As of Monday, 10 rookies – six of them undrafted – and three other players who have yet to be on the field for a regular season snap were on the Saints’ 53-man roster.
Some of those players may not be active on Sunday, but the Saints will need several of them to suit up.
Asked if he found it unusual to head into Week 1 with zero regular season experience on more than one-fifth of the roster, Payton said, “We don’t pay much attention to that, really.”
“We look closely at how they’re going to fit into the plan, how they’re going to play in the kicking game and the progress they made at their position group,” the coach added.
Receiver Kenny Stills, drafted in the fifth round, made a case during preseason that he might be the best deep threat on the club.
He not only gave opponents trouble with his speed, but also made some difficult catches that required balance along the sideline or the coordination to haul in a deep pass with one hand on a dead run.
Defensive end Glenn Foster, an undrafted free agent from Illinois, had four sacks, five quarterback hits and a forced fumble in the preseason.
Nick Toon, a 2012 fourth-round pick who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, was among the leading receivers in the preseason with nine catches for 164 yards, including a 56-yarder on a deep throw over the top from Drew Brees.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro, the club’s first-round pick, made 18 preseason tackles, second most on the club, and looks like a hard hitter.
“The rookies and young guys definitely gave the fans something to smile about in the preseason,” Vaccaro said. “Nick and Kenny (Stills) flashed the whole time. Glenn Foster was a beast every game. We’ve got some young talent that can definitely help this team.”
The Saints also kept receiver Andy Tanner, who hasn’t yet played in the regular season, but has spent the past two-plus seasons on New Orleans’ practice squad.
“He hasn’t played in a game but is a very polished receiver,” Toon said of Tanner. “As far as everyone else, you’ve got to start somewhere.”
Toon, whose father, Al Toon, was an All-Pro receiver, said NFL teams seek a balance of youth and experience, understanding that players of all ages have assets and liabilities.
“Young bodies are always good, typically less wear and tear,” Toon said. “But a young body means a young mind and an experienced body means an experienced mind, so there’s a give-and-take.”
The other Saints rookies are offensive tackle Terron Armstead, nose tackle John Jenkins, tight end Josh Hill, guard Tim Lelito, cornerback Rod Sweeting, inside linebacker Kevin Reddick and running back Khiry Robinson. Armstead and Jenkins were third-round picks.
Defensive end Tyrunn Walker, who made the Saints last season, has dressed for one NFL game, but didn’t play.
For now, Saints veterans seem confident that the relative lack of experience on their roster won’t become a problem.
“The Saints do such a good job of finding these gems,” said outside linebacker Junior Galette, who pointed to receiver Lance Moore and running back Pierre Thomas as past examples of undrafted players who became key starters.
Galette was undrafted in 2010, but now is projected to start because of serious knee injuries to Victor Butler and Will Smith.
“Everyone here who’s an undrafted free agent on the team feels like they belong,” Galette said.
Payton added that the Saints record of giving undrafted players a fair shot gives the team a chance to get the best of them after each draft, which might explain why six were good enough to be on the Week 1 roster.
“One of the selling points (of signing with New Orleans) is we are going to play the best players, and a guy who is a free agent out of college will have the same opportunities as the draft picks,” Payton said. “So I think (it helps) in that regard.”
NOTES: Payton declined to provide an injury update on veteran linebacker Jon Vilma, who missed the preseason because of arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Coaches are not required to issue injury reports for Sunday games until the preceding Wednesday. Payton also declined to discuss the status of outside linebackers Galette (left leg) and Martez Wilson (left elbow), but both said they practiced and teammates said they appeared to be ready. Galette, Wilson and Parys Haralson are the only three outside linebackers listed on the roster. ... Payton said the Saints added sixth-round draft choice Rufus Johnson, a defensive end, and offensive lineman Senio Kelemete to their practice squad Monday. They join QB Ryan Griffin, TE Michael Higgins, OT Marcel Jones, FB Austin Johnson, WR Saleem Hakim and CB Jumal Rolle.