Overpaying underperforming free agents has been a common theme for the Saints front office over the past few seasons. First, there was David Hawthorne, then Jairus Byrd, then Brandon Browner, then C.J. Spiller.
Not everyone the Saints signed was a total bust. Look at Darren Sproles, Keenan Lewis, Benjamin Watson, and Curtis Lofton. Those signings panned out much better even though none of them remain on the Saints roster today.
This past offseason, the Saints signed yet another seemingly overpaid prospect in Coby Fleener, but the jury is still out on him, and I must admit that he is playing better each and every week. This season, however, it’s the less talked about and less expensive free agents who have really made their presence felt in the Saints locker room.
While reading over the Pro Football Focus grades of the Saints’ defense for every game this year, three signings in particular keep popping up with positive grades.
I know your blood is still boiling from defensive tackle Nick Fairley’s unnecessary roughness penalty that definitely cost the Saints big-time at the end of the Chiefs game. Yes, he should have contained his emotions, but his mother had passed away only a few days earlier. The same mother who lived in Mobile, Alabama and was the reason why Fairley chose the Saints in free agency. He wanted to be close to her.
There were so many other mistakes made throughout the game, particularly on offense, so we can’t lay the entire blame on Fairley’s ill-timed penalty that allowed the Chiefs to run down the clock.
Instead, look at Fairley’s body of work over the past six games. In Week 1 against the Raiders, Fairley received the second highest defensive grade overall for the Saints by earning a grade of 82.0. In Week 3 against the Falcons, Fairley received the second highest grade for the defensive line by earning a grade of 72.0 and registering 1.5 sacks. Following the bye, in Week 5 against the Chargers Fairley again received the second highest defensive grade overall by earning a grade of 85.8 and registering another 1.5 sacks.
Pro Football Focus described Fairley’s Week 5 performance as a “monster game, as he was nearly unblockable when rushing the passer.” The following week against the Panthers, Fairley picked up another half sack, bringing this year’s total to 3.5. Even in a sloppy game against the Chiefs this past week, Fairley posted a PFF grade of 75.8.
Fairley signed a one-year, incentive laden deal that only costs the Saints $1.51 million against the 2016 salary cap. So far, I think the Saints are getting one hell of a deal.
The next signing that has been making a splash in NOLA is defensive end Darryl Tapp. In Week 1 against the Raiders, Tapp earned a PFF grade of 71.5. In Week 5 against the Chargers, Tapp earned a PFF grade of 80.9. In Week 6 against the Panthers, Tapp scored a 73.9. In Week 7 against the Chiefs, Tapp scored a 71.2.
When you keep seeing the same name listed under the Saints’ top defensive performers, you can call that consistency, and Tapp’s play has epitomized that quality. It also doesn’t hurt the bank as the Saints signed him to a one year contract worth $985,000.
The third outstanding performer for the Saints defense has unquestionably been linebacker Craig Robertson. In Week 2 against the Giants, Robertson received the highest grade on the team with a PFF grade of 84.0. PFF noted that “seven of his 12 tackles counted as defensive stops, although he failed to convert any of his nine rushes into pressure.”
In Week 3 against the Falcons, Robertson, “who led the team with four defensive stops, was the only player to finish with an above-average grade against the run.” Last week, against the Chiefs, Robertson earned the third highest grade among Saints defenders with a grade of 77.1. Prior to this season, Robertson signed a 3-year deal with the Saints worth $5 million.
With all those prior free agent signing mistakes in the rear view mirror, the Saints have certainly made cost efficient decisions with regard to these three defensive players. Tip of the cap to Mickey Loomis for signing three excellent players to three reasonably priced deals.