought, ‘Nah,’” Payton said during his news conference at the NFL meetings Wednesday in Boca Raton, Florida.
But when Fleener was available, Payton said he loved the fit and the vision for him.
“We had to look closely at him because of his age,” Payton said of the 27-year-old former Indianapolis Colt. “I said to [general manager Mickey Loomis], ‘Look, I’ve got a vision that’s very, very clear for him.'”
New Orleans then went on to address one of its bigger needs in the second wave of free agency by loading up on linebackers James Laurinaitis, Nate Stupar and Craig Robertson.
But Payton acknowledged that the Saints still have some glaring holes to fill – starting with a woeful defense that shattered NFL records last year for touchdown passes allowed in a season (45) and highest opponents’ passer rating (116.1).
“I like the makeup and the culture right now of our guys,” Payton said of the defense. “We just need to add more of them.”
When asked if the necessary improvement can be made in one offseason, Payton said, “I think we have a chance to. We’re gonna try.”
“We need to find somebody that can rush the passer, I think we can find that in this draft. We need to find help in that defensive front seven, and I think we can find that in this draft,” Payton said. “There’s that proverbial ‘must-needs-want’ list. There’s a few musts here on that side of the ball, three-technique, pass rusher. There’s still a need for safety.
“But I think we can [improve], and it certainly can’t be where it was last year.”
The Saints are also thin at guard. They like young players Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete, who are penciled in as the starters right now. But they will keep considering options in free agency and the draft.
Payton said the vision for last year’s first-round draft pick, Andrus Peat, is still to play him at tackle instead of guard, even though they have veterans Terron Armstead and Zach Strief at tackle. But Payton stressed that, “as we work through this process of free agency and the draft, we still want to have the flexibility to get our best five on the field.”
He also said the team would like to bring back running back Tim Hightower, who remains unsigned.
And Payton warned not to “count on” the fact the Saints will let restricted free agent tight end Josh Hill get away after Hill signed a three-year offer sheet with the Chicago Bears, which a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan is worth up to $7.5 million. Payton said he and Loomis planned to discuss whether to match the offer in the required five-day window.
The problem with that wish list or “must” list is that the Saints are virtually out of salary-cap space after agreeing to deals with Laurinaitis and Robertson that have not been processed yet.
They will need to either let Hill go, hurry up and extend quarterback Drew Brees' contract to provide some cap relief or figure out another way to carve out more cap space.