The trade was never supposed to be about the center.
Not at the core, at least.
When the Saints dealt Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks, the big return was the first-round pick the Saints received. Center Max Unger was the sweetener who was going to shore up a weakness on the line.
It was never a surprise that Unger brought value to New Orleans. He was one of the better centers in the league at the time. It’s just the positional value isn’t there to trade an All-Pro tight end for a Pro Bowl center. Teams just don’t make that move.
But years four later, with Unger deciding to retire Saturday, the book can be closed on the deal. There is no question that he was the best player involved in the trade. All the other pieces were disappointments, if not full-on busts.
New Orleans Saints center Max Unger is retiring, a source confirmed to The Advocate.
The Saints missed with the pick they received from Seattle by picking linebacker Stephone Anthony. While he led the team with tackles his rookie season, he often blew assignments and could not diagnose plays. The fact New Orleans could trade him to the Miami Dolphins for a fifth-round pick was a stunning feat considering how he performed.
Graham wasn’t a complete miss for the Seahawks. He caught 170 passes for 2,048 yards with 18 touchdowns over three seasons, including 923 yards in 2016. But he wasn’t the matchup nightmare he was in New Orleans, which left Seattle with a certain level of disappointment.
Even last year in Green Bay, he only caught 55 passes for 636 yards with a pair of touchdowns after the Saints attempted to re-sign him. It appears clear that he reached heights in this offensive system that he’ll never touch again.
Unger, meanwhile, was exactly what he was supposed to be — steady, solid and almost always available. The center only missed one game with New Orleans, and was, mostly, a very consistent presence. He only allowed four total sacks his first four seasons with the team and was one of the better centers during that period.
Last season, his 10th in the league, he started to show a little bit of wear on the treads, giving up four sacks and 18 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. The pressures were the most he allowed in a season since surrendering 19 as a rookie. But even though he took a slight step back, he was still a high-effective player.
His departure, which creates $6.95 million in cap space, leaves a hole for this team to fill. The Saints think a lot of Cameron Tom, even going so far as to up his salary two seasons ago when a team tried to poach him off the practice squad. But Tom will have to earn the opportunity against whoever is lined up to compete against him during camp.
It says something about the level of play Unger provided that trading one of the two best tight ends in the league for a center and a draft pick who busted doesn’t look terrible. There aren’t many scenarios where the deal should look the way it does, but one of them materialized.
This is a tough loss for a team has enjoyed so much success on the offensive line. But one of the reasons for that success has been its ability to plug players in and have them fill the voids. If the Saints can do it for extended periods after losing key players such as Terron Armstead, there is no reason it can’t happen again at center.
It will likely take whoever wins that job a little bit of time to settle in and anchor the line the way Unger did, but it is an achievable proposition.
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