When the clock struck midnight on the New Orleans Saints' 2011 football season, most fans were prepared to enter a slightly new era of Saints football. A bloated salary cap seemed to indicate that re-signing many key veterans would be nearly impossible.
It seemed almost automatic that Carl Nicks and Marques Colston would be gone from the team. Only a Drew Brees long-term contract extension seemed certain.
It's funny, though, how different reality can be from perception sometimes. As we pan the horizon of the 2012 NFL offseason, we are able to see a picture illuminated with allegations, suspensions and controversy.
But we also see that in many senses the 2012 version of the New Orleans Saints is not as diluted and flat-out different as we expected it to be. Gone is Carl Nicks to division rival Tampa Bay. But the Saints were able to replace him with a player, Ben Grubbs, of equal talent.
In fact, Grubbs figures to aid the Saints in creating a more physical offensive line. The Saints' offensive identity may change slightly due to the addition of the Pro Bowl guard from Auburn. If it does indeed change it is only for the better. A more physical attack can only make the Saints a better football team this year and in the future.
Also gone are what many experts considered tier-two free agents receiver Robert Meachem and cornerback Tracy Porter. Both played key roles in the Saints' Super Bowl run in 2009. But both were deemed expendable by the club in light of the salary cap crunch the team faced.
And both figure to be replaced by younger players this season. Adrian Arrington and Nick Toon will duel for the fourth receiver spot vacated by Meachem, while Patrick Robinson and Johnny Patrick will fill in for Porter.
The mentality is a bit of a delineation from the past for this Saints organization. Previously, the team did all it could to hold onto any veteran that had helped pave the way to organizational success.
That model, of course, has its benefits—namely fans prefer to continue rooting for the same players, and continuity on a team often helps with team chemistry and thus performance.
But the approach has its drawbacks as well. When a team commits to always re-signing its own players, it can lead to an extension of what communication scholars would call Groupthink Theory, whereby the team overvalues a player and/or never tries to grow in areas it must. This, of course, assumes that a player, once he has gained experience in the league, will not improve or add to his game anymore than slight improvements in areas he’s already mastered.
The Patriots, Colts, Packers and Steelers (interestingly enough, the most successful organizations of the past decade-plus) all employ the opposite of this model, whereby veterans are replaced by younger, cheaper players, and the “next man up” motto is not only spoken but also enlivened throughout the organization.
With that in mind, the New Orleans Saints’ offseason has been mostly a positive one, at least in terms of the restructuring of the roster. Players who were deemed too pricey for their contributions were allowed to walk, while players of equal or greater value were brought in to replace them, or younger, less proven players were awarded the opportunity to now compete for the open vacancies.
That is what the 2012 Saints’ offseason roster restructure most embodies. And that is how the team should continue to identify itself in the future when it comes to roster restructuring. That said, the Saints’ offseason moves haven’t been without controversy or mistake. Here are a few of such mistakes.
Not Re-Signing Drew Brees Long-Term, Yet
That Mickey Loomis, Tom Benson and whoever else may be involved in the contract talks between the Saints and Drew Brees’ agent Tom Condon have not given in to Brees’ demands is beyond hard to understand. Brees is the most important (to me, the most valuable) player in the NFL to his team. If that is true, should he not be paid the most? I think so.
But the Saints’ inability to get a deal done with Brees before the franchise tag deadline passed in early March was not a problem so much of this offseason. As Drew Brees recently made light of, most franchise quarterbacks are extended at least a year or two out prior to the end of their contracts. In other words, the Saints should have had a long-term deal done two years ago.
The only silver lining in all of this is that the Saints maintain Brees’ rights, and though frustrated, Brees is still resolute in his desire to remain a New Orleans Saint and to retire in black and gold. A deal will likely get done at some point this summer prior to training camp.
Yes, new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has worked with the veteran defensive tackle. The result is that Spags will likely use him better than any other coach could. But Brodrick Bunkley was one of the most overrated free agents in the 2012 free agent class.
For five years and $25 million, the Saints could have gotten a better player. Or they could have dispersed those funds and used much of the cap space to aid in re-signing their franchise quarterback.
Letting Tracy Porter Go
While I praised the Saints' organization for moving on and avoiding groupthink in allowing some of their own free agents to leave, one player they could not afford to do that with was Tracy Porter.
Not only was Porter a fan favorite for obvious reasons, but he also is and was one of the most consistent corners in all of football. He rarely, if ever, gets beat deep, possesses great ball skills and regularly steps his game up when the team needs him the most.
For one year, the Saints could have afforded to pay him the same salary the Denver Broncos will in 2012. Considering Patrick Robinson is the alternative with Johnny Patrick taking over the nickel spot, one year and around $5 million would have been more than worth it to retain Porter’s services.
The Entire 2012 NFL Draft
Enough said. (See Hicks, Akiem; White, Corey; Tiller, Andrew; and Jones, Marcel.)
With all that said, overall I liked the direction the Saints went this offseason. Here were the best moves the team made in the 2012 offseason.
Signing Curtis Lofton from Division Rival Atlanta Falcons
As I’ve written several times already this offseason, no player will play such an integral role with his new franchise as new Saint Curtis Lofton. Though originally signed to start outside, Lofton will jump into the middle of the defense and likely be the defensive quarterback—assuming that role from the suspended Jonathan Vilma.
The Saints could have doubled what they’re paying Lofton and I wouldn’t have blinked. Lofton’s importance to the Saints can be measured by more than his role on the Saints' defense (as incredibly important as that is). It is also of paramount importance that the Falcons are losing their best defensive player.
Granted, the Falcons' defense wasn’t exactly on the same level of the ’99 Ravens or ’85 Bears. But they were good enough to make up for a somewhat inconsistent offense. And the defense often held the Saints down, at least within the confines of the Georgia Dome. Lofton was the main reason for that.
Signing Free Agent Guard Ben Grubbs for Two-Thirds the Cost of Carl Nicks
When the New Orleans Saints decided Carl Nicks would not return in 2012 and beyond, they put themselves on the hook to replace one of the best guards in football (if not the best). Yet shortly after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced they had signed Nicks, the Saints made a splash in taking the second-best guard off the market.
Grubbs was a Pro Bowler who benefited from a “next man up” approach in Baltimore. Though he is relatively inexperienced at the left guard spot, he has been a productive player almost as long as he’s been in the league.
Grubbs instantly upgrades the offensive line in terms of its toughness and run-blocking ability. Most importantly, the Saints will not lose anything production-wise and they reduce their cost by almost $20 million. This was absolutely the best move the Saints made this offseason on the offensive side of the ball.
Wide Receiver Corps
Though at the time I proposed the Saints should cut their losses and re-sign Robert Meachem and let Marques Colston go, hindsight is more kind to the Saints. Robert Meachem proved to be in much greater demand than many experts supposed.
His four-year deal with the San Diego Chargers was greater than anything the Saints could have even imagined paying the young veteran.
More than that, though, the Saints were wise in bringing back Marques Colston. The former Hofstra Pride tight end continues to be Drew Brees’ favorite target in just about every critical situation. Whether it’s going over the middle, catching fades in the end zone or short passes in third-down situations, Colston is the guy for the Saints’ offense.
And the Saints were wise to add Nick Toon in the fourth round to compete for the fourth receiver spot with Adrian Arrington. One of those two will play and contribute two or three receptions and fifty or so yards per game.
The best part is the Saints acquired three players to play the role of two and did so at about the same cost. Receiver wasn’t necessarily a position for which the Saints needed depth, but they now have it anyway.
More could be said about the Saints’ offseason. But these particular moves are the ones that stood out. These are the best and the worst. Care to disagree?