The New Orleans Pelicans of the NBA dealt away one of their league's most exciting young players last week, trading Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pelicans got a high pick in the upcoming NBA draft in return, in addition to multiple talented players, while also moving on from a young but controversial talent. The NFL's New Orleans Saints have been faced with similar decisions throughout their history. Wednesday, we looked back at some of the tough trades involving star players the Saints franchise made through the 1970's and 80's
Today, we look at some of the very productive but sometimes controversial talent that the Saints chose to move on from through the 1990's up to today.
Swilling was one of the final touches to the Saints fearsome Dome Patrol linebacking corps of the late 1980's and early 1990's. Selected with a 3rd round pick in the 1986 draft, Swilling flashed potential during his rookie year before becoming a menace to opposing quarterbacks with 10.5 sacks in a strike shortened 1987 campaign. He would have double digit sack totals in five of six seasons between 1987-92, going to four straight Pro Bowls and earning All-Pro recognition twice. Swilling would be the NFL A.P. Defensive Player of the Year in 1991, when he led the league with 17 sacks, while also forcing six fumbles and scoring a touchdown on an interception return. Swilling would total 76.5 sacks in seven seasons with New Orleans, also forcing 24 fumbles, recovering 7 fumbles, and intercepting 3 passes. He, Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, and Vaughan Johnson not only formed the best linebacking crew in NFL history, but were a part of a devastating front seven on a Saints team that was a perennial playoff contender. All four players are in the Saints Hall of Fame, with Jackson also enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame, an honor which both Swilling and Mills are extremely deserving, but has eluded them thus far.
Despite regular season success, the Saints were never able to win a playoff game with those formidable teams, leading the front office to some difficult decisions. One of the first was deciding to trade Swilling to the Detroit Lions during the 1993 offseason, getting Detroit's 1st and 4th round picks in the 1993 draft in return.
Swilling would have another Pro Bowl outing with Detroit in 1993, and had 10 sacks, 3 interceptions, and five forced fumbles in two seasons with the Lions. He would move on to the Oakland Raiders in 1995, where he would play out the final three years of his career with 21 more sacks and 7 fumble recoveries. Swilling had some success after leaving the Saints, but wasn't quite the dominant force he had been in New Orleans. The Saints, on the other hand, used the 4th round pick acquired from the Lions to draft fullback Lorenzo Neal, who spent four very good years with the Saints in the midst of a standout sixteen year NFL career. New Orleans also used the 8th overall pick of the first round from Detroit to draft an even greater talent in 1993.....
Roaf was drafted out of Louisiana Tech with the pick that New Orleans obtained in the Pat Swilling trade, quickly making many fans move on from loss of the All-Pro linebacker. Roaf would rapidly become one of the better offensive tackles to ever play the game, and would eventually be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He would miss only 4 of 128 games between 1993-2000, going to seven consecutive Pro Bowls and earning All-Pro recognition twice. Roaf would anchor an offensive line that would protect a retooled passing attack led by quarterback Jim Everett and receivers Quinn Early, Michael Haynes, and Torrance Small through the mid-1990's. New Orleans would slip to mediocrity then to the bottom of the league during this period through the late decade, but would rebuild around their All-Pro tackle and return to the playoffs in 2000. Growing strife between Roaf and the Saints front office led to the team agreeing to trade the lineman to the Kansas City Chiefs during the 2002 offseason, with New Orleans getting just a 3rd round pick as compensation.
Roaf would become a key member of a powerful Chiefs offensive front, where he would go to four more Pro Bowls before retiring after the 2005 season. He would be named to the NFL's All-Decade team of both the 1990's and 2000's, in addition to being in both the Saints and NFL Hall of Fame. New Orleans would send the 3rd round pick obtained from the Roaf trade to the New England Patriots in exchange for safety Tebucky Jones, who would start 31 of 32 games in his two seasons with the Saints, but would do little to stand out.
