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How the Saints are building a contender: Filling the gaps through free agency

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In Part 2 of how the Saints are undergoing a transformation to put together a legitimate contender, we look at everyone’s favorite subject: Free Agency.

NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 Saints were one fluke play away from playing in the NFC Championship game and having a legitimate shot at going to the Super Bowl, and that’s a reason to anticipate next season for sure. Let’s take a step back though, and try to figure out how the Saints went from a bumbling 7-9 team in three consecutive seasons to a surging roster with youth and confidence.

We’ll get into all three aspects of the process: free agency, the draft, and what it takes from a vision and planning standpoint to build a ‘winner’. When trying to deconstruct recent history, it’s always nice to have the benefit of hindsight, as it allows you to pick apart the various decisions, coincidences, and processes that led to where you are now, and so we’ll be following up our last entry with today’s piece on Free Agency and what about the Saints approach has led them to success.

How have the Saints changed their philosophy in Free Agency?

This is one of the biggest questions to analyze about the Saints turnaround in 2017. One of the hallmarks of the team’s collapse post 2011 (minus the dead cat bounce in 2013) was bad contracts and dead money. This would lead you to believe that the Saints were spending tons of money on players who didn’t pan out that they had to cut, but it actually had more to do with extending their own young stars and the locker room collapsing. The thing that really created the issues for the Saints in those years was the awful drafting that killed the ‘middle class’ of the roster. Their issues with free agency just compounded the issue.

The Saints dead money largely came from two guys, Jimmy Graham and Junior Galette, both of whom were removed after the disastrous 2014 season. The result was a trifecta of back-to-back-to-back 7-9 seasons. Those weren’t free agent moves though, as Galette was an extension and Graham was re-signing a home-grown talent. The only major free agent move the team made was signing Jairus Byrd to what was then the largest contract for a safety in NFL history. The cap died as a result of cutting Galette and trading Graham, and this forced a change in their approach in free agency. With a destroyed cap, the Saints were forced to go bargain bin shopping in free agency and weren’t able to attract, or sign ‘big name guys’.

A lot of credit has been given to Jeff Ireland for helping to curb Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton’s desire to spend big money on shiny new pieces, and a lot of credit for the turnaround in 2017 has been given to focusing on bringing in more quality veterans instead of stars. However, this viewpoint is more confirmation bias than anything.

We believe the Saints have ‘turned over a new leaf’ and so that’s what we see. In reality, the Saints are what they have always been. They are a team who usually tries to make at least one ‘big’ move a year, and tries to go into the draft with as few needs as possible. The Saints were going to sign Malcolm Butler to a mega deal last year, they almost managed to sign Josh Norman before that, and made advances at several other big free agents. Don’t confuse the Saints not succeeding with signing big name free agents with them not attempting to. The philosophy hasn’t changed, the results have.

Why is that Better?

If we acknowledge that the Saints are the same aggressive team they always have been, then why have the results been so much better since 2015 in talent acquisition? It starts with scouting and the draft. Identifying players with the right traits and focusing on guys who want to be great as well as players you have a clear vision for is a great start. More than that though, what really has helped the Saints right the ship is getting rid of a VERY bad habit that had wormed its way into the organization.

After the epic collapse in the Saints divisional round playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers (a game that it is my personal opinion Greg Williams tried to throw), the Saints got themselves into the mentality that they were just a few pieces away. That mentality caused them to look around the league and try to emulate the most successful teams in the league. The problem was they didn’t look at what made those teams successful and how they got there, they just looked at what they had.

Signing Jairus Byrd instead of keeping Malcolm Jenkins when you didn’t have the team or the scheme to maximize him, drafting Stanley Jean-Baptiste because he had Richard Sherman’s size (and NOTHING else), and signing the volatile Galette to an extension when you had him still under control. Every move screamed two things: the Saints were desperate, and their desperation made them reactionary.

What changed? The Saints looked at their roster, they looked at their staff, and they realized their team philosophy, their identity, and their roster makeup were all wrong. They were a hodgepodge of fading players, mismatched parts, and failed draft picks. The Saints didn’t blow it up though, they surgically removed the bad while identifying players who not only had the character, but the talent to improve the team. The Saints started acting like a team with a vision. Being aggresive isn’t wrong, it just reduces your margin for error. When you have move after move blow up in your face you usually end up going 4-12. A Hall of Fame QB and an elite head coach were the only reason they salvaged 7-9.

The Saints will continue to try to make a splash, but they’ll also focus on guys who are team first, have great work ethics, and fit the overall vision for the team, not just a half-baked attempt to be someone else. The Saints have been better in free agency because they added quality depth in proven veterans just as much as trying to add playmakers. Chemistry matters. And if you ever doubted that, 2017 proved it.

How can it help them going forward?

I fully expect the Saints to try to be aggressive in free agency and the draft this year. However, especially in free agency, I expect them to prioritize function and fit more than flash. Would Jarvis Landry be special next to Michael Thomas? Probably. But is he the right fit, is he comfortable being #2, and will he take less for a chance to win? Those are all questions that I think the answer to is no. So, the Saints won’t go after him. The same can be said for former Saint Jimmy Graham.

However, if a pass rusher, if a slot corner/safety, or even if a tight end or wide receiver who the coaches believe can win and they believe they have a vision for becomes available, don’t be surprised to see Saints Twitter talking about ‘Loomis Math’ once again. Loomis Math was never the problem, it was sacrificing your locker room, your roster depth, and your identity that killed the Saints.

New Orleans seems to have learned their lesson. Larry Warford was a GREAT signing, Coby Fleener wasn’t, but the idea of Fleener was. The Saints need to continue to identify areas of need, and address them the best they can, and they can’t (and won’t) afford to be risk adverse. They just need to make sure they continue to focus on character and fit as much, or more than, just talent and ability. If they do....pigs MAY just fly again.