The Saints have taken some lumps in free agency the past few years, as their splashier signings didn’t pan out as hoped.
Jairus Byrd suffered a knee injury and didn’t get off to the start many expected. C.J. Spiller suffered his own injury and never even got out of the blocks. And while Brandon Browner played more than 90 percent of the defensive snaps this season, there’s a case to be made that figure should have been much smaller.
And that’s not even mentioning the moves New Orleans made to retain its own players, such as Junior Galette and Jimmy Graham, who are no longer with the team but are still felt in the form of dead money counting against the salary cap.
These mistakes hurt the Saints and contributed toward consecutive 7-9 finishes. General Manager Mickey Loomis doesn’t shy from this fact.
“Are there mistakes? Yeah, absolutely there are,” Loomis said. “We always own them. We’re not shying away from a decision that I’ve made or that we’ve made that didn’t turn out. We also don’t trumpet the ones that do work out, either.”
That doesn’t mean the organization will suddenly stop looking in the places it has previously looked for talent. It just means the team is going to be more cautious, to try to do things it has always done in a better, more productive manner.
Instead of taking a risk on a player with a long injury history or some red flags in free agency, the organization might now instead shy away or be more cautious of those issues before putting pen to paper. It will continue to look to scout and draft better, which is evidenced by the presence of Jeff Ireland and a largely new scouting staff being put in place last season.
And, of course, Loomis will never shy away from making a trade he thinks will help the team, as he did during the season by dealing underperforming defensive lineman Akiem Hicks to New England for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui.
But those looking for New Orleans to become a team that largely ignores free agency because of recent mistakes are going to have keep holding their breath. Loomis doesn’t envision suddenly transforming into Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson, who rarely dips a toe in free agency and almost never goes in deep enough to make a splash.
“I believe in using all of them,” whether it’s free agency, the draft or trades, Loomis said. “But you’ve got to be pretty cautious when you’re going out (and getting) really top, high-end, expensive free agents.”
“You’ve got to be cautious, and I think we’ve been cautious for the most part, but some of them have worked out and some haven’t.”
He continued: “I don’t know if that philosophy is going to really change. What changes is, what resources do you have available? Ultimately, are you going to have to enough to go get one guy or one high-level guy or three mid-level guys?”
In the near future, Loomis will have to figure out what kind of resources the team has to spend this offseason. The Saints currently have about $159 million committed to next season’s salary cap, which is expected to be somewhere around $153 million.
That means New Orleans will have to trim some money just to get in compliance with the cap before even considering adding talent via free agency.
Loomis doesn’t like the situation he’s currently in, though he also doesn’t feel it’s as bad as some analysts have painted the situation. He’s probably not wrong. New Orleans can trim nearly $5 million right off the top converting defensive end Cam Jordan’s roster bonus in to a signing bonus.
But there’s no question some previous moves have limited the Saints’ ability to maneuver. Galette — a misstep for which Loomis took complete and total responsibility during an interview Thursday — counts $12 million against the cap next year. And playing so close to the cap year after year has caused New Orleans to structure contracts so they often balloon at the end, which is why Drew Brees is schedule to count $30 million against the cap next season.
And while Loomis believes those missteps have caused some issues in terms of building depth and a middle class to the roster, he believes other factors have contributed as well.
“You know what makes it hard to build depth is having two second-round draft picks taken away from you,” the general manager said, referencing the two draft picks the team was stripped of as part of the penalties for the 2012 bounty scandal. “That makes it hard. I’d say that’s more impactful than making a mistake on a contract.
“Making a mistake with a contract and a player is harmful, right? We all do it, though, we all have those, just like we all have draft picks that don’t work out and we have other guys that work out. We’re all focused on the one that didn’t work out and don’t pay attention to the Delvin Breaux’s that come out of nowhere and perform at a high level, which is a credit to our scouting staff.”
Loomis knows things have to be better. There’s pressure to get better. He’s optimistic about the future of the franchise, but he’s also wise enough to know that being a 7-9 isn’t good enough.
But that doesn’t necessarily make this offseason unique. The ultimate goal every year is to be the best team in the league. That never changes.
“There is pressure, but there’s always that pressure. There’s pressures after a 13-3 season — probably not as strong after 7-9 and 7-9 — but it still exists,” he said. “Our league and you guys — I don’t mean you specifically; I mean the media in particular — has a great capacity to absolutely forget the good things that have happened and focus on the negative things that might occur or have occurred.”
The truth is, a certain level of grace has been granted to this team because of previous accomplishments. But 7-9 is still 7-9. It rings even louder when repeated and can only be said so many times before it drowns out everything else.