Brandon Browner was supposed to be the centerpiece of the New Orleans Saints’ efforts to rebuild a stable of cornerbacks. A group that was forced to rely on journeymen, spare parts and veterans looking for one last ride the year before now had someone to turn things around.
Instead, Browner became the face of a shattered defense. He was the man who broke the glass. And apparently his mistakes were unforgivable because the veteran cornerback posted on social media that he was released by the Saints on Friday morning in a move that does not save New Orleans any meaningful amount of money against the salary cap.
While the move will save the Saints $950,000 in salary next season, New Orleans will be paying Browner more than $5 million to go somewhere else — anywhere else — next season. In other words, this is another costly mistake by an organization that has had too many of them in recent years.
It’s a surprising development given how Browner arrived. His teammates voted him a captain and often talked about his leadership during the early months of his tenure. But there were repeated incidents with the media and one scene where he snapped and got in the face of defensive coordinator Dennis Allen on the sideline during a game.
It’s unclear whether Browner had become disruptive in the locker room, but the organization felt he had to go. His play was not good enough to protect him if headaches — no matter how small — did arise in some form or fashion.
It’s no surprise Browner led the league in penalties last season since that has always been a part of his game, though many will point to the flags as one reason he had to go. What was surprising is how porous his coverage was. With first-year player Delvin Breaux emerging as a star, opposing quarterbacks set their sights on Browner and tried to gain yards on his side of the field.
He seldom had answers.
The 6-foot-4 cornerback was targeted 87 times throughout the season and gave up 56 receptions for 893 yards, according to The Advocate’s charting. For the sake of comparison, Breaux was targeted 78 times and surrendered 37 receptions for 557 yards.
It often didn’t matter how the opposition was targeting Browner. Quarterbacks beat him on go routes (five for 269 yards), curls (13-of-17 for 145 yards), in routes (8-of-12 for 102 yards), out routes (5-of-8, 59 yards), posts (3-of-5, 57 yards), slants (8-of-14, 90 yards) and many other ways.
The Saints tried different ways to use Browner. They put him on tight ends in some games and at times tried different ways to support him. Injuries to cornerbacks Keenan Lewis, Damian Swann and P.J. Williams limited some of those options and forced Browner to play nearly every snap last season.
But the bottom line is that Browner never really fit the system. He’s the type of player who needs to be in a system where his weaknesses are disguised and measures are taken to highlight his strengths. He often needs safety help to hide his issues with covering players down field. When he got it, like against Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins, he was able to succeed. But the Saints, for whatever reason, were not able to give it to him consistently enough, which turned Browner into a liability.
As the season wore on, it became harder to envision a scenario where Browner would have success here.
When figuring out why New Orleans had one of the more porous pass defenses in the NFL last season, the reasons are obvious. The linebackers’ inability to cover the flats and underneath routes is another.
By releasing Browner, the Saints are taking measures to fix one of those problems by simply getting him off the field.
Replacing him won’t be an issue if Lewis, Swann and Williams come back healthy next season. Ideally, Breaux and Lewis will play on the outside, and Swann, who improved throughout his rookie season, will compete at the slot. The strengths and weaknesses of Williams’ game remain a mystery, but early indications in camp last year suggest he could compete at either position.
But make no mistake: It’s a disappointment that New Orleans is in this position. Browner was a costly mistake. He was supposed to solidify his position and give the Saints a strong option opposite Lewis — something the team has lacked since Jabari Greer became injured in 2013.
And the Saints have had too many misses in recent years. While New Orleans has been optimistic about running back C.J. Spiller’s ability to return from a knee injury next season, he’s in danger of being another costly mistake for this front office.
For New Orleans to get out of its recent rut and escape mediocrity, it has to make better decisions about where to spend its money. Mistakes such as these are difficult to absorb when you’re living so close to the cap. Browner, in essence, now represents $5 million that could have been used to upgrade the roster in other ways.
And, to be fair, no one saw this ending up like this. The Browner signing was hailed nearly everywhere — including here — after it happened. It might be hypocritical to wag a finger at the organization.
But sports is a hindsight business. And in hindsight, there’s only one way to look at Browner’s tenure in New Orleans.