The worst owner in the NFL

Owners of professional sports teams have a lot of responsibility when it comes to the success of their franchise. They are the ones putting up massive sums of money in an attempt to generate profit, but they also control the direction of personnel hirings. Much can be said about terrible owners in other sports, such as James Dolan of the Knicks, who can’t seem to get over his love affair with Isaiah Thomas. However, Dolan at least supports his team and his city and wants the best for them. Recent events have revealed an NFL owner who does not display this courtesy, in addition to ineptitude.

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Draft Review of the New Orleans Saints in the Payton-Loomis era, 2006-2014

With the Saints struggling to the finish line in a dismal 2015, and the impending end of the Drew Brees era, I thought about going back and looking at how the team got to this point, what went wrong, and what they could have done differently (and can do differently in the future).

I decided some weeks ago to choose their performance in the draft to examine for this purpose, but only now have had the time to collect the necessary data for this article. Even though Mickey Loomis has been GM of the team since 2002, I decided to start with the arrival of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in 2006, because of Payton’s strong input on the personnel side of the ball. I then decided to review the drafts from that point on through 2014.

The reason I’m not reviewing 2015 is largely because, after the 2014 draft was such an obvious disaster, the team fired longtime Director of College Scouting Rick Reprish, and most of the college scouting department. So far, the improvement has been immediately obvious, with Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha already being impact players in the linebacker crew, and Delvin Breaux, Damian Swann, Tyeler Davison, and Bobby Richardson all have contributed to one degree or another, with Breaux and Richardson starting. We haven’t even talked about a number of their other picks yet– Andrus Peat projects to be a long-term starting offensive tackle, and several players who have gone on IR figure to contribute in the future, too. This is easily the best Saints rookie class since the much-ballyhooed class of 2006 (three of which remain on the team today).

In hindsight, comparing the 2015 class to the ones before it makes it pretty clear this move was long overdue. Let’s take a look at the previous classes and see how the team did.

The most useful number I could find for this study was Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value, both because it compares value across positions, and because a “draft value chart” measured by AV already exists. I used the “Career AV” formula for these numbers, which weighs peak seasons more highly, as opposed to being merely additive. (For seasons n ordered by peak, it’s [n1+(.95*n2)+(.9*n3)…])

Next to each player, you’ll see three numbers:

  • Car. AV is “Career AV”, the number the Career AV formula returns for the player’s entire career.
  • NO AV is “New Orleans AV”, the Career AV formula applied only to the seasons the player was with the Saints (and thus calculates the value he returned to the Saints).
  • Ex. AV is “Expected AV”, the projected approximate value for a player based on his draft position. That formula is taken from this chart. (The formula stops at pick 224, with an expected return of 5 AV, so I listed any picks after 224 as “less than 5.”)

There is a difference between “0” and “N/A”; it is possible for a player to play in a game and return 0 AV, but N/A means he never even played for the team.

If you want a handy-dandy spreadsheet to review all the data on your own, I’ve got just the thing for you. The spreadsheet also includes some bonus data:

  • The next five picks off the board after the Saints selection.
  • A “best picks” column where I list the five best players who could have been taken with the pick. This list is based on hindsight, Career AV, and my own subjective analysis, combined with who might reasonably be selected in that position. (I didn’t, say, take the 2000 draft and put “Tom Brady” for “Best pick” after every pick even though it’s the correct answer, because no one was taking him early in the draft, and it would be silly to project in a manner that didn’t add some meaning to the discussion.) You will also notice places where two players drafted closely together have completely different “best player available” lists; I simply thought it would be pointless to repeat the same information twice. (If you see two players drafted about 20 picks apart, it’s likely that the list for the first is entirely comprised of picks between the two.)
  • Because the Bountygate scandal unfairly cost the Saints two second-round picks in 2012 and 2013, I have included slots for them on the spreadsheet, with all the supplementary information on expected AV, next 5 picks, and best 5 picks. I did this just to give an idea of the kind of talent the team potentially missed out on because of this penalty. (I don’t think, given everything we know about Roger Goodell’s adjudication at this point, that “unfairly” is a controversial statement.)
  • Similarly, both because it affected the Bountygate punishment and because it was such an egregious decision, I included slots on the spreadsheet for the two picks the Saints traded to move up and select Mark Ingram– their 2011 second-round pick and 2012 first-round pick. (I’ll have more to say about that decision when we get to 2011.)

Without further ado, let’s start things off on a high note:

2006

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 2 Reggie Bush RB 60 33 64
2 43 Roman Harper SS 43 36 26
4 108 Jahri Evans G 100 100 14
5 135 Rob Ninkovich DE 41 0 11
6 171 Mike Hass WR 0 0 8
6 174 Josh Lay DB N/A N/A 8
7 210 Zach Strief OT 35 35 6
7 252 Marques Colston WR 70 70 <5

This was by far the best draft the Saints had in this era. Four of the eight picks returned excess value to the Saints, Colston and Evans phenomenally so. Reggie Bush didn’t, but he was still a valuable contributor in New Orleans for several seasons. Rob Ninkovich was cut before playing a game for the Saints, but has had a very good career in New England. Sean Payton has referred to him as “the one who got away.”

As a preview of what’s to come, the difference between the 2006 draft and the others in this study is simple: The Saints had more picks here than at any time since (until 2015), and they were able to get multiple valuable contributors in later rounds, instead of zero or one.

The Saints’ frequent trading up, combined with the Bountygate penalties, thinned the team’s number of draft picks, which compounded their errors of talent evaluation. But we’ll cover that soon.

2007

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 27 Robert Meachem WR 26 25 32
3 66 Usama Young S 16 5 20
3 88 Andy Alleman G 5 N/A 17
4 107 Antonio Pittman RB 3 N/A 14
4 125 Jermon Bushrod OT 49 37 12
5 145 David Jones DB 6 N/A 11
7 220 Marvin Mitchell LB 12 5 5

This draft as much as any typifies the Saints’ results over this time period:

  • The top two picks were disappointments for where they were chosen. Robert Meachem was, basically, a tall wide receiver who could run go routes and block. Usama Young was a reserve selected with a pick you hope to use to find a starter, and most of his value came for other teams to boot.
  • The subsequent picks are almost entirely busts. Three of the five remaining picks returned no value for New Orleans, having never played a snap. Antonio Pittman is most noteworthy for losing a training-camp competition to undrafted free agent Pierre Thomas and getting cut before ever playing a down. (The Saints’ success with Thomas, and later Chris Ivory, along with their failure with Pittman, should have been a lesson they heeded several years later. They did not.)
  • One of the picks, however, turned into a very good player who returned value well above his position. In that case, the pick was Jermon Bushrod, an offensive tackle from Towson who eventually played left tackle at a Pro Bowl level for the Saints. Unfortunately, like so many of their late-round gems, the Saints couldn’t afford to keep him when he hit the open market. (Given that he was 29 when he signed his contract with Chicago, though, maybe that one’s for the best.)

The one thing that actually distinguishes this draft from subsequent New Orleans drafts is the fact that they have a full complement of seven picks. Talk about damning with faint praise. (Also, Marvin Mitchell was a perfectly average return for a seventh-round pick, contributing on special teams for a few years. I don’t think “perfectly average return” happens anywhere else in this article.)

2008

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 7 Sedrick Ellis DT 27 27 49
2 40 Tracy Porter CB 23 15 27
5 144 DeMario Pressley DT 1 1 11
5 164 Carl Nicks G 53 49 9
6 178 Taylor Mehlhaff K 0 0 8
7 237 Adrian Arrington WR 1 1 <5

See above, with Sedrick Ellis in the Meachem role, Tracy Porter in the Young role, and Carl Nicks in the Bushrod role.  Notice also that the team only had six picks this year, in part because of a trade up for Ellis.

