During a radio interview following the trade of Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints General manager Mickey Loomis said something that might have been telling.
While the rest of the world was busy wondering how the Saints were going to move the ball and score touchdowns and make their red-zone trips count without Graham, Loomis was busy shrugging off those concerns.
“Drew (Brees) has a way of throwing a lot of these guys open,” Loomis said.
It seem like forever ago that this offense operated without Graham on the roster, but there were four seasons when coach Sean Payton was designing offenses for Brees before the tight end was pulled out of the third round of the 2010 draft.
The Saints managed just fine. In fact, it could be argued New Orleans featured the best offense in the NFL from 2006-2010, finishing no lower than fifth in passing yards in any one season.
Losing Graham, who was traded along with a fourth-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for center Max Unger and first-round pick, is a major hit. Make no mistake. But the offense should find a way to continue racking up yards.
It will be difficult task. There are aspects of Graham’s game that cannot be replaced. He’s a matchup problem and often required a cornerback or safety in coverage, which, even when he didn’t get the ball, created opportunities for others on offense.
And last offseason, the team parted ways with another player with a similar profile in running back Darren Sproles. Without him dictating matchups underneath, it allowed more attention to be paid to the other weapons and the offense suffered.
If additional pieces are not added, the offense will be transformed. There won’t be All-World matchup problems like Sproles and Graham opening things up for the guys on the outside. It’s not even clear who the pass-catching back will be since Pierre Thomas was released, and Josh Hill and Ben Watson will be lining up at tight end.
Both Hill and Watson provide positive attributes, and Hill can surprise with his athleticism, but he will draw nowhere near the attention Graham did.
That means guys like Brandin Cooks, Kenny Stills and Marques Colston will have to work harder to get open. They’ll see more safety help. Everything will be more difficult.
For Brees, life will become more difficult in that he will no longer have his hulking 6-foot-7 target on the field. There was no need to throw Graham open. He was just open even when he wasn’t.
The areas where this will likely show up the most is on crossing routes, hitches, and out routes.
Of the 121 passes thrown to Graham last season, 70 of were on these three routes. Brees connected on 53 of those passes for 527 yards, 10 touchdowns, and one interception.
And Graham will also be missed, of course, on seam routes, where he caught 18-of-24 targets for 152 yards with one touchdown.
Watson can fill in some on crossing routes, where he caught nine of his 20 passes last season.
Hill only caught 14 total passes last season. Six were on quick outs, according to numbers provided to The Advocate by ProFootballFocus.com.
The receivers will fill in. Colston knows how to do damage across the middle of the field, Cooks is developing in all areas, and Stills became a master of the hitch route last season.
But it will be different. Payton will likely have to make some changes to his offense and find new ways to scheme guys open. Brees will have to work to throw guys open and his players will have to work harder for him.
His favorite target is gone, the security blanket has been lifted. Brees’ new favorite target will have to be the open man.