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Gerald Herbert, Associated Press
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton speaks during a season-ending news conference at their NFL football training facility in Metairie, La., Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012.

METAIRIE, La. — Sean Payton says he cannot envision the Saints taking the field next season without quarterback Drew Brees, who could opt for free agency this winter now that he's played out his six-year contract.

Payton says he's not sure if the word "stunned" would be strong enough for what his reaction would be if Brees left for another team.

Still, Payton acknowledges free agency will be challenging for the Saints because other key players from his record-setting offense have expiring contracts, including Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks and receiver Marques Colston.

New Orleans, which was eliminated from the playoffs last weekend, also needs a new defensive coordinator after Gregg Williams joined Jeff Fisher's new staff in St. Louis. Payton says he'll take his time and keep an open mind about candidates.