The words sat in the air as Mickey Loomis let them sink in before spitting them out.
“No, I wouldn’t say rebuild is the right word,” the New Orleans Saints general manager said.
Loomis knows that 7-9 isn’t good enough. It’s not good enough for the fans. And it’s certainly not good enough from where he sits. Rebuilding suggests that result is acceptable, maybe even invited. It means the team doesn’t expect to be competitive this season and that this week’s draft is only a bridge to the future.
That isn’t the case. Words like retooling or reloading would have gone down smooth, because that’s what this is. If the Saints finish 7-9 next season, it won’t be without a fight. This team intends to do everything it can to win now, and that process will continue by trying to locate a handful of players in the draft who can contribute in some capacity or another.
Sitting at a table with a microphone before him Wednesday afternoon, Loomis seemed confident in the work his team has done to prepare for the draft. He knows that New Orleans is in an envious position, with nine total picks, including picks 13, 31 and 44, and can accomplish just about anything it wants to accomplish in the draft.
There’s pressure that comes with that position. In some degrees, the future of the franchise, both long-term and immediate, resides on what the Saints accomplish this week in the draft. They need to hit on several of their picks to help turn things around. On another level, the success of deals that sent tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle and wide receiver Kenny Stills to Miami will also hinge on what Loomis does with the picks acquired in those trades.
There’s pressure from multiple angles. But the only pressure Loomis said he’s feeling comes from the responsibility of having so many picks in the early rounds.
“What makes it critical is we have five picks within the first three rounds,” Loomis said. “You want to be successful with that. You need to be successful and pick good players.”
Every draft comes with unique challenges, and none are easy to prepare for. But this year comes with unusual circumstances and more questions than answers. Teams started out having to determine a stance on three of the most talented players in the class — Nebraska edge rusher Randy Gregory, Oklahoma wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham and Washington cornerback Marcus Peters — who come with the kind of baggage that could scare teams away.
In recent days, things have become even more difficult. Missouri pass rusher Shane Ray was cited for possession of marijuana, and LSU offensive lineman La’el Collins had to leave the draft to speak to police about a murder investigation. This has caused the Saints, as well as every other team in the NFL,to do their homework on both situations and shuffle around their draft board.
It’s not an ideal situation. Not only is it difficult to make changes this late in the process, Ray potentially falling out of favor takes an edge rusher out of the mix for the Saints. And both players potentially falling out of the top 15 pulls other players up and weakens the pool of players available to New Orleans with the 13th pick.
Loomis wouldn’t get into specifics, but he said there are some players in this class who are not on their board at all. Each one, however, is treated as a unique situation and deserves specific consideration.
“It’s hard to say there’s a policy. Every one of these cases is different,” Loomis said. “You have to look at each one individually and (make a) judgment on what you’ll handle and deal with and what you won’t. It’s hard for me to make a blanket statement that we’ll do one thing or the other.”
Between gathering information on those players, New Orleans has been putting the finishing touches on its draft plans. This means making any last-minute grade changes or rankings, running through various mock drafts to prepare for different scenarios, and assessing the trade value of each pick.
For the final task, Loomis said he’s evaluated every trade made during the past 10 drafts and consulted the trade-value chart to determine what he’d be comfortable giving up to move up in the draft or receiving as compensation to move down. By making those judgments now, he can avoid making such decisions when the clock is ticking and adrenaline is pumping.
“I get a pretty good sense of the history of moving in these rounds,” Loomis said. “I have a pretty good idea. I’ll look every pick, if we move one pick up, two picks, three picks up, and the same thing going backward. I’ll have a real good idea of what has happened, of what the perceived value is based on the point charts, and then we’ve got to make a determination of, ‘Hey this is what we would do, and this is what we’d take if we move back.’”
In some regards, no matter what the Saints accomplish, it will never live up to the standard set by fans. The bar is too high. On several occasions, Loomis was asked about the 2006 draft class that netted Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief, and Marques Colston, as well as the one who got away, Rob Ninkovich, who now stars for the Patriots.
The level of talent that came from that class is rare and mostly unheard of, but it’s become the standard against which draft classes are now judged here. Loomis knows that class was special, it helped this team win a Super Bowl, but the odds of hitting like that again are slim. It takes a degree of luck to land a haul like that.
Of course, Loomis would like to hit on all nine picks this week, but he admitted that getting four or five good players out of this draft would be considered a win. He also cautioned that expectations shouldn’t be too high for the players they do select. These guys are one piece of the puzzle. Not the sole answer.
“I think it’s unrealistic to expect rookie players to come in and turn your team around,” he said. “I think we always have unrealistic expectations of first-year players. It takes these guys times to acclimate to the NFL, so we shouldn’t judge them this season. We should judge them on what happens in their career, or over the next two or three years.”
Still, they’ll have to contribute in some regard if this retooling is to work out. Last year wasn’t good enough. The goal is to get better. The right rookies will help.
“Obviously 7-9, we don’t feel like that was good enough; obviously none of our fans feel like that’s good enough, but we’re looking to improve off that,” Loomis said.
Improvement is a word everyone can get behind.