Jimmy Graham tweeted that he’s “shocked and disappointed” by the Saints’ recent personnel moves. He shouldn’t feel that way for much longer. Over the next few weeks, Graham’s camp will likely engage in long-term contract negotiations with owner Tom Benson and general manager Mickey Loomis, assuming no other team coughs up two first-round picks and an eight-figure guarantee to acquire the franchise-tagged tight end. Through negotiation updates from his agent, the 27-year-old Graham will inevitably gain more familiarity with the salary cap. Maybe then he’ll see how New Orleans’ recent moves actually make sense.
The cuts on defense were no-brainers. Outside linebacker Will Smith, inside backer Jonathan Vilma and cornerback Jabari Greer are aging veterans who would have been returning from significant injuries. And safety Roman Harper, whose $3.15 million salary was too steep given his coverage limitations, is easily replaced by fourth-year pro Rafael Bush, a restricted free agent who has a $1.43 million tender.
Presumably, Graham’s shock and disappointment has more to do with his side of the ball. Wideout Lance Moore got the axe, freeing up $3.8 million in cap space. The inevitable trade of running back Darren Sproles will free up another $3.5 million. And running back Pierre Thomas was expected to be cut, accounting for another $2.9 million. Instead, he signed a new two-year deal, with undisclosed terms that are presumably more favorable to the cap. These are necessary moves. The Saints had just over $2.1 million in cap space—second lowest to only the Cowboys and not nearly enough to sign a new rookie class. Because of how other players’ contracts are structured, these moves represented the three highest 2014 cap savings the Saints could have gleaned from their roster after the defensive purge.
Some believe Drew Brees’ contract is to blame.
Thanks to the structure of the seven-year, $100 million deal he signed in 2012—which included a $37 million signing bonus—Brees carries an $18.4 million cap obligation in 2014. And the Saints are dedicating even more cap space to protecting him up the middle. While most teams invest heavily in offensive tackles, Brees’ height (he’s listed at six feet) demands a cleaner pocket. New Orleans’ next two highest cap numbers, therefore, belong to Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans ($11 million) and Ben Grubbs ($9.1 million).
The Saints, as the conventional thinking goes, can’t keep their veteran weapons given the cost of protecting their quarterback. That’s not invalid, but in today’s NFL, it’s also the cost of doing business. The Saints are one of nine teams with at least $16.5 million of cap space tied up in their quarterback. The Steelers, Giants and Bears have more than $18.5 million invested in their QB. The average cap number among starting quarterbacks who are no longer on their rookie contract is $16 million. In other words, blaming Brees for the Saints’ cap woes is akin to blaming a gas station owner for the high price of fuel.
In a way, Brees’ inflated camp number is commensurate with the increasing challenge of his job. By costing more, he has fewer resources, so he must deliver more to maintain his level of production. The financial landscape might seem unsettling, especially after safety Jairus Byrd inked a six-year deal worth a reported $54 million ($28 million guaranteed) on the first day of free agency, but it’s more manageable than shocked onlookers might think.
Moore was a fine player, but his departure isn’t devastating. Kenny Stills is capable of being a full-time No. 2, and having depth at wide receiver isn’t vital given how Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael have eschewed four-receiver packages in recent years. Last season, according to Football Outsiders, 79% of the Saints’ offensive attack occurred out of base personnel (two RB and one TE, or one RB and two TE).
Of course, that could change after trading Sproles.
Thomas is a steady inside runner who can get five yards whenever you need four; Sproles is excellent on sweeps and tosses. Their value in the passing game is even greater. Thomas has long been one of football’s best backfield screen players. And Payton, more than any coach with the possible exceptions of Mike McCarthy and Andy Reid, loves backfield screens. (It’s another reason for the Saints to invest in guards; backfield screens often require interior linemen getting out in space.) Sproles is also great on screens, including from the slot and aligned wide outside the numbers as a plus-split receiver. This makes him very difficult for a defense to prepare for and match personnel against.
By teaming either Thomas or Sproles with Graham, the Saints had unlimited formation flexibility. The same personnel grouping that aligned in an I-formation could be equally potent spreading out in a 3 x 2 empty set. That’s invaluable for a play-caller like Payton, who’s been known to show opponents 15 different looks on his first 15 scripted plays.
By trading Sproles, the Saints will lose some of their versatility. But Loomis and Payton wouldn’t get rid of the electrifying utility weapon if they weren’t comfortable with their other options at running back. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson both offer intriguing upside, but retaining Thomas suggests that coaches aren’t completely comfortable using those young backs in the passing game. Expect Ingram and Robinson to split first and second down duties, leaving third down to the sure-handed, steady-blocking Thomas.
Of course, none of these backs can line up at wide receiver and be the same kind of threat that Sproles was, which suggests the Saints are preparing to become a more traditional offense. In today’s NFL, that would mean power-based concepts on early downs (runs, screens and play-action) mixed with steady doses of three-receiver concepts. Ingram and Robinson are dynamic enough to spearhead the power game. In fact, the Saints leaned on them in the playoffs with game plans that centered on running out of two-tight end sets. With this approach—which isn’t all that different from Payton’s core principles—the only real offensive need would be a No. 3 outside receiver to accompany Stills and Marques Colston. It’s a vital need, considering that Colston’s game is predicated on getting favorable one-on-one matchups inside. But lucky for the Saints, the 2014 draft class has tremendous depth at wide receiver.
The complexity of New Orleans’ aerial attack might make it difficult for a rookie to step in right away, but Stills, a fifth-round pick, was able to do so a year ago. And Payton, who is ingenious at constructing route combinations, knows how to incorporate a coverage-lifting speedster in ways that require minimal field reading. Years ago, the coverage-lifter was Robert Meachem. Last season, it was going to be Joseph Morgan, but his preseason knee injury (meniscus, partial ACL tear) put Stills in that role.
Stills, however, would be a better fit in Lance Moore’s old role as an intermediate target who relies on sharp route running, usually off play-action to beat anticipated coverages. He could flourish alongside a coverage-lifter. He could also prosper in two-receiver base sets as long as the play-action is formidable. And with Brees under center and potent downhill runners playing behind a veteran offensive line, the play-action will be formidable.
Gearing up to run a more traditional offense is also a good contingency plan in the event that Graham goes elsewhere. If that happens, the Saints would pick up two extra first-round picks, which they could use on a tight end and a wideout. They’d be downgrading initially at tight end, but they’d have a chance to cultivate more offensive depth—something Payton and Brees know how to leverage. (The Saints have had at least six skill players finish with more than 450 yards from scrimmage in each of the past six seasons.) If Graham remains in New Orleans, then the “traditional” offense would still have much of its potent multidimensionality. After all, defenses—just like Loomis and the league office right now—must deal with the challenge of determining whether to treat Graham as a tight end or a wide receiver.
As long as that issue is on the table, and as long as Payton and Brees are directing the show, the Saints will have a top-flight offense no matter how shocking their personnel moves might seem. And there’s no way they’ll disappoint.