Ellis was a tremendous disappointment, who played at an average level for the duration of his rookie contract, then retired. Tracy Porter will always have the interception return that clinched the Super Bowl, but he couldn’t stay healthy enough to be a serious contributor.

DeMario Pressley was a total bust. Carl Nicks was a hugely successful pick, who played like the best guard in football for a time, but, again, the team couldn’t afford to re-sign him (in part because they were hardballing Drew Brees and had to use the franchise tag on him instead). Tragically, it was the worst move for both parties, as the Saints struggled to adequately replace Nicks, and Nicks caught MRSA from Tampa Bay’s locker room and had to retire early. (On a side note, how cheaply and poorly run are your team facilities that this sort of thing is happening? The only places I can remember it happening in the NFL are Tampa Bay and Cleveland, which probably says a lot about those franchises that their recent results have also said.)

Adrian Arrington was a guy I thought could turn into something, but he could never stay healthy, either. Taylor Mehlhaff was the latest pick in the Saints’ search for a reliable placekicker. That search is ongoing.

2009

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 14 Malcolm Jenkins CB/S 34 27 40
4 116 Chip Vaughn S 0 N/A 13
4 118 Stanley Arnoux LB 1 1 13
5 164 Thomas Morstead P 16 16 9

With the #14 pick you hope to get a good starting cornerback, not an adequate free safety. Notice also the Saints only had four selections, owing to trades for Jeremy Shockey and Jonathan Vilma.

Aaron Curry fooled everyone into thinking he was a can’t-miss, blue-chip prospect in 2009, and apparently that same Wake Forest tape convinced the Saints that Chip Vaughn and Stanley Arnoux could contribute anything at all in the NFL. (This wasn’t an especially good draft, but they got nothing from picks where they should have gotten, at worst, two or three years of rotational contribution.)

This year’s “one player who exceeded expectations” is a punter. Thomas Morstead is one of the few late-round successes who is still with the team. He’s a Super Bowl hero in his own right, having executed The Greatest Onside Kick in Football History to open the second half.

2010

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 32 Patrick Robinson CB 13 13 30
2 64 Charles Brown OT 14 14 21
3 95 Jimmy Graham TE 40 40 16
4 123 Al Woods DT 6 N/A 13
5 158 Matt Tennant C 3 2 9
7 239 Sean Canfield QB N/A N/A <5

Patrick Robinson was supposed to be the team’s newest shutdown corner (across from Jabari Greer, one of the Saints’ rare diamonds in the rough in free agency). Didn’t happen. Charles Brown was supposed to be the left tackle of the future. By the time he was finally ready to take over, in year four, he lost his job to a rookie part of the way through the season. Once again, the high picks disappoint.

Once again, only one pick exceeded expectations. Once again, that pick is gone from the team. Jimmy Graham doesn’t need any further explanation.

Al Woods was cut in the preseason of his rookie year, an unacceptable waste of a fourth-round pick. Matt Tennant was supposed to be the center of the future; he was yet another misfire by the Saints. Sean Canfield was a late flyer who didn’t pan out.

It’s also worth mentioning that the team found an undrafted free agent running back by the name of Chris Ivory. The Saints like to tout their undrafted finds (which makes sense when you never have many picks– notice they are once again short this year), and Ivory was seen as the bruising complement to Pierre Thomas’ shiftiness and receiving ability. You’ll see why I mentioned Ivory very soon.

2011

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 24 Cameron Jordan DE 32 32 33
1 28 Mark Ingram RB 18 18 31
3 72 Martez Wilson OLB 3 3 19
3 88 Johnny Patrick CB 4 2 17
7 226 Greg Romeus DE 0 0 <5
7 243 Nate Bussey LB 0 0 <5

Here’s the deal: Trading up for Mark Ingram was a major mistake that crippled the franchise’s ability to effectively surround Drew Brees with talent, and it didn’t even make sense at the time. Beyond what we already know about the general fungibility of running back talent, what makes this worse is that this specific team was already putting that idea to good use! The Saints not only had success finding running backs as undrafted free agents, they already had a guy who was good enough for that role in Chris Ivory. They either didn’t believe in him, or didn’t see him as anything but a complementary player. They were wrong there; his time in New York has demonstrated that he can be both a featured back and even a decent receiver (42 receptions on 56 targets in his last two seasons; compare that to his total for three years with the Saints: four targets, three receptions). That said, even after the Jets traded for them, it took them two full years to give him the reins full-time. Draft-position bias is real.

Instead of increasing Ivory’s work and relying on an Ivory-Thomas tandem, the Saints gave up their second-round pick that year and their first-round pick the next year for a physically unimpressive running back who didn’t start producing like a first-round pick until his fourth season. Just an egregious and unacceptable use of resources. (You can see the spreadsheet for a list of players the Saints might have taken if they had just stayed put. You think Sean Payton would rather have Mark Ingram or Randall Cobb right now?)

At least this year, the one player above expectation was a first-round pick, which makes Cameron Jordan one of the few legitimate All-Star talents on the team.

Martez Wilson and Johnny Patrick were total busts, not even contributing rotationally. (Wilson was a bit of an unlucky pick, as Justin Houston was selected just two spots before.) Greg Romeus was a talented pass-rusher who was injury-prone in college and never overcame it. Nate Bussey was supposed to be a special-teams ace but never did anything. One good player, one underwhelming player, and a few whiffs. Seeing a pattern yet?

Notice again the Saints are short on picks, and we already know they don’t have a first-round pick next year either.

2012

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
3 89 Akiem Hicks DL 15 15 17
4 122 Nick Toon WR 3 3 13
5 162 Corey White CB 10 10 9
6 179 Andrew Tiller G 0 0 8
7 234 Marcel Jones OT 0 0 <5

How I long for a team that didn’t trade up for Mark Ingram, kept this pick, and drafted Alshon Jeffery instead. The Saints were also missing a second-round pick because of Bountygate, which they couldn’t have expected. (You want pipe dreams, how about Russell Wilson as Brees’ eventual replacement?)

Akiem Hicks comes close to returning value, but I still have to consider him a disappointment because the team traded him in midseason, while he was still on his rookie deal. Corey White returned excess value, but not for reasons we had hoped: He simply had to play too much in an undermanned secondary, as he was playing nickel cornerback as a rookie. (Not coincidentally, for the team that set the record for most yards allowed in NFL history. We’ll see if this year’s team breaks it.) He’s gone from the team now, which should tell you something about how they felt about him as an asset.

In the standard “We can’t get anything from our day-three picks” department, Nick Toon played a handful of games but never amounted to anything, and Andrew Tiller and Marcel Jones didn’t even do that.

Only five picks this year. Part of that couldn’t have been anticipated, but part of that was the product of an atrocious decision the year before.

2013

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 15 Kenny Vaccaro S 11 11 30
3 75 Terron Armstead OT 9 9 19
3 82 John Jenkins DT 6 6 18
5 144 Kenny Stills WR 14 14 11
6 183 Rufus Johnson DE 0 0 8

We’re getting to the point where we can’t strictly use AV anymore because careers are short and ongoing, so we’ll have to be subjective. This is also the first year where Zone Reads was acitve, so we’ll be able to look back on what we thought at the time of the selections.

Terron Armstead is this year’s pick who’s returned excessive value, as he slid into the left tackle position late in his rookie season and is now one of the better ones in the league. Kenny Stills also spent a terrific couple of years as Drew Brees’ deep threat, but the team decided to move on from him after that. (Whatever chemistry or personality issues Brees and Stills had, the team’s offseason plan of “jettison receiving talent and let Brees carry the day” is in part the cause of their struggles this season.)

