In the last two offseasons, the Saints have traded their best passing game mismatch pieces in Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham. Both players aligned all over the field and helped define the coverage for Drew Brees, created favorable matchups, and put an overall strain on the defense. So why would New Orleans want to get rid of such valuable players?
Trading Darren Sproles is one thing, but also getting rid of Jimmy Graham a year later is entirely another. While salary may have had something to do with it, you don’t get rid of a player of Graham’s caliber if throwing the ball all over the field is your intended M.O. You also don’t trade a good young wide receiver like Kenny Stills, who the Saints sent to Miami this offseason as well.
The Saints did re-sign between-the-tackles running back Mark Ingram. They also added C.J. Spiller to complement Ingram and add an outside-the-tackles element to the running game. They agreed to trade Graham in exchange for center Max Unger. There is now more talent in the Saints’ running game than in the passing game (outside of Drew Brees). It’s clear that the Saints are trending towards trying to run the ball more. And maybe this isn’t a bad idea.
The Saints have a good offensive line. They finished 13th in the NFL last season with 113.6 rushing yards per game despite ranking 19th in rushing attempts. 46.8% of their runs gained 4 yards or more, good for 4th best in the league. The pieces were already in place to have a good and consistent rushing attack before the Saints added more run-game talent this offseason. If Mark Ingram can stay healthy, he has good enough quickness and physicality between the tackles to be a feature back who wears on defenses.
Don’t expect the Saints to turn into a Rex-Ryan-ground-and-pound offensive team, though. Since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006, the Saints have never ranked higher than 26th in the NFL in first-half run-play selection (It’s better to go by first half play selection because that is more of a reflection of a team’s game plan than overall play selection). However, the two seasons in which they had their highest first-half run-play selection under Payton came in 2006 and 2009, the years they made it to the NFC Championship and won the Super Bowl respectively. Maybe the Saints realize that this wasn’t a coincidence.
Running the ball well provides protection for several elements of any football team. It can keep a bad defense off the field. It can slow down the other team’s pass rush and protect the quarterback. These are two areas of particular interest to the Saints.
This brings us to the final reason for the personnel transition in New Orleans. Drew Brees is 36 years old. The Saints are starting to think about life at the end/after their Hall-of-Fame quarterback, as rumors are swirling that they will draft a potential replacement early in the Draft this year. Maybe they are starting to realize that throwing the ball more than 40 times per game (which they’ve done in each of the last 5 seasons) with a QB who is close to the end of his career isn’t a formula for success.
This isn’t to say Brees can’t still play at a high level. He is still undoubtedly a top-10 quarterback. But his skills have diminished some. He never had a cannon for an arm to begin with, but more of his downfield passes have lost a little velocity at the end in recent years. His accuracy has become a little more erratic after he’s had to move and reset in the pocket. Again, he’s still playing at a high level. Last year, he completed over 69% of his passes, for 4,952 yards and 33 touchdowns. But the slight drop in his physical skills has affected his consistency. At age 36, it’s only going to get worse if he has to keep throwing 40 times a game.
And maybe this is what the Saints are thinking. A good running game will protect Brees and also help open up the passing game even more. Not to mention, Sean Payton is still one of the best, if not the best, at manufacturing open receivers regardless of his personnel. Between Payton, Brees, Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks, and an improved running game, the Saints are still going to be one of the better passing teams in the league in 2015. But the writing is on the wall. They won’t win a Super Bowl by throwing as much as they have over the last 5 seasons. Committing more to the running game will make them a better team in just about every area.