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Fact or Fiction: Is the New Orleans Saints 2017 Season Already Lost?

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There’s a lot of football to be played for the Saints, but a familiar start to the season with not much optimism in sight has us wondering about the future.

Saints fans in the 1980s

Here we are. Another season and another bad start. We as Saints fans should know the history of the team when they start 0-2 on the season. The Saints have their next game against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, but there really isn’t much reason for optimism. The Saints already looked bad, really bad, and not just on defense, but on offense too. Now they are facing an even bigger challenge with more injuries to the roster. Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, cornerback Sterling Moore and offensive tackles Zach Strief and Terron Armstead are ruled out for the game.

The Saints have a knack for starting slow and clawing their way back to around the .500 area, but do fans really want to see that happen again? The team is clearly worse than many thought, and each year they fight their way back to a mid, first-round draft pick rather than having the opportunity to draft one the elite players in the top 5.

Now, by no means do I think the Saints should self-inflict and tank the 2017 season, but they may not have to. They are already projected by some sites to have the 2nd overall pick behind the San Francisco 49ers, although I think there are a few teams playing worse than the 49ers, and the Saints are one of them.

Remember those historically bad, NFL record setting bad, Saints defenses over the past several years? Well, the 2017 Saints are currently on pace to shatter all those records, and by a long shot. Usually, we had Drew Brees and a high-powered, smooth-running offense, to mask the defensive woes, but that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.

There are more potential issues on the horizon for the Saints with salary cap troubles general manager Mickey Loomis has kicked down the road. That road is coming to a dead end now. It’s about to come to a point where the Saints finally have to account for the poorly mismanaged salary cap and personnel decisions, and to make it worse they still have one of the highest paid quarterbacks in the NFL on the roster.

Brees could potentially take a discount similar to what Tom Brady has done for the Patriots, but he hasn’t done it yet, so why would he start now? The Saints are projected to have in the ball park of $28-30 million in cap space for 2018. That is without having QB Drew Brees (who will carry an $18 million dead cap charge from 2018-20), S Kenny Vaccaro, DE Alex Okafor, OL Senio Kelemete, QB Chase Daniel, CB Sterling Moore, S Rafael Bush or a few others under contract.

So what’s the plan? Do they continue trying to hold onto mere hopes and dreams while continuing down a path of destruction, or do they finally start over and truly rebuild? The Saints do have some talent on this team, so I don’t think a full blown rebuild is needed but it’s pretty close. Here is the scenario I’m looking for during the 2017 season and 2018 offseason.

2018 Projected Draft Picks

Round 1 @ 2 (2nd overall)

Round 3 @ 2 (67th overall)

Round 4 @ 2 (98th overall)

Round 5 @ 2 (130th overall)

Round 5 @ (via Dolphins)

Round 6 @ 2 (162th overall)

Round 7 @ 2 (194th overall)

Round 7 @ (via 49ers)

2018 Projected Salary Cap = $28,736,402

Notable Players Not Under Contract for 2018 & Potential Yearly Cost if Re-signed

  • Drew Brees, QB - $20,000,000+
  • Chase Daniel, QB - $1,000,000
  • Kenny Vaccaro, S - $7,000,000+
  • Rafael Bush, S - $800,000
  • Sterling Moore, CB - $1,000,000
  • Alex Okafor, DE - $2,000,000+
  • Senio Kelemete, OL - $1,700,000+

The numbers simply do not align for the Saints to keep Drew Brees another season. They won’t be able to sign their draft picks or fill the rest of their roster.

Trading Players to Acquire Draft Picks

Mark Ingram, RB: Ingram might be the number one love/hate player on the Saints roster. Regardless what your feelings are on Ingram, personally I like him, he is not an elite running back and trading him could not only give the Saints more draft capital but also free up some cap space.

Spotrac.com says that the Saints can save $4.6 million on the 2018 salary cap by trading Ingram, who becomes a free agent after the 2018 season anyway.

Now, who is in need of a running back? The New York Giants sure are, and a veteran running back with the receiving and protection talent of Mark Ingram could go a long way to making life easier on Eli Manning who is also having a rough 2017 season.

  • Saints send: Mark Ingram & 2018 5th Round Pick to New York Giants
  • Saints receive: 2018 2nd Round pick

Adrian Peterson, RB: Peterson simply seems like another free agent mistake. I think he is more capable than he has shown, but he is not the kind of running back Sean Payton is used to and he does not appear to know how to use him. That is Payton’s fault, not Peterson’s, but currently he looks like a wasted roster spot and wasted cap space.

Spotrac.com says the Saints can save $3.5 million against the 2018 salary cap by trading Peterson. Although he is up in age there should be a few RB needy teams who wouldn’t mind giving up a late round draft pick to acquire Peterson for 1-2 seasons.

