This year's free agency season stirred up emotions in Saints fans to an unusually intense and divisive degree. Some looked at the bold swings of the front office as a welcome and creative shake-up of a team that has failed to live up to expectations in recent years. Some, like myself, despaired over the departure of established and beloved talents without what appeared to be a clear plan to get better, buckling to cap pressures and undermining the remainder of the window we have with Drew Brees. Emotional reactions don't account for much, though, so let's have a look at each position impacted by the moves of free agency and try and evaluate whether the Saints got better, got worse, or made a lateral move.
Tight End - Worse
We'll start with the most obvious call. Despite all the nice things people have had to say about Josh Hill and Benjamin Watson, neither is in the same league as the departed Jimmy Graham. Then again, only Tony Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski, and maybe Antonio Gates and Shannon Sharpe are in that league. Graham, in only five years in the league, has already established himself as one of the elite offensive weapons ever seen at his position, topping 1000 yards in receptions in two of his five years (and 950 in another) and topping 10 touchdowns three times, including a league-leading 16 in 2013. Josh Hill has shown some promise in his first couple years and will likely be a significant contributor in the offense, but the odds of his emerging as an elite offensive weapon on Graham's level are between slim and none. Watson, meanwhile, is a sure-handed veteran who theoretically gives us the option of trotting out some of Payton's preferred duel tight end sets, but he'll be 34 this season and hasn't scored more than three touchdowns in five years. We'll get some production out of this spot, but it will be nothing like what we've had since drafting Graham in 2010.
Cornerback - Better
Another clear choice. This is a case of both addition by addition and addition by subtraction. Obviously the marquee signing is Brandon Browner, a starting cornerback on each of the last two Super Bowl winners, and a clear improvement over the now fully departed Patrick Robinson/Corey White tandem. He averages over 1 pass defended per game and carries with him the reputation of being a big, physical cover corner who on his best days can match up with the league's top receivers. However, it's not worth pretending we've acquired Richard Sherman or Aqib Talib; Browner has two interceptions in the last two seasons, seasons in which he has missed a combined 15 games to injury. If those injuries recur, we may regret having lost the positional depth Robinson and/or White represent. That depth could be made up for by second year cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste and by the newly signed Kyle Wilson. Neither have shown much in their professional careers so far, but if we're lucky Browner and Keenan Lewis will be taking the majority of the snaps.
Wide Receiver - Worse
The Jimmy Graham move was baffling; give up an elite player at a key position and a pick at the beginning of the fourth round for an injured player at a position that is devalued due to its wealth of talent and a pick at the end of the first round. More confusing was the Kenny Stills deal. While it seemed all of free agency had been about clearing up cap space to make improvements throughout the roster, suddenly we sent the team's best deep threat outside of Graham, who cost less than $600,000 for 2015, to Miami for a third round pick and a linebacker (Dannell Ellerbe) who'd missed the entire previous season due to injury with a contract so large he almost completely wiped out the remainder of the team's cap space. Needless to say, in adding no receivers, the Saints got worse at this position by sending off a player who in his second season averaged 15 yards per reception and totaled 931 yards in 15 games.
Center - Better
Max Unger, when healthy, is certainly a better center than Jonathan Goodwin or Tim Lelito. He made the Pro Bowl in both 2012 and 2013 and he has served as the anchor of one of the best running games in the league with the Seahawks for the last few years. The only concern here is that he missed 10 games last year to an ankle injury. If that problem recurs (a serious risk for the 305 pound man), the already tenuous inside blocking of the Saints will take a serious hit and we will have gotten stunningly little in return for Jimmy Graham. Here's hoping he is fully recovered and can become a staple in the middle for the Saints.
Guard - Worse
Benjamin Grubbs probably didn't deserve to be named to the Pro Bowl in 2013. Over the last few years, after the departure of Carl Nicks, Drew Brees has repeatedly taken internal pressure, marking increases in QB hits and sacks. Still, you know what Ben Grubbs is better than? Nothing. And that's what we have opposite the newly extended Jahri Evans at the moment. With no cap money remaining, we will have to hope that we are able to draft a ready starter or that Senio Kelemete or Lelito are ready to take over starter's responsibilities at OG.
Running Back - Lateral Move
Two of the three main running backs for the Saints are set to return: Mark Ingram was signed to an extension and Khiry Robinson remains on his undrafted free agent rookie contract. The change comes in the form of exchanging Pierre Thomas for CJ Spiller. Both are running backs who are comfortable in space and are as much pass catchers as running backs, though certainly Thomas is more comfortable between the tackles and Spiller has more explosive speed. Their production has been similar the last couple years; in 2014, Thomas had 600 total yards and 3 touchdowns, while Spiller had 425 and 1 TD. In 2013, Thomas had 1,062 yards and 5 touchdowns while Spiller had 1,118 yards and 2 touchdowns. 2012 represents the real difference, the year that optimists point to as the reason our offense has been substantially upgraded: Spiller had 1703 total yards and 8 touchdowns, which far outpaces the production Thomas has ever had in any individual season. If that Spiller returns, the Saints offense may be able to make up for the losses at WR and TE; if not, it could be much tougher to score points next year.
Linebacker - Probably Worse
Similarly, almost the entire linebacking corps will be back next year. David Hawthorne, Parys Haralson, Junior Galette, and Ramon Humber will all return. The big exchange here is Curtis Lofton for Dannelle Ellerbe. This is a very meaningful exchange; Lofton was the team's leading tackler and the captain of the defense, so Ellerbe will have big shoes to fill. He missed nearly the entirety of last year to a hip injury, but generally speaking, looking at basic counting stats, Ellerbe has not been as effective a player as Lofton. Only once has Ellerbe racked up more than 100 tackles in a a season (101 in 2013), whereas Lofton has had at least 118 tackles each of the last 6 seasons. They both have a total of 3 interceptions for their careers, and Lofton has 27 career passes defended to Ellerbe's 9 (Lofton has been in the NFL for one more year and you have to remember that nothing from last year contributes to Ellerbe's stats, but that's still 3.8 per year for Lofton and 1.8 for Ellerbe), which gives no indication that Ellerbe is superior in coverage. Ellerbe had a 4.5 sack season in 2012, more than any one year for Lofton, but he has no other season with more than one and he has substantially fewer stuff yards for his career (87-21) than Lofton, indicating he's no better in pass rush. All of this seems to point to an expensive downgrade, but that remains to be seen.
Overall, it's tough to feel optimistic about the Saints being better in 2015. The offense will have substantially less firepower, the offensive line currently has more questions than answers, and the defense hasn't undergone the overhaul it needed. The draft is still a huge factor with the Saints as the team possesses 5 of the first 80 picks, and I'll post an article in the next couple days looking at how many starters that's likely to produce, but simply put we all know that the draft and rookies are a crapshoot. I'll be thrilled if CJ Spiller, Dannell Ellerbe, and Brandon Browner represent such substantial upgrades that the Saints cruise into the playoffs, but right now it looks like Drew's age 36 season will be sacrificed to the rebuild.