Williams was of course the major part of one of the most infamous trades in NFL history upon his entry into the league. Then-Saints coach Mike Ditka traded his entire team's 1999 draft (13th overall, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th rounds) along with 2000 1st and 3rd round picks to move up to the 5th overall selection to draft the Texas Heisman Trophy winning running back. Williams obviously had lofty expectations on his shoulders, and drew much criticism despite running for 884 yards in an injury plagued rookie year. He rebounded in 2000, running for 1,000 yards and 8 touchdowns in only ten games. Williams was even better in 2001, rushing for 1,245 yards and becoming just the first Saints back to have consecutive 1,000-yd. rushing seasons. New Orleans had drafted running back Deuce McAllister with their 2001 1st round pick, and decided to pull the trigger on a trade that sent Ricky Williams to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for 1st round draft picks in '02 and '03 along with a 2002 4th round selection.
Williams showed the abilities while with the Dolphins that caused Ditka to give up so much to draft him. He led the NFL in rushing with 1,853 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2002, earning All-Pro honors. He had another Pro Bowl season in '03, rushing for 1,372 yards and 9 scores. Amid rumors he was facing a league suspension for substance abuse, Williams "retired" in 2004, but would return to the Dolphins in '05 after serving a four game suspension to start the year. Williams was officially suspended for one year in 2006 for again violating the league's substance abuse policy. He would play for one season in the CFL before returning to Miami in 2007, but was injured for the season after just one game. Williams had 659 yards rushing in a shared role in 2008, but took over primary rushing duties again in 2009, running for 1,121 yards and 11 scores. He would play one more year in Miami before finishing his career with the Baltimore Ravens in 2011.
Williams would run for 3,129 yards and 16 touchdowns in three years with New Orleans, adding another 6,436 yards and 48 rushing scores in seven seasons with Miami. The Saints would use the 25th pick from Miami in 2002 to draft defensive end Charles Grant, and the later 4th rounder on defensive back Keyuo Craver. New Orleans would then combine the 18th pick from the Dolphins in 2003, along with their own number 17 selection, in a trade with Arizona to move up to the 6th overall pick and draft defensive tackle Jonathan Sullivan. Grant would have 47 sacks and 17 forced fumbles in an eight year Saints career that saw him play a major defensive role on 2006 and 2009 deep playoff runs. Craver played only two nondescript seasons with the Saints before he was out of the league. Sullivan is one of the team's biggest draft busts of all time, playing only three years with New Orleans with 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble before he was out of the NFL.
Sproles, who benefited from the powerful lead blocking of Lorenzo Neal while together in San Diego, joined the high powered Saints in 2011 as a free agent. He would set an NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards in 2011, scoring 10 touchdowns and was among the league leaders with 86 receptions. Sproles was a dangerous option out of the backfield for Drew Brees and the efficient New Orleans offense for three seasons. He rushed for 1,067 yards and ten touchdowns from 2011-13, adding another 1,981 yards and 16 scores on 232 receptions. The Philadelphia Eagles acquired Sproles in a trade during the 2014 offseason during the last year of the running back's contract, sending only a 2014 5th round draft pick in return.
The now 36-yr. old Sproles continues to be a productive all-purpose back, despite currently mulling retirement. He has rushed for 1,265 yards and 12 scores, along with catching 169 passes for 1,435 yards and another 5 touchdowns in five seasons with the Eagles. Most of his production with Philadelphia came in his first three seasons after the trade, when he also earned Pro Bowl bids after the '14, '15, and '16 seasons. The Saints used that 5th round pick on linebacker Ronald Powell in 2014, who was out of the league after just one season with the Saints.
Graham was one of the most productive and popular offensive players in Saints history during a four year stretch at the peak of his skills. Originally a 3rd round pick from the University of Miami in 2010, Graham scored five times on just 31 receptions in a part-time role during his rookie year. He would then erupt in 2011, catching 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns while earning All-Pro recognition. Nagging injuries limited him a bit in 2012, but he still finished with 85 catches for 985 yards and nine scores. Graham would rebound to his All-Pro level in 2013, totaling 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and a league high 16 touchdowns. He would sign a lucrative contract during the 2014 offseason, and would respond with 85 catches for 889 yards, 10 scores, and his third trip to the Pro Bowl. Graham was discontent with his contract situation though, believing he should be paid among the league's top wideouts instead of it's top tight end. Still, it was a shock to many when the Saints pulled off a trade with the Seattle Seahawks in March of 2015 that sent Graham to the Pacific Northwest. In exchange for the All-Pro tight end, Seattle sent New Orleans a first round pick in the 2015 draft, along with Pro Bowl center Max Unger. Graham would finish his New Orleans career with 386 receptions for 4,752 yards and 51 touchdowns in five seasons, taking NFL tight end receiving production to a new level, along with New England's Rob Gronkowski.
