What’s Wrong with the Saints?

After the last few weeks, I can no longer pretend the New Orleans Saints’ fortunes this season are a result of bad luck, getting bad breaks at the end of close games. This may have been true early on, but it’s clear the team is overall performing significantly worse than expected this season, and, with the Carolina game as evidence, is capable of even lower lows than I’d previously thought possible. After playing arguably the worst game any team has played all season, a 41-10 home loss to a 3-8-1 team that was somehow not as close as that score suggests, New Orleans sits at 5-8, still with a chance to make the playoffs but with a team that is a total mess.

I’m going to try to take a look at what’s gone wrong this year, from specific problems to general trends. A game this week against a team that’s possibly more dysfunctional than the Saints might help, but they can’t count on that every week, so here’s what they need to honestly examine and start repairing.

 

Offense:

1. The receivers aren’t getting it done

Marques Colston has gone overnight from a receiver with excellent hands and body control to having one of the highest drop rates in the league. Jimmy Graham has disappeared from multiple games and seems increasingly averse to contact. Darren Sproles’ absence has really hurt the team’s ability to spread the field in the passing game. Brandin Cooks had been fine until he was placed on IR, but comparing the draft capital spent on him to the returns some of the other members of the 2014 receiver class have provided has to be a little disappointing.

Kenny Stills is the biggest bright spot, a steal of a fifth-round receiver who was used primarily as a deep threat his rookie year but has strong route-running and ball skills. Still, though, this receiving crew has turned thin overnight, and the team passed on a chance to add multiple parts in the draft this year (more on that later).

2. Brees has made some sloppy decisions

Drew Brees hasn’t declined as much as some observers want to claim, but at a time when the rest of the team seems to be slowly declining as well, any mistakes he makes are magnified. He’s made some baffling decisions that have cost games– think the late interception in Detroit. He’s thrown multiple pick-sixes again.

If the rumors they want to take a QB high in 2015 are true, it only disappoints me even more that they didn’t stand pat at No. 27 and take Teddy Bridgewater. (If there’s one team that should appreciate an accurate, decision-sharp, but physically underwhelming QB, it’s the New Orleans Saints.) Of course, Brees’ struggles are in part due to points 1 and 3…

3. The line is not living up to expectations

The team let Brian de la Puente, a Pro Bowl center and another one of their undrafted free agent finds, walk in the offseason. They’ve generally done well with their next-man-up philosophy to not overpay middling or slightly-above-average talent, but occasionally they miss and don’t have a backup plan. Tim Lelito, a fine run blocker, wasn’t ready to take over at center, so the team signed 35-year-old Jonathan Goodwin back away from San Francisco (after they’d poached the New Orleans free agent a few years back). He has been… adequate.

Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs aren’t quite playing to their expected level anymore. The whole team is aging, and collectively, each player’s small decline is adding up to a serious decline overall.

4. The play-calling can get silly

Sometimes I think Sean Payton is a little too interested in coming up with clever or creative ways to get one yard. Other times I think he calls too many plays with limited options despite having a quarterback who’s among the best at surveying the field and making the best of multiple decisions. Other times, he leaves Jimmy Graham off the field in the situations he’s designed for.

Payton’s fourth-and-short play calling in the last two years has included a fullback dive, a designed pass to the fullback in the flat, a quarterback sneak by a guy who measures six-foot-even, quite a few tosses or slow-developing stretch runs to Mark Ingram, and, in the coup de grĂ¢ce for opinions of Payton’s short-yardage play-calling, a third-string tight end getting a handoff on an end-around. Payton seems to love being either overly fancy or utterly predictable in these situations. The Saints are at their best when they do what they do best– namely, give Drew Brees options, and make sure one of those options is Jimmy Graham.

 

Defense:

1. An overall lack of talent

I’d like to take a minute to talk about how the current Saints roster has been a bit hamstrung by two things:

  • The Bountygate penalties stripped two second-round draft picks from the team, players who could reasonably be expected to be above-average starters. (Now that Roger Goodell has been revealed to be a total fraud when it comes to being moral and just in his adjudication, this seems much more unfair. You can read Houston attorney Stephanie Stradley’s excellent series on Bountygate for more detail; this is a good start.)
  • The Saints keep trading up in the first round, and it keeps costing them picks that could be used for depth.

