With some other things on my plate I didn’t have time to post anything yesterday about the Saints trading Jimmy Graham and a 4th round draft pick to Seattle for Pro Bowl center Max Unger and that team’s 1st round pick (the 31st pick in next month’s draft), which appears to be the biggest topic of conversation around Louisiana this week.
My initial reaction was that trading Graham isn’t particularly offensive to me, at least not in the way it seems to be with lots of other people I’m hearing from, but I would have thought Graham might fetch a bit more than Unger and what is more or less a 2nd round draft choice.
And rather than beat Mickey Loomis up as a dunce (he’s not, though some of the recent forays into the draft and free agency have yielded substandard results which largely explain the team’s two 7-9 seasons in the past three), it seems there might have been some things going on behind the scenes that we fans didn’t know about.
Graham’s shoulder injury, for example, which was held up as an excuse for his rather pedestrian performance in the final third of the season. How sound is that shoulder? Is Graham less, physically, than he’s billed to be at this point in his career? Certainly, he’s not an old player at age 28, but with 355 receptions in the last four years and most of them coming in traffic one wonders if maybe the Saints have gotten the best of what Graham can deliver.
And then there’s the team chemistry, which has been the source of rumors ever since Graham ended a quite contentious contract negotiation before signing a massive deal prior to last season. Things had gotten so bad that they went to arbitration, at which Graham demanded to be paid as a wide receiver rather than a tight end but was rebuffed by the NFL. There was talk of his detachment, if not outright pouting, in the aftermath of that loss, and it was clear he wasn’t fully on the same page with the rest of the offense last year.
So between those factors and Graham’s gigantic salary cap figure, including a $5 million bonus he was due to be paid later this month that would constitute a hit against the current salary cap, the Saints might have been more motivated to move him than people thought.
And now today, there are rumors the Saints are discussing a trade of Drew Brees to Tampa Bay in exchange for the first pick in the draft, which the Bucs hold.
Which, of course, has Saints fans in an uproar.
From my perspective, as big a fan of Brees as I have been since his arrival in New Orleans in 2006, I hope that trade goes through. Long-term, it’s the best thing for this franchise.
Drew Brees is the best player in the history of the New Orleans Saints, and it’s not close. He’s been the face of this team and its leadership of the city in the post-Katrina years, he delivered a Super Bowl to a long-woebegotten fan base for which we should be forever grateful, he’s demolished the team record book and put the Saints at the forefront of the NFL when it comes to the passing game. Brees is a sure-shot immediate inductee to the NFL Hall of Fame upon his eligibility, and the Saints couldn’t ask for a better leader and representative.
That said, he’s 37 years old. And while he went into last year talking about playing until he’s 45, what we saw in 2014 was that Brees doesn’t have that much time left as an elite NFL quarterback.
The fact is, Brees declined as a player last year. He struggled to generate distance on his long ball and as a result turned several would-be touchdown plays into interceptions and incompletions, he began resorting to forcing passes into triple coverage seeking a bailout from Graham and Colston and he seemed to lack some of the escapability in the pocket he previously had. Those were signs that he’s not the quarterback he was, say, three or four years ago.
That’s not to say Brees is finished. The Saints could hold on to him and still have something that looks very much like a championship offense. But to do that, they’re going to need to recalibrate how they do things. And it’s apparent they know that based on their recent moves.
For example, the decision to sign Mark Ingram to a four-year, $16 million deal and rely on him to be a workhorse in the running game. And the trade that brings Unger in.
The middle of the Saints’ line has been atrocious for several years, first with Brian De La Puente at center and then with the past-his-prime Jimmy Goodwin brought in last year to replace De La Puente. There has been next to zero push from the interior line against opposing defensive fronts, and because of that the Saints have been a terrible short-yardage team. They’ve tried to mask that deficiency by getting cute on 3rd-and-1’s and at the goal line, running short post-up routes with Graham, end-around plays, quick pitches and other gimmicks rather than lining up and smashing opponents in the mouth, but not to any consistent degree of success. And because they’re lousy in short yardage they’ve had a lot of trouble transitioning to a more balanced offense.
If Unger gives the Saints a Pro Bowl center, perhaps he’ll make those around him better. That would be nice, because the money invested in guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans hasn’t produced a great return of late. Both have been good players in the past, and neither is old enough to generate real questions about declining performance, but neither were very good in 2014. If they can return to previous form and left tackle Terron Armstead continues to develop a bad offensive line might just become enough of a strength that the Saints can become a smash-mouth offense at times.
When head coach Sean Payton has actually committed to Ingram as the go-to guy in the running game he’s delivered. Ingram is a workhorse running back who gets considerably better as he’s lathered up during a game, but he’s too often been lost amid a running back-by-committee scheme Payton imposed on him, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. Thomas and Sproles are now gone, and it’s time to turn Ingram into the weapon he was drafted to be. He’s capable, and further he’s got a very solid backup in Khiry Robinson. The Saints could use someone to be an effective third-down back, and hopefully somebody more effective than Travaris Cadet, but they’ve proven they can find that either late in the draft or even with a rookie free agent. LSU’s Terrence Magee ought to be available when the Saints pick in the 5th round and he’d be a good fit as a younger, more physical version of Thomas. A better fullback than Erik Lorig would also help; LSU could supply one with Connor Neighbors, who could be had with a late pick or even as a free agent.
