Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints

During the past decade the New Orleans Saints have become a team where excellence is expected at every level. When Sean Payton arrived before the 2006 season there wasn’t a noticeable difference in his reception as a coach. He was another coach in a long line of Saints’ coaches who had yet to prove themselves on the ultimate stage of the gridiron. After the 2006 season those expectations changed and have continued to stay at a lofty level. The results of 2009 certainly didn’t damper them.

Now, fans look at this team and instead of living with the “there’s always next year” mentality they’ve adopted a paradigm that is familiar to many successful fanbases, “win now.”  Everyone expects the Saints to succeed and be perennial Superbowl contenders. This brings me to my main point, and to the title of the article, the Saints coaching staff and front office have adopted this mentality as well.

Mickey Loomis has become famous for his offseason magic, but in reality what he is doing is simply a “band-aid” to the salary cap. Signing bonus hefty up front, low initial cap numbers and pushing the bulk of salary cap numbers to the end of contracts. Sean Payton, the scouting department, coaching staff and Loomis have also transferred this same system of “win now” into the NFL Draft.

Please, don’t misunderstand me. This is not a “I’m turning on the team and bashing them” article. I truly believe that there is nothing wrong with a “win now” system as long as you are able to execute it in every area. You must be able to retain players from leaving in free agency, bring in new talent, and make jumps in the draft to overcome, what should be, your consistently successful seasons resulting in lower draft picks. The last portion is what I want to talk about.

Since Sean Payton took the helm in 2006 he has only traded down in the draft three times. The last time was in 2007. Comparatively, he has traded up in the draft 10 times, and has done so in every draft except 2006. (This does not include the 2012 draft). Because of this strategy, the Saints have no had more than 6 draft picks since 2007. This is part of the “win now” mentality we were talking about. You are sacrificing quantity in an attempt to draft quality to sustain a string of success. We all know of course that this methodology can only last so long, but as long as the Saints have a future Hall of Fame quarterback at the helm it should be sustainable. From now on, the following numbers will include the 2012 draft.

Earlier I said that this system must be executed perfectly in every area for the team to remain dominant. The New Orleans Saints have struggled in one area and have not been able to fix the problem. They have failed to successfully draft defensive talent. Lets take a loot at the numbers, shall we?

  • Offensive Draft Picks (2006-2014)
    • 23 Total Offensive Picks during this span (Not including STs)
    • 13/23 (56.5%) became starters
    • 11/23 (47.8%) are still on the team
    • 4 Pro-Bowlers
    • 3 All-Pros
    • Franchise All-Time leading Receiver (Colston) who has never made a Pro-Bowl
    • 4 first round picks used on offense. All became starters (At one point or another). Bush/Meachem/Ingram/Cooks
  • Defensive Draft Picks (2006-2014)
    • 28 Total Defensive Picks during this span (Not including STs)
    • 9/28 (32.1%) became starters
    • 9/28 (32.1%) are still on the team
    • Of those 9/28 still on the team, no one remains from before the 2010 draft and 3 of the ones remaining were first round picks.
    • 2 Pro-Bowlers
    • Only Pro-Bowler remaining with team is Cameron Jordan.
    • 5 first round picks used on defense. All became starters (At one point or another).
    • The 2009 and 2011 Draft classes contained only one offensive player, Mark Ingram. Every other player from those drafts were defensive players who are no longer with the team except Cameron Jordan, a first round selection.

You need no more than a first glance to be able to pick out the problem with those stats. We have focused more on the defensive side of the ball during the drafting process (and increasingly so the past four years), but have had little success at finding and grooming talent to replace aging stars. Over half of the Saints successful draft picks on the defensive side of the ball came in the first round. Another alarming statistic is that the Saints have not had a single linebacker that they’ve drafted to start for the team. (In fact, two undrafted rookies made the team and started over drafted linebackers: Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Junior Galette.)

The obvious response by everyone will most likely be “but, we bring in a lot of talent through free agency”. That is correct. Players like Vilma, Lofton, Lewis, Greer, Sharper and Scott Fujita came into New Orleans and became staples of our team. I’d like to point out a couple of problems with relying solely on free agency.

  1. Relying on the free agent market for players requires you to pay more than you would if you drafted a player. For a comparison, look at the contracts of Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro’s rookie contract is for four years and $9,424,704 as of when he signed it.Jairus Byrd’s contract that he signed this offseason is for six years and $54,000,000. Of Byrd’s contract, $26,300,000 is guaranteed to him. I have no problem with signing acquisitions like this. This influx of elite talent can help a team, but to be able to afford to pay such lucrative deals the Saints must rely on depth provided by their draft picks.
  2. Players drafted by a team who start typically last longer with the team than free agents. Let me give you an example. Scott Fujita is one of the best known fan favorites on the defensive side of the ball in recent Saints’ history. He played a total of 56 games for the Saints.Cameron Jordan was drafted in 2011 and has just recently played his 53rd game. If we assume (and pray) he stays healthy throughout his contract, he will have played 80 games. Jonathan Vilma only played 70 in a Saints uniform.

These two points of emphasis point out both the need and benefit of drafting talent that provides both depth and starter quality. It gives you the talent of youth without the pricetag of experience. Both free agency and proper drafting are needed to build a successful franchise. When you begin to fail in one of these areas you will fail in all of them. Something as simple as having a bad draft in one area can trickle into the play of other parts of the field. Special Teams will struggle and the offense will struggle by having to play from behind more than they should.

Football is a complex sport. It doesn’t take much to throw off the delicate balance. Something as small as coaching, player evaluation or player performance done poorly can snowball over time. New schemes and elaborate packages give you the ability to mask certain flaws in a team (whether this tactic is used on offense or defense), but in the end you must fall back on talent, and depth to win in the NFL. The New Orleans Saints are a talented team and have talent on both sides of the ball, but one thing they lack is depth.  As the old Wendy’s commercial used to say, “Where’s the beef?”

wendy-wheresbeef1

When you take a look at the Saints roster and look at the depth on the defensive side of the ball you can only scratch your head and ask yourself, “Where exactly did it all go wrong?”