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.

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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.

Crossover Post Part 2: Zone Reads and Inside the Pylon Discuss Patriots-Saints

Following up on my answers to the Saints questions that were posted yesterday and ran on Inside the Pylon, we had some questions for Dave Archibald and Mark Schofield from ITP about the Patriots’ outlook for this preseason.

1. The Patriots had significant turnover in the secondary. Both starting cornerbacks from last year are gone, and aside from Devin McCourty, the secondary is full of unproven young players or veterans who weren’t cutting it with other teams. What’s the outlook here? What are your thoughts on the actual players, and who do you expect to end up being the key guys there?

Dave Archibald: Good question; this seems to be the biggest question mark with the defending champs. By all reports, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler is having a terrific camp and has all but locked down one of the starting spots. Opposite him will likely be one of the veterans: ex-Raider Tarell Brown, who is returning from injury, or ex-Eagle Bradley Fletcher, who was toasted in 2014 by a challenging group of wideouts . In the slot will be former Falcon Robert McClain or versatile vet Logan Ryan. The dark horse is seventh-round pick Darryl Roberts of Marshall, who started and played effectively in the preseason opener before leaving with injury. They have enough bodies that they’ll be fine most weeks, but they’re lacking an obvious physical match for bigger receivers like Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas, so they’ll have to be creative at times.

McCourty’s as solid as they come on the back end, and they have no shortage of options next to him at safety. Veteran Patrick Chung had a bounce-back year in 2014 and was especially effective in man-to-man coverage on tight ends, arguably a strong safety’s most important job in the modern NFL. Duron Harmon is a capable backup to McCourty and plays alongside him in passing situations, though he’s not much of a run defender. Second-round rookie Jordan Richards out of Stanford is apparently hitting the ground running in camp and might play a role, too.

New England played a ton of man-to-man coverage last season and it seems unlikely that will continue with this group. They might want to be able to use more zone against teams with effective running games, and that mentality shift was part of investing less in the cornerback group, letting Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk in the offseason.

Browner will be an interesting fit in New Orleans. He was up-and-down last year; he locked down everyone he covered in the Super Bowl but was benched in the second half against Indianapolis in the AFCCG. He’s physical, has tremendous wingspan to knock away passes, and he’s faster in a straight line than people think, but he really struggles with change-of-direction and quick guys. He’ll frustrate Mike Evans types but there will be other weeks you won’t want him on the field. I see him more as a unique role player who can be brilliant in the right matchups rather than a solid starter.

2. Related: What are your thoughts on the pass rush? Jabaal Sheard was one of my favorite low-profile signings this offseason, a productive complementary rusher who was forgotten playing out of position behind a $40 million contract and a #6 overall pick. What will his role be? Do you think Dominique Easley can come back healthy? Will the pass rush mitigate the secondary inexperience?

DA: When healthy, starting defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich rarely came off the field in 2014, so Sheard will let them get some rest if nothing else. Jones has been somewhat injury-prone so far in his career, so Sheard provides depth. I’m curious as to whether they can get all three in the lineup on a consistent basis. They tried Jones at 3-4 end early in the season and ultimately had to abandon it, partly due to injuries and partly because it wasn’t a strong fit for Jones.

Easley is one of the swing guys for this season – if he can stay healthy, he can be the disruptive inside rusher that the Patriots haven’t had since Richard Seymour’s heyday. Whether he can stay healthy is anyone’s guess, though.

Rookie fourth-rounder Trey Flowers out of Arkansas was a favorite of the draft Twitter community and had an impressive sack in the preseason opener, and they also drafted Geneo Grissom out of Oklahoma late in the third round. The pass rush should be quite a bit deeper than last year, when they had to get Akeem Ayers out of purgatory (or the Tennessee Titans) after Jones got hurt.

3. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are gone. LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray are back to compete for the power-back carries. Who wins, and what’s the rest of the running back rotation going to look like? Will James White or Travaris Cadet play a major role? I haven’t even mentioned Brandon Bolden or James Develin.

DA: This came up in a recent mailbag. They seemed to draft White expecting him to replace Vereen, and he had a fine preseason opener in the passing game, racking up yards after catch. The question is: can he pass protect well enough to keep Brady upright? That’s also a concern with Cadet, who wasn’t asked to block much with the Saints. Bolden is probably the best pass blocker in the group but was lacking as a receiving back when Vereen was hurt in 2013. If they can run the football more consistently, there might be more work for the power backs and less for the scatbacks.

