"I'll believe we're going to be better than 7-9 when we win the eighth game," a friend of mine said the other day. With that, he summed up the skepticism of many New Orleans Saints fans as the 2017 season approaches.
When your team finishes with that same frustrating record three years in a row — and four of the last five — the skepticism is logical. But after a promising preseason in which the Saints' starting defense allowed just seven points in the first three exhibition games, the team's fortunes finally may be looking up.
- Photo by Derick Hingle
- Wide receiver Michael Thomas has the potential to be a driving force for the Saints.
A broken cycle
The best way to feel optimistic about the 2017 regular season might be to figure out how the Saints found their way into 7-9 purgatory to begin with. It starts in 2010, with the Saints fresh off their triumph in Super Bowl XLIV. From that point on, the team's front office prioritized ready-to-play veteran talent over young draft picks, with the idea each year that the team was loading up for another title run.
That worked out OK for a while. Veteran acquisitions including running back Darren Sproles, linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Keenan Lewis and others kept New Orleans a contender for the playoffs. But veteran players are expensive, and the Saints were doling out contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, the deals usually built using salary cap technicalities and loopholes that enabled General Manager Mickey Loomis to piece together the roster. Meanwhile, the Saints were shedding draft picks by using them to trade for veterans or packaging several picks together to move up in pursuit of specific rookies.
This approach wasn't new; the Saints also traded draft picks for Super Bowl contributors like tight end Jeremy Shockey and linebacker Jonathan Vilma. But after their big victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Miami, they doubled down. Between 2010 and 2014, the Saints had the fewest draft picks of any team in the NFL.
The combination of big-money veteran contracts with relatively few cheap young draftees stretched the Saints' salary cap to the breaking point. In 2011, the team had been a comfortable $20 million under the cap. Veteran acquisitions began to fail. Safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Brandon Browner and running back C.J. Spiller were all expensive — and all failed. New contracts for Lewis and pass rusher Junior Galette exploded in the front office's face.
In 2014, the Saints had just $1 million in cap space, after maneuvering to get under the cap limit for that year. Only one draft pick from 2014, receiver Brandin Cooks, became a contributor. Off-field dramas, like Galette's infamous social media tirades, overtook shoddy on-field results as primary matters of interest. Something had to change.
The problem was, with so much of its salary cap now devoted to "dead money" — paying players no longer on the team — the Saints had limited resources with which to improve their terrible defense. Whether intentionally or because of financial necessity, they responded by changing their approach entirely.
The Black and Gold began trading away veterans like Cooks and tight end Jimmy Graham for draft picks. Between 2015 and 2017, the Saints had 21 picks. That's seven per year, exactly the number the NFL allots. It was a steep increase from the five or so per year the team averaged during preceding seasons.
At the same time, head coach Sean Payton stopped the defensive coordinator carousel. Dennis Allen has now been on staff for two full years, counting the weird days when he was sort of a co-coordinator with Rob Ryan. As a result, a number of young players have been raised in only one defensive system.
On opening day 2014, five of the Saints' defensive starters had been drafted by New Orleans. After their third preseason game of 2017, it looks like nine defensive starters will be Saints draftees. It's a huge difference and a result of a big strategic change — but one that hasn't yet improved the team's record.
- Photo by Derick Hingle
- Veteran defensive end Cameron Jordan was a first-round draft pick for the Saints in 2011.
Signs of hope
After the third preseason game of 2016, Saints owner Tom Benson gave a speech in the locker room that caused Drew Brees to refer to Benson later as "the most competitive person in the building." Clearly, Benson wasn't happy with what he saw before the 2016 regular season began.
Few were, and for good reason. In last year's first preseason game, the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones, produced 342 yards on 31 of 39 passes, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. They averaged more than 9 yards per pass attempt and compiled a passer rating of 130.1. This was a terrific number that indicated more trouble ahead for the Saints' defense.
Compare those numbers to stats put up by the Houston Texans' quarterbacks in this year's third preseason contest: 23 completions in 42 attempts for just 189 yards, a mere 5 yards per pass, with no touchdowns and an interception. The Texans' team passer rating: 58.7. Football teams that allow 58.7 passer ratings win a lot of football games.
Here are some other year-over-year comparisons:
• Last year, the Saints' defense ranked 27th in yards allowed per preseason game. This year, it ranks second.
• Last year, the Saints had 10 sacks in the preseason. This year, it leads the league with 16.
• In 2016, the Saints allowed the second-most points of any team in the preseason. This year, the Saints have allowed the the second-fewest points of any team in the preseason.
These numbers don't mean the Saints suddenly will have one of the NFL's best defenses after being so bad for so long. But they do mean fans don't have to squint at the stats to find reasons for hope; the reasons are right there in the open.
Yes, the Saints' choice to rebuild their defense mostly through the draft may have been made for them, thanks to all those disastrous veteran contracts that turned into dead money. And yes, building through the draft takes time, as evidenced by the annual 7-9 rerun.
But all signs so far indicate the 2017 Saints have their best shot in years to avoid that rerun.
- Photo by Derick Hingle
- New Orleans Saints “super fans” remain loyal despite roster changes and shifting rebuilding efforts.
The bottom line
Since 2006, the Saints' annual success has depended on how well they start the regular season. Consider, for example, the 3-0 start and eventual 10-6 finish in 2006, compared to the 0-4 start and eventual 7-9 finish in 2007. 2016 continued the trend: the Saints opened 0-3, and finished 7-9.
That suggests we may know everything we need to know about the 2017 Saints by the end of September. By then, the Saints will have played three games, starting with the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 11 before a Monday Night Football audience and continuing with the New England Patriots Sept. 17 and the Miami Dolphins Sept. 24 in London.
If the Saints are above .500 at that point, they'll have put themselves into position to fight for an NFC South title and playoff berth. Fans won't have to wait for that eighth win to know 2017 is going to be different. Once the Saints have more wins than losses, it's game on — and time to get excited.
2017 Saints Regular Season Prediction: 11-5.