METAIRIE, La. — Sean Payton stood inside the Saints’ indoor practice facility at the team’s Metairie headquarters Monday, facing TV cameras and reporters’ questions one last time before publicly putting the 2013 season to bed.
Yet his focus was squarely on the future and, in his eyes, it’s a bright one.
“Honestly the window, as long as I am the head coach here, we are trying to slam it open always,” Payton said.
He has reason to believe as much when looking at the roster. At least, those inside the locker room believe so and a large part of the optimism comes from just how young this team was.
The final roster of the season included 11 rookies and 24 total players with no more than three years of NFL experience. Including those on injured reserve, it bumps to 12 and 28. And of those 28, 13 players had a significant role on game days.
“I think there’s a youth movement,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “I think there’s a lot more younger players on this team than people realize.”
Like the group that came to New Orleans in 2006, this collection could be setting the team on another path to sustained success.
They helped win 12 games, were part of the franchise’s first road playoff win and participated in two postseason games, all experiences that will help in the next few years.
“It’s good to have that, for sure, a young hungry bunch of guys that have a little bit of success early on and disappointment as well, being in the playoffs and losing the way that we did,” receiver Lance Moore said.
That list includes receiver Kenny Stills, who was third on the team with 641 yards receiving and tied for second with five touchdowns. His 20 yard-per-catch average was best in the NFL for those registering an average of two catches per game.
Kenny Vaccaro became one of the defense’s strongest assets. He was third on the team with 77 tackles, third in pass defenses (seven) and had one sack, three quarterback hits, an interception and a forced fumble in his rookie campaign.
Terron Armstead, meanwhile, was inserted in the penultimate game of the season at left tackle. After an initial half of struggles, he acclimated to the speed of the NFL game and became critical to the offense’s success over the final three weeks, including two road playoff games.
And those are just the rookies. Also included in the youth movement are defensive end Cameron Jordan, hybrid linebacker-end Junior Galette, running back Mark Ingram and safety Rafael Bush.
“I think when you play significant amount of snaps and significant games like those guys did, there’s not going to be too many things that surprise you,” inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said.
The team is oldest at receiver, where the average age is 27 and the average years of experience is 5.8 when including this past season. The defense is youngest along the defensive line, where the average age is 25.2 and the average years of experience is 3.5.
“That’s big because you like to believe the system they’re in and the coaching they have and the talent level that they have, they’re only going to get better and therefore this team is only going to get better,” quarterback Drew Brees said.
There’s one more critical factor in the youth of the team helping the team in the years to come, Strief said.
“The more guys you can have in their rookie deal playing and contribute at a high level, the better your team is going to be,” he said. “The more guys you have to lean on that are veterans, the harder it’s going to be to put 53 people on a roster that are good enough to be there because of the cap.
“That’s the reality of it.”