Kenny Vaccaro’s promising rookie year seems to have been derailed a bit; he’s still a solid player, but not the Pro Bowl-caliber safety the team was hoping for. (Perhaps the Saints have had a serious problem in secondary development and didn’t know it.)

The team traded Chris Ivory for a fourth-round pick, and then packaged both fourth-rounders to move up for John Jenkins. I liked the move at the time, but Jenkins has been fairly pedestrian. (And a team with only six picks in the draft shouldn’t be making two-for-ones.)

Rufus Johnson never did anything. The late-rounders never do.

2014

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 20 Brandin Cooks WR 5 5 35
2 58 Stanley Jean-Baptiste CB 0 0 22
4 126 Khairi Fortt LB 0 0 12
5 167 Vinnie Sunseri SS 0 0 9
5 169 Ronald Powell LB 1 1 9
6 202 Tavon Rooks OT 0 0 6

Obviously, the draft that got everyone fired is going to be notorious. (For our purposes, notorious means fun.)  Finally, the swift immediacy of the bad decision-making causes it to be too hard to ignore, as one year later only one player is on the active roster, and the scouting department paid for it with their jobs.

The Saints seemed to think Brandin Cooks was some kind of world-beating #1 wide receiver of the Odell Beckham variety. He is a very fast player who can beat people deep but struggles to get open on shorter routes or against press coverage and doesn’t have much of a catch radius. He has improved as his second season has gone along, but I still don’t think he’ll be consistent enough as a #1 target to be the player the Saints envisioned when they traded up for him.

At least they’re getting something out of him, though.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste was, apparently, the product of decision-making that said, “big cornerbacks are in these days.” His major qualification seems to have been that he stands 6’3″; he played eight snaps his rookie season and was cut before his second season. An abysmal result for a pick this high in a draft this rich in talent. (Of the cornerbacks available, Phillip Gaines was our favorite. On pure value, how much better would this offense be with Allen Robinson, or even Jarvis Landry?)

Jean-Baptiste is the most spectacular failure, but let’s not overlook the other whiffs. Khairi Fortt was placed on IR-designated to return, then released from that list; word was he missed multiple team meetings, suggesting another failure of evaluation by a locker room that prides itself on striving for high character. Ronald Powell seemed to have some talent as a pass rushing linebacker, but the team placed him on IR in 2015, then released him; he’s with Tampa Bay now. Vinnie Sunseri has some hope, at least: he’s on IR but still with the team. When scouting Sunseri, I noted his film showed some heady plays and good instincts for the game. I think he would make a strong special teams player, which is something, at least.

Tavon Rooks is probably my favorite of the draft whiffs. When we scouted the draft that year, we had a Kansas State offensive tackle on our board– but it wasn’t Rooks. It was Cornelius Lucas, the better of the two tackles, and even him we graded as an undrafted free agent! So to see the team actually use a draft pick on a worse player from the same school at the same position, then cut that player (who clearly had no chance of making the 53-man roster) in preseason, then not even keep him on the practice squad in 2015… well, that’s just a cavalcade of bad decisions, made by people who had seemingly set the bar very low for what to expect from draft picks. (If you’re drafting players with the expectation that they have no chance at making the 53-man roster, you’re doing something wrong.)

I mentioned the Saints trading up for Brandin Cooks. Once again, they finish the draft with fewer picks than they started it with. 2006 is the only year in this study where the Saints had more than the seven picks initially allotted them. (The Saints’ inability to make use of compensatory picks could be the subject of its own column.)

Here are some final numbers to put it all in perspective. These are from 2006-2014, except as noted.

Expected Number of Picks (assuming 7 per season): 63
Actual Number of Picks: 53

Total Number of Picks: 53
Picks That Returned Surplus Value*: 11 (22.6%)
Picks That Returned Average Value**: 5 (9.4%)
Picks That Returned Below-Average Value: 37 (69.8%)
Picks That Returned 1 AV or Fewer***: 23 (43.4%)

Total Expected AV, 2006-2012^: 663
Actual AV, 2006-2012: 635

* – surplus value is generally measured by AV, but as we got closer to the present day, I had to be a little more subjective when assessing this measure. I counted Terron Armstead as surplus value for this purpose, for reasons I explained in the 2013 writeup. Cameron Jordan also counts, for reasons that should be obvious. The rest: Harper, Evans, Strief, Colston, Bushrod, Nicks, Morstead, Graham, and Stills.

** – I’m counting Marvin Mitchell, Akiem Hicks, Corey White, Kenny Vaccaro, and Brandin Cooks. I think that’s more than fair.

*** – For the Saints. A pick who does nothing for New Orleans but goes on to produce for other teams still counts against them. No credit for Rob Ninkovich here.

^ – I left out 2013 and 2014 because the players haven’t had long enough careers to build adequate career AV numbers, and I didn’t want to misuse the stats. I also counted picks after 224 as 0, even though they probably should count for something.

The total AV is pretty close to what’s expected, but that’s with many assumptions in the numbers favorable to New Orleans, and that’s also leaving out 2013 and 2014 (the latter of which we know to be an absolute disaster by any metric, including this one). As I mentioned early in the article, the only other reason the numbers are close is because of 2006, the only year the Saints actually got more value than expected from the draft. Take out 2006, the first year of the Loomis-Payton pairing (and the one where Payton may have had the least influence), and the numbers get even worse:

Expected Number of Picks (assuming 7 per season): 56
Actual Number of Picks: 45

Total Number of Picks: 45
Picks That Returned Surplus Value: 7 (15.6%)
Picks That Returned Average Value: 5 (11.1%)
Picks That Returned Below-Average Value: 33 (73.3%)
Picks That Returned 1 AV or Fewer: 20 (44.4%)

Total Expected AV, 2007-2012: 526
Actual AV: 361

And a chart by year, including 2013 and 2014:

Year Expected AV Actual AV
2006 137 274
2007 111 72
2008 104 93
2009 75 44
2010 89 69
2011 100 55
2012 47 28
2013 95 40
2014 93 6

(I’m not sure what the best way to calculate this would be, but if there were a way to pro-rate the 2013 and 2014 expected AV numbers to match the number of seasons played, I suspect we’d still see that those drafts came in below expectation.)

When I look at all this evidence, I come to an inescapable conclusion: Maybe it’s bad luck, maybe it’s bad process, but the Saints have had really, really bad draft results, they’ve had them for a long time, and they’ve had them in consistent fashion. Given the consistency of the evidence, and the immediate improvement in drafting displayed in 2015, I’m inclined to believe it’s bad process that had been going on for a long time without much incentive to change. The management only noticed it when the scouts, faced with one of the most talent-rich drafts in recent memory in 2014, bungled so badly on evaluations that the team has exactly one player remaining on the roster a year later. That immediacy is the only reason change came, but the subpar results have been there for a long time.

Even I was shocked at the 73.3% / 44.4% figures from 2007-12. Nearly three-quarters of their picks were worse than average, and nearly half the picks were basically useless! If you expand “useless” from “1 AV or Fewer” to “3 AV or Fewer”, the number rises to 24– more than half of the selections. (And we already know, for example, that four out of six picks from 2014 are guaranteed to return 1 AV or fewer, and a fifth still might.)

Teams get seven draft picks a year. Finding one above-average player and one warm body with them simply isn’t enough. Yet, for eight of the nine years in this study, that’s basically all the Saints came up with, at best.

