METAIRE, La. – Junior Galette was the most notorious example of the New Orleans Saints cleaning house in 2015, when they released the young pass-rusher because of off-field issues. But he wasn’t the only one.
When Galette returns to the Superdome on Sunday with the Washington Redskins, he won’t recognize much of the Saints’ roster, coaching staff or front office.
The Saints have made sweeping changes since the end of the 2014 season -- the first of their three straight 7-9 seasons -- when they admitted that things like character and locker room culture had become a problem for maybe the first time in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. They also decided they needed to get younger, draft better and rebuild the defense and the offensive line.
Only eight players on New Orleans’ current 53-man roster played a snap with them before 2015 and have remained on the team since (Brees, RB Mark Ingram, OT Terron Armstead, G Senio Kelemete, TE Josh Hill, DE Cameron Jordan, S Kenny Vaccaro and P Thomas Morstead -- plus right tackle Zach Strief, who is on injured reserve).
It might feel like the Payton-Brees era has lasted for 12 years. But there was a definite rebuild that started after that 2014 season -- and has been paying big dividends during this 7-2 season.
“Yeah, I would say in the last two years we probably went from being one of the older teams to one of the youngest teams,” Payton said. “I think it’s happened gradually. I don’t think there was that one meeting where (we said), ‘Hey in the next two or three years ...’ But certainly, going back two and half years ago, it was looking closely at our draft, the process, the evaluation. How we’re evaluating and how we’re grading players, prototypes and all those things.”
“I’d say obviously we value character, intelligence and toughness,” said Brees, who made no bones about the Saints having “better guys” in the locker room in 2015. “I think those are the three most important ingredients when you talk about getting the right type of guys to build a team. A team that can withstand anything. Withstand adversity and fight through the tough times, know how to handle success and enjoy doing it together all at the same time, really care about one another and be able to accomplish something great.
“I think we’ve learned a lot over the last three or four years. Obviously those three seasons that we were 7-9, I felt like there were some missed opportunities there. I also felt like we weren’t a very mature team and weren’t a team that understood how to win or how to approach the day to day. I think we lacked a lot of that. I think that we’ve gradually gained that back as we’ve gotten to this season.”
Payton was quick to credit assistant general manager Jeff Ireland, who was hired to lead an overhaul of the college scouting staff in 2015 and has overseen some terrific draft classes since – especially this year’s, led by rookie starters Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams and Alvin Kamara.
The Saints also have overhauled the entire defensive coaching staff, with coordinator Dennis Allen replacing the fired Rob Ryan during the 2015 season and assistants Aaron Glenn, Mike Nolan and Ryan Nielsen being hired since then.
Not all of the Saints’ roster moves were about character. For instance, their two biggest blockbuster trades (sending Jimmy Graham to Seattle and Brandin Cooks to New England) were designed to take highly coveted assets they felt like they could replace and use the ammo to rebuild the defense and offensive lines.
Center Max Unger, who arrived in the Graham trade, has become the leader of New Orleans’ standout offensive line. And the rookie Ramczyk, whom they drafted with the pick acquired in the Cooks trade, has been an invaluable replacement for Strief this year.
“Sean and the rest of the staff always say that they’re looking for the ‘right 53,’” Armstead said. “The most character guys first and foremost that fit the locker room, that fit what we do. And if you can’t fit that, then your talent level doesn’t really matter. And I definitely feel like they’ve made even more focus or emphasis on that.
“This locker room is the best I’ve ever been a part of. It’s always been a good locker room. But this year is just fun -- and winning has a lot to do with that. It’s a great environment.”
“There’s been a lot of turnover, but I wouldn’t rather have another group of guys than the ones here right now,” Ingram said. “Not saying anything about anybody that has gone -- some great players and great people have left. ... But there’s just something different about this team.”