There are a number of reasons the Saints have become trapped in a purgatory of mediocrity.
The locker room went bad. The organization whiffed on several free agents. The salary cap has managed the team as much as it has managed the cap.
All of these things have contributed to consecutive 7-9 finishes in New Orleans and has put the Saints in the throes of an on-the-fly rebuild. But sitting atop that list of regrets is New Orleans’ inability to consistently use the draft — the market where many successful organization’s restock their shelves and achieve stability — to build the roster.
“I think that this is a league where you have to draft well,” Payton said. “When you do that, you put yourself in a good position.”
You can bet that after the next draft, just like every other one, someone will ask Payton how he feels about his haul of new players and he’ll reply by saying it will take three years before he knows.
This is the typically the prudent approach. It’s impossible to immediately know how a player is going to fit a system or develop down the road. No one knows if his 40 time or college tape will translate to NFL success until said player has time to settle in and show growth.
In New Orleans, at least recently, those verdicts typically come down much sooner and the sentencing is often harsh.
The Saints drafted six players in 2014. Only Brandin Cooks, who is coming off a 1,000-yard season, has made meaningful contributions. Safety Vinnie Sunseri, who has battled injuries each of his first two years, is the only other player from the class still on the roster.
The 2013 draft produced safety Kenny Vaccaro and offensive lineman Terron Armstead, two core players, and defensive tackle John Jenkins. Wide receiver Kenny Stills, who was traded last offseason, was selected in the fifth round.
No one remains from the 2012 class or 2010 draft classes, though Jimmy Graham, who was traded for center Max Unger and the first-round pick that brought linebacker Stephone Anthony to town, was picked in the third round of 2010.
The 2011 draft brought in defensive end Cam Jordan and running back Mark Ingram. Both are key players who signed new contracts with New Orleans.
So, of the 28 picks the Saints made during that span, only seven players remain. The verdict: Suffering through a combined 14-18 record over the past two seasons.
“I think it’s easy to look at, and it’s good to look at, these years weren’t good and these years were,” Payton said. “How did we fail in this season? In other words, looking back, what didn’t we do correctly? Yes, that is part of it.”
Last year’s draft was overseen by assistant General Manager Jeff Ireland, who was hired in January. Several new scouts were also brought in last offseason. This will be their first full year together as a staff. There’s optimism this group will produce better results and build upon a potentially solid 2015 draft class.
If those results do not improve, it will be difficult for the organization to gain stability. The misses in the draft have caused the Saints to rely on free agency to build the roster, which has produced as many hits as misses. It’s also played a role in bloating the salary cap.
Payton is aware of the risks of signing pricey players during this process and noted that often times — not just in New Orleans — things do not end up working out as hoped when teams are forced to dive into free agency.
“Mickey (Loomis) and I look closely at the numbers and that first week of free agency, there is a lot of risk because if you go back every year, and you just go back and look at last year’s first two days of free agency, and then if those teams, us included, whoever is involved, had it to do over again, would they or wouldn’t they sign that potential player,” Payton said. “Oftentimes that percentage is not near where you’d expect it to be.”
The Saints have been major players early in free agency the last few years. Last offseason, they dove in after cornerback Brandon Browner and running back C.J. Spiller. The year before, it was safety Jairus Byrd.
The level at which those deals have worked out is debatable. Browner played the majority of the defensive snaps this year, though was often the subject of criticism for his level of performance. Spiller, for the most part, never gained his footing before landing on injured reserve for the final game of the season.
Byrd has battled injuries each of his first two years in New Orleans. He started coming on late last season, though one has to wonder if the organization is still happy with the six-year, $56 million deal he signed.
Payton said the team will be smart when making decisions on free agents in the future. If the team drafts better, making those decisions will also be easier.
“We’ll be smart and look closely at who we think (can come in and help),” Payton said. “As long as there is the correct vision for the player, then we’ll look closely at that. Obviously, if you are hitting on more draft picks, there are probably a little less holes than if you aren’t.”
Something has to give. One of the reasons the Saints had success early in Payton’s tenure is that the 2006 draft class provided a solid foundation. Though, it’s difficult to advocate abandoning free agency altogether since Drew Brees was acquired that way.
But better drafting would help the Saints build a better foundation and, as Payton said, help ensure there aren’t as many holes in the future and help eliminate some of the salary-cap woes the organization has come against.
Fixing that those issues will be paramount to this organization achieving something resembling stability.