The team has a bottom-5 roster outside of Brees largely because of bad drafting. The Saints trade away too many picks and miss on too many of the ones they keep. They rarely have major busts early, but their picks quietly yet consistently disappoint. Picks expected to yield Pro Bowl players return slightly above-average or even average players. Picks expected to yield average starters or above-average rotational players return backups and disappointments. Picks expected to yield back-of-the-roster players are used on guys who wash out within a year.

There’s talk the Saints will trade Sean Payton to a team not facing a substantial rebuild. If they do that, I think the team might have to consider moving on from Mickey Loomis, as well. His one saving grace is that he finally did something about this problem, albeit much too late. As much as I loathed Jeff Ireland during his tenure as GM of Miami, New Orleans’ first draft class with him running the college scouting department already seems like a runaway success compared to previous years. Andrus Peat, Stephone Anthony, and Hau’oli Kikaha alone already figure to be better than any draft class between 2007-14.

More to the point, aside from the injured players, everyone the Saints drafted is actually contributing in the expected manner. The starting linebackers are starting. The developmental players are developing. Even the kick and punt returner drafted in the seventh round is returning kicks and punts. (There are no, “Whoops, this guy was supposed to step in right away, but he can’t play” mistakes of the Stanley Jean-Baptiste variety, and nobody got cut before playing a down.) If the Saints are going to have a future after Drew Brees, it’s going to take more years of solid drafting like this to establish a foundation for this roster.

(And if they want to saddle up for one last ride with Brees, it’s going to take some serious re-working of the salary cap and better decisions in free agency. But that’s the subject of another column.)

2014 Re-Draft Mock

If you saw the 2013 draft that ran a few days ago, you’ll know how this works.

This mock isn’t necessarily tied to that one. It operates on the same rules, though. One thing you’ll find different is that, since we are only into the second year of these players’ careers, I had less hard data on how they would perform in the NFL, and so had to weigh predictions of future performance more heavily.

Onward:

1. Houston Texans
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU

A no-brainer here, in my eyes. As much as they need a quarterback, and as much as they really could use a top-flight edge prospect like Clowney or Khalil Mack, Beckham is a passing offense all by himself, and a Beckham-DeAndre Hopkins combination at wide receiver would be absolutely devastating for years to come.

2. St. Louis Rams
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh

Donald has been an impact player from day one, with the kind of rare burst and agility required to penetrate the interior line that makes the concerns about his size seem silly in retrospect. Already one of the most fearsome interior rushers in the league.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars
Blake Bortles, QB, UCF

After a rough rookie season, Bortles is showing signs of growing into the quarterback the Jaguars believed he could become. I see no reason to change the pick.

4. Cleveland Browns
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville

It’s time to put an end to the ridiculous trades, the drafting of players who don’t give a crap, and the complete disregard of your paid analytics study in favor of polling the homeless. The Browns have a quarterback, at last.

5. Oakland Raiders
Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo

He seems to be every bit the surefire hit he was considered as a prospect. No change, although Derek Carr was certainly considered.

6. Atlanta Falcons
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson

Roddy White has finally gone over the hill. The offense has struggled this year in part because of Matt Ryan, but it’s also true that he only has had Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman as reliable, consistent targets. Lining up Watkins opposite Jones will really open up what the offense can do.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M

I see no reason to change this pick.

8. Minnesota Vikings
Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State

Since they won’t be getting Teddy Bridgewater, it’s imperative that they find another quarterback. Carr has proven capable of the job in Oakland, and the Vikings can’t risk missing out on him.

9. Buffalo Bills
Jadeveon Clowney, DE/OLB, South Carolina

This is where you can see the role of projection coming into play. Whether you consider that Clowney would lose his rookie season to microfracture surgery they way he did in Houston or not, the fact is, his ceiling is still incredibly high, particularly as a 4-3 defensive end (which is the defense the Bills were playing in 2014), and Mario Williams is starting to get up there in age (or alternately, Jerry Hughes will want too much money in free agency).

10. Detroit Lions
C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama

Mosley has been legit for Baltimore, and Detroit has needed a middle linebacker for some time.

11. Tennessee Titans
Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M

From what I can tell, Matthews is settling into the left tackle position just fine (unlike his college teammate Luke Joeckel).

12. New York Giants
Zack Martin, G/T, Notre Dame

Their persistent need for an offensive lineman leads them to one who played at a Pro Bowl level his rookie year.

13. St. Louis Rams
Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn

Been disappointing so far, but I believe the Rams would still take him on potential. They probably shouldn’t, but then, I made that argument at the time.

14. Chicago Bears
Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU

There’s another receiver who’s arguably a better pick, but I think Landry is a better fit for Chicago’s personnel, whether you’re looking at this as the Brandon Marshall – Alshon Jeffery Bears, or the Jeffery – Kevin White Bears. Landry fills a slot role nicely on a team that has very good (and big) outside receivers. If Jay Cutler likes Eddie Royal, he’ll love Jarvis Landry.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers
Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA

I actually don’t think Barr should necessarily slide here; this was more a matter of fit for other teams ahead of Pittsburgh. Obviously he’s a great fit here and should thrive as a 3-4 OLB.

16. Dallas Cowboys
Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan

Lewan probably can’t be moved around the line like Zack Martin could, but he should thrive at right tackle (and can play left tackle, should something ever happen to Tyron Smith).

17. Baltimore Ravens
Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State

Robinson could easily go higher than this. Baltimore is thrilled to get a true #1 wide receiver at this point in the draft, something they tried to acquire this year with Breshad Perriman (which hasn’t worked out so far, but we were skeptical it would even before the draft).

18. New York Jets
Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama

He’s been better than Calvin Pryor so far, and a true free safety would made things a lot easier for the Jets’ cornerbacks.

19. Miami Dolphins
Jason Verrett, CB, TCU

He’s been arguably the top corner from this draft class, as his film indicated he well might be. He only fell because of concerns over his size, but size does not in itself a good cornerback make. (Any New Orleans Saints fan will know this, after the team’s biggest whiff of each of the last two offseasons was on a large cornerback.)

20. Arizona Cardinals
Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU

At his best, Hill is the sort of powerful-yet-agile back that can be the perfect complement for Andre Ellington. He’s been a bit disappointing in 2015, but he’s a perfect fit for this team, so they’ll take a chance he can play up to potential.

21. Green Bay Packers
Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech

Fuller’s career got off to a promising start, but has been up and down since. The Packers will be willing to take a chance on his talent; in a redraft with such a short time frame, potential and projection still factors in here.

22. Philadelphia Eagles
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt

A disappointing sophomore year (fueled in part by disappointing quarterback play) probably hasn’t made the Eagles unhappy with the selection. They certainly need wide receiver talent, so I saw it fit to draft the same player here. (Marcus Smith seems like a total bust, so they won’t go that route again.)

23. Kansas City Chiefs
Joel Bitonio, G/T, Nevada

They’re permanently in need of offensive line help; Bitonio has been solid for Cleveland, and could play guard or right tackle for Kansas City.

24. Cincinnati Bengals
Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State

I wasn’t a fan of Shazier coming out, but he seems to have performed better than I expected (although his weakness are still there). I’m particularly interested in him for Cincinnati, whose linebackers seem to suffer from a lack of athleticism (which, for whatever Shazier’s faults are, he certainly does have those).

25. San Diego Chargers
Ja’Wuan James, OT, Tennessee

Another team always in need of offensive line help. James slides in nicely at right tackle here, which I’m sure the team would appreciate, given that they decided to move D.J. Fluker to guard after two seasons.

26. Cleveland Browns
Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State

Jackson has been one of the better players on one of the league’s most surprisingly good offensive lines. Cleveland will need a guard with Bitonio already drafted.