Since 1999, the Saints have traded up six times in or into the first round. (The 1999 trade was all Mike Ditka, but the next five were current GM Mickey Loomis’ decisions, so he bears serious responsibility for this approach to drafting.) Some cursory research suggests this is easily the highest number of any team in this time. What’s worse, they keep doing it even though the results don’t seem to really merit it:

  • 1999: The Saints trade their entire draft, plus next year’s first- and third-rounders, to Washington to move up for Ricky Williams. He is with the team for three years before being traded to Miami, although the team does get a first-round pick back for him. Unfortunately…
  • 2003: The Saints trade their first-round pick (No. 17) and Miami’s first-round pick (No. 18), to move up to No. 6, while also moving up from No. 54 to No. 37 in the second round, and acquiring the No. 102 pick in the fourth round.
    At 6, they select defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, who turns out to be a tremendous bust who ate his way out of the league after three seasons. To add insult to injury, defensive tackle Kevin Williams was taken No. 9; he enjoyed perennial Pro Bowls in his prime and is still in the league in his 13th season.
    (Another fun note: While No. 37 selection Jon Stinchcomb enjoyed a fine career as the Saints right tackle, the No. 54 selection was Anquan Boldin, of whom it’s safe to say he’s had the better career.)
  • 2005: The Saints trade No. 16 and their 2006 third-rounder to the Texans for No. 13. They take Jammal Brown, which was a surprise, as most pundits had Alex Barron as the higher-ranked OT. It was the right decision, though: Barron was a bust, as was DT Travis Johnson (the Texans’ selection at 16). Meanwhile, Brown made All-Pro in his second season. Unfortunately, a hip injury sidelined him for all of 2009, and the Saints, confident that 2007 fourth-rounder Jermon Bushrod could handle the job, subsequently traded Brown to Washington for what ended up being a 2011 third-round pick (see below as to how they used that pick).
    As a footnote, the third-rounder the Saints surrendered was used to select Eric Winston, who never reached the heights Brown did as a player, but was a very good right tackle for Houston who never missed a game in seven seasons. So if you’re keeping score, the Saints got four years of Pro Bowl-caliber play by trading a pick that netted seven years of above-average play– and this was one of their most successful first-round trades.
  • 2008: The Saints trade their first-round pick (No. 10) and third-round pick (No. 78) to New England for their first- (No. 7) and fifth- (No. 164) picks. This isn’t much value to give up, but the Saints select defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who gives them five mostly disinterested years before retiring when his rookie contract expires. (Rumors were that the Saints wanted to give up a king’s ransom to move up to No. 5 to select Glenn Dorsey, which the Chiefs refused; that would have been much worse simply for the amount of draft capital lost.) Naturally, the Patriots’ selection at 10, Jerod Mayo, has enjoyed a career as one of the better inside linebackers in the league.
    This one has a silver lining, though: the No. 164 pick was Carl Nicks, who was one of the best guards in the league for the four years he was with the Saints, before signing a huge free-agent deal with Tampa Bay. (Tampa Bay being Tampa Bay, he then immediately suffered a toe injury and a MRSA infection that crippled his effectiveness to the point where the team released him (in a mutual decision) in July.)
  • 2011: The Saints trade their second-round pick and next year’s first-round pick for New England’s No. 28 first-round pick, then select Mark Ingram. You probably know how I feel about running backs as fungible assets. You probably also know how I feel about physically mediocre running backs with substandard moves and vision who take four years to finally become effective. An awful decision that even the best running of Ingram’s career hasn’t made look better. (Or the fact that by staying put in the second round, the Saints could have just drafted DeMarco Murray instead.)
    Some bad luck here: The Saints’ third-round pick was No. 72; the No. 70 selection was Justin Houston and the No. 71 was Murray. At 72, the Saints selected Martez Wilson, a similarly-graded prospect whom they released after two and a half seasons and who is currently not under contract anywhere in the NFL.
  • 2014: In the deepest wide receiver draft in history, the Saints trade up from No. 27 to No. 20 to select Brandin Cooks. Cooks was having a fine enough year (if not in the league of the other first-round rookies) until he went on injured reserve, but it’s arguable that the receiver Arizona selected with the Saints’ third-round pick, John Brown, has been nearly as productive as Cooks (and would be just as productive if the Drew throwing to him was named Brees and not Stanton).

