The 2015 Saints are going to look incredibly different from the 2014 Saints. There will be new faces on the field, of course, but the biggest difference isn't in personnel; it's in what the new personnel means. At the beginning of the 2015 free agency period, the Saints made a flurry of moves that came seemingly without warning. Head Coach Sean Payton promised a facelift after the Saints' disastrous 2014 season, and he delivered in a big way. Not in the quantity of his moves, perhaps, but rather in the scope. Here's a list of each of the Saints' 2015 free agency moves. They aren't graded since, realistically, the moves were made for philosophy reasons rather than talent. The 2015 Saints will need a thorough eye test before the offseason is truly evaluated.
- February 11: Hire Dennis Allen as a defensive assistant; John Morton as WR Coach; Joel Thomas as RB Coach; James Williams as defensive assistant / linebacker assistant; Dan Roushar reassigned from RB Coach to TE Coach.
These moves may seem inconsequential, but there were a key part of what Payton was saying on cleaning house. Payton was noticeably disgusted with his team's performance in 2014, and he appeared to subscribe to the philosophy that the incompetence began at the top. The most noteworthy of these moves is Dennis Allen's naming as defensive assistant, as it puts some pressure on Rob Ryan's defense to perform well next season. Allen is familiar with Payton, having coached secondary and defensive linemen with him previously. In fact, when Payton was hired in 2006, Allen was part of his new regime. As a defensive assistant, Allen should have input on the Saints' defensive operations and, although he won't be calling plays, Ryan has to feel a bit of a chip on his shoulder with the hire.
- February 12: Sign LB Parys Haralson & K Shayne Graham to one year contracts.
The Saints continued to forgo their search for a new kicker (at least temporarily), opting to sign Graham to another one year deal. Graham went 19-22 in 2014 (86.4%) with a long of 50 yards. By no means did he play amazing, but he is fairly reliable. The Saints are going to need to go out searching for a kicker that can give them a bit of confidence from outside of 50 yards, but until they find that guy Graham is, at least, serviceable. Veteran Parys Haralson, meanwhile, was a good re-signing at only $870K for a year. Haralson is a very good backside defender and, although he isn't flashy, he is very good fundamentally. The Saints went out in the draft seeking some athleticism to supplant Haralson, but Haralson has played all 16 games for the Saints the last two years, and he is rarely not at home when he needs to be.
- March 6: Cut RB Pierre Thomas through contract termination.
Sentimentally, this move hurt. The Saints cut long-time Saint Pierre Thomas due to a saturation of running backs on their roster (although with Travaris Cadet out to New England this is hardly the case anymore). Unfortunately, Thomas was just on the wrong side of 30 in a league in which running backs that aren't top tier are, in essence, plug and play. Thomas's contributions in the scat-screen game were a big part of his game, but the Saints appear to be heading towards an offense in which the screen game isn't as necessary to be successful. With the who's who of backs on the Saints' roster behind consensus starter Mark Ingram and his spell Khiry Robinson, it's hard to be in love with the move, but the rationale is sound. The Saints never used Thomas in a between the tackles capacity, and that seems to be direction that they're heading.
- March 9: Release ILB Curtis Lofton.
Of all the moves that the Saints made, this one seemed to be the most surprising. ILB was an oft-cited position of need for the Saints, but on David Hawthorne's side. While Lofton was fairly horrible in pass coverage, he was excellent in stopping the run, which the Saints were, to be frank, deplorable at in 2014. Shedding a player in a position of need that specialized in a skill of need seemed to be a questionable move. Drafting Stephone Anthony shed some light on the decision, as Lofton wasn't exactly playing up to contract, but it still was a move that raised some eyebrows. Outside of his actual play, Lofton was a leader on the field and a nucleus of the Saints' defense (whether that's good or bad, however, depends on who's being asked).
- March 10: Trade TE Jimmy Graham, fourth round pick to SEA for C Max Unger, first round pick.
This move came from what felt like out of nowhere. Of course there were the wild theories and rumors that always fly around during free agency, but it felt like Graham was gone in the blink of an eye. Of all of the moves that indicated that the Saints are trying to develop a more physical style with their 2015 roster, none of them stood up to trading their top tier pass catching tight end to their competition for an elite blocking center (albeit one that, like Graham, has struggled with injuries). Unger give the Saints flexibility on their line, but losing Graham does hurt quite a bit. He was a solid catch all for Drew Brees and, despite his inability to block, defenses constantly having to account for him on the field cannot be taken for granted. The Saints are obviously under the impression that Brees makes his targets, and that as long as he's the one throwing the ball it doesn't matter who's on the receiving end.
As for what the Saints got in return Unger is, undoubtedly, at the very least a top 3 center in run blocking. Seahawks' running back Marshawn Lynch had nearly a yard jump in his yards per carry when Unger was in vs. when he was out (about 5 YPC to 4), and for a team that runs the ball between the tackles as often as Seattle that's indicative of an elite blocking center. If Unger stays healthy, he should perfectly fit the mold that the Saints are trying to build.
- March 12: Sign CB Brandon Browner to a three year contract, LB Ramon Humber to two years.