But if it’s going to be the Saints’ identity to run the ball, paying $20 million a year for the quarterback is tough to justify. And it sounds like Brees has no interest in restructuring his contract so as to lessen that burden against the salary cap. From the standpoint of the immediate future, he starts to look like an expensive luxury.
Particularly without Graham, and particularly with a clearly declining Marques Colston as the Saints’ other receiving threat over the middle. Certainly, Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks give this team a pair of tremendous young wideouts who can stretch a defense – and with Cooks, Payton has a multi-talented player who can do some of the things Sproles did in this offense. As he matures into his prime as an NFL player, the 2nd-year man will be a great asset in making it easy on a quarterback with the ability to turn short, easy passes into big plays, and Stills looks like he’ll develop into a deep threat who can blow the top off a defense and keep free safeties out of the box. The question is whether Colston can complement Stills and Cooks and make the catches in traffic he regularly made earlier in his career and whether Ben Watson and Josh Hill can take up some of the slack in what’s certainly going to be a de-emphasized tight end position. It would appear that either through free agency (the best available big wide receivers are Andre Johnson and Stevie Johnson, while Jordan Cameron and Jermaine Gresham are the top free agent tight ends) or via the draft the Saints are going to need to add another piece to the receiving corps. But what they have is good enough to keep defenses honest.
Making the Brees trade would be an admission that the current era of Saints football is over. But whether the admission is made or not, that’s reality. Last year’s 7-9 season was a clear demarcation that the status quo isn’t good enough, and the front office’s decision to cut Thomas and linebacker Curtis Lofton while dealing Graham shows it’s willing to make bold moves.
So is it really worth $20 million to keep Brees around and ask him to hand the ball off? Or wouldn’t it be smarter to offload him to Tampa Bay in exchange for, perhaps, Marcus Mariota? Mariota does bring something of a risk to him in that he’s a product of a spread option offense at Oregon, and spread option quarterbacks don’t have a great track record of immediate success in the NFL. But he’s a high-character kid and a leader, and he’s got all the measurables one looks for. And if there is a coach who can teach the NFL game to a quarterback it’s Payton, who’s universally recognized as an offensive genius. Plus, Mariota’s ability to run with the ball would make for a nice complement to Ingram in the ground game; you wouldn’t do that with Brees but with a young player like Mariota whose legs are a big part of his game it might lend an interesting dimension to what Payton could do. You might even see a jet sweep/zone read look at times between Mariota, Ingram and Cooks. And with the better part of $20 million to spend, perhaps the Saints could even invest in further upgrading the offensive line or further reshaping their identity as a team which wins through ball control and defense.
Mind you, trading Brees for the top pick and drafting Jameis Winston with it would invalidate most of this analysis. Winston isn’t mobile and what’s more, he’s a character risk. Using the top pick in the draft on a guy like that is a foolhardy prospect that would indicate a change in the front office is warranted.
And of course there’s that defense, which is atrocious. The front office is squeezing as many dollars as it can out of the current defensive roster, getting a big bump out of a restructuring of safety Jairus Byrd’s deal (Byrd, after all, did little when he was in the lineup last year before being lost for the year in Week Six) and another out of restructurings of Junior Galette and David Hawthorne. They might need to guarantee money to Keenan Lewis in order to quiet him down; Lewis is squawking about the three years left on his contract, which is backloaded, not being guaranteed. As he’s the only player on the defense who actually delivered value under his contract last year, the front office might restore some credibility with the players amid all the offseason turmoil by rewarding him.
But there are needs, and lots of them. If you’ve only got one good cornerback it’s like having none, because opposing offenses will simply pick on the other corner, so finding a bookend to Lewis is of major importance. The Saints are talking to Brandon Browner as a potential free agent addition, and he would be a solid pickup as would Tramon Williams. They’ll want to invest one of their two first round picks in another corner, and he’d better not be a bust like Patrick Robinson or Stanley Jean Batiste have been in recent drafts. Byrd’s return to health should help shore up what was a mediocre safety position last year (to put it charitably); it would be advisable for the club to find someone else to bring in alongside him in case Kenny Vaccaro’s poor second season represents his true capability as an NFL defensive back. There must be a quality outside linebacker brought in opposite Galette, and that should be the other first-round draft choice.
But the Saints also need to find at least one and probably two big-time inside linebackers to shore up the run defense and create turnovers; Brandon Spikes would be a key free agent signing and in a perfect world Mason Foster would be brought in with him. And this team lacks a dominant player in the middle; at one point it was hoped that John Jenkins would become that player but he hasn’t emerged, and Broderick Bunkley just isn’t a high end player at nose guard. They’re going to want to draft a nose guard, if not spend a few dollars on a Terrence Knighton or Vince Wilfork.
To get players like that into a Saints uniform, though, would require dealing Brees. It will take the $20 million they’re paying him to rebuild the defense.
And it’s a painful realization that the Saints, as currently constituted, just don’t work as a championship contender. If they’re going to become one again, we’re going to have to let go of the past glory.
We’re going to have to rebuild.