There was a lot of hand-wringing in New Orleans when the Saints traded tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks two years ago, and that’s normal, we all know what the word “fan” stands for, and “Jimmy” was a fan favorite in NOLA. And we just…shipped him away? To the Seahawks for an aging center? Ok, we got a first round pick too, but a center??? Yup, a balding dude named Max Unger who frankly doesn’t look all that fierce or intimidating. Two seasons later, even if we disregard the first-round pick that Seattle sent to New Orleans to acquire Graham (maybe we should, since draft pick turned into potential mega-bust Stephone Anthony) the Saints are still winning that trade.
While Graham had a good season for Seattle in 2016 (65 receptions, 923 yards, 6 touchdowns) the Saints had two wide receivers (Michael Thomas and Brandin Cooks) who easily exceeded those numbers (92 and 78 receptions for 1137 and 1173 yards respectively). Thomas and Cooks had 9 and 8 touchdowns a piece. The Saints’ third receiver, Willie Snead, nearly equaled Graham’s production as well (72 receptions, 895 yards, 4 touchdowns). In case you’re wondering why I’m comparing Graham’s numbers with that of New Orleans’ wide receivers instead of tight ends, it’s simply because in Sean Payton’s high flying, finesse offense, Jimmy was mostly used as a wide receiver. Heck, he even tried to argue that he was a wide receiver.
To sum it up, the Saints haven’t really needed Jimmy Graham since he was sent out to the greener pastures of the Pacific Northwest. In fact, they haven’t needed him at all. Without Graham, New Orleans’ offense hasn’t missed a beat and it won’t slow down as long as Drew Brees and Sean Payton are calling the shots.
On the other hand, Max Unger has been a godsend to the Saints and most notably to the health and longevity of one Drew Brees. Unger has stabilized an offensive line unit that most of us thought would be the weakest link in the Saints’ offense prior to the start of the 2016 season. Football Outsiders ranked the Saints’ offensive line 1st in run blocking in the entire NFL in 2016 (just ahead of Pittsburgh) and 5th in pass blocking. Unger was ranked the 13th overall center (out of 39 eligible) in the NFL by Pro Football Focus with an 83.8 score. For perspective, Denver’s center Matt Paradis was 1st with a 90.7 rating. PFF had Unger 6th in pass blocking (85.7) and 18th in run blocking (74.8). Maybe more importantly, Unger was 11th in total snaps in the league at 1091, which highlights the fact that at age 30, he is still very durable, having started all but one of 32 games for the Saints the past two seasons.
With Unger as the leader of the offensive line, Drew Brees was sacked only 27 times (20th most in the NFL) in 2016, an incredible feat when you consider that Brees was 1st in the NFL in passing attempts with 673. The Saints led the league in third down efficiency (48.6%), were 2nd in fourth down efficiency (86.7%), 2nd in scoring (29.3 ppg), 3rd in yards-per-play (6.2) and 7th in average time of possession (30:57). You would be hard-pressed to find better offensive production and Unger was at the very center of it all (pardon the pun). By the way, can Max Unger play defense too?
Having a Pro Bowl caliber center is paramount to the success of the Saints’ offense and Max Unger has been that and more for New Orleans. Now if only the Saints could figure out their situation at both guard positions to provide Unger with more interior help, then New Orleans could build on what was already a stellar offensive season in 2016. They’ll need to do that if they want to keep pace with the scoring machine that is Atlanta and compete for the NFC South title again.