Mark Menard reporting
Since the summer of 2006, when Sean Payton was plucked from the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff to head up the New Orleans Saints by team general manager Mickey Loomis, the two men have been linked as the brain trust responsible for every high and low experienced by the Who Dat Nation.
Heading into their 12th year together, the Loomis-Payton regime has outlasted the vast majority of their peers from that initial season in 2006, and the reason for their longevity is an impressive track record of success. In their first eight seasons together, they took the Saints to the playoffs five times, winning Super Bowl 44 following the 2009 season. But in recent years, their judgment has not looked as rock-solid. A major reason for that drop-off in success has been failures in evaluating the talent available in free agency.
The Saints have had a rough go of it lately when it comes to signing outside talent, and the carnage hasn’t been limited to the field. The team has felt the pressure of the mountain of dead money on the books after cutting failed free agent signings. Last season offered a ray of hope though with some key contributions by players lured away from other teams to the Crescent City in the summertime.
If the Saints want to return to their glory days, it stands to reason they have to get back to solid scouting in free agency. Presented here are the top five free-agency successes and failures of the Sean Payton era.
#5: Luke McCown – quarterback
McCown, a Texas native and Louisiana Tech product, is heading into his 14th season in the NFL. Drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2004, he bounced around the league for the next nine years, spending time in Tampa, Jacksonville, and Atlanta. In 2013, he was signed to be the Saints’ backup quarterback behind Drew Brees. Since that time, as young bucks came and went, McCown has proved to be a steady presence on the sideline, even starting the only game Brees has ever missed due to injury.
While it might seem weird to name a backup QB to the team’s top five free-agent signings, the fact that McCown has held onto his spot for four straight seasons is a testament to his smarts and his stamina as a longtime NFL veteran.
#4: Keenan Lewis – cornerback
Lewis joined the Saints as a free agent pickup from the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013. He arrived just as he was entering his prime in the league after completing his rookie deal in the Steel City. And while he played his college ball in the Pacific Northwest at Oregon State, he grew up right here in New Orleans, prepping at O. Perry Walker High School, and he proudly claimed the nickname “Westbank.” He proved to be as tough as he was talented, famously playing through pain numerous times. He was a key piece on a defense that ranked fourth in the NFL in 2013, the last season the Saints made the playoffs.
#3: Jabari Greer – cornerback
Like Lewis, Greer was a promising young cover-man who joined this Saints after completing his rookie development elsewhere. In Greer’s case, that was with the Buffalo Bills, who signed him as an undrafted rookie out of Tennessee in 2004. After grinding out a reputation as a talented young corner but toiling for a team that couldn’t sniff the playoffs, Greer made the decision to join the Saints in 2009. It was a fortuitous one. Greer won a ring in his first season in New Orleans, then went on to become the team’s top cornerback, helping the Saints to four playoff appearances until a torn ACL ended his career abruptly in 2014.
#2: Darren Sproles – running back
At just 5’6” the diminutive Sproles doesn’t appear to have the size it takes to survive in the bruising world of NFL rushers. But Sproles has made a career out of proving the doubters wrong. A fourth-round selection out of Kansas State by the San Diego Chargers in 2005, Sproles was third on a depth chart behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner, but his talent and speed earned him playing time. After two years of being strung along in San Diego with one-year deals and a franchise tag, Sproles hit the open market in 2011, just as the Saints were moving away from Reggie Bush. Sproles proved to be everything Bush had been and more.
In 2011, Sproles was a major cog in a machine-like, record-setting Saints offense. Sproles himself logged an NFL-record 2,696 all-purpose yards as he ran over, around, and through every defense he faced. Just three short years later, he would also assume the dreaded “one-that-got-away” status when, at the age of 31, he was traded away to the Philadelphia Eagles in what quickly became a bitter divorce between Sproles and the Saints. Since moving north, Sproles has continued to fill up the stat sheet. To make matters worse, the Saints used their compensation for Sproles, a fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft, on washout linebacker Khairi Fortt. In a league where it’s generally considered better to divest yourself of a player a year too early rather than a year too late, the Sproles trade remains one of the Saints’ greatest missteps of the Payton era.
