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What The Saints' Recent Moves Mean

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Now that the dust has settled around the completely mind-numbing Jimmy Graham trade, it's possible to put some rational thought into what's happening in New Orleans. Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton are now building a team that holds a completely different philosophy from teams of the past, and it isn't a bad thing.

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The 2015 Saints are officially being penned by George R.R. Martin (Drew Brees is Tyrion Dinklage in this metaphor).  Nobody is safe anymore, and the completely shocking megadeal on Tuesday that sent Tight End Jimmy Graham to Seattle is proof of that.  What the Saints got in return is far more indicative of their current philosophy: Max Unger and a first round pick.  Shore up the line, get young, and the rest will fall into place.

The Saints have been criticized in the past for holding a bit too much sentiment for their players.  Some thought that the 2009 defense got a little too much favor from the front office (I never held this opinion, but I do see its merits).  However, no one is going to argue that GM Mickey Loomis and Head Coach Sean Payton find anyone untouchable anymore.  That isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just a way of doing business.

From the football side of things, the trade does a lot of good.  Graham was going to be owed $13 million in 2015, $9 million in 2016, and $10 million in 2017 (all of these numbers are approximations according to  After the "fierce" debate in the 2014 offseason over whether Graham was a Tight End or a Wide Receiver, eventually both sides came to an agreement on the extension that led to the numbers above.  The problem, of course, was that Graham was only designated as a Tight End because he is, to use a football term, freaking massive.  He held very few of the responsibilities of a traditional Tight End in the New Orleans offense, and for all intents and purposes he was a really big Wide Receiver.

Now, in no way am I trying to mitigate what Graham brought to the field.  I'm not a person who's going to claim to be glad he's gone because he was soft.  He's a terrific target, and his presence is going to be missed, especially by Drew Brees.  However, what Seattle offered really gives New Orleans a lot of options heading into the 2015 offseason.  It doesn't really "help" them in the salary cap department this year, due to the $9 million in dead money associated with Graham's contract, but it does go a long way in the very near future (2016 and beyond).

This leads to the important transition of what the Saints do on offense.  Obviously, I'm no offensive mastermind.  I don't even want to delve into the dark annals of what goes on in Sean Payton's "Fourth and 1, better run an end-around to Josh Hill" mind (he'll never live that down).  I know even less about what goes on in the Human Calculator's (Loomis) head.  However, this has all of the makings of a total philosophical shift in the New Orleans offense.  The Saints cut Pierre Thomas last week, in addition to prioritizing would-be free agent Mark Ingram at number one.  This means less screens going into 2015.  There will still be screens, it wouldn't be a Sean Payton offense without them, but Travaris Cadet is hardly a guy that will see the types of snaps that Thomas did while healthy (that's a key caveat).

Getting Unger and a first round pick also happens to fit this idea.  Unger shores up a position of massive need, after the carousel of Jonathan Goodwin and Tim Lelito just last season.  Interior line was a huge weakness for the Saints in 2014.  Brees's pocket was collapsing constantly, and he had no throwing lanes to speak of.  Unger is an all pro (Marshawn Lynch rushed for over a yard per carry more with Unger on the field than off it and Russell Wilson didn't look like a rabbit while he was in, though he was still twitchy), and the fact that the Saints are ordering what was described as an "important, in-depth physical" by Ian Rapoport is good news; they did their homework.  Unger missed 10 games in 2014 with an ankle injury, which is always ominous, especially at offensive line.  It's possible that Lelito will be moved to the guard position if Jahri Evans or Benjamin Grubbs are no longer there, but if the Saints let one of those two go (very likely Evans), it's unlikely that they're done making moves on the offensive line and one of the first round picks may actually be for a lineman.  Worth noting is that Unger is considered a superstar in run blocking, while being above average in pass blocking.  Pro Football Focus ranked him third in the league in run blocking with a grade of 14.0, and 9th with a pass blocking grade of -0.7 (and no sacks allowed) in 2014.

The pick is also telling, and was probably icing on the deal.  The Saints sacrificed a 4th rounder and got the 31st overall pick in return, which seems low, but the first round is such an important one in the draft.  First round picks have the all-important 5th year option included into their contracts, and for that reason alone it's hardly comparable to getting a second round pick.  The Saints moved up and drafted what they very likely saw as BPA in 2014 (slid up to 20th for Brandin Cooks), and they now recognize that their holes were more glaring than they anticipated after a disappointing 2014 campaign.  Hoarding draft picks, especially high ones in a draft like this that is full of need based players, is a great way to address the problems that the Saints faced in 2014.

This could mark the beginning of a youth movement of sorts for the Saints, which will be essential in the style of offense that they appear to be trying to convert to: A physical, running offense.  Ingram rushed for 964 yards in 13 games last season, due (presumably) to the Zone Blocking Scheme employed by Payton heading into the year.  He's averaged over 4.3 yards per carry for each of the last two seasons, and he is a player that the Saints are clearly very fond of.  With one more game he could have been the Saints' first 1,000 yard rusher since Deuce (of course, the what-if game is no fun).

One stat that I love giving to anyone that will listen and everyone that knows me has already heard is that Brees has never thrown the ball less as a Saint than he did in the 2009-2010 season.  He's thrown less than 600 passes twice since 2006: Once in 2006 and once in 2009.  What the Saints are doing now seems to be moving away from the "let it fly" offense and more towards a hybrid of the Cowboys and Seahawks blueprints.  Shore up the offensive line, draft defense in the draft (as Loomis has indicated they'll do unless it's a, say it with me, SMOKESCREEN), and then let the stars play.  What the Saints do with their picks will give a bit more insight as to what their long-term plans are.

The Saints aren't in burn it down, rebuild mode.  Had they dealt, say, Brees, I'd be inclined to believe that.  But it's clear that Payton and Loomis view Brees as the glue of the offense, and they believe they'll hold a Top 5 offense as long as he's there.  Because of him, teams will never feel comfortable stacking the box against New Orleans, which is a huge benefit to have in the early stages of becoming a running team.  This trade is actually quite symbiotic.  The Saints get younger and more talent on their offensive line, the Seahawks finally give Russell Wilson a number one target, and Graham in his secondary routes while Wilson is tap dancing in the backfield is a scary prospect.  However, everyone wanted the Saints to address their offensive line, especially the interior.  Maybe they didn't want them to do it like this, but this isn't a bad way to do it.  If they take a lineman in the first round, whether it's at 13th or 31st, the Saints essentially get two interior linemen for Graham, one that is established and one that will come on the cheap for at least 4 years.  Or, the Saints can go defense, and get a corner or pass rusher.

What this trade really gives the Saints is something that, frankly, they didn't have before it: Options.  This time last week, it felt like a forgone conclusion to a lot of people that the Saints had to go pass rusher in the first.  While it's still a position of need, they now hold a few more cards than they did.  If there's one thing that every GM loves, it's the ability to start on the middle floor and build from there.  Loomis now has that opportunity, and for that reason this is, by no means, a bad trade.