With the Saints dead money for the current season now accounting for more than a quarter of the team’s salary cap, there have been growing cries for heads to roll in the front office. A great deal of the blame is being laid at the feet of general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton, but is that where it belongs? Of course they make the final call on who does and doesn’t make the roster and at what price, but they aren’t reaching these decisions on their own.
No matter what the fans think of Loomis or Payton, it’s hard to believe any GM or coach would throw a big contract at a player they knew wasn’t worth it. While the pair may attend workouts for prospective roster additions, it’s impossible for them to personally handle every aspect of evaluating players. Payton isn’t sitting around in his office running background checks and Loomis certainly isn’t throwing on the latex gloves and asking anyone to turn their head and cough. That’s where the rest of the front office comes in. With that in mind, there is one department in the front office that it may be time to overhaul in light of recent issues with the Saints.
The pro scouting department is one of the most influential sections of the front office when it comes to veteran player acquisition and retention. Coming into the 2013 season Terry Fontenot was named Director of Pro Scouting following Ryan Pace’s promotion to Director of Player Personnel. The following off-season the free agent flops started coming through the door. In 2014, it was Jairus Byrd and Erik Lorig. Last year brought Brandon Browner, C.J. Spiller and Dannell Ellerbe. As for 2016, the early returns on the Coby Fleener signing have not been incredibly encouraging. All of these signings are at least partly Fontenot’s responsibility as well as the financial consequences.
With Fontenot’s promotion came a shift in the team’s approach to free agency. Under previous directors it was well known that the Saints had a habit of steering clear of the “first round” of free agency. The reason for this approach was to avoid the inflated price tags that come with the most prominent free agents. The Saints would typically start their shopping in the “second round” of free agency when there were still talented players available but the prices were far more reasonable. In three full off-seasons with Fontenot at the helm, the Saints signed Byrd, Lorig, Browner, Spiller and Fleener within the first week of free agency. Every one of these contracts came with either a significant price tag or significantly more years than were expected. With big contracts come big consequences when they’re cut short.
Also of concern is the significant number of medical issues that seem to be slipping by lately. When Byrd, Spiller and Ellerbe came to the Saints all three had significant injury histories especially for as young as they were at the time. Byrd showed up with back issues that required surgery, Spiller was barely off injured reserve with his second significant shoulder injury and Ellerbe had rarely been off of the injury report or injured reserve in the previous four seasons. Despite all their past health issues Loomis felt comfortable adding each of these men to the roster. As for Keenan Lewis, Loomis agreed to restructure his contract despite lingering knee issues. Anyone that has followed the majority of Loomis’ contract negotiations knows that he will typically go after the best bargain possible. His lengthy negotiations with Drew Brees are an ideal example. So why would Loomis suddenly agree to a handful of pricey contract moves for a few injury-prone players? Either the medical staff completely blew multiple player evaluations or the scouting department has been underselling any medical concerns in their reports to Loomis and Payton.
When the time came for an overhaul of the college scouting department, the Saints looked outside the organization for their best possible option rather than simply promoting from within. With the arrival of Jeff Ireland alongside several other moves, the college side of the recruiting staff has begun a notable turnaround. Fontenot on the other hand has to emerge from the shadow of his former boss Pace if he wants to make a name for himself. The quickest way to do that is by bringing in big name talent. So far, nearly every high-end player that has been signed or extended during his time as Director of Pro Scouting has fallen far short of expectations. Considering the price tags that that come with those types of players, the change in scouting philosophy that coincided with Fontenot’s promotion has proven costly for the Saints. Perhaps it’s time to look outside the franchise for new leadership with a more Pace-like philosophy to the job.