As the NFL playoffs draw near along with the 2023 offseason, one of the league's worst-kept secrets involves longtime Saints coach Sean Payton, and his anticipated return to the game. Ever since stepping away from his post atop New Orleans' staff last January, Payton has broadcast the possibility of resuming a role on the sidelines.
With three jobs already open and more set to open soon, which teams might actually be willing to hire Payton, 59, who spent 2022 in the broadcast studio for Fox? The answer is more complicated than it appears; because Payton remains under contract with the Saints, it's likely that a 2023 return would either involve him reclaiming New Orleans' top job from Dennis Allen, or another team acquiring him from the Saints for draft-pick compensation.
With that in mind, here's an early look at the most logical suitors for Payton, as well as whether each team would be willing to part with its 2023 first-round pick to land the Super Bowl-winning coach:
Projected 2023 first-rounder: No. 1 overall
Lovie Smith may well be another one-and-done coach in Houston as the Texans prepare to handpick their next franchise quarterback, and who better to shepherd a total offensive rebuild than Payton? Besides spending three of his most formative coaching seasons in Texas with the Cowboys, however, Payton probably wouldn't have much reason to come out of quasi-retirement for such a non-contender. And the Texans certainly wouldn't part with this year's top pick to make it happen.
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Projected 2023 first-rounder: No. 14 overall
Ron Rivera is beloved for his locker-room leadership, but he's yet to log a winning season in three years as Washington's coach, and barring a Week 18 win over Dallas, will have eclipsed seven wins just once in his last seven years as a head coach. As they prepare for yet another QB reset, Payton would be an ideal voice to welcome, but like the Texans, this hardly feels like the kind of organization he'll be rushing to join after a year away from the game. One wild card is what happens with team ownership: Daniel Snyder just might be overzealous enough to float a mid-first-rounder the Saints' way for this kind of splash, and yet if Snyder and Co. sell the franchise outright, perhaps Payton would reconsider the idea of coming to town for weapons like Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson.
Projected 2023 first-rounder: No. 9 overall
If anyone could supplant Steve Wilks in the hiring cycle, even with the interim proving a formidable and resilient leader as Matt Rhule's in-season replacement, it'd be Payton, whose longtime Saints success came in full view of his NFC North rivals. Owner David Tepper has seemingly been impatient regarding major building blocks of the team, QB included, and with a top-10 pick on the horizon, he might rather entrust such a major decision to a proven program-builder. That said, there's little reason to believe they'd part with said pick to land Payton, nor would New Orleans be motivated to send the coach to a division rival. Wilks has done enough under the interim tag to warrant serious consideration here, lessening the need to go crazy for an external hire.
Projected 2023 first-rounder: No. 29 overall
Russell Wilson is likely tied to Denver for at least another season, which works both for and against a potential Payton pursuit: on one hand, there might be no other candidate better qualified to rejuvenate the former Seahawks star; on the other, Payton may be uninspired by the idea of fixing Wilson at this point in the QB's career. Still, there are other building blocks here, including Javonte Williams and a feisty defense. Ready to wash their hands of the Nathaniel Hackett misfire, the new ownership group could easily be willing to part with this year's late first-rounder -- acquired in the Bradley Chubb trade to Miami -- to get it done.
Projected 2023 first-rounder: No. 5 overall
If anyone's bound to go the unorthodox route and ship a premium pick for a splashy hire, it's owner Jim Irsay, right? It helps that Indianapolis is badly in need of a long-term reset under center, giving Payton the potential power to handpick his own signal-caller, and/or seize true personnel control from holdover general manager Chris Ballard. Their first-rounder is almost certainly off-limits, especially if they target QB as expected, but who's to say their 2024 first-rounder wouldn't be on the table?
Projected 2023 first-rounder: No. 21 overall
This scenario is predicated almost entirely on Tom Brady re-signing with Tampa Bay during or ahead of free agency. TB12 feels far more likely to retire or suit up elsewhere, but if the plodding, predictable direction of Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich is discarded, and Brady has the chance to team up with Payton, as the two reportedly conspired to do early in the 2022 offseason, then Bucs ownership would surely do everything possible to seal the deal. Tampa won a trophy by going all in for Brady back in 2020, and pairing the QB with a coach of Payton's caliber would represent a similar gamble in 2023.
Projected 2023 first-rounder: No. 28 overall
No team has been more consistently and strongly linked to Payton than the Cowboys, who employed the longtime coach from 2003-2005 and have publicly flirted with him before. Mike McCarthy may appear safe for now, logging at least 12 wins in his last two seasons running America's Team, but owner Jerry Jones has admittedly had wandering eyes during his tenure, saying before this season Dallas needs to be "viable in the playoffs" to win his trust. If the Cowboys happen to go one-and-done in the postseason for a second straight year, failing to log their first playoff win since 2018, why wouldn't Jones reconsider a blockbuster pursuit of his old pal? Dealing a late first to make it happen hardly seems out of the question.
Projected 2023 first-rounder: No. 4 overall
As Arizona fizzles out toward the finish line, on Sunday turning to its fourth starting QB of a lost season, perhaps no team is more ripe for a total organizational reset. GM Steve Keim is on indefinite leave, and coach Kliff Kingsbury, though signed for years to come, has now finished four straight seasons in a slump. They certainly wouldn't deal a top-five pick to acquire Payton, needing such capital to replenish an older, injury-prone lineup. But the presence of the polarizing Kyler Murray makes this an ideal landing spot for the ex-Saints coach, who's reportedly had his eye on the team for months. If anyone can reform the young QB to stardom, it might be him, and setting up shop in sunny Arizona probably doesn't sound too shabby, either.