Ex-UH DE Payton Turner finding ‘niche’ as Saints’ first-rounder

Payton Turner hit fast forward on his football career, dropping a significant amount of weight over the past year to accentuate his nascent athleticism.

The results of the former University of Houston standout’s dramatic transformation from a 290-pound defensive tackle into a sleeker 6-foot-5, 270-pound edge pass rusher? Emerging as the New Orleans Saints’ first-round draft pick with the 28thoverall selection.

Now, the Westfield graduate is working diligently to prove himself in the NFL during his rookie season.

“It’s pretty cool, it’s definitely a dream come true," said Turner, who joined former UH and Westfield teammate Ed Oliver, now with the Buffalo Bills, with his first-round status. “It’s a blessing more so than anything. I’m excited for that opportunity.”

It began to sink in for Turner that he’s arrived in the NFL after signing a four-year, $12.524 million contract that includes $7.128 million to be paid during his rookie season.

“When I got my first installment of my signing bonus, that was pretty cool,” Turner said. “Opening your bank account and seeing two commas is pretty cool. That was kind of the moment. I showed my parents the pay stub. I love them and they were so excited for me.

As far as plans for his financial windfall, Turner is maintaining a conservative approach. He does plan to fix his parents’ swimming pool.

“I’ve got a good financial team, they’re boring, not so much fun yet, maybe next offseason I’ll do something extravagant,” Turner said. “I’m still waiting on my parents to give me the quote for the pool. They’re kind of dragging their feet. They’re going to get mad when they see this, too.”

When the Saints drafted Turner, it was because of his size, rare explosiveness and unique length. He had a 6.98 three-cone drill, a 4.33 time in the short shuttle at the Cougars’ Pro Day, a 35-inch vertical leap and bench pressed 225 pounds 23 times.

A hybrid defensive player with an 84-inch wingspan that’s the longest for an edge pass rusher since 1999, Turner became a prized draft prospect because of his dimensions and productivity. He recorded 25 tackles, 10 ½ for losses and five sacks in just five games last season, finishing with 10 career sacks and 25 tackles for losses.

“He’s got a lot of traits we value,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He was a high-energy player, prototype size. You couldn’t help but notice the makeup was good.”

After recording nine sacks and 18 ½ tackles for losses during his final two seasons, Turner is determined to make a fast contribution to the Saints.

“Team goals, Super Bowl, of course, but I want to go in there and be the best that I can be, play as hard as I can and kind of find my niche,” Turner said. “Find my role and kind of excel at that and just give the team everything I’ve got.”

Turner plans to gain as much knowledge as possible from veteran pass rushers Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport.

“Just work ethic more so than anything,” he said. “Obviously, they're pros for a reason. I just want to pick up on their technique, their habits and soak up all the information.”

Playing for Payton, known as a hard-nosed yet fun-loving coach, is another aspect of his rookie season that Turner is looking forward to.

“So far, so good, he seems pretty dope,” Turner said. “You can put that in quotations! He seems like a pretty cool dude. I’m excited to play for him.”

Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.

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