27. New Orleans Saints
John Brown, WR, Pittsburg St. (KS)

This could be controversial. I think Brown has arguably been better than Brandin Cooks, though– he may not run quite as fast in the 40, but he has better route-running and ball skills. The Saints clearly wanted to add some speed to their offense; Brown may be the best option for that.

28. Carolina Panthers
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State

Despite missing 2015 with a torn ACL, Benjamin showed enough production as a rookie that Carolina is still happy with the pick, I feel.

29. New England Patriots
Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida State

He’s been a revelation in 2015, taking on an incredible workload and being extremely productive doing so. New England takes him here with the intent of getting the kind of production he provided for Atlanta this year (and that they were getting from Dion Lewis).

30. San Francisco 49ers
Martavis Bryant, WR, Clemson

Big, talented, big-play receiver. Arguably could go even higher than this. Adds some serious talent to a receiver crew that could use it.

31. Denver Broncos
Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State

Not sure how well he has played so far, but his regard as a prospect alone is good enough to land him here.

32. Seattle Seahawks
Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina

Hasn’t been everything Detroit hoped for when they drafted him in the top ten, but he’s started to come along his second season. The talent alone is enough for Seattle to take a chance; with Ebron, they don’t need to make a major move for Jimmy Graham.

2013 Re-Draft Mock

In order to gear up for draft season, and in some small way make up for the lack of Zone Reads content over the last two months due to various personal and professional obligations, I’ll be publishing some mock drafts and re-drafts in the next few days.

I decided to take a swing a 2013 first, because enough time has passed that I think I have a reasonable picture of player value, and also because it was generally regarded as such a weak class. I thought it would be a fun season to choose.

I didn’t try to do this as a strict ranking; at some point, prospects are close enough together in value where I can’t make any meaningful distinction. In certain cases, I’ve erred on the side of giving teams a player at a position of need, or, even better, a player who actually ended up on the team.

Last note: I eliminated all draft-day trades, but kept all pre-draft ones. (So the Jets have Tampa Bay’s pick from the Darrelle Revis trade, St. Louis has Washington’s pick from the Robert Griffin trade, and Minnesota has Seattle’s pick from the Percy Harvin trade.)

Without further ado…

1. Kansas City Chiefs
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson

One of the few legitimate superstars from this class, Hopkins is a passing game all by himself, one of the four best wide receivers in football right now. He happens to be a great fit for Kansas City, whose passing game was woeful in 2012, and in 2013 would be led by Alex Smith, and whatever part of Dwayne Bowe could still be considered a useful wide receiver.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri

A pretty easy selection of a guy who has a case for the #1 pick. True interior penetrators are rare and can disrupt an offense by themselves. Richardson’s suspension this year makes him a clear #2 behind Hopkins to me; the risk of missing games is enough to break any tie.

3. Oakland Raiders
Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington

An argument can be made for a number of players here. Since the Raiders chose a cornerback in the first round in real life (albeit after trading down), I mocked them a guy who has arguably developed into one of the league’s shutdown corners.

4. Philadelphia Eagles
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU

When in doubt, choose the pass rusher. Even though the Eagles took an offensive tackle originally, I simply felt pass-rushing was more important than pass protection. Ansah is seond in the league in sacks right now (11.5 through 11 games) and is arguably playing at an All-Pro level.

5. Detroit Lions
Terron Armstead, OT, Arkansas-Pine Bluff

Armstead had FBS offers coming out of high school, but would only attend a college that allowed him to continue competing in track and field. The athleticism he showed at the Combine has translated to the NFL, as he’s become one of the league’s better left tackles. As Jeff Backus retired in the 2013 offseason, he’s a perfect fit for Detroit, too. (I’d play Riley Reiff at left tackle and Armstead at right tackle in 2013, then flip them.)

6. Cleveland Browns
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State

The Browns believed in the importance of a three-down running back who can be fully featured in the run and pass game enough to trade three other picks in order to move from #4 to #3 and draft Trent Richardson one year prior. Now they get the running back they thought they were getting then.

7. Arizona Cardinals
Tyrann Mathieu, CB/S, LSU

Mathieu displayed some of the most incredible instincts I’ve ever seen in college, but slipped in the draft for the nebulous, oversimplifying “character concerns” reason. He’s playing at an All-Pro level this year in Arizona; I am certain they would want to keep him at any cost.

8. Buffalo Bills
Keenan Allen, WR, California

Whether you see this as a move that allows them to avoid trading up for Sammy Watkins the next year and losing their 2015 pick, or as a receiver who complements Watkins well and opens up the possibility of a devastating pass attack, the Buffalo Bills were a team in serious need of offensive help, and Allen brings it. He was having a dominant season before he went down with an injury. (He’d certainly do a lot more for a passing game than E.J. Manuel would.)

9. New York Jets
Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah

Lotulelei fell in the draft because of some medical concerns about a heart condition that were overstated. He’s become one of the better defensive tackles in the league; since the Jets miss out on Sheldon Richardson in this draft, they’re sure to want someone else to fill the position.

10. Tennessee Titans
Kawann Short, DT, Purdue

Short was the Panthers’ second-round pick in 2013, to follow up Lotulelei, but this year he’s arguably played better than his higher-drafted linemate. He would make a devastating pair of penetrators alongside Jurrell Casey.

11. San Diego Chargers
Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma

They wanted a right tackle badly enough to draft D.J. Fluker #11 overall. Now they have a better one.

12. Miami Dolphins
Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame

Eifert would give their offense a dynamic seam and red-zone threat they didn’t have then, and that they arguably don’t have now (but that they hoped they were getting with Jordan Cameron).

13. New York Jets (from Tampa Bay)
Darius Slay, CB, Mississippi State

Having a slight down year, but then, so is everyone in Detroit. Still a guy who can be a legit #1 cornerback.

14. Carolina Panthers
Jamie Collins, OLB, Southern Miss

Collins could fill the outside linebacker spot opposite Thomas Davis (that Shaq Thompson does now), and switch to pass-rusher as needed. A good fit that offers flexibility on defense.

15. New Orleans Saints
Travis Kelce, TE, Cincinnati

An athletic, potentially game-changing tight end? They’ve been able to put those to good use in New Orleans. In this scenario, Kelce is around to take over when Jimmy Graham is traded to the Seahawks– an ideal match.

16. St. Louis Rams
Kyle Long, G/T, Oregon

The Rams are always targeting nasty, physical offensive linemen– occasionally to a ridiculous degree (four linemen in the 2015 draft, and one more in the supplemental draft!)– so why not draft them one who’s actually good?

17. Pittsburgh Steelers
Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas

Vaccaro can play either free or strong safety, and his flexibility will become more valuable once Troy Polamalu is gone.

18. Dallas Cowboys
Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin

Pretty much the same logic they used to draft him in the real draft.

19. New York Giants
Chance Warmack, G, Alabama

Again, another team in need of an offensive lineman takes one who’s been pretty good (albeit after a somewhat rocky rookie year).

20. Chicago Bears
Larry Warford, G, Kentucky

See above. I put Warmack ahead of Warford because I think his ceiling is ultimately higher, although Warford was better out of the gate.

21. Cincinnati Bengals
Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina

We’re reaching the point where above-average starters and good rotation players are the best left on the board, and when in doubt, I mocked a player to the team that drafted him originally if he was roughly at the top of the board.

22. St. Louis Rams (from Washington)
Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia

I’m not sure what kind of year he’s having, but I think he’s essentially the guy they expected him to be when they drafted him. Which is good enough for them to do it again.

23. Minnesota Vikings
Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida

See above.

