Sean Payton: Saints beat Panthers to punch for unsung QB late in draft

How the Saints snagged Tommy Stevens away from a rival (1:57)

Mike Triplett details how the Saints swooped back into the seventh round and drafted QB Tommy Stevens, who was planning to sign with the Panthers. (1:57)

METAIRIE, La. -- The rivalry between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers extended into the late seventh round of this year's NFL draft.

Coach Sean Payton gave a behind-the-scenes breakdown to The Athletic of how the Saints decided to swoop in and draft quarterback/flex player Tommy Stevens before he had the chance to sign with Carolina as an undrafted free agent.

"There's no way I was going to lose this kid," Payton said of the former Mississippi State and Penn State quarterback who was often compared to the Saints' versatile Taysom Hill leading up to the draft.

"We know the role. We invented the role."

The Saints originally did not have a seventh-round pick. In fact, they didn't have any picks in Rounds 4-7 after trading up to select Dayton tight end Adam Trautman at the end of Round 3.

So they spent most of their Saturday trying to identify and recruit the undrafted rookies they wanted to sign. Stevens was high on their priority list. He became even more of a priority once they found out Stevens had agreed to join the Panthers if he wasn't drafted.

Stevens had previously worked with new Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady when Brady was a graduate assistant at Penn State. And Brady, of course, used to work as an offensive assistant with the Saints -- which added to the intrigue of this bidding war.

"It became my project," said Payton, who said the Saints first offered to match Carolina's offer (a $15,000 signing bonus and $30,000 of Stevens' salary guaranteed).

Then Payton said the Saints tried upping the offer to $144,000 of the salary guaranteed. But Stevens and agent Buddy Baker didn't budge because Stevens wanted to honor his commitment to Carolina.

So the Saints decided to outflank the Panthers by trading their 2021 sixth-round pick to the Houston Texans for a seventh-rounder this year. They took Stevens with the 240th overall pick.

According to Payton, he sent one text to Brady that said, "Not so fast," and another to Stevens and Baker that said, "I'm tired of asking. Now, I'm taking."

"There's a little bit of competitive juices flying between me and Sean about, 'We want this player. And we're not gonna let anybody take him from us. We're gonna take him from them,'" Saints assistant general manager/college scouting director Jeff Ireland said on the team's daily podcast. Payton said he understood why Stevens wanted to honor his commitment to Carolina.

"I said, 'Honestly, I was having some fun,'" Payton said. "'You had given your word and I respect that. But we weren't going to lose you. You were going to become a Saint.'"

After the draft, Payton explained that the Saints see Stevens as both a developmental QB and someone they could use as a tight end or on special teams, much like they have used Hill in recent years.

The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder threw for 1,155 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions during an injury-riddled season as a graduate transfer with Mississippi State last year. He ran for 381 yards and four TDs.