#1: Drew Brees – quarterback
There’s really no way to understate what #9 has meant to the Saints franchise or the city of New Orleans as a whole since he relocated to the 504 in the summer of 2006. The story has been written too many times to count, but I’ll hit the highlights. Drafted in 2001 by the Chargers. Seemed a little slow to adjust to the NFL. Caught fire in 2004, his third season in the league, after San Diego traded #1 overall pick Eli Manning to New York for his eventual successor Philip Rivers. Hurt his throwing shoulder in the final game of the 2005 season, his last game under contract. Was allowed to walk by Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith (who also gifted Darren Sproles to the Saints. Thanks again, A.J.)
Succeeded Aaron Brooks as starting quarterback for the Saints after signing in 2006 with New Orleans still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Has been joined at the hip with Sean Payton ever since as one of the all-time great coach/quarterback duos. In his first season, Brees led the Saints, just 3-13 the previous season, to a 10-6 record and their first ever berth in the NFC Championship. Three years later, he would lead the team and its prolific offense to the promised land, taking MVP honors in the Saints’ Super Bowl 44 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
The list of records Brees has set is lengthy, highlighted by his streak of 54 straight games with a touchdown pass, breaking a record set by the legendary Johnny Unitas, and his five 5,000-yard seasons as a passer, a feat only four other quarterbacks achieved and no one else has managed more than once.
His precision and accuracy throwing a football are positively surgical, and his career completion percentage of 66.64% ranks him #1 all-time in the NFL. Even at 38 years young, Brees shows no signs of slowing down even as the age gap between him and his receivers reached an all-time high in 2016. The Saints are guaranteed at least one more season with Brees. It’ll be fun to see what more he adds to his legacy in 2017.
*Footnote: It’s impossible to ignore the contributions of free agent pickup Darren Sharper in 2009. The ball-hawking safety’s mere presence in the black and gold secondary altered opposing quarterbacks’ mindsets, bolstered by his nine interceptions that year. But his well-documented crimes also cast a shadow on his tenure in New Orleans. With all that in mind, I could not place him in my top five.
#5: Olin Kreutz – center
In 2011, the Saints saw the anchor of their offensive line, Jonathan Goodwin, depart for San Francisco. In response, they signed Olin Kreutz away from the Chicago Bears. Kreutz was heading into his 14th season, and never panned out for New Orleans. Six games into the season, Kreutz retired, citing an inability to relocate his passion for the game.
#4: Jairus Byrd – safety
Byrd was a rookie sensation for the Buffalo Bills in 2009 with nine interceptions in his first year. He earned a reputation as a certified ballhawk in ensuing seasons. Byrd would leave Buffalo as a free agent in 2014 with 22 picks to his name in five seasons. The Saints paid a king’s ransom to bring him to the Big Easy and were rewarded with an oft-injured non-entity who missed the better part of two seasons. Byrd finally showed some positive signs in 2016, but his impending release by the team means he’ll have virtually nothing to show for his time in New Orleans.
#3: C.J. Spiller – running back
Spiller’s signing in 2015 was supposed to fill the hole created when the Saints traded away Darren Sproles. Instead, Spiller managed just 351 all-purpose yards, his lone significant contribution an 80-yard catch and run touchdown that earned the Saints a victory over the Dallas Cowboys on the first play of overtime. He was a healthy scratch in the first game of the 2016 season, then released soon after.
#2: Jason David – cornerback
In the wake of the Saints’ improbable run to the 2006 NFC Championship game, a game in which the team’s shortcomings were laid bare by the Bears, the black and gold knew they needed to make improvements to their defensive secondary. To that end, they signed David, fresh off of a Super Bowl-winning season with the Indianapolis Colts. Unfortunately, the Saints quickly learned that the fourth-year cover-man out of Washington State was ill-suited to their defensive gameplan. David lasted two frustrating seasons in New Orleans, hopefully buying aloe in bulk to deal with the frequency with which he got burned.
#1: Brandon Browner – cornerback
Browner’s credentials were impeccable when the Saints inked him in 2015. He spent three years with the Seattle Seahawks as a founding member of the Legion of Boom, winning Super Bowl 48. The following year, he took his talents to the New England Patriots, winning Super Bowl 49. However, signing with the black and gold the next season proved to be far less notable an experience. Browner’s year in the Crescent City was marked by a most dubious distinction: He set a record for most penalties drawn by a player in a single season. When opposing teams earn positive yards simply due to your mere presence on the field, you earn #1 on my list of biggest free-agent flops.