4. What’s going on at receiver behind Edelman and LaFell? Is Aaron Dobson ready to assume a significant role? Are the rumors of Josh Boyce looking good in camp meaningful? Does it matter, as long as you have Tom Brady?

DA: Danny Amendola is the third guy; he was invisible most of the year but came on the playoffs. The fourth guy, whether it’s Dobson, Boyce, deep threat Bryan Tyms, or ex-Dolphin Brandon Gibson, isn’t going to play much barring injury. If anything, we’ll see more two wide receiver sets with the addition of tight end Scott Chandler, and even Amendola’s role will be reduced. Chandler won’t make anyone forget Aaron Hernandez, but paired with Rob Gronkowski he gives opponents twin tower tight ends to account for and try to match up against.

5. Speaking of, time to address the elephant in the room: We both know Deflategate is trumped-up nonsense, and this question may not even be relevant by press time, but: Is Jimmy Garoppolo ready to play if he has to? What are your thoughts on his development so far and do you think he’s the guy for the future?

Mark Schofield: New England’s front office saw enough from him to make Garoppolo their second round pick in the 2014 draft. Looking at his film from college and his limited playing time in the NFL there is a lot to like. He has solid arm talent, with the ability to work the football into narrow throwing lanes and drive the football downfield when he needs to with velocity. He is also an athletic quarterback, able to extend plays with his feet and pick up yardage on the ground. He also throws a tremendous deep ball with upper-level touch and accuracy.

But is he ready to play if pressed into action? Not entirely. He’s close, but there is still one issue that he needs to improve, and that is his response to pressure.

One of the major concerns about him coming out of college was his presence in the pocket. When pressured, he tended to get happy feet, take his eyes down and focus on the rush. We saw that in bunches last Friday night. In the face of pressure Garoppolo struggled to continue with plays and make his reads from the pocket. From a clean pocket he is ready, but you do not see clean pockets all the time in the NFL.

Lost in all of the Deflategate discussion is the effect this is having on Garoppolo’s development and preparation for the season. The longer this drags on – and the longer Tom Brady continues to take the majority of snaps in practice – the less time Garoppolo has to prepare for the season opener. Should Judge Berman uphold Brady’s suspension on the cusp of the season-opener, New England might find themselves in a bit of a bind when it comes to having their back-up ready to go.

As far as his long-term prospects, I think Garoppolo is – like Brett Hundley in Green Bay and Garrett Grayson in New Orleans – in a perfect position to develop, caddy and get ready for the day he takes over. Garoppolo has enough talent that I believe he is the QB of the future in New England, he just needs to continue improving in the pocket.

6. Aside from anyone I haven’t mentioned, who are you interested in watching on Saturday? Which young players and sleepers do you think could end up contributing significantly this season? Which position battles?

DA: The offensive line was the biggest weakness on the team for most of 2014, but it mostly fell into place once then-rookie Bryan Stork took over at center, with veterans Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell in the guard spots. Connolly retired in the offseason, and most are assuming that fourth-round pick Tre’ Jackson – like Stork, a product of Florida State’s legendary offensive line coach Rick Trickett – will start at right guard on day one. Wendell is battling for the left guard spot with another fourth-round pick in Shaq Mason, who was a terrific run blocker at Georgia Tech but barely ever pass blocked in their option offense. Sebastian Vollmer is one of the NFL’s best right tackles, and left tackle Nate Solder was solid down the stretch after a poor start to the year. Depth tackles Marcus Cannon and Cam Fleming are also players to watch; both got some work at guard last season, and Fleming mauled defenses as a sixth lineman in some run-heavy sets. I think the downside is the kind of up-and-down performance we saw in 2014, but there’s a chance if all the pieces come together that this could be one of the NFL’s better groups, taking pressure off Brady (/ Garoppolo) and a defense that figures to slip a bit. Of the projected starters, only Jackson played in the first preseason game, and Garoppolo took seven sacks behind a makeshift line. I’ll be looking for improved protection Saturday.

Interior line play on the other side of the ball also bears watching, as anchor Vince Wilfork is gone. Sealver Siliga filled in effectively when Wilfork was hurt in 2013, but can he shoulder the load for a full season? Will first-round pick Malcom Brown from Texas start on day one? Do they get contributions from veterans Alan Branch or Antonio Johnson, or do they not even make the team? Easley factors in here, too.

Looking forward to Saturday’s matchup!

Crossover Post: Zone Reads and Inside the Pylon Discuss Patriots-Saints

The New England Patriots play the New Orleans Saints on Saturday for preseason week 2. My old college friend and roommate, Dave Archibald, a lifelong Pats fan who contributes to Inside the Pylon, reached out to me, a lifelong Saints fan, for a Q&A session about the teams and what to watch for beforehand.

