Two of the off-season's most intriguing teams crossed paths Friday, when the Saints agreed to send receiver Kenny Stills to the Dolphins for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round pick. While the trade can't measure up to the fireworks we saw earlier this week, it speaks volumes about where each team stands in mid-March—the Saints seemingly committing rebuilding, the Dolphins emerging as an early off-season winner.
Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take a step back and examine what the trade says about each team, what it could mean for next season and more.
True or false: Fire sale is quickest way for Saints to rebuild
Chris Burke: False. At least, not a full fire sale. This, uh, controlled burn might be a better way to go about things, though they're also losing guys—mainly Jimmy Graham—that will be tough to replace.
Also, it's tough really designate this a "fire sale" when the Saints just signed Brandon Browner and C.J. Spiller. Those are the types of moves that a team makes when it believes it can contend, which is the mindset New Orleans ought to have as long as Drew Brees is still flinging passes for the team.
The Saints now have two picks in Round 1 and five picks in the first three rounds combined. For as much attention as the free-agency period gets year after year, succeeding in the draft remains the most proven way to build a contender.
Doug Farrar: True. At this point, it's hard to see any other way for the Saints to improve. Even with the trade of Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks and the release of linebacker Curtis Lofton (not to mention several re-structurings), the franchise has a little more than $4 million in cap space available, and most of that will be eradicated by a rookie pool that will have them paying two first-round draft picks. (The trade of Kenny Stills for Dannell Ellerbe will stress the Saints' cap further even with Ellerbe reportedly restructuring.) Factor in the Ben Grubbs trade to Kansas City, and Jahri Evans's regression in 2014, and you have to wonder if general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton aren't punting this into the future because they realized the team hit its ceiling.
[daily_cut.nfl]If that's the case, a Drew Brees trade starts to make a great deal of sense. As much as the Saints would be pilloried for dealing away a player seen as a local hero, Brees has a completely onerous $26.4 million cap hit in 2015, and he doesn't seem to be taking any steps toward re-structuring. What the Saints can't do is straddle both sides of the fence—either they're rebuilding, or they're not, and patchwork players won't get that done. Loomis and Payton need to err on the side of roster regeneration.
Has anyone improved more than the Dolphins this off-season?
Burke: Maybe. Several teams are in the conversation: the Jets, Oakland, Washington, Arizona, etc. The Ndamukong Suh addition alone pushes the Dolphins pretty close to the top, and adding Jordan Cameron and Kenny Stills in the past 24 hours furthers their climb. Also, to this point, they haven't had any departures that will leave them scrambling. Many others have.
Miami had a solid base of talent when the off-season began, too, which makes the team's additions more substantive. Suh would have been a boon wherever he signed, but on a team with playoff designs in a competitive division, he might be a complete game-changer.
So, in response to this question ... the Dolphins are more dangerous now than they were to close 2014, plain and simple.
Farrar: Yes. I'd go with the Jets—it's not often that a team can get a marquee receiver like Brandon Marshall and completely rebuild a secondary as New York did with the Darrelle Revis/Antonio Cromartie/Buster Skrine combination.
That said, the Dolphins already have one thing the Jets are still seeking: a quarterback they can trust. And Ryan Tannehill should have more weapons in 2015. Getting receiver Kenny Stills from the aforementioned Saints in a trade further helps an offense that already raised its profile in many ways last season, and the addition of Suh will unquestionably bolster a run defense that completely collapsed down the stretch and probably cost the 'Fins a playoff berth.
Will the Saints still be a top-five offense next season?
Burke: Yes ... if for no other reason than that's what they do under Drew Brees. In Brees's nine seasons with the team, the Saints have finished top-five in yardage eight times and were No. 6 in that outlier. Brees was more up-and-down in 2014 than at any point in recent memory, yet still attempted 659 passes and nearly threw for 5,000 yards.
The one caveat to New Orleans's offensive output is: What if this recent charge to rebuild the defense works? A sturdier showing on that side of the ball would take some heat off Brees, thereby allowing Mark Ingram and Spiller to see more work on the ground. The offense still would center around the passing game, perhaps just not as centrally.
What's left (and yet to be added) at receiver will put up numbers, even minus Stills. Finding a tight end capable of doing anything close to what Graham can is another topic. But this offense was high-octane before Graham arrived and it should continue to be.
Farrar: No. Unless they hit on at least one guard and at least one major receiver in the draft, those players work out well right away and second-year receiver Brandin Cooks recovers completely from his thumb injury, a top-five offense is inconceivable. And in fact, even with Graham and Stills still on the roster last year, that offense was regressing. Brees felt more pressure due to an iffy offensive line, he was obviously inaccurate with his intermediate to deep targets more often than expected, and there wasn't the kind of ground attack to make up for the issues in the passing game.