24. Indianapolis Colts
Justin Pugh, G/T, Syracuse

The Colts have constantly struggled to protect Andrew Luck, so adding a guy who can step right in at right tackle is pretty valuable.

25. Minnesota Vikings (from Seattle)
Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State

Yes, I just mocked the Vikings the same two players they drafted in the real draft. I guess that means they did a good job? (We won’t mention Cordarrelle Patterson.)

26. Green Bay Packers
Eric Reid, FS, LSU

They wouldn’t have yet drafted HaHa Clinton-Dix in this case, and Reid has been a pretty solid free safety for San Francisco, as far as I know.

27. Houston Texans
Bennie Logan, DT, LSU

Logan has really come on strong his third year; he’s big enough to play nose tackle for Houston’s 3-4 defense, as well.

28. Denver Broncos
Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama

Despite Lacy’s apparent determination to prove wrong Rod Beck’s maxim that no one ever went on the disabled list with pulled fat, Lacy at his best could be the bellcow Denver was looking for when they selected Montee Ball in the second round that year.

29. New England Patriots
Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson

A pass-catching running back with game-breaking ability is a great fit for the Patriots. Ordinarily such a situational player wouldn’t go so high, but 2013 didn’t have a lot of top-end talent.

30. Atlanta Falcons
D.J. Fluker, G/T, Alabama

It’s a starting offensive lineman! And you know how much we’ve always wanted one of those!

31. San Francisco 49ers
T.J. McDonald, SS, USC

I’ve heard McDonald has had a pretty good year for the Rams. That and the fact that the 49ers drafted a safety in real life is good enough for me.

32. Baltimore Ravens
Ricky Wagner, OT, Iowa

A pretty good starting right tackle is a good get here. The Ravens won’t get the value they did in real life, when they took him in the fifth round, but he’s still capable of being a solid part of their offensive line.

Keep an eye out tomorrow for a 2014 re-draft.

The Third Coast Sainted Texans

Earlier this week, I posited the question on Twitter for two nearby teams that were having poor years: What if the Saints and Texans merged rosters?

They seemed to have rosters that would fit together well, with each team having a strength where the other hand a hole, and vice versa. To make it more interesting (and also realistic), I decided to look up the 2015 cap hits for every player and build the team under the salary cap (listed on spotrac.com as $146,025,476). My goal here was to create the best 53-man roster possible while remaining under the salary cap.

I’m only considering players who were on the team as of this week, when I wrote this– not players who were on the team earlier in the year (like, say, Akiem Hicks or Kenny Phillips for the Saints).

And here we go. Texans fans are likely to be unhappy for a little while.

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK

  • Drew Brees (age: 36, 2015 cap hit: $23,800,000)
  • Luke McCown (34, $665,000)
  • Garrett Grayson (24, $618,291)
  • Total: $25,083,291

This one is fairly straightforward. Brees is the only NFL-caliber starting quarterback on either roster, so he has to make the team, even at his age and cap hit. McCown is by far the cheapest of the next three options (Brian Hoyer’s cap hit starts with a 5, which would be fine if it were one digit fewer). And Garrett Grayson is the best prospect for the future. (Tom Savage is on injured reserve; we’ll get to IR at the end of the roster, but frankly, Grayson is the best prospect irrespective of Savage’s presence.)

RUNNING BACK

  • Mark Ingram (25, $2,000,000)
  • C.J. Spiller (28, $2,000,000)
  • Khiry Robinson (25, $585,334)
  • Marcus Murphy (24, $452,322)
  • Austin Johnson (FB) (26, $510,000)
  • Total: $5,547,656

know this one will make Texans fans unhappy. It’s pretty straight-forward: Arian Foster is a 29-year-old running back with a significant injury history and a cap hit of over $8.7M. You might be able to justify paying Foster and carrying one fewer running back if he could still reliably perform at his peak level, but at his age, you can’t count on that.

With Foster too expensive to risk, I think the rest of the Texans running backs are pretty bad, so this was fairly easy. No one besides Foster on Houston’s roster is even as good as Khiry Robinson, let alone Ingram and Spiller. Marcus Murphy adds value as a kick and punt returner. I went with Austin Johnson over Jay Prosch, knowing little about fullbacks, because he’s cheaper (and I don’t know how much Prosch plays, if at all).

WIDE RECEIVER

  • DeAndre Hopkins (23, $2,080,010)
  • Brandin Cooks (22, $1,905,330)
  • Willie Snead (22, $435,000)
  • Jaelen Strong (21, $627,995)
  • Nate Washington (32, $615,000)
  • Total: $5,663,335

DeAndre Hopkins is a budding superstar, an obvious choice for our #1 receiver and a must-have even at five times the cost. Brandin Cooks hasn’t turned into the star the Saints envisioned, but at his current age and cap number, he’s still a bargain– and he’s more suited to this role, the #2 to Hopkins’ #1. Willie Snead has come on strong as arguably the Saints’ most reliable receiver. Jaelen Strong is very young and a fine prospect to ease along in a fourth or fifth wide receiver role. I chose Nate Washington as the “cagey veteran mentor” to round out the bunch. Marques Colston is too expensive and has seemingly lost it. You could argue for Cecil Shorts, but Washington is on a one-year minimum deal and Shorts is being paid $6 million for two years. Even though he’s younger, I’m not sure he adds much value to the team at all, let alone over Washington. Cooks, Snead, and Strong can contribute on special teams, so I wasn’t worried about finding a player to fit that type.

TIGHT END

  • Ben Watson (34, $1,900,000)
  • Josh Hill (25, $586,668)
  • C.J. Fiedorowicz (23, $730,826)
  • Total: $3,217,494

It was a lot easier to justify Watson for the top spot after the game he had Thursday night against Atlanta. He’s the best do-it-all guy on either roster. Hill has the most athleticism; Fiedorowicz is a guy I don’t think is all that special, but is young, cheap, and has a relatively high draft pedigree (then again, I’m not sure if the Texans understand the draft).

OFFENSIVE TACKLE

  • Duane Brown (30, $9,500,000)
  • Terron Armstead (24, $769,359)
  • Andrus Peat (21, $2,071,544)
  • Total: $12,340,903

A no-brainer. This might be the best trio of tackles in the league.

OFFENSIVE GUARD

  • Jahri Evans (32, $7,000,000)
  • Brandon Brooks (26, $1,696,359)
  • Xavier Su’a-Filo (24, $1,261,727)
  • Total: $9,958,086

Evans is on the decline at 32, but he’s still the best guard on either team. Brooks is not someone I know much about, but I’ve generally seen his play well-graded and spoken fairly well of– or at least well enough to be the team’s other starter. Su’a-Filo is on this team for roughly the same reason C.J. Fiedorowicz is.

CENTER

  • Max Unger (29, $3,000,000)
  • Ben Jones (26, $1,662,362)
  • Total: $4,662,362

It’s easy to pick both starting centers when they come this cheaply.

TOTAL OFFENSE: 24 players, $66,473,127

DEFENSE

I’ve listed the team in a base 3-4, which made the most sense to me with the personnel I had to work with.

ENDS

  • J.J. Watt (26, $13,969,000)
  • Cameron Jordan (26, $4,169,000)
  • Bobby Richardson (22, $436,666)
  • Jared Crick (26, $1,639,875)
  • Total: $20,214,541

Watt and Jordan are a fantastic duo to have here and well worth the money. Bobby Richardson has played well so far his rookie season, particularly against the run. I don’t know much about Crick, but he’s cheap and he plays a lot of snaps for Houston, so he makes the team.