I bring up all this in the section on defense because the team likes to make mention of how many undrafted free-agent rookies they find and are able to get contributions out of. Well, it’s time to face the flipside of that coin: They often do this because they have to, because their trading up spreads their draft capital too thin. And this year, those guys have not been getting it done. (To be fair, neither have most of the drafted guys.) When you trade up constantly, you lose the steady stream of day one and two picks that are supposed to be your starters, the core of your team. When you lose that stream, you have to start looking at lower picks, undrafted free agents, and cheap veteran free agents to fill those roles.

Sometimes you get a great contributor (Junior “SACKMAN” Galette has been one of the more valuable UDFAs in recent memory), but more often, you have guys who are simply overmatched. While the Saints have found some late-round and undrafted gems, this well simply doesn’t have a high enough success rate to be able to sustain building a team this way in lieu of day one and day two picks. As a result, the overall level of talent is just not there. There are Pro Bowl players on the defense, but no real star. And once you get beyond the five or so best players on the defense, the cracks show pretty quickly.

2. Jairus Byrd might be a colossal bust

The Byrd signing was a gamble, especially given his history of foot injuries, but if he was able to play at the expected level, he would have been a valuable addition to the Saints’ defense, a center fielder who range would allow the team to mix and match a variety of looks and coverages in front of him. That never materialized. I certainly don’t regret letting Malcolm Jenkins (another first-rounder who never lived up to expectations) walk, but without either one of them, the position is undeniably downgraded.

The real issue is if Byrd can’t rebound: The Saints’ gamble on offering him a major contract may quickly turn into an albatross. Rebuilding will be even harder with the guaranteed money facing Byrd tied to the cap for a player who can’t play.

3. Still can’t find a second cornerback

The team might want to start thinking about finding some new scouting for the secondary, because this isn’t about a lack of capital. The team nailed the Jabari Greer and Keenan Lewis signings, correctly identifying underrated corners who were strong in coverage, but virtually every other move at the cornerback position has failed: from signing Jason David to drafting Patrick Robinson in the first round to drafting Johnny Patrick in the third round to signing Champ Bailey this year (a signing that cost them $500,000 guaranteed for a player who never played a snap) to drafting Stanley Jean-Baptiste this year, none of their significant moves have worked out. The team is getting significant minutes from Corey White (2012 fifth-rounder) and Brian Dixon (undrafted rookie) out of sheer necessity, because so many of their other attempts to find cornerbacks haven’t worked. And, unsurprisingly, they’ve been overmatched. (Greer’s ACL tear, which effectively ended his career, is the hidden explanation for the Saints’ struggles– the team simply no longer has a second capable cover corner.)

The Jean-Baptiste one is the most baffling. As someone who had Phillip Gaines rated as a first-rounder, it’s been a little frustrating seeing him move into Kansas City’s starting lineup while the Saints struggle at the position, but even so, I thought Jean-Baptiste was someone who had enough natural talent to get on the field right away. Instead, he’s played eight total snaps on defense this year. That’s less than one snap a game. I don’t know why SJB can’t get more playing time, unless he’s completely unable to pick up the defense. If that’s the case, it’s unacceptable to use a high pick on someone without verifying that sort of thing. (I admit, in my own ranking of Jean-Baptiste, I failed to account sufficiently for his combination of rawness and age– I can live with a 21-year-old who needs some time to get up to speed, but a 24-year-old needs to be able to contribute almost immediately.)

The only team that’s gotten less contribution out of a corner taken in the first three rounds is the Jets, who drafted Dexter McDougle early in the third round despite the fact that he missed most of his final season at Maryland with an injury, only to see him succumb to another season-ending injury before the year even started.

The Saints simply have to do better at identifying and developing starting-caliber cornerback talent.

4. Nobody can tackle

I don’t know how you teach a team to tackle. I also don’t know how you teach a team to take proper angles of pursuit. These are pretty basic fundamentals; NFL players should know them by the time they get to the Show.

The Saints have a lot of rebuilding to do. It’s possible the Drew Brees era is functionally over, due to the decline of the talent around him. By the time the cap room is cleared and the roster is re-stocked, he may be too old to benefit. For the most part, the Mickey Loomis – Sean Payton team has been able to build a contending roster around Brees that maximizes his skills. As he ages and the talent around him declines, though, it’s time they looked honestly at what they’re doing wrong in roster building and start making the changes that will allow them to return to perennial contention.

This story has been updated to reflect the Saints’ 2005 first-round trade. GM Mickey Loomis has traded up in the first round five times in twelve seasons.

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