Browner was the get that could be the most immediately beneficial for the Saints. He's a strong defensive presence that can effectively complement Keenan Lewis on the other side of the side. Furthermore, he's a defensive leader, and a motivator in the locker room. The Saints, despite what seemed to be talent on paper in their secondary, lacked any type of presence in 2014 and oftentimes disappeared. Browner has been on the previous two Super Bowl teams, and he is experienced. in addition to all of this, he's disruptive at the line of scrimmage, something that no one has ever accused Corey White or Patrick Robinson of being. Humber is fairly inconsequential, but he's decent depth at LB for a Saints team that can never have enough depth, presuming that he makes the roster.
- March 13: Sign RB CJ Spiller to four years, release CB Corey White of his contract.
The latter of these two moves was inevitable, White was only moderately effective at CB when he was playing nickel, but he was horrific on the outside. The signing of Browner made him a non-factor, and he couldn't even cut it particularly well as a depth player. Spiller was an answer to losing Thomas. Spiller can run effectively between the tackles, but his real value comes in the screen game and outside. He's still ridiculously quick out of his cuts and has top end speed to spare, the only thing that should have people wary on him is his injury history. 4 years is a long time four running backs in the NFL, whether he can player entirely up to contract for at least 14 games a year will tell the tale on the verdict of this signing.
- March 13: Trade Kenny Stills to the Dolphins for Dannell Ellerbe and a third round pick; Ben Grubbs to the Chiefs for a fifth round pick
This was in the midst of the "fire sale" hype train in New Orleans, but all of these moves were actually fairly measured. The Stills trade could, of course, horribly backfire if Brees is unable to create weapons with his own talent, but it certainly showed a commitment to the style of team that the Saints were trying to build. Ellerbe was a disappointment in Miami after they signed him to a large contract, but the Saints restructured the contract. This could be a good fit for Ellerbe, who was a 3-4 linebacker in Baltimore before Miami tried to change him to a 4-3. If Ellerbe is truly more comfortable in a 3-4, both teams could benefit from this trade. Stills played well above his fifth round pick talent, and the one thing that makes this move truly worrying is the Saints opting to entirely ignore the wide receiver position in the draft. Grubbs was a trim the fat trade. He wasn't playing up to contract, so the Saints flipped him to get some value left out of him, fairly simple reaasoning.
- March 20: Agree With T Bryce Harris on a one year contract.
Harris, who has been with the Saints since he came into the league in 2012, provides depth for the Saints at tackle behind Terron Armstead and Zach Strief (or whoever ends up starting at tackle day one, likely Andrus Peat). Harris is hardly an incredible tackle, but that obviously isn't what he's there for. He's filled in several times in the past few years to varying degrees of effectiveness, but this move had minimal implications, both on the cap and on the field.
- April 1: Sign G Jahri Evans to a one year extension, sign CB Kyle Wilson to a one year contract.
The writing was on the wall for Evans, who watched both of the interior linemen alongside him in 2014 leave the team, but the Saints retained him for another. Whether it's because they didn't identify him as the problem with the 2014 interior line or because he was simply the most cost efficient to keep remains to be seen, but with all-pro Max Unger alongside him, Evans has to prove himself again in 2015. The Wilson signing flew under the radar a bit, but the former first round pick of the New York Jets seems like a Patrick Robinson 2.0 (who went to San Diego). Wilson is a tremendously talented player that couldn't seem to put it together on the field, but he was a low risk signing and can supplant Lewis and Browner in the slot.
- April 3: Sign WR Joe Morgan to a one year contract.
Morgan was a player that made two or three ridiculous plays a year and then disappeared for the rest of it. He's got a lot of raw speed and his hands are solid, but he also has issues off the field, which Payton has a very low patience with. He feels like a Robert Meachem replacement in that his job is to run straight and occasionally catch a 40 yard pass,
but with Meachem still on the roster this move doesn't really benefit Brees that much.* It's a low, short contract, so the cost isn't high, but the Saints will need to do something different with him to make him worthwhile.
- April 10: Sign DE Anthony Spencer for one year.
Spencer was a player that knew Rob Ryan in Dallas. He's a veteran that's been around since 2007 (and played for Dallas in each of those years), and he addresses the pass rushing need, if only in name. He's not a player that will put up ridiculous sack numbers, but he can complement Junior Galette and hopefully light a fire under Cameron Jordan, who grossly underperformed in 2014.
All in all, the Saints showed that they were committed to their change in persona. The focus this year was defense (and that continued into the draft). After a year in which their defense was ranked 31st in the league and their offense 4th, it only makes sense that they would address the former of the two. Mickey Loomis appears to be hoping that by protecting Brees and addressing the side of the ball opposite him, Brees can utilize the admittedly scarce targets that he has to do enough to win. It's a gutsy strategy, and for that reason it's almost impossible to really "grade" the 2015 Saints' offseason, since it will be, by its nature, a wait and see endeavor. They're talented, but that doesn't always translate well to the field. Whether or not it does, the 2015 Saints will be a very different team than they were in 2014.
*Writer's note: Courtesy of Stu and Wino, Meachem is no longer a Saint and I was misinformed. Morgan's knock is moot, and apologies for the error.