TACKLES

  • John Jenkins (26, $746,890)
  • Tyeler Davison (23, $489,306)
  • Christian Covington (21, $457,621)
  • Kaleb Eulls (24, $438,333)
  • Total: $2,132,150

One of the weakest groups on the team, but a very young one with lots of chance to improve playing between Jordan and Watt. Jenkins has the size to be a true nose tackle, so he’s the starter in the run-stuffing role. The word is that Vince Wilfork has looked ordinary, and even if he hasn’t, 2 years and $9 million is a lot for a 33-year-old nose tackle. (Though it’s not out of line with the kind of deals the Texans like to hand out– see “Reed, Ed.”) The other three are all rookies with varying talent level and skill sets; Davison is the most explosive of the bunch.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

  • Jadeveon Clowney (22, $5,062,045)
  • Hau’oli Kikaha (23, $957,511)
  • Whitney Mercilus (25, $2,979,030)
  • Kasim Edebali (26, $512,000)
  • Total: $9,510,586

Clowney hasn’t produced the big numbers yet, but he’s shown the flashes of greatness that made him the top pick in the draft. Kikaha now leads all rookies with four sacks (in six games); he’s been less flashy but steadily productive. Mercilus is a fine player, although nothing special, and Edebali has shown some signs of life as a rotational pass-rusher.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

  • Stephone Anthony (23, $1,404,766)
  • Dannell Ellerbe (29, $1,900,000)
  • Bernardrick McKinney (22, $971,840)
  • Justin Tuggle (25, $585,834)
  • Michael Mauti (25, $585,000)
  • Total: $5,448,440

I hate to say it, but Brian Cushing might be done. He looks like a shell of his former self out there– and to make matters worse, he’s on the second year of a six-year deal, one where his cap hit each year is higher than the entire ILB crew I’ve assembled here.

Anthony is the star of the bunch, but Ellerbe has been surprisingly good, surpassing my expectations. McKinney is a long-term player there, though he’s more of a run-stopper. I had no idea whom to go with for the fourth ILB spot; Tuggle beat out Akeem Dent based on age, salary, and slightly higher PFF grade. Feel free to replace him if you like someone better. Mauti won the special teams roster spot with his blocked punt Thursday night.

CORNERBACK

  • Keenan Lewis (29, $4,500,000)
  • Johnathan Joseph (31, $11,750,000)
  • Kevin Johnson (23, $1,827,166)
  • Delvin Breaux (25, $439,000)
  • Damian Swann (22, $481,807)
  • Total: $18,997,973

Another difficult decision I had to make was Joseph vs. Kareem Jackson. I was initially on Jackson because he’s younger and had a lower cap hit, but upon further research, I discovered he’s graded out really poorly this year, and he’s in the first year of a four-year contract extension; he’ll be 31 when it ends. Joseph is 31 now, but his cap hit is lower for the next two years than it is now, and the team can cut bait after 2016 with no further penalty. With the play so far of youngsters Johnson and Breaux, that is likely to happen. Also, Lewis has proven himself a fine #1 corner, even if he is exiting his prime, and Swann has performed solidly so far after winning the Saints’ nickel job as a rookie.

SAFETY

  • Jairus Byrd (29, $5,500,000)
  • Kenny Vaccaro (24, $2,570,376)
  • Rahim Moore (26, $3,000,000)
  • Andre Hal (23, $527, 281)
  • Total: $11,597,657

The Saints structured Byrd’s contract such that his cap hit makes him an affordable risk here– and even allows us to spend $3 million on Moore for when Byrd is inevitably injured. Vaccaro seems like an obvious choice, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen of Hal so far.

TOTAL DEFENSE: 26 players, $67,901,347

SPECIAL TEAMS

  • Kicker: Zach Hocker (24, $435,000)
  • Punter: Thomas Morstead (29, $3,400,000)
  • Long Snapper: Justin Drescher (27, $875,000)

I chose Hocker before Thursday night, but he’ll probably be fired after that game. Well, the Texans already fired Randy Bullock this year, so I decided to go with the guy who stuck around the longest.

Morstead is more expensive than Shane Lechler, but he’s also twelve years younger and has a lifetime pass for hitting the greatest onside kick in NFL history.

Drescher is cheaper and younger than Jon Weeks.

TOTAL SPECIAL TEAMS: 3 players, $4,710,000

TOTAL 53-MAN ROSTER: $139,084,474

We’re still nearly $7 million under the cap, so I decided to add some players to our Injured Reserve list (who do not count against the 53-man roster, but do count against the salary cap):

  • CB P.J. Williams (22, $494,651)
  • SS Vinnie Suneri (22, $377,125)
  • OLB Davis Tull (23, $373,433)
  • TE Ryan Griffin (designated for return) (25, $381,611)
  • OL David Quessenberry (25, $613,363)
  • OLB Reshard Cliett (23, $340,621)
  • QB Tom Savage (25, $408,146)
  • OLB Anthony Spencer (31, $665,000)
  • FS Rafael Bush (28, $1,900,000)
  • Total Injured Reserve: $5,553,950

That brings the entire roster, 53-man and injured reserve, to a GRAND TOTAL of $144,638,424Still close to $1.5 million and change to work with; if you’re not comfortable cutting it that close, I totally understand removing Bush from IR. The team’s only contracts that are both long and expensive going to legitimate stars like J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan, leaving money to extend key players currently on their rookie deals, such as DeAndre Hopkins and Terron Armstead, when the time comes. Not a bad spot to be in. Of course, it’s easy when you get to pick and choose from two rosters.

 

Is the Drew Brees era over?

I started writing this after the Saints fell to 0-2 and it was revealed that Drew Brees injured his shoulder against Tampa Bay. With Brees missing the first game in his career due to injury in week 3 (the Saints are now 0-3), and with the team trading Akiem Hicks today for a blocking tight end, it seems clear that the season is a lost cause and the team is looking to clear cap space– yes, even their minor restructuring of Brees’ contract to create space this year was because they pretty much had to. (That said, if they let Hicks leave as a free agent, New Orleans might get a compensatory pick for him– but they’ve never valued compensatory picks, as we’ll cover below.)

What’s wrong?

I wrote some things about the Saints last year when they fell apart, and I don’t want to repeat them too much. Many of the problems (unreliable receivers, Tim Lelito, overall lack of defensive talent, Jairus Byrd’s contract) remain, and between the sheer lack of overall roster talent and the cap situation, it’s going to take time to fix those things.

I do want to mention that with the trade of Hicks, nobody from the team’s 2012 draft remains on the roster. The team fired the director of college scouting and cleaned out the department this offseason, and after the disastrous 2014 draft has left exactly one player from it on the active roster one year later, it’s understandable. But these kinds of draft misses– compounded by frequent trades up– have been part of the problem for years. For the handful of late-round gems the team found, they had many more late-round whiffs and early picks who disappointed or outright busted; Stanley Jean-Baptiste was simultaneously the apex of this trend and the straw that broke the camel’s back. The 2015 draft, with the new team headed presumably by Jeff Ireland (although his title is Assistant General Manager, not Director of College Scouting) is looking better, but the roster is threadbare and the cap is spent.

And with the roster threadbare and the cap spent, Drew Brees can only take them so far. If the Saints suck even with Brees, which is looking like the case, then the road to rebuilding could be long. 2016 is probably lost as well.

That leads into our next question:

Is Brees done?

I don’t think so. The murmurs about his deep ball and failing accuracy started last year (even though Football Outsiders disagreed), and increased in intensity after he put two deep balls to Brandin Cooks far too short in the Tampa Bay game. However, those both happened after Brees took the hit that injured his shoulder to the degree he missed the Carolina game. Before, I think he was fine. The problem is that his receivers just aren’t reliable– Marques Colston isn’t getting enough separation and is dropping too many passes, and no one else has the ability to reliably make difficult or contested catches. The team lost Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills and tried to replace their production with undrafted free agents; it isn’t working because those guys aren’t as good.

