Saints Transactions Necessary To Improve Below Average Team

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Record Plus Future Outlook Leads To Saints Dismantling

By John Ventola

When a Super Bowl champion drops below a break-even record just five years after capturing the title, roster changes are inevitably necessary to restore the team to a winning mindset. Aging, injury, dropoff in talent, or poor team chemistry, can all play a major part when a team’s effectiveness and productivity worsens. The New Orleans Saints, 2009 NFL Champions, saw a gradual deterioration of its record during the past few years, showing a marked decrease in overall offensive efficiency, and a porous defense that had to strain to stop any opponent. After last season’s 7-9 record, the team’s front office and coaching staff apparently came to the conclusion that, in fact, all four reasons contributed to the Saints fall from grace.

Tight end Jimmy Graham, running back Pierre Thomas, linebacker Curtis Lofton, guard Ben Grubbs, defensive back Corey White, and wide receiver Kenny Stills have all been jettisoned during the league’s free

Drew Brees Passing

Drew Needs Better Protection

agency period. Graham was traded to Seattle along with a fourth round draft pick for center Max Unger and a first round pick. Grubbs was sent to Kansas City for a fifth round draft pick in this year’s selection process, and Stills was sent to Miami for linebacker Dannell Ellerbee and a third-round pick. Eight- year veteran Thomas, Lofton, who had spent the last three years of his eight year career in black and gold, and White were all released. Lofton has signed with Oakland, while Thomas and White remain free agents.

What went into the thought and evaluation process by the front office? A careful, thorough evaluation of every player on the team and practice squad. And it probably started long before the last game of the season was completed.

Talent wins games. Particularly when it combines with good health, and the right team chemistry. Stevie Wonder could see there was something amiss with last year’s Saints. The offense sputtered in almost every game, particularly in red zone possessions, and the defense was quite frankly—defenseless. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s unit finished twenty-ninth in the league, a steep drop from the 2013 effort when his defense was ranked in the top five most of the season. The defense gave up an astounding 395 first downs, keeping Brees on the sideline most of the game. Any time you give up twenty-five first downs a game, you are asking for trouble.

Drew Brees had another statistically relevant season, but was forced into making quicker throws because of pressure rushing through a leaky offensive line. Brees, a master at finding passing lanes when he has time, was hit by defenders more last season than any other time in his career. Adding to the offensive woes was dropped passes by the entire receiving corps, particularly Graham, and the usually sure-handed Marques Colston. The Saints signed Colston to a new contract, and look for the receiver’s return to form.

Mark Ingram, a major disappointment after being a first round pick in 2011 played well in his fourth season and earned a new contract. The Saints have signed former Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller to fill the

cap

Spiller, Ingram, Robinson To Spread It Out

void created by Thomas’ release. Former Saint Reggie Bush, released by Detroit, was available for consideration, but signed with San Francisco after Spiller inked his contract.

The wild comings and goings that is free agency have the Saints vocal fanbase scratching their proverbial heads and wondering if what turned out to be a wholesale fire sale was really necessary to get the team back to the playoffs. When player salaries, production, and other factors were measured, the answer was a resounding yes. Only moves I would question are the Stills deal with Miami, and the free agent signing of defensive back Brandon Browner.

Ellerbee.was acquired from the Dolphins to possibly fill the middle linebacker position, but his career has taken a downward turn since his early work with Baltimore. Last season he was out all season with a hip injury, and reportedly was being cut by the Dolphins, but the Miami front office had not filed the papers with the league office. Question, why trade a developing talent for a guy who would soon be a free agent? Browner, meanwhile, has had two drug suspensions and led the league in defensive penalties, fifteen, in only nine games last year.

Last season Graham, bluntly, was not the same intimidating Jimmy Graham that played for the Saints his first four years. His longest reception went for only 29 yards and although he scored ten touchdowns, his reception yardage figure per catch went down to 10.5 from 12.3 yards per catch the year before. His reception total dropped only one from 86 to 85 when comparing the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but he seemed to be playing without emotion (maybe the NFL’s implementation of the no dunking rule caused him some trouble). His top statistical year was in his second professional season, 2011, when he caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards, 421 more yards than he gained in 2014.

Graham, a former basketball player at the University of Miami, was a gem uncovered by the Saints scouting

paper

Graham’s Changed Attitude Was Evident

department. A neophyte to football, but possessor of a 6 foot 7 inch frame carrying 235 pounds, vice-like hands, and agility fashioned by years of basketball, Graham appeared to be going through the motions much of last season. Not known for his blocking, he was partly responsible for many short-yardage rushing failures and some of the breakdowns in protection of Brees.

A reported shoulder injury in the last six games probably caused him trouble, but a changed attitude, no doubt brought on by negotiations that determined he should be classified as a tight end and not a wide receiver, was mainly responsible for his drop off in sharpness and productivity.

The league decision, where the Saints had to present why they considered Graham a tight end despite his lining up in the slot most of his plays, surely had to be a big hit to the ego of a prideful athlete. In negotiations such as these, negative comments one way or another are made. While Graham felt he deserved the higher pay accorded a wide receiver, the Saints made a strong enough case to get him labeled as a tight end, costing Graham a few million dollars in the process.

What appeared to be a victory (for the front office) turned into a defeat when Graham’s attitude soured and he could not stay focused in 2014. Only those in the Saints locker room know the whole story, but a poor attitude can amount to a cancer. Last season’s squad looked like they could use a strong dose of chemotherapy.

Thomas, an undrafted free agent in 2007 from Illinois, enjoyed a wonderful eight-year career, but injuries limited him to 11 games and his production dropped off considerably. He scored only two touchdowns while getting ninety touches in 2014, 45 carries and 45 receptions.

Lofton was a steady upgrade when he replaced Jonathan Vilma in 2012, but the seven-year pro, who spent his first four years in Atlanta, was targeted for his salary to lower the team’s salary cap total. His durability will be missed as well as his steadiness at the position. He started every game the past two seasons, and had 99 tackles and 45 assists last year. Oakland signed him quickly.

Grubbs, a better run block than pass protector, was another salary cap casualty (making six million a year), but his trade was about productivity, or lack thereof. Even though he started all sixteen games he suffered with neck issues during the last two seasons. His performance was far below that of 2013 when he was selected to play in his second Pro Bowl. Grubbs, a former first round pick of Baltimore in 2007, spent three seasons in New Orleans, and garnered a fifth round pick to use in the draft.

Stills, a fifth round selection in 2013 (144th overall pick), saw his production drop also in 2014. He was targeted only fifty times by Brees (did not have the time to go deep downfield) and made thirty-two receptions for just 641 yards. He caught 63 passes after being targeted 83 times during his rookie season.

Only time will tell if the decisions made were wise ones. The moves were necessary as a below average team cannot stand pat and expect things to improve dramatically. Saints fans, keep the faith, and come January, 2016, we will see if your prayers were answered.

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