Loomis, Payton Making the New Orleans Saints Viable Contenders for Years to Come

Murf Baldwin@@MurfBaldwinContributor IMarch 8, 2014

New Orlenas Saints head coach Sean Payton, left, and general manager Mickey Loomis look on during LSU's NFL football pro day in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, March 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Sean Gardner)
Sean Gardner/Associated Press

Ask and you shall receive...

The New Orleans Saints are undergoing a bit of a personnel purge—to put it mildly. Many veterans—that are undoubted fan favorites—have been shown the door since the season met its finality. These developments have opened up the Saints to a firestorm of criticism from pundits and NFL fans alike.

Diehard supporters of the Black and Gold have questioned not only the team's loyalty to its personnel, but some have also gone as far as to question their own loyalty to the team moving forward. 

The naysayers are thinking in a short-sighted manner because the Saints brass, led by general manager Mickey Loomis, is finally making the tough decisions that championship teams do. 

And that should be a scary thought for the rest of the NFL...and yes, that means you, Seattle Seahawks

As many of you know, I was fortunate enough to cover the Saints for the 2013 season—much to the chagrin of some of you reading this right now I'm sure. In many instances, as it should be with writers covering a team, I was critical of head coach Sean Payton and what I perceived to be an antiquated way of thinking and piloting an NFL franchise. 

His reluctance to evolve his scheme, coupled with his unwillingness to substitute experience for youth (at least as it pertained to the offensive side of the ball), cemented the fate New Orleans ultimately suffered at the hands of the aforementioned Seahawks. 

But even a staunch critic—such as myself—had to admit the Saints totally revamped their scheme in the last few games of the season. 

Now don't get me wrong, they went from having possibly the worst defense in the NFL the previous season to one of the best. And the most shocking part of that development was that it was mostly due to youth and inexperience.

Edge-rushers Cameron Jordan (24) and Junior Galette (25), safety Kenny Vaccaro (23), interior defensive lineman Akiem Hicks (24) and cornerback Keenan Lewis (27) led an explosive defense that finished as the No. 4-ranked unit in the NFL.

SEATTLE, WA - JANUARY 11:  Running back Marshawn Lynch #24 of the Seattle Seahawks runs the ball against defensive end Cameron Jordan #94 of the New Orleans Saints in the first quarter during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at CenturyLink Field on January
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

This was without any contributions from now former stars Jonathan Vilma (inside linebacker) and Will Smith (defensive end) due to injury. It's also in addition to receiving only a little help from stalwart defensive backs Jabari Greer and Roman Harper.

So it should come as no surprise that all four of those veterans are now looking for employment. 

On the offensive side of the ball, though, it was much of the same. Although that unit also finished fourth, it can be said that it was mainly off the strength of having a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees.

But veteran stars like running backs Darren Sproles (31 in June) and Pierre Thomas (30 next season), along with receivers Lance Moore (31 before the start of next season) and Marques Colston (31 before next season), were counted on to do the heavy lifting the majority of the year—in addition to all-world receiver/tight end (yeah, I went there) Jimmy Graham.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Relying on these veterans bogged the Saints down on offense on numerous occasions—especially when the Saints were attempting to procure the No. 1 seed in the NFC down the stretch.

You just had the feeling that if the Saints were to somehow incorporate more youth in the form of running backs Mark Ingram (24) and Khiry Robinson (24), along with receiver Kenny Stills (21) and left tackle Terron Armstead (22), they would easily replicate the production from the vets while also providing more explosiveness.

With Thomas averaging a paltry 3.7 yards per carry and a career-low 6.7 yards per catch, it was plain to see that his presence was retarding the growth of Robinson and Ingram—who averaged 4.1 and 4.9 yards per attempt, respectively.

Furthermore, both of those guys bring a physical element to the Saints offense that Sproles and Thomas just don't. Sure, those vets are two of the most versatile players in the league, but that versatility usually resides itself to finesse football.

And for the Saints to truly compete, it will be a return to physical offensive football that will be the key. 

So with the release of Sproles, according to Larry Holder of The Times-Picayuneand the possible trade or release of Thomas, according to ESPN's Mike Triplett, the Saints are now making the necessary steps to feature their talented youth. 

Many think these releases are entirely cap-related, but those that do may have been sold that same bridge in Brooklyn that has been up for sale for decades. These players that have been released would have more than likely met the same fate regardless of financial restraint. 

Especially on teams truly looking to win a Super Bowl in this day and age—as the Saints are.  

The Saints are stacked with young talent and now have the luxury to dip into the draft for more talented youths while relying on younger vets at the same time. 

This is the same exact boat that teams like the San Francisco 49ers and the aforementioned Seahawks navigate.

Jan 11, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Khiry Robinson (29) runs the ball against Seattle Seahawks outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (51) during the first half of the 2013 NFC divisional playoff football game at CenturyLink Field. Man
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

And it's apropos that Sproles and Thomas (injured) contributed two yards rushing—combined—in the Saints' loss to Seattle in the playoffs—while Robinson (57 yards with a 4.4 average) and Ingram (49 yards with a 4.9 average) combined for 106 yards against the stout Seahawks defense.

Although it was clear the Seahawks were the better team, the Saints were a lot more competitive implementing a physical attack than they were in the previous matchup when they thought they could finesse their way to victory—and got slaughtered.

Moving forward, the Saints need to work out a long-term deal with Graham to further loosen up the cap restraint. They should then think about acquiring a young, explosive receiver either through free agency or via the draft.

Stills is going to eventually be a star, but he should be a star in Moore's old slot position. He has similar talent to New York Giants star receiver Victor Cruz and is at his best running crisp routes in the slot.

Acquiring an outside receiver like Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews (6'3", 212 lbs) in the second round would send chills down the rest of the division's collective spines.

They should also target a younger dynamo like University of Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas, whom some think could be available in the fourth round or later, to attempt to fill the many roles of Sproles—especially in the return game where his production dropped off dramatically. 

On the defensive side of the ball, they could probably target the highest-rated corner on the board when the 27th selection comes in the first round. But outside of possibly adding an interior lineman and addressing the right tackle spot, there's not much work to be done on the personnel front. 

The Saints mostly need to work on implementing a man-blocking scheme to coincide with the one-two power punch at running back they will have. But they will also have to continue to add elements to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's multifaceted scheme.

That's the luxury you have when you continually hit on undrafted free agents and low-round draft picks like the Saints seem to always do. 

You afford yourself the ability to merely revamp your lineup, while other teams have to eventually go into the doldrums because they held onto veterans entirely too long—and are forced to part ways.

Loomis and Payton are doing work!

You hear that, Atlanta?  


After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin will now cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter.



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