Unfortunately, what can the team do in the meantime? They won’t have cap room to sign free agents. If they draft receivers highly, they may take a while to develop. Brees may be too old to benefit by then. He may not even be on the team anymore.

Brees’ contract expires after 2016 and they may just be better served playing it out. With the new figures from Wednesday’s adjustment (via Spotrac), Brees sits at a $23.8m cap hit for this year, and with an extra $10m in dead money on top of that if they trade or release him, they have to stick it out. (That’s right: Brees would leave $33.8 million dollars in dead money on the Saints’ 2015 cap.) His cap hit in 2016 soars to $30 million, but would only leave $10 million in dead money if they released him. Even considering those $20 million in savings, it may still be best to just let him play out the year and re-assess. No point in eating cap room to stink and throw a guy into the fire.  (If they really think Garrett Grayson is The Guy, another year on the bench can only help. As could drafting some more reliable receivers.)

What can be done?

It’s going to take a serious and strong drafting effort over the next two years. The cap should look better in 2017. The team would do well to mostly stay out of the free-agent market this year; they don’t have a ton of free agents (Hicks would have been the better ones), but by letting them walk, and not spending on more free agents, they might garner some compensatory picks. The Saints’ approach has not involved much of this strategy, with the team needing to rebuild to become competitive again, they should be looking to stock pile as many draft picks as possible. (The Baltimore Ravens use this strategy to great effect.)

The 2015 rookie class already has shown promising returns. Stephone Anthony still makes some rookie mistakes, but he’s been outstanding in several facets of the game. Delvin Breaux (GIF-able moments aside) and Damian Swann seem to be legit additions to the secondary. (Keenan Lewis is scheduled to come back this week; this may be the first chance for us to see the Saints’ cornerback crew at anything close to full strength.) Hau’oli Kikaha has been positive, as have some of the rookie defensive linemen, particularly Bobby Richardson. The defense is not good yet, but they have some solid young parts and a couple of guys who could be franchise cornerstones. Another draft this good on the defensive end, and the team could have the foundation they’re looking for in place.

On offense, the two biggest weak spots seem to be Tim Lelito and the receivers. If Lelito doesn’t improve, the team should try to find a guard at some point in the 2016 draft. As I’ve said many times, the team needs a true #1 receiver, someone who can make the difficult catches as well as the big plays, someone you turn to in critical situations, someone you can count on when you need a catch.

Finding a Drew Brees replacement is critical, of course. Garrett Grayson may or may not be it. But I don’t think the team should pin all its hopes on a third-round quarterback (but then again, I wasn’t that high on him to begin with).

I also want the team to lock up Terron Armstead. Yes, I think Andrus Peat can play left tackle, but I’d rather have both. They have few proven players who are young and talented enough that they could be considered foundational pieces; Armstead is one.

2016 Mock Draft

I rolled over to Fanspeak’s On the Clock Mock Draft (while they’re running a trial period where the “premium” feature, with custom boards and trades, is free). I haven’t done enough draft work for 2016 to have my own board, so I just used Fanspeak’s. (Which also means I don’t necessarily know who’s good, but the exercise was still fun nonetheless.)

I did not set the draft order. Fanspeak decided of their own accord that New Orleans deserved the #1 pick.

Here are my selections and reasoning:

http://fanspeak.com/ontheclock/sharedraft.php?d=yshmhs (NOTE: As of publishing this link was down. Picks are still written and explained below.)

YOUR PICKS

1: R1P1
JOEY BOSA
OHIO STATE
Immediate substantial upgrade to the pass-rush. Talent jumps off the screen, even in a draft full of pass rushers. Saints have been running a 4-3 a substantial amount of the time and Bosa would be perfect opposite Cam Jordan. (There’s a strong argument to take a QB here; Jared Goff is my favorite at this time. I did exploit Fanspeak’s rankings to target a different guy, as you’ll see below.)

2: R2P7
WR MICHAEL THOMAS
OHIO STATE
I then traded down with Jacksonville, acquiring the 2.07 and 4.07 for the 2.01. Thomas I don’t know much about yet, but he was Fanspeak’s highest rated receiver at the spot, and I liked what I did see of him against Virginia Tech. I’ve made it clear I think the team needs more receivers who can make difficult and contested catches, and Thomas fits the bill with his size and strength, and adds nice ability after the catch to boot.

3: R3P1
OLB DADI LHOMME NICOLAS
VIRGINIA TECH
Probably won’t be available here in reality, but again, another guy whose athleticism is evident from tape (and will likely measure out that way in the Combine as well). Jumps off the screen with a fantastic first step and very good bend, too. If they stay in the 4-3, they now have one of the best young trio of linebackers in the league in Hau’oli Kikaha, Stephone Anthony, and Nicolas– add the outside ‘backers to Bosa and Jordan, and you have four young, fearsome pass rushers. This could be a return to the glory days of the Dome Patrol. (I’m not sure if Jordan or Bosa is Wayne Martin.)

4: R4P1
WR STERLING SHEPARD
OKLAHOMA
Another guy at the top of the board who I liked when I saw. Adds more speed and quickness to the mix. I like Shepard and Thomas to make tougher catches and also draw coverage away from Cooks to let him maximize his speed.

5: R4P7
ROBERTO AGUAYO
FLORIDA STATE
He was near the top of Fanspeak’s board, and I’ve really had enough of the kicking problems that continually plague this team.

6: R5P1
QB JACOBY BRISSETT
NC STATE
Likely won’t be here in real life, but he shows some really high-level deep accuracy and ability to read progressions on film. May need some work, but truthfully could be better than Garrett Grayson. The team really should do whatever it takes to find and develop their next starter.

7: R7P1
WR BRAXTON MILLER
OHIO STATE
Okay, fine, I don’t know what to do with him, I just took him because of the name and the idea of using him in a bunch of gadget stuff. In reality, they probably take a special-teams player or a developmental offensive lineman.

I like this draft (especially if Brissett pans out, obviously). It fills in two of the most obvious weak spots on the defensive front seven, and greatly upgrades the pass rush in the process. The team keeps searching for the QB for Year One A.B. (After Brees), and adds two receivers who should substantially strengthen the group for whoever that guy is.

2016 outlook

Even assuming a draft like this and Brees back to health, this is probably still a middling team. The young talent won’t be fully developed yet. They’ll bounce back a little bit, perhaps to .500. There’s even hope they could make the playoffs in 2016, if the rookies contribute right away, Andrus Peat takes over for Zach Strief (and becomes the dominant tackle he showed the potential to be), and everyone stays healthy.

Decisions will have to be made on Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd in the 2017 offseason. (My guess will be that Vaccaro regains form and earns a second deal, but Byrd, whether because of injuries or age or both, will be let go.) The team will have to fill in for those guys, as well as anyone else dropping off due to injury or age. With this 2016 mock and presuming things go roughly as I expected, the biggest needs in 2017 will probably be at safety, interior offensive lineman (and perhaps defensive, too), and running back.

And, of course, whether or not the single most important question of the franchise’s future has been answered: Who will be the next quarterback after Drew Brees?

Podcast with Inside the Pylon: Saints Talk

Once again doing a little crossover work with our friends at Inside the Pylon, I appeared on their Thursday podcast to talk about the Saints’ struggles. You can listen here.

(I apologize in advance for the excess of “Ummmmm”s. Even being prepared doesn’t help me in the morning.)

I didn’t get to cover everything I think about the Saints’ prospects for this season and beyond, so I’m hoping to do so in a future column.