It appears a front-runner has emerged in the Sean Payton sweepstakes: The Denver Broncos.
Payton has scheduled a second interview out in Denver for later this week, according to a report from NOLA.com. It's the first return interview among the four teams reported to have requested permission for such an interview with the Saints' former head coach.
It also comes at a time when the market for Payton's services appears to have thinned. The Arizona Cardinals are yet to have scheduled an interview with Payton despite receiving permission to do so, and their recent hires would indicate they are not holding out to make such a move. The Houston Texans were the first team to conduct an interview with Payton, though all signs point to 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans as the front-runner to land that job.
The other potential destination, barring any late entries, would be the Panthers. The Saints' NFC South rival was the final of the four teams to request permission for an interview, but delayed that due to the tragic death of Anton Walkes a member of the Charlotte FC soccer team. Still, they must be viewed as a longshot due to their lack of an established quarterback, no premium draft pick to go select one and the likely steeper asking price to send Payton out within the division. Carolina has also scheduled an interview with Cowboys OC Kellen Moore.
So that leaves the Broncos, who fired first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett amid a disastrous 5-11 regular season. It's a team that went all-in on a trade for Russell Wilson that likely has no interest on changing that course now. A home run hire of Payton would make sense. The Seahawks, meanwhile, finished the season 9-8 behind QB Geno Smith, earned the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs and own the No. 5 and 20 selections in the upcoming draft. The Broncos also own a late first-round that will come from the 49ers, one of the four teams still playing in the NFL playoffs. Payton has said he expects the compensation would be in the range of a mid to late first, and that would certainly fall within that range. Denver has also held interviews with former Lions head coach Jim Caldwell former Stanford coach David Shaw, Cowboys DC Dan Quinn and Ryans, among others.
The Saints, meanwhile, have been largely mum on the Payton trade front, but any assets received could impact how they approach the upcoming Senior Bowl and additional scouting events. Their No. 10 overall selection will be shipped out to the Eagles, and it remains to be seen whether a first-round pick will be headed their way when the dust falls. Payton could also opt to return to broadcasting for another season, a decision that would leave the Saints in limbo for another season with a potential trade return still unclear.