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.

 

Advertisements

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?

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 grâce 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.

Midseason Review: NFC South

I’ll try to get a series of midseason reviews about various divisions done this week. I may not get to all of them, so I’ll try to start with the ones that interest me the most.

NFC SOUTH

New Orleans Saints
Current record: 4-4

The Saints lead the division, although they’d surely like to have a better record at this point. Losing three close games on the road in rough fashion has held them back early on. That said, they did look shakier in the early season than they have since the bye, barely beating Tampa Bay and struggling to put away Minnesota.

Two solid wins against Green Bay and at Carolina indicate that the team is a lot better than the one that struggled for six weeks. The question is: Were the better performances the result of favorable matchups, or of sustainable improvements on both sides of the ball? It’s a question with evidence to support each argument: Green Bay only stopped scoring when Aaron Rodgers was hurt, and the Saints match up particularly well with a Carolina team with one serious receiving option and a porous offensive line. On the other hand, getting Mark Ingram and Kenny Stills back to full health opened up the offense, and Rob Ryan may have used the bye week to re-engineer a defense that was conceived around the free-range ability of Jairus Byrd. For those reasons, the Saints may be the most intriguing story of the second half of the season, as they try to prove they are a real Super Bowl contender.

Carolina Panthers
Current record: 3-5-1

Losing Greg Hardy has been more difficult on the defense than I think anyone anticipated. Kelvin Benjamin has played incredibly well, all things considered, but the same problems that were perceived in this team before the season continue to surface: An undermanned offensive line and receiver crew, running backs who can’t stay healthy, and a lack of talent in the back four on defense. This roster needs to be rebuilt, and it needs to be done before Cam Newton develops too many bad habits from working with subpar talent.

Atlanta Falcons
Current record: 2-6

All that draft-day trading up and top-heavy team-building has come to roost the last two seasons for the Falcons, as injuries and lack of cap room have left them with multiple subpar units. After 2012, it would have been crazy to suggest anyone in the Falcons’ braintrust might be in jeopardy, yet less than two years later, here we are.

The team needs to build a healthy offensive line and a pass rush before it can consider itself a playoff contender again. I know this is an unreasonably short writeup, but there’s not much to say: The good (Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Desmond Trufant, eventually Jake Matthews) and bad (just about everything else) with this team are pretty obvious.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Current record: 1-7

I feel like “solid” and “high floor”, when used to describe draft prospects, often means “low ceiling.” I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve heard described that way have just been complete busts (Aaron Curry and Jason Smith are two of the more recent ones; Luke Joeckel is heading there). All this is a metaphor for Lovie Smith’s “veteran coaching presence.” His supposed “high floor” isn’t manifesting itself; the roster has a decided lack of talent and he’s doing nothing to get any kind of special performance out of it. Lovie Smith was supposed to be a throwback to the Dungy era, but right now, it’s looking more like the Hugh Culverhouse years.

Mike Glennon is probably not the answer, but he hasn’t been outright terrible, either. That said, no matter how the team goes about it, they need a real passing game to compete in the modern NFL. Smith doesn’t have much of a track record of delivering those.

Post-script: After I initially wrote this, Smith announced Josh McCown would return to being the starter. He also said Mike Glennon was still “the future of this team.” Those things appear to me to be mutually exclusive, but what do I know, I’m not an NFL head coach (of a 1-7 team).

The Top 10: Safeties

In a lot of ways, safeties are the least valuable players on a defense. They get paid the least on average, and are rarely drafted higher than late in the first round. However, this may have more to do with the distribution of talent at the position; the overwhelming majority of players at safety are marginally replaceable. While this makes for a lot of turnover at the position for many teams, it also makes the top players at the position all the more valuable.

Continue reading