Marc and Ben are back with an extra-special and extra-long episode 25. This week, they recap the divisional round matchups with discussions about the post-Brees Saints as well as whether the NFL should change the fumble for a touchback rule. Other topics include who are the most unlikeable players in the league and does celebrating actually hurt your team. Lastly, they break down next week’s games and crown their conference champions.
Schedule: TB, @LVR, GB, @DET, LAC, BYE, CAR, @CHI, @TB, SF, ATL, @DEN, @ATL, @PHI, KC, MIN, @CAR
Additions: S Malcolm Jenkins (FA), WR Emmanuel Sanders (FA), QB Jameis Winston (FA), OL Cesar Ruiz (Draft)
Losses: OL Larry Warford (Cut), QB Teddy Bridgewater (FA), S Vonn Bell (FA), LB A.J. Klein (FA), CB Eli Apple (FA), FB Zach Line (Retired)
I know putting “cursed” as the weakness is a cop out, but you try finding a hole in this roster. For a team coming off back-to-back 13-3 seasons, the Saints have done a remarkable job of keeping their in-house talent. Next year’s going to be the end of that given the cap situation, so it could be now or never to win a Super Bowl.
This also could be Drew Brees’ last chance at a second championship, too, as the future Hall of Famer is pretty much a lock to retire in 2021. When that point comes, New Orleans seems committed to rolling out Taysom Hill as the starter, which is guaranteed to be fun even if unsuccessful. For the time being, Hill will continue his jack-of-all trades role while Jameis Winston serves as the primary backup. Depth-wise, this is the best quarterback situation in football.
Talent-wise, the Saints might have the best offensive line, too. Every starter other than Larry Warford returns from last year’s elite line. Rookie Cesar Ruiz should slide in seamlessly at right guard, so there’s no reason to expect any drop off.
For a few days there, it looked like there might be a huge shake up in the backfield. First, it looked like Alvin Kamara was holding out for a new contract. Then, we thought New Orleans was looking to trade its star back. Neither of those came to fruition, though, as everything looks to be fixed now. After reportedly playing with a torn MCL last season, Kamara should return to his dangerous self. Latavius Murray is an excellent insurance policy as well.
At receiver, Michael Thomas is on a record-setting pace for his position. However one-dimensional you may think he is, he’s borderline unstoppable in that one dimension. Social media aside, this is one of the best receivers in the league. New Orleans will also enjoy the benefit of a legitimate WR2 for the first time in years with the addition of Emmanuel Sanders. All in all, this is a great offense, especially with Sean Payton at the helm. The only issue has been in the playoffs, where Brees’ inability to make off-script plays has come back to bite them.
Defensively, the Saints aren’t nearly as flashy, but they get results. Led by Cameron Jordan, the defensive line is outstanding and deep. Demario Davis fills a similar role at linebacker. The front seven isn’t full of household names. It’s just full of good football players
The secondary is sort of the opposite. Marshon Lattimore and Co. get attention for their often elite play, but consistency can be an issue. It’ll be interesting to watch how the new guys fare, too. While Janoris Jenkins was there in 2019, this will be his first full season with the team. New Orleans needs him to step up across from Lattimore. Also worth monitoring is the Vonn Bell-Malcolm Jenkins swap at safety and how big a role Ceedy Duce has in year two.
For as talented as this team is, they were arguably better in each of the last two years—only to lose before the Super Bowl each time. Every year that passes means further deterioration of Brees’ arm strength, so it’s starting to seem like they may just never make it. I expect this season to go very similar to the last three, with New Orleans being a great regular season team that can’t get it done in the playoffs.
What’s your record prediction for the Saints? What did I get right or wrong? Sound off in the comments.
Most teams would coast after a Super Bowl win, but we know the Patriots aren’t most teams. Bill Belichick saw an opportunity to get an elite receiver at a fair price and took it. No one is better than he at avoiding complacency after success.
Unlike the parade-having Pats, the Saints hadn’t tasted playoff football in years. Three consecutive 7-9 records were the impetus for once again trading away Drew Brees’ top target.
On the two-year anniversary of the Jimmy Graham trade, Cooks got the boot. Back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons weren’t enough to convince management of his importance, apparently. Instead, the Saints opted to roll with Michael Thomas, whom had already begun to challenge Cooks for alpha status as a rookie, as their top receiver.
New England Post Trade
Cooks’ time in New England was pretty status quo for both the player and team. He finished 18 yards shy of a third straight 1,100-yard season as the Patriots returned to the Super Bowl, albeit in a losing effort this time around. Had Cooks not gotten knocked out by Malcolm Jenkins in the big game, New England might have gotten title number six a year early.
That injury-plagued Super Bowl turned out to be Cooks’ last game with the Patriots. That offseason, he was traded for the second time in as many years. This offseason, he was moved again.
It isn’t the greatest legacy to have, but Cooks has to be up there for the most times an NFL player has been traded for a meaningful return. At just 26 years old, he still has plenty more time to be sloppily passed around the league.
Despite his inability to stick with a team long term, Cooks has been productive wherever he’s gone. In New Orleans, he broke out in his sophomore year and followed that up with a great third season. In his lone year with the Pats, he and Rob Gronkowski formed one of the most devastating receiver duos Tom Brady’s ever had. And, in his first season with the Rams, he posted a career high in yards.
2019, though, was by far the worst year of his career. Maybe that was the first sign of a steep decline, or maybe that will be just a blip on a borderline Hall of Fame-level career. Personally, I think 2020 will be a rebound year for Cooks.
