For several teams in the National Football League, the window of opportunity to win a Superbowl with their current core roster is closing. It is closing surely, steadily, and there's nothing you or I can do about it. In fact, we are witnessing a slow yet not so subtle changing of the guard in the NFL, which started about two years ago with the arrival of young quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck in the league.
Consider this: in what has been labeled a "Quarterback-driven League," whenever people mention the best active quarterbacks in the NFL, they cite in no particular order, Peyton Manning (Broncos), Tom Brady (Patriots), Drew Brees (Saints) and Aaron Rodgers (Packers). Well these guys are 37, 36, 35 and 30 years old respectively.
Inversely, the four quarterbacks largely considered to be the best young talents in the NFL today are Superbowl champion Russell Wilson (Seahawks), Andrew Luck (Colts), Colin Kaepernick (Niners) and Cam Newton (Panthers). Their respective ages: 25, 24, 26 and 24.
Don't Miss a Thing
Don't Miss a Thing
Of the old guard "gunslingers" I named above, the youngest is Aaron Rodgers, 30, who is six years older than the youngest in this new wave of highly touted quarterbacks (Luck and Newton).
Although there are some examples of quarterbacks playing adequately well past the age of 40 (Brett Favre 41, Doug Flutie 43 or Vinny Testaverde 45) none of them exactly set the world on fire or lasted long enough at that advanced age given the rigors of the NFL.
The oldest quarterback to ever lift the Lombardi trophy was John Elway with the Broncos, winning Superbowl XXXIII at age 38. This means that the best case scenario for those teams with aging quarterbacks is a window of about three to five years with a realistic chance to win it all. This is not taking into account the fact that it's a chance that is going to be seriously hampered by the emergence of young, mobile quarterbacks that aren't taking three to five years to develop into bona fide starters in the NFL anymore.
What this all means is that the time is now for teams like the New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots or Denver Broncos; and if free agency is any indication, their respective front offices know it.
Since the beginning of the NFL's version of the "free-for-all if you have a lot of money" period about a week ago, Denver has been dizzying: on defense, they have added defensive end DeMarcus Ware after he was released from the Cowboys, former Browns strong safety T.J. Ward and former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib. On offense, they've retained wide receiver Wes Welker, while signing former Steelers wideout Emmanuel Sanders.
The Patriots haven't been idle either. To shore up a defense that ranked 24th (DVOA) in the NFL last season, they signed former all-pro cornerback Darrelle Revis after he was released by the Buccaneers, as well as former Seattle Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner. Offensively, they also reportedly agreed to terms with former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brandon Lafell and re-signed wide receiver Julian Edelman.
For the New Orleans Saints, the task has been a lot tougher. Working with very little salary cap space, the Saints still managed to reel in arguably the top free agent defensive back on the market, by signing former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd. Byrd received a 6-year, $54 million contract from the Saints, with $20.3 million fully guaranteed, making him the highest paid safety in the entire NFL.
Other Saints signings have been mostly to keep their own unrestricted and restricted free agents, most notably running back Pierre Thomas, right tackle Zach Strief and wide receiver Joseph Morgan. However, apart from the Byrd acquisition, New Orleans simply does not have the resources to make a huge splash in free agency and splurge with the likes of the Denver Broncos.
What happens to that "win now" mentality then? Well, unfortunately for the Saints, a crucial part of it is going to have to come from the draft; especially its first round pick, which this year is slated to be the 27th.
You read that right: to help take the Saints over the hump, a crucial factor will be their first round draft pick in 2014, because they simply do not have a whole lot of time before that Superbowl window slams shut. And guess what? If you are a Saints fan, that should make you nervous.
During his eight-year tenure as head coach in New Orleans, Sean Payton has been the master of the late-round draft pick success. Everyone knows the story of a Marques Colston or a Zach Strief (7th rounders in 2006) who are still playing with the team and contributing at a high level. Add all-pro right guard Jahri Evans (4th round in 2006), sprinkle in a Jermon Bushrod (4th round in 2007), or a Carl Nicks (5th round in 2008), Thomas Morstead (5th round in 2009), Kenny Stills (5th round in 2013). The list goes on.
