Bad deals, drafts sacking Saints’ ability to win
42% of Saints’ salary going to 10 players, nine of who are no longer on the team
The New Orleans Saints’ preseason has been so disappointing that it’s cast a pall over the coming regular season. With every week it’s become more apparent that the 2016 Saints are likely not going to meet expectations of making the playoffs. But the apparent demise of the Saints’ season before it kicks off shouldn’t come as a surprise. The writing’s been on the Superdome wall for a while now. This team doesn’t have the talent to compete with the NFL’s elite teams.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Saints dominated the league. Since winning the Super Bowl, New Orleans has a 56-40 record, a 58.3 winning percentage. However, in the last four years, they are 32-32.
Most experts think the team will be lucky to be 8-8 this year. Football betting information website Footballlocks.com’s futures line for the Saints’ season win total is 7.5 games, while the team’s odds of winning Super Bowl LI are 65 to 1.
How did they get here? How did they fall so fast?
Put simply, in trying to win another championship in a quickly closing window of opportunity, several mistakes were made.
New Orleans’ major problem is dead money. For the past few seasons the Saints haven’t been on level financial playing ground with most of their NFL brethren. For every dollar a team without a salary cap issue has been able to spend, the Saints have been limited to spending roughly 75 cents.
This year, the Saints are paying more than $65 million, or 42 percent, of the league mandated $155 million salary cap allotment to 10 players – nine of whom won’t play a down for the black & gold this year.
The team is on the hook for more than $35.5 million to players who are no longer on the team, including Junior Galette ($12.1 million), Keenan Lewis ($6.35 million), Jahri Evans ($5.1 million), Brandon Browner ($4 million), and Marques Colston ($2.7 million). That’s almost a quarter of their budget, right off the top, going nowhere in advancing this year’s team.
When the $30 million quarterback Drew Brees is set to earn this year, roughly 19 percent of the cap total, is added to the dead money total, the team is left with roughly $89.6 million, or 58 percent of the cap total to fill out the remaining 52 positions on their 53-man roster.
The most economical way to build a team is through the draft, but the Saints haven’t seen much success recently in selecting NFL-ready talent. Since the Super Bowl win, the Saints have only one remaining draft pick from the draft classes of 2014 and 2012; two from the class of 2011; and none from 2010.
In 2015, the Saints selected two first rounders, OT Andrus Peat and LB Stephone Anthony. They picked up LB Hau'oli Kikaha in the second round, QB Garrett Grayson and DB P.J. Williams in the third, LB Davis Tull, DT Tyeler Davison, and CB Damian Swann in the fifth, and RB Marcus Murphy in the seventh round.
All made the team last year, but several have not met expectations. Because of holes in the offensive line, Peat has been shuffled from his college position of left tackle to right tackle, right guard, and now left guard. The moves have left him looking wobbly and his inability to make an impact has many wondering if he was worthy of the 13th overall pick a season ago. Anthony was named to the Pro Football Writers Association all-rookie team, but has been shifted from middle linebacker to strong side linebacker. Kikaha also made a significant contribution, but, in June, suffered his third ACL tear and will miss the entire 2016 season. Grayson was the highest drafted Saints QB since Archie Manning, but hasn’t met head coach Sean Payton’s expectations for his career progression thus far. The rest of the draft class included minimal role players whose futures are murky.
The 2016 class was headlined by first round draft choice Sheldon Rankins. The 12th overall pick is expected to plug a big hole on the defensive line, but the defensive tackle has been sidelined with a fractured fibula that will likely keep him off the field for the first month of the season. Second round pick Michael Thomas is a big target at wide receiver and has shown flashes of his talent. The Saints traded their third, fourth and fifth round choices in order to pick up Ohio State safety Vonn Bell later in the second round. He should see a lot of action this fall, and may even work his way into the starting rotation. They picked up David Onyemata, a project defensive lineman, in the fourth and running back Daniel Lasco in the seventh.
A third issue facing the team is Brees’ contract and future with the team. He’s in the last year of his current deal, and it was expected that the Saints and Brees would work out a contract extension this offseason. So far nothing has been done, and it’s mindboggling.
If a deal isn’t reached, Brees will be a free agent at the end of the season, which means this could be his last season as a Saint. The team could put the franchise tag on him for the 2017 season. But if they do that, it would be the third time in his career that Brees has been tagged. According to Pro Football Talk, his salary would automatically increase 44-percent to $43.2 million – for one year. That would mean the Saints would pay Brees $73.2 million for two seasons of play. By comparison, this offseason the Houston Texans signed career back-up QB Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million contract.
Unless the Saints are planning on moving on without Brees after 2016, why hasn’t the team worked with their quarterback to negotiate a new contract that would have lowered his financial hit, freed up money that could have been used to attract other impact players to the team, and keep him in New Orleans until he retires?
The Saints brain trust of head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis, assistant general manager Jeff Ireland, and director of pro scouting Terry Fontenot are responsible of putting together a team of the best available players. The lack of financial resources has meant the Saints have been forced to depend on a greater mix of draft picks, journeyman players cast off of other teams, and undrafted free agents joining the dwindling number of recognizable players on the roster. Just this week, they added guard Khalif Barnes, and DEs Chris McCain and Paul Kruger to shore up their leaky offensive and defensive lines.
In his time in New Orleans, Loomis was instrumental in the team earning their first Super Bowl championship. That won’t be forgotten. When he and Payton took over the Saints’ in 2006, their first few decisions on the club’s future appeared to be masterstrokes. The duo signed Brees and drafted one of the best classes, top to bottom, in NFL history. It included Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief, and Colston.
But too many mistakes have piled up since. Misses on veteran players and draft picks have put the club in financial dire straights and limited their ability to build a deep, talented team.
If the Saints are successful in 2016, the Saints are unlikely to make any major front office changes. However, if the team struggles a change of hand may be forced. Because of his championship and standing in the community, Payton’s job is likely not in jeopardy. He can say he had to play with the cards he was dealt.
Loomis doesn’t enjoy that same latitude, and shoulders much of the responsibility for the team’s current situation. The Saints finished 7-9 in three of the last four seasons. That can’t happen again. There was a time when 8-8 was acceptable. That was 1979, when a .500 record guaranteed the Saints their first non-winning season. But after winning a championship in 2009, anything less than the playoffs is a letdown.
If the Saints don’t have a winning season this year, it will be time for a change – if not several. Next year, the team will finally get on more solid financial ground. The salary cap is expected to increase to $166 million in 2017. The Saints currently have $128 million in deals set for next year, with only $4.9 million (Lewis $3.6 million, Browner’s $1.3 million) in dead money. That will give the team nearly $44 million to make significant upgrades and return New Orleans to the top of the NFL.
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Source – staff research