By trading away Graham and Stills, and drafting a load of defenders, the Saints sacrificed offense for defense in their off-season moves this year. But was it enough to make a difference?
Give the Saints this much: They're trying.
GM Mickey Loomis has spent the past two off-seasons conjuring up some dramatic, even shocking changes to his roster—a roster, mind you, that qualified for the playoffs four times from 2009–13, starting with a Super Bowl win. Will it work? Well, that is perhaps another story.
It didn't last season. Loomis's big score a year ago was safety Jairus Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Bills who looked like the missing piece for the Saints' defense. After signing a $54 million deal, Byrd's first season in New Orleans opened with a high-scoring 37–34 loss to Atlanta and ended on the injured reserve after just four games.
The Saints, like Byrd, never found their footing in 2014. Their longest win streak of the year was two games, and their 7-9 record wasn't enough to win the NFC South, even in a horrible down year for the division.
Loomis could have played it much safer this off-season as a result—the Byrd experiment was an early flop and New Orleans found itself again hamstrung by salary-cap issues, but he did just the opposite. In a trade that sent shockwaves throughout the NFL, Loomis sent superstar tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round draft pick to Seattle for center Max Unger and a 2015 first-rounder. The Saints used the extra day one choice on linebacker Stephone Anthony; they selected OT Andrus Peat with their own first-rounder.
"There’s three ways to get players in our league: free agency, the NFL draft and trades," Loomis said on SiriusXM's NFL Radio after the blockbuster trade. "We believe in using all avenues so we took one of our assets on offense and turned it into some resources that hopefully we can improve our defense in."
The Saints were not done sacrificing offense for defense with their Graham deal. In March, they traded promising young receiver Kenny Stills to Miami in exchange for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round pick. Loomis tabbed CB P.J. Williams at Miami's vacated third-round spot. Add in second-round OLB Hau'oli Kikaha and a trio of fifth-rounders (OLB Davis Tull, DE Tyeler Davison and CB Damian Swann), and the Saints used six of their nine draft picks on defense.
Oh, and they also signed ex-Patriot Brandon Browner to a three-year, $15 million contract, with the expectation that he could lock down one of the starting cornerback jobs, as well as pass-rusher Anthony Spencer and another CB, Kyle Wilson. All this in the name of not repeating a 2014 season which saw New Orleans' defense tumble to 28th in points allowed and 31st in total defense, massive plummets both from surprising top-five finishes in each category during the '13 campaign.
Oddly enough (at least for this franchise in the Drew Brees era), a main concern now is if the Saints have enough offense left. They did re-sign RB Mark Ingram and paired him with free agent C.J. Spiller, so expect to see the run game as a focal point this season and beyond.
New Orleans refused to sit back and wait for its fortunes to improve. But will all the changes make enough of a difference?
Best acquisition: C.J. Spiller, RB
Brees loves to take advantage of his running backs in the pass game. Darren Sproles averaged better than 77 catches per year from 2011–13 with the Saints; Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet combined for 112 grabs last season.
Thomas was a cap casualty and Cadet moved on to New England, so it'll be Spiller handling many of the passing-down duties in his Saints debut season. His numbers in that area have not been all that noticeable of late—19 catches during an injury-shortened 2014, a 5.6 yards-per-catch clip in '13.
Those marks could skyrocket this year. On an offense minus Graham and Stills, Spiller could emerge as one of Brees's favorite targets.
"Our job is to make sure that we look at this upcoming season, we get a guy like C.J. Spiller and we say, ‘All right, here’s a target. Here’s a weapon that we can use that’s unique and we’ve got to be able to be flexible enough," coach Sean Payton said, via the Saints' website. "[It's] no different than when we were able to draft Reggie Bush, and we weren’t expecting that to happen—we changed a little bit what we were going to do. We’ll do the same thing this year."
Spiller's best Buffalo season came back in 2012, when he rushed for 1,244 yards and posted 1,703 total yards from scrimmage. He may not match either number as a Saint, but Spiller does provide a nice change of pace from Ingram and Brees will utilize his new weapon.
Biggest loss: Jimmy Graham, TE
Yes, the Saints accomplished their aim by using Seattle's first-round pick to add Anthony to their linebacking corps. And, sure, Unger is a two-time Pro Bowler who ought to make Brees' life easier up front.
There is still no replacing Graham. The 6'7" tight end led the league with 16 touchdown grabs in 2013, and he caught at least 85 passes during each of his final four years with New Orleans. The Saints will try to squeeze what they can out of Josh Hill and veteran Benjamin Watson—Hill scored five times in '14—but the offense will need some time to recalibrate in Graham's absence.
Players who can create the types of mismatches that Graham can do not come along all that often. Subtracting him from the depth chart will allow opposing linebackers and safeties to pay more attention elsewhere, like to Spiller or out wide on the Saints' receiving corps.
The trade of Graham is another indication that New Orleans plans to keep pushing its run game forward. Both Hill and Watson provide better blocking options than Graham, so the Saints may look somewhat more traditional, scheme-wise.
While that's all well and good, no player remaining on the Saints' roster will worry defensive coordinators the way Graham did.
Underrated draft pick: Davis Tull, OLB
First thing's first: Tull has to get on the field for the Saints. Surgery to repair a torn labrum kept him out of action during OTAs, which means the unheralded rookie from UT-Chattanooga will be battling for a roster spot come training camp.
However, the need clearly is there for a pass-rusher—New Orleans managed just 34 sacks last season, worse than 24 other clubs. The situation could become ever more desperate if the Saints opt to release Junior Galette, as ESPN.com's Mike Triplette speculated they may, even at a cost of $17 million-plus over 2015 and '16.
Tull was an FCS All-American last year thanks to 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. He plays a high-energy game that is complemented by impressive instincts and athleticism.
"I think before it's all said and done, the Saints are going to see him rush the passer one day and they're not going to pass up the opportunity to have that talent on that team," Tull's position coach, Marcus West told Nola.com's Katherine Terrell. "He can play stand-up linebacker and do it, obviously. But I think the reason he has been successful so far has been rushing the passer. In a sense, it's become natural to him, and he has a love for it."
Looming question for training camp: What will happen with Galette?
There are a lot of elements in play here.
Galette was scheduled to meet with the NFL late last month to discuss his January arrest on domestic-violence charges (which were later dropped) and video of a 2013 incident in which Galette is alleged to have struck a woman with a belt. As mentioned above, the Saints may be weighing their options with regard to Galette, due to increased frustration with his off-field behavior. The 27-year-old Galette also is working his way back from a pectoral injury, although he did manage to avoid what could have been season-ending surgery.
Is Galette going to be ready for the regular season? Will the NFL permit him to suit up in Week 1 if he is? Will he even be on the Saints roster when the league's decision comes down?
New Orleans handed Galette a four-year, $41 million extension through 2019 only last September. Even in a disappointing 2014 for the Saints' defense, Galette still managed to register 10.0 of the team's 34 sacks, so bailing on that production would be a very tough call—especially considering the cap penalties that would come with releasing or trading away Galette.
Odds are Galette will be a Saint when the regular season begins. It's far from set in stone, though.