Sean Payton is back in the NFL.
The Denver Broncos finalized a deal Tuesday to acquire their next head coach from the New Orleans Saints, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported, per sources. The team announced Payton as head coach on Feb. 3.
New Orleans will receive a 2023 first-round pick (No. 29 overall) and a 2024 second-round selection from Denver in exchange for Payton's services, as well as a future third-round pick, Rapoport added. Payton was still under contract with the Saints despite stepping down after the 2021 season, necessitating a complicated trade between New Orleans and any potential suitor -- and there were a few.
Payton, who spent this season as a studio analyst for Fox Sports, interviewed with four of the five teams with head coaching vacancies (Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans).
As for the Broncos, they saw their fair share of candidates, as well, before settling on hiring Payton. The search for their next head coach took more than a month after Denver fired Nathaniel Hackett the day after Christmas, just 15 games into his first season with the team.
The Broncos, under new leadership led by owner and CEO Greg Penner, interviewed eight candidates, from the college ranks (Jim Harbaugh, David Shaw) to the coordinator pool (Ejiro Evero, Raheem Morris, Dan Quinn, DeMeco Ryans) and veteran head coaches (Jim Caldwell, Payton) with targets dropping off along the way -- Harbaugh put out a statement saying he was staying at Michigan, and Quinn returned to the Cowboys.
Per Rapoport, the Broncos were targeting Ryans, who had led the 49ers defense to top-three finishes in his two years at the helm there, after their first round of interviews before the Texans locked in on him. Denver then flew to Ann Arbor last week to make another push at Harbaugh, who had success in the NFL as head coach of the 49ers in the 2010s. When that failed, Rapoport reported Tuesday, Denver started to negotiate a Payton deal and then made a last-ditch effort to hire Ryans, but the coordinator, whose season ended with San Francisco's NFC title game loss Sunday, was set on Houston.
It was only then that Denver finalized the deal for Payton, per Rapoport.
Payton, 59, spent 15 seasons as head coach the Saints, rejuvenating the franchise alongside Drew Brees and leading New Orleans to a 152-89 record, nine postseason appearances, seven division titles and the team's lone Super Bowl title during the 2009 campaign. After a 9-8 season in 2021, his first without Brees, Payton walked away, and New Orleans moved on to Dennis Allen, Payton's longtime defensive coordinator.
Though Payton left football, it was always assumed he'd return to the sidelines eventually. It was just a matter of when and where.
We got our answer Tuesday afternoon: now and Denver.
In Colorado, Payton will inherit a Broncos side that massively underwhelmed in 2022, despite the addition of Hackett, nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson and the likes of Randy Gregory. Denver's offense was one of the worst in the league, ranking dead last in points scored (16.9) and third down percentage (29.1) and 21st in total offense. The attack led by Wilson, whose 11th season and first in Denver was unquestionably his worst, was maligned by poor clock management, a lack of explosive plays and turnovers. The talented defense was left out to dry, despite ranking 14th in points allowed and seventh in total yards allowed.
Despite finishing with a 5-12 record, the Broncos do not have a top-five pick heading into this year's draft; it belongs to the Seattle Seahawks, who acquired it and a slew of other selections in the Wilson trade. Now, Denver won't have its second first-round pick in the 2023 draft, either. The No. 29 selection it received in the Bradley Chubb trade is now in the hands of New Orleans.
Meanwhile, Payton, after a year and six days away from football, is back in the game in Denver, tasked again with reigniting a quarterback's career and a franchise's fate.