By their nature, personnel decisions in the NFL are gambles. And many the Saints (2-3) made during the 2014 preseason have not paid off after the first five games of the campaign.
The latest disappointment came Monday, when the Saints (2-3) waived linebacker Khairi Fortt, their rookie fourth-round draft selection out of California. Essentially, much of what Fortt did with the Saints was spend five weeks of the regular season on short-term injured reserve with a supposed hurt hamstring before being waived and claimed by Cincinnati, whom the Saints play Nov. 16.
The Saints did not waive Fortt because he violated any league rules or had any legal trouble, though his absence from a couple of team meetings did precede his being let go.
Nonetheless, the conclusion of Fortt’s time in New Orleans can take its place among other underwhelming choices during the draft and in free agency.
Linebacker Ronald Powell — the rookie the Saints acquired in May with the fifth-round pick they traded running back Darren Sproles to Philadelphia for in March — was inactive in New Orleans’ 37-31 win at home against Tampa Bay (1-4) on Sunday at home. Powell’s played on special teams in the Saints’ other four games this year. Meanwhile, Sproles leads the NFL with 223 punt return yards; is seventh in the league with 608 all-purpose yards; has three total touchdowns; and has been the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week twice this season.
Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, the rookie second-round draft pick out of Nebraska, has only been active for two of the Saints’ games; and he’s stuck to special teams, not logging a single snap on defense. It was never the Saints’ plan for the 6-foot-4 Jean-Baptiste to achieve prominence immediately. But they would’ve preferred to get more out of him on defense after veteran Champ Bailey failed to make the roster; Patrick Robinson underwhelmed the first three games, was demoted, missed Week 4 with a hurt hamstring and left Week 5 early with that same injury; and Corey White and Brian Dixon accumulated more snaps than initially anticipated under No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis.
Tackle Tavon Rooks, the rookie sixth-round choice out of Kansas State, was waived at the end of the preseason and stashed on the practice squad.
That leaves the Saints’ other fifth-round choice — safety Vinnie Sunseri — and first-rounder Brandin Cooks to salvage this year’s draft class. Fortunately for the Saints, both have rendered what was expected of them.
The Saints tabbed Sunseri to learn the defense and rotate onto it when necessary while lining up on special teams. He’s done that by being active all five games this year, earning 101 snaps of special teams and two Week 1 plays on defense.
It’s no deep analysis to say the Saints have a dynamic talent in Cooks, who they gave up a third-round choice to move up seven slots in the draft in May and grab with the No. 20 pick. He tops the Saints’ wide receivers in catches (32), receiving yards (255) and is one of only two to have a touchdown through five games. As they promised, the Saints have also gotten him the ball in the rushing attack — with five carries for 64 yards — and by letting him field punts (12, though he’s returned only five for 10 yards).
Yet Sunseri and Cooks are far from enough to soften the disappointment the draft class has been at this juncture. And two of the biggest moves in free agency won’t provide any consolation about that.
There’s no consolation to be had in safety Jairus Byrd, whose first season on a six-year contract worth up to $56 million (unprecedented for a player at his position) ended when he tore a meniscus in a practice preparing for Week 5 and landed on injured reserve. After leading NFL safeties with 22 interceptions from 2009-13, this will be the first campaign in the league for Byrd in which he did not pick off a pass, though he did force a fumble the Saints recovered.
Meanwhile, safety Malcolm Jenkins — who was with the Saints from 2009-13 and then signed with Philadelphia — was in a four-way tie for the league lead in interceptions as of Wednesday with a single-season career-high of three, having the very year Byrd needed to have to convince skeptics he was worth the $28 million guaranteed to him to leave Buffalo and come to New Orleans as a free agent.
And there’s no consolation to be had yet in fullback Erik Lorig. Lured away from Tampa Bay in free agency on a four-season contract worth up to $4.8 million and guaranteeing him $1 million, the five-year veteran has missed all five of the Saints’ games in 2014 with an ankle injury from the summer. The good news is substitute fullback Austin Johnson has performed capably, among other things picking up five first downs on five carries, four of which were in third-and-short situations.
Certainly, it’s not Lorig’s fault he got hurt. But the fact remains his injury has forced the Saints to carry two fullbacks on the 53-man roster for just the second time since coach Sean Payton took charge in New Orleans in 2006. And a dilemma will present itself whenever Lorig recovers, for all of his touches in NFL regular seasons have been receptions. He’s never carried the ball, which the younger, cheaper Johnson — who spent 2013 on the Saints’ practice squad — has shown he can do.
At least the possibility persisted Wednesday that Lorig, Jean-Baptiste and Powell can have an impact for the Saints in 2014 like Cooks and Sunseri have had. The same is no longer true of Byrd or Fortt.