My answers on the Saints have gone live on ITP. Dave’s answers on the Patriots will run on our site tomorrow.

Team Mock Draft: New Orleans Saints

I thought I’d do a few of these while it occurred to me. I don’t know how many I’ll finish by draft time, but based on our rankings and projections, these are drafts that I think match a team’s needs well with the expected talent available at each position. (I’ve also included some other possible selections for the Day One and Two picks, in case the player I mentioned is already gone or that need has been filled.)

I’ll start with my favorite team, the New Orleans Saints.

Round 1, Pick 13
Bud Dupree, EDGE, Kentucky

I expect Dupree to be the last of the “big four” (I do not count Shane Ray among that group anymore) edge guys available at this point. That makes him a good value here and an obvious selection for a team hurting on defense.

Possible Alternatives: Randy Gregory, EDGE, Nebraska; DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville; Marcus Peters, CB, Washington

Round 1, Pick 31
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

You can see my reasoning in the previous mock draft I wrote. Hundley would be allowed to sit until he was ready, and in an ideal situation as well. If the Saints don’t think their quarterback of the future is here, though, several potential options remain:

Possible Alternatives: Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA; Nelson Agholor, WR, USC; Owamagbe Odhigizuwa, EDGE, UCLA; Carl Davis, DT, Iowa; Henry Anderson, DE/DT, Stanford

Round 2, Pick 44
Devin Smith, WR, Ohio State

I think Smith’s elite deep game is going to offer the Saints offense a major factor it lacks after the Kenny Stills trade. I think Smith can be even better than Stills as a deep threat; I also think he’ll develop into a well-rounded-enough receiver to justify the pick here. If he’s gone, Sammie Coates and Phillip Dorsett offer alternatives.

Possible Alternatives: Stephone Anthony, LB, Clemson; Ronald Darby, CB, Florida State; Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest; Eli Harold, EDGE, Virginia; Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota

Round 3, Pick 75
Ali Marpet, G, Hobart

“Athletic small-school lineman” is a prototype that’s worked well for the Saints in the past: Bloomsburg’s Jahri Evans and Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s Terron Armstead currently anchor down crucial positions on the offensive line. Marpet could slide right in to replace the departed Ben Grubbs.

Round 3, Pick 78
Paul Dawson, LB, TCU

An instinctive playmaker on film who isn’t as fast or fluid as you’d like, Dawson slipped down some boards after poor speed times at the Combine. He’d likely be available here, where he’d represent good value.

Possible Alternatives (Picks 75 and 78): Tre McBride, WR, William and Mary; Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State; Grady Jarrett, DT, Clemson; Tre Jackson, G, Florida State; Laken Tomlinson, G, Duke; Dayrl Williams, OT, Oklahoma; Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB/S, Oregon; Eric Rowe, CB/S, Utah; Clive Walford, TE, Miami-FL

Round 5, Pick 148
Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska

A Matt Waldman favorite, Bell compares in many ways to the Saints’ departed 2013 fifth-rounder, Kenny Stills. Similarly, Bell could start off in a limited role in year one before expanding to be a bigger part of the offense. (I’m assuming Marques Colston and Nick Toon don’t stay on the roster past 2015, and the jury is out on late-season pickup Jalen Saunders.)

Round 5, Pick 154
Derrick Lott, DT, Tennessee-Chattanooga

Lott is one of my favorite small-school prospects in this draft, a defensive tackle who crushes film and whose combine measurements stack up to that performance. (A 7.30 three-cone time at 314 pounds is crazy!) The middle of the Saints’ defense has been questionable, despite the resources spent on Akiem Hicks, John Jenkins, and Broderick Bunkley. Lott adds a player who can be an aggressive part of a rotation early on until he’s ready for a bigger role.

In addition to these two players, the Saints may strongly consider a candidate for slot cornerback– Lorenzo Doss, Quandre Diggs, Senquez Golson, Bobby McCain, or Bryce Callahan are all viable options.

Round 6, Pick 186
Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State

The Bowling Ball Bulldog has been seriously underrated nationally– I have him as a high fourth-rounder; I project him in the sixth here because that’s closer to where most rankings have him. If the Saints are looking for a thumping clock-killer who breaks every tackle possible, Robinson is a guy who could make moving on from Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson very easy.

Round 7, Pick 230
Alani Fua, LB, BYU

A linebacker whose versatility will be a selling point for Rob Ryan, and whose agility and athleticism will probably allow him to be a valuable special-teams contributor right away.

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.