But the first-rounders, the money pick, the "can't miss" prospects haven't been there; at least not consistently enough. Do you want proof? I'll gladly provide some:
2006: Reggie Bush RB - USC (2nd overall).
Bush was hardly a bust in New Orleans; however he never became what most expected him to be when the Saints selected him. He was traded to the Miami Dolphins prior to the 2011 season and is now playing in Detroit.
2007: Robert Meachem WR - Tennessee (27th overall).
Meachem missed his entire rookie season then showed flashes of brilliance at times, but never developed into a true number two, let alone number one receiver with the Saints. He currently is an unrestricted free agent.
2008: Sedrick Ellis DT - USC (7th overall).
Ellis continued the USC-draft mediocrity with the Saints. He was a contributor, but never a go-to player, someone who teams had to gameplan for. As a seventh overall pick, he was terribly underwhelming. He is currently out of the league.
2009: Malcolm Jenkins S/CB - Ohio State (14th overall).
Jenkins was a maddening mix of pure athletic abilities and inconsistency. He too, showed at times why he was one of the highest-rated cornerbacks in the 2009 NFL draft. Alas, if he tried to cover a sleeping baby with a blanket he'd miss the entire crib and drop the blanket. He is now a proud member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
2010: Patrick Robinson CB - FSU (32nd overall).
After a tough rookie year, the light seemed to come on for Robinson in his second and third seasons (2011-12). He had a total of seven interceptions and 111 tackles in those two years. Unfortunately, he played in only two games in 2013 because of a torn ACL. He'll likely be given a shot to compete for the nickel cornerback position or even a starting job with the team in training camp, but is no lock to make the team, especially if the Saints select a cornerback early in the 2014 draft.
2011: Cameron Jordan DE - California (24th overall).
To date, this is undoubtedly the crown jewel of Payton's first round selections. Jordan has been steadily improving year after year. He has played in every game but one since his rookie season and led the team with 12.5 sacks last year, earning a pro-bowl invitation. He will be a big part of the Saints plans for the foreseeable future.
2011: Mark Ingram RB - Alabama (28th overall).
The most hated Alabama...I mean New Orleans Saints player in New Orleans until about the 12th week last season, Ingram played much better late in 2013, including the two playoff games against the Eagles and the Seahawks. The Saints are hoping that 2014 will be the breakout year his supporters have been predicting for three years now.
2012: Roger Goodell Commissioner - NFL (666th pick).
Goodell was a horrible player for the Saints in 2012. Just before he started his first game in black and gold, the Saints turned off the lights in the Superdome on purpose, hoping that he would just leave. When he didn't, they just gave him the Cajun Finger (don't Google it, I just made it up), released him and made their head coach the highest-paid in the NFL.
(Alright, I'm just poking fun at Goodell, because, well...it's fun. The Saints actually traded their 2012 first round draft pick away to move back into the first round in 2011 and select Mark Ingram).
2013: Kenny Vaccaro S - Texas (15th overall).
Well, maybe the "draft light" has come on for Sean Payton. His last first round draft picks are Cameron Jordan (great pick), Mark Ingram (trending up) and Vaccaro, who was a stud in his first year with Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. His season was cut short by an injury, but if he stays healthy, he might just become one of the best defensive back ever drafted by the Saints.
2014: An impact player as a rookie (27th overall).
The Saints can ill afford to whiff on this pick. With money tight and thus not much wiggle room in terms of free agency moves, New Orleans will have to count on its own "farm system" to make a run at another Superbowl before they have to rebuild at quarterback.
With right tackle Zach Strief re-signed, the offensive line appears to be in decent shape. This is notably due to the emergence late last year of left guard Terron Armstead. The safety position seems to be solid as well, with Kenny Vaccaro, Jairus Byrd and Rafael Bush to whom they tendered a contract offer. At linebacker, a good unit in 2013 should get a boost from the return from injury of Victor Butler (a free agent acquisition in 2013) as well as the re-signing of Ramon Humber.
From the looks of it, immediate help is likely to be most sorely needed at either cornerback or wide receiver for the Saints. If you were Sean Payton, which way would you go? Just remember: you better not screw it up.