The Saints will have to settle for the latter for the rest of this season.
The Saints placed Evans on injured reserve, Payton said Thursday, because of a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear that occurred in last Sunday's comeback victory in Miami.
"That's tough," quarterback Drew Brees said. "Heath was not only a real productive player, but he's an awesome guy - an awesome locker room guy, great for that running backs room.
"Heath was just a real good influence on everybody," Brees continued. "He has told me that he wants to be around as much as possible. ... Hopefully he will be around and I know he will be."
Payton said Evans had surgery on Thursday.
The injury occurred after Evans nearly scored on 9-yard reception out of the backfield in the fourth quarter. Evans was forced out of bounds by Akin Ayodele at the 2, setting up Brees' sneak for the go-ahead score.
Evans has been a key blocker in the Saints' running game, which ranks third in the NFL. He also had three touchdowns, two on short receptions.
"He's to date really played well for us both in the running game and the passing game," Payton said. "You never like to lose a starter. It will be up to the rest of these guys at the tight end position, the fullback position, potentially one of our halfbacks to take over that role, but it does change what you've been accustomed to with the starter that's out."
The Saints quickly signed fullback Kyle Eckel, who arrived in New Orleans in time to practice on Thursday. Whether Payton becomes comfortable enough with Eckel to play him Monday night against Atlanta remains to be seen. Also practicing at fullback for the Saints were running back Lynell Hamilton and blocking tight end David Thomas.
Hamilton has routinely played fullback on the scout team this season and said he sometimes played fullback at San Diego State.
Eckel, who attended Navy, has spent time with Miami, New England and Philadelphia during three NFL seasons and was Evans' teammate on the Patriots. Eckel said he had already spoken with Evans about his move to New Orleans.
"I'm excited and hopefully I can contribute like Heath did," Eckel said.
Eckel said he's also a football fan who'd been following numerous teams, including the Saints, on TV.
"It's great to watch," he said of the Saints' offense. "Hopefully it's great to be a part of it, too."
Eckel, a Philadelphia native, joked that the only problem with coming to New Orleans now was being away from home while his Phillies were in the World Series for the second year in a row.
"I'm sick," he said with a chuckle. "It's very bittersweet right now, but it's a good problem to have, right?"
Meanwhile, Payton said defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis' sprained right knee should not be too serious to prevent him from returning this season, though Payton did not have a timetable for when the 2008 first-round draft pick could get back on the field.
"The swelling's down," Payton said. "It's better, yet we wouldn't know anything more until later in the week, so I'm somewhat guarded in regard to the progress he's making.
Payton said he was optimistic, about Scott Fujita's recovery from his left calf strain. Fujita, who missed his first game this season last Sunday, did not practice on Thursday.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press