Graham would have some effectiveness as a Seahawk, but never quite the defense wrecker he was with New Orleans. He caught 48 passes for 605 yards and two scores his first season with Seattle, and in 2016 returned to the Pro Bowl with 65 receptions for 923 yards and 6 touchdowns. He showed more noticeable signs of slowing down in 2017, but his 10 touchdown receptions on 57 catches totaling 520 yards were good enough for the sixth Pro Bowl berth of his career. Graham joined the Green Bay Packers last season as a free agent, catching 55 balls for 636 yards and two scores.
The Saints used the 31st overall pick acquired from Seattle for Graham to draft linebacker Stephone Anthony, who led New Orleans in tackles and scored a touchdown on his way to the All-Rookie team. Anthony had a difficult time diagnosing opposing offenses though, and was released in just his third season after limited playing time in 2016. He played the previous two seasons with Miami, and is currently a free agent. Center Max Unger is largely perceived as the star of this trade. Unger, who made two Pro Bowls in six seasons with the Seahawks, would continue to play at a high level. He anchored one of the best offensive lines in the league for the last four seasons for one of the NFL's most potent offenses before his retirement at the conclusion of last season.
Stills made his presence felt even as a rookie fifth round pick in 2013, catching 32 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns, while leading the league with 20 yards per catch. He established himself as a viable receiving threat on every level of the defense in 2014, with 63 receptions for 931 yards and 3 scores. Stills was at the center of rumored locker room dysfunction on the underachieving 2014 Saints though, and despite his talents was shipped off to the Miami Dolphins that offseason. Miami sent back in return a 2015 3rd round draft pick, along with linebacker Dannell Ellerbe
Stills has been a regular starter for the Dolphins over the last four seasons, catching a total of 164 passes for 2,566 yards and 24 touchdowns. Ellerbe was a talented defender for the Saints, but could simply never stay healthy and on the field. He played in only 14 of a possible 32 games in two seasons with the Saints before being released in the summer of 2017. New Orleans used the 3rd round pick obtained from Miami to draft defensive back P.J. Williams with the 78th overall selection. Williams has been inconsistent over his last two seasons with the Saints, after missing all but 2 of his first 32 games with injuries.
Cooks was the 20th overall selection by New Orleans in the 2014 draft. He showed great promise in his rookie campaign despite getting it shortened by injury, catching 53 passes for 553 yards and scoring 4 touchdowns in just ten games. Cooks surpassed the 1,000 yard mark in each of his next two years with New Orleans, catching 162 passes for 2,311 yards and 17 touchdowns combined in 2015 and '16. Cooks became increasingly and more vocally dissatisfied with his role in the New Orleans offense though, leading the team to begin exploring trade options. They would find a suitor in the New England Patriots, who swapped 2017 1st and 3rd round picks for the speedy wideout and a fourth round selection.
Cooks would play just one season in New England, where he caught 65 passes for 1,082 yards and 7 touchdowns for the Super Bowl runner-up. He was traded from the Patriots to the Los Angeles Rams in the 2018 offseason, where he was signed to a lucrative contract extension. Cooks was a big part of the Rams productive offensive attack last season, finishing with 80 receptions for 1,204 yards and six total touchdowns. Cooks caught 215 passes for 2,861 yards and scored 21 touchdowns in three seasons with New Orleans, and has eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in four straight seasons.
The Saints used the 3rd round pick they received from the Patriots to draft defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who was a serviceable defender his rookie year but played sparingly last season. New Orleans used New England's first round pick, 32nd overall, to draft offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who was immediately plugged into the starting lineup. Ramczyk was a member of the 2017 All-Rookie team, and has played at a Pro Bowl level at right tackle for one of the NFL's best offensive lines.