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Sean Payton’s Departure Will Be Felt Throughout the NFL

From New Orleans to the NFC South to the entire league, the coach’s decision to step down will reverberate far and wide

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One season without Drew Brees was enough for Sean Payton. After 16 years in New Orleans—15 of those spent coaching the future Hall of Fame quarterback—Payton stepped down from his post as Saints head coach Tuesday.

Given the team’s tenuous cap situation and the major question marks at quarterback, now’s a great time for Payton to bolt, but that doesn’t make the news any less jarring: One of the NFL’s perennial contenders just lost its coach, and this news could shift the landscape of the league. Let’s take a look at all the potential ripple effects of Payton’s decision.

A Teardown and Rebuild Make Even More Sense for the Saints

Because the Saints treat cap space like the Rams treat draft picks, New Orleans will be entering another offseason with no money to spend. Actually, “no money” would be considered an upgrade over the Saints’ current financial situation. According to Over the Cap, the team is projected to be $74 million over the 2022 salary cap. For another team, that would ordinarily be cause for concern, but this is just what the Saints do. They’ve been in proverbial “cap hell” for nearly a decade now—here’s a blog from 2015 about the team’s cap issues—but every year, things turn out just fine, thanks in large part to general manager Mickey Loomis and his contract wizard Khai Harley.

But the Saints’ front office shouldn’t be asking whether it’s possible to wriggle their way out of another tight spot. The question is whether they should. As reporter Nick Underhill explains, the team can get its 2022 cap situation tightened up by simply restructuring the contracts of several key players:

Of course, restructuring those deals would also require New Orleans to commit more money to those players down the road. Signing up for more years of Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Cameron Jordan, and Taysom Hill sounds like a solid plan, but Kamara is a running back with declining production, Thomas just missed an entire season, Jordan is 32, and, um, the other guy is Taysom Hill. Mortgaging the future to keep this core intact made sense when the Saints were competing for Super Bowls every season, but that window for this group has now shut. Payton was the secret sauce holding everything together since Brees’s decline in play and eventual retirement, and now he’s gone.

Payton’s coaching staff remains for now, and if the Saints do decide to promote from within, that could change this conversation. Let’s say veteran offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, who has been with the Saints since 2006, gets that promotion. The front office could decide to stay the course with Jameis Winston in the hope of building on the decent foundation he put together in his first season as the starter. Adding Thomas to a receiving corps that lacked talent could be enough to revive the passing game—if Carmichael can just do an adequate impression of Payton as a play-caller, that is. Pair that with Dennis Allen’s defense, which finished third in DVOA, and running things back one last time doesn’t sound like a terrible option.

How the Saints approach the search for their next coach could reveal how they plan to attack the offseason, as well.

New Orleans Could Put Some Talented Players on the Trade Block

If the Saints take the more responsible route and disband a talented roster, the offseason trade market will be a lot more fun. I doubt they are going to part ways with young, foundational players like Thomas, Marshon Lattimore, and Marcus Davenport, but older players (Malcolm Jenkins, Demario Davis, and Jordan), or ones who play more expendable positions (Kamara and Hill) could be shopped for both cap relief and draft capital to aid the rebuilding effort. Those five players won’t flip the fortunes of a franchise, but they could serve as missing pieces for contenders. There will always be a market for talented vets who come from successful locker rooms.

The free-agent class should also get a boost if the Saints start over. Star left tackle Terron Armstead needs a new deal and would be the top tackle available if he were to hit the market. Safety Marcus Williams will be harder to keep around after the team used the franchise tag on him a year ago. And Winston may be able to parlay his early-season success into a nice payday—quarterbacks usually do. The good news is the team won’t be left empty-handed if those three do end up signing for big money elsewhere. Assuming New Orleans doesn’t turn around and burn that freed-up money, it would be in line for a nice haul of compensatory draft picks, which the league awards to teams raided in free agency.

Payton’s Availability Will Loom Over the 2022 Season (and Maybe the Coaching Carousel, Too)

It doesn’t seem like Payton will coach next year, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have an impact on the season. Any coach already on the hot seat—Mike McCarthy in Dallas and Matt Rhule in Carolina, for instance—is feeling a little more heat now that an elite head coach is on the market. The same goes for any coach on shaky ground. An opportunity to land a leader with Payton’s résumé and team-building experience doesn’t come around too often.

Payton says his heart isn’t in coaching right now, but what if a high-profile team comes along and offers a lot of money? If Jerry Jones wakes up tomorrow and decides he wants to hire Payton, I’m sure it could be arranged. Sure, the Cowboys have already committed to bringing McCarthy back for another season, but things have changed since then. From Payton’s perspective, the opportunity to coach Dak Prescott—who may be this generation’s Brees in terms of playing style—would be awfully hard to turn down.

The Giants and Bears both have head-coaching vacancies, and they should at least gauge Payton’s interest before making their hires. He made his name as an offensive coordinator in New York, went to high school in Illinois, starred at Eastern Illinois, and played as a scab for the Bears during the 1987 lockout. I don’t know how sentimental of a guy Payton is, but both teams can play that card.

What About Taysom Hill?

He didn’t just lose a coach. Hill lost his biggest supporter. Payton had more faith in his 31-year-old quarterback of the future than I’ve had in anything in my life. He compared him to Hall of Famer Steve Young and boldly claimed last offseason that 31 teams would be interested in trading for him if given the chance. Payton even got him a sweet new contract extension this past season. And when Hill finally got his chance to lead the team after Winston’s season-ending injury, he repaid his coach’s faith by, well, playing some bad football and helping the Saints miss the playoffs for the first time in five years.

Now Payton’s gone and the Saints are stuck with a raw quarterback with a long history of injuries and a short track record of success. Hill doesn’t have an impressive arm, he takes a lot of sacks, and he rarely turns down an opportunity to fumble. If the Saints aren’t willing to start him at quarterback—and they weren’t before Winston went down—I doubt any team will.

New Orleans could try to repackage him as a Swiss army knife who can play tight end, fullback, and even the odd snap at quarterback—a role he played quite well before being forced to start under center. A team might be willing to trade for that. There’s just one problem: Hill has a $9 million roster bonus due on March 18, and his 2023 salary ($9.9 million) fully guarantees on the same day. That’s a steep price for a player without a clearly defined position.

Maybe Payton was right and teams will be lining up to trade for Hill next month, but it’s looking like he’ll be in New Orleans for at least one more season.

The NFC South Just Got a Lot Easier to Win, Tom

If the allure of winning one last Super Bowl is the main obstacle preventing Tom Brady from finally retiring, Payton’s announcement has to be good news for the Buccaneers. Their path to next year’s Super Bowl looks a lot clearer after Tuesday.

With Payton gone and the Saints in decline, the NFC South could be the league’s least competitive division. The Falcons finished the 2021 season ranked 30th in DVOA and are headed for a rebuild of their own. The Panthers can’t get out of their own way and have been running in place for the past three years. Brady could skip out on the first half of the season and still win this division. Those six free wins could make all the difference in the race for home-field advantage, which is an even bigger deal with the new playoff format, which includes one first-round bye per conference.

Fans in Carolina and Atlanta can rejoice now that Payton and his unstoppable offense are finally out of the division, but his departure may lead to one more year of getting stomped by Brady and the Bucs. It’s not the worst trade-off.