All that fighting last year was for nothing.
Tight end? Wide receiver? It didn’t matter — at least not for very long.
Jimmy Graham, the tight end, was supposed to spend his prime here. He was supposed to help Drew Brees break even more passing records and make the Mercedes-Benz Superdome the venue where fans came to watch a player at the height of his craft for years to come.
But now, Graham is no longer a member of the Saints. New Orleans on Tuesday sent the All-Pro tight end and a fourth-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks for center Max Unger and a first-round pick.
Sweeping changes were promised after last year’s disappointing 7-9 finish, but this has to be considered a stunner. Outside of Brees, Graham, despite fading down the stretch last season, was one of the team’s most talented players and was a face of the franchise.
This is a guy with 4,752 receiving yards over his first five seasons, the most by any tight end in NFL history.
It can be argued that his 2014 season wasn’t up to par, but he still caught 85 passes for 889 yards with 10 touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl. Perhaps the season was down by his standards, and perhaps he wasn’t the force New Orleans was used to seeing, but his production still placed him among the NFL’s best tight ends. And it’s worth noting he played through a shoulder injury.
It’s also worth noting this was not a salary-cap move. Despite the Saints’ struggles to reel in their spending by Tuesday’s 3 p.m. deadline to get down to $143.8 million in salary-cap charges, that task was accomplished, and parting ways with Graham was not fueled solely by money. By trading him, the team saves $2 million against the cap, but it gains $4.5 million in Unger’s salary, meaning the Saints’ cap figure actually rises $2.5 million.
This was about football. If it wasn’t, the team simply would have converted Graham’s $5 million roster bonus to a signing bonus to create additional space.
The question is where the Saints go from here. It’s hard to see the path through the ghosts of running back Pierre Thomas, linebacker Curtis Lofton and Graham, all of whom left town in the past week. And to make matters worse, cornerback Keenan Lewis posted on his Instagram account that he wants out of New Orleans unless he’s taken care of. He likely wants more overall money or more guaranteed money.
After the season ended, coach Sean Payton promised changes. This likely isn’t what any casual observer would have had in mind. This isn’t just change, jettisoning out some spare or aging parts. To some degree, sending Graham away signals an overhaul.
Regardless of what happens next, this offense is going to be vastly different than it looked last year. Brees no longer will have his big red-zone target or his go-to player up the seam. The offense will have to become more centered on the play of wide receivers Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks and Marques Colston.
Unless someone else comes in, perhaps Josh Hill takes a bigger role in the offense. But whether it’s Hill or someone else, it’s unlikely he’ll be the perpetual matchup problem Graham once was for the offense.
It could be argued that investing $16 million over four years in running back Mark Ingram is a sign this team will run the ball more often. Perhaps that becomes a bigger part of the future — perhaps it has to.
What we do know is that the Saints, at least to some degree, now appear to be looking to the future. Unger is a quality center who likely will replace Jonathan Goodwin in the starting lineup, solidifying an interior offensive line that was often underwhelming last season — assuming guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs stick with the team.
And New Orleans now has two first-round picks. The possibilities there are endless. If they choose, the Saints could package the No. 13 and No. 31 picks to move up. They can stand pat and select two players. Whatever the choice, the team now has more options and more ways to fill holes.
What’s certain is that the hole created by Graham’s departure will not be filled — at least not in the same way. Graham is a unique talent who cannot be replaced. It will be a team effort. The offense will have to change. Things will be done differently.
Perhaps as differently as the approach to rebuilding this roster this offseason.