  • Saints send: Adrian Peterson & 7th Round Pick
  • Saints receive: 2018 5th Round Pick

Kenny Vaccaro, S: Vaccaro is another player I like, but he truly is inconsistent. Now pair that with the Saints cap issues and the fact they drafted Vonn Bell in 2016 and free safety Marcus Williams in 2017, and the Saints are simply in a position to move on from the veteran safety. Just don’t let him walk for nothing!

Vaccaro is not under contract for 2018, so the Saints will not save against the current projected cap space, but they simply cannot afford to pay him and why should they let one of the more talented safeties walk away with zero compensation?

The Browns have cap space and still have a slew of draft picks. They are also projected to take a Safety in the 2nd round of the 2018 draft, according to a few early mocks.

  • Saints send: Kenny Vaccaro & 2018 5th Round Pick
  • Saints Receive: 2018 2nd Round Pick

Restructuring Contracts

Terron Armstead, OT: While Armstead is considered one of the top tackles in the NFL, he has simply become more of an issue than an asset for the Saints. His talent is unquestionable, but his current contract versus his time on the field is simply unacceptable.

With his current contract for the 2017 season, Armstead accounts for $7,500,000 of the salary cap. In 2018, that figure goes up to $13,500,000, and in 2019-2020 that figure grows to $15,000,000. Over the past three seasons, Armstead has missed more games each year. In 2014 he started 14 games, in 2015 he started 13 games, in 2016 he started 7 games, and in 2017 (going into Week 3) he has yet to take the field.

Spotrac.com says restructuring Armstead’s contract would save the Saints $7.6 million against the 2018 salary cap.

The Outcome

These four moves would create an additional $15.7 million in cap space for 2018 and also give the Saints two (potentially early) 2018 2nd Round Draft Picks where they currently do not have one at all.

Saints Biggest Needs:

  • Quarterback is obviously a huge need without Brees any longer wearing the Black and Gold.
  • Defensive End is a huge need and has been for several seasons now.
  • Cornerback is another huge need, although it was addressed in 2017 with Lattimore, more is needed.
  • Running Back becomes a need after shipping off Ingram and Peterson.
  • Offensive Tackle is currently an issue and needs to be addressed further.
  • Safety, while lower on the list, could be addressed for depth as well.

Potential Free Agent Targets

Los Angeles Rams v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Trumaine Johnson, CB, Los Angeles Rams

It doesn’t seem like Johnson and the Rams will be able to work out a long-term deal, and he will almost surely be hitting the free agent market. Some say he should expect to get a contract similar to Stephon Gilmore got from the New England Patriots.

If a roster spot needs to be cleared for Johnson, I think the Saints could make due with cutting De’Vante Harris, and with the cap space created from the trades/contract restructures the Saints can easily fit Johnson’s cost.

Other Positions to Address in Free Agency:

Offensive tackle: With Terron Armstead constantly injured, Zach Strief near the end of his career, and only one potential replacement (Ryan Ramczyk) for two spots, the Saints need more depth at the offensive tackle spot.

Center/Offensive guard: The training camp and preseason struggles at center were real without the presence of Max Unger. The Saints lack a competent backup at the position, and with newly acquired cap space this must be addressed.

Potential 2018 Draft Targets for the first 3 Rounds

R1@2: *DE Arden Key, LSU; QB Sam Darnold, USC; QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

LSU v Mississippi State Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

R2@ (Top 5 from NYG) CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville; *QB Mason Rudolph, OSU

Oklahoma State v Oklahoma Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

R2@ (Top 10 from CLE) *RB Nick Chubb, Georgia; DE Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama; DE Dorance Armstrong, Kansas; CB Kevin Toliver, LSU

AutoZone Libery Bowl - Georgia v TCU Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

R3@2: OT Jamarco Jones, Ohio State

The 2018 Result

  1. Rookie QB with cap friendly contract
  2. Starting Cornerback duo of: Trumaine Johnson & Marshon Lattimore - Adding a veteran like Johnson to pair with Lattimore, rather than drafting a rookie, could help to bring experience and leadership to the secondary.
  3. Starting Defensive End duo of: Cam Jordan & Arden Key
  4. Two-Headed Monster at Running Back: Alvin Kamara & Nick Chubb - What I like here is that both running backs have similar capabilities. It’s tougher for the defensive to know what the offense is going to do based on what RB is on the field. That’s the current issue with Peterson. I also think three mouths are too many to feed. More is not always better (i.e. Ingram, Kamara & Peterson).
  5. Much needed depth along the offensive line at Offensive Tackle as well as Center/Guard.

There is still a lot of football left in 2017, so all is not lost yet. But if these Saints continue the season the way they are currently playing, some changes must be made. If not, this organization is in for a long, dark road with no end in sight.