In the Patriots’ deal with Los Angeles, they received first and sixth-round picks in exchange for Cooks and a fourth. So, in the grand scheme of things, they traded a first, third, and fourth for one year of Cooks, a first, fourth, and sixth.
It should be said that their incoming fourth rounder was never used due to Deflategate punishments, but for the purposes of evaluating this trade, we can assume it yielded an average player for the round—a career backup or low-level starter.
Also, the Pats’ incoming first-round pick (23 overall in 2018) landed nine spots higher than the one they sent out (32 overall in 2017). To me, that more than makes up for the extra third they sent out.
You have to look at the overall value Cooks gave the Patriots, and that includes the return they got for trading him. When you look at the net of the two trades, they essentially got a highly productive receiver for a year at no cost.
Somewhat off-topic, but you could make the (admittedly weak) argument Cooks made almost no impact on the Patriots’ success. They made the Super Bowl the year before he came, the year he was there, and the year after he was traded. In fact, the only one they lost was with him. To be fair to Cooks, he also made the Super Bowl the year after he was traded, with his Rams losing.
Anyways, the Cooks saga is some of Belichick’s finest and most underrated work. Only a GM as savvy and bold as he could have pulled off such resounding victories across the board.
New Orleans Post Trade
While the Patriots killed this trade in a roundabout way, the Saints did so in a more straightforward fashion. For starters, they got outstanding value for Cooks. As we’ve learned, first and third-round picks are a great return for a star receiver (yes, I’m still mad about the Deandre Hopkins trade).
What they did with those picks is even better. Ramczyk has started 52 of 53 (including playoffs) possible games in his career and earned a first-team All-Pro nod last season. Offensive line play has been a huge reason for the Saints’ recent success, and Ramczyk has been instrumental to their excellence.
Hendrickson isn’t nearly as good as Ramczyk, but he’s a good player nonetheless. As a rotational defensive end, he does his job well. It’s no coincidence his best season (4.5 sacks in 2019) coincided with the Saints having one of the better defensive fronts in the league.
Including those guys, the Saints’ 2017 draft was historically great. Marcus Lattimore, Marcus Williams, and Alvin Kamara were all picked that year and are some of the team’s best players entering 2020.
That prolific 2017 class has fueled the Saints’ turnaround. Since that draft, New Orleans has been an annual contender, finishing each of the last three seasons with at least 11 wins. They’re arguably one horrible call away from a Super Bowl appearance and possible victory.
Part of that progress could have something to do with the style shift that concurred with the Cooks trade. In 2017, Brees averaged his fewest attempts per game since 2005—a trend that’s continued the last two years. Instead of directly replacing Cooks’ targets, the Saints opted to become a more balanced team, and to great results.
Record-wise, New Orleans has greatly improved sans Cooks, and you could say the same position-wise. Trading him away opened the door for Thomas to set countless records.
I want to say now that should the Saints ever decide to trade Thomas, they have earned my complete benefit of the doubt. Their track record of trading away and replacing productive receivers is sterling.
The only thing you can point to of the Saints missing Cooks is their struggle to find a robin to Thomas’ batman, and even that has never been more than a minor issue. Plain and simply, New Orleans nailed this trade.
Final Verdict: Patriots Win
This deal was a textbook win-win. Both teams got amazing value, but if I have to pick one winner, it’s New England. After enjoying a great year from Cooks, they flipped him for essentially the same package they spent to acquire him. Getting something as valuable as a year of Cooks virtually for free makes them the clear winners.
Given that, the fact that the Saints are even in the discussion speaks to how insanely well they did in this trade. Despite doing slightly worse than their counterparts, New Orleans aced this deal without a doubt.
Who do you think won the Cooks trade? What trade should I look at next? Sound off in the comments.
This deal was huge at the time. New fans may remember him as a slow and overpaid redzone threat, but peak Graham was on a historic tear at his position. With Drew Brees feeding him, Graham was right there with Rob Gronkowski for the title of most dangerous pass-catching tight end in the league.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, the statistical dominance of the combo didn’t translate to team dominance. In Graham’s star 2011-2014 seasons, the Saints never advanced past the divisional round and missed the playoffs entirely twice. Even though Graham was far from the problem, it didn’t seem like New Orleans could get over the hump with the current roster.
To make matters worse, Graham wanted elite compensation for his elite status. New Orleans and its star spent the 2014 offseason locked in a contentious arbitration battle over Graham’s true position (with the Saints ultimately winning and applying the cheaper tight end franchise tag). Eventually, they agreed on a massive $40 million deal and the 2014 season played out per usual—with Graham posting gaudy numbers and the team stumbling to seven wins.
On March 10, 2015, Mickey Loomis decided something needed to change. That day, Graham was dealt to a Seattle team looking for offensive reinforcements following a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss. The Seahawks gave up their starting center and a first-round pick with the hopes that an upgrade at tight end would extend their streak of Super Bowl appearances.
Seattle Post Trade
The Seahawks were this close to being back-to-back Super Bowl champs, so adding one of the best weapons in the league had to certify them as a dynasty, right?
Kind of. Seattle is yet to have a losing season since the trade and advanced to the divisional round in Graham’s first year. But, they also haven’t made it past that round since.
Part of that is the result of the trade. It didn’t take long to realize Graham wasn’t going to make the same impact in Seattle as he did by the bayou. Unlike the pass-happy Saints, the Seahawks were built on defense and the run game.
Even still, Graham was on track to post strong numbers once again in 2015. Then, for the first time in his career, he suffered a serious injury. A torn patellar tendon ended his season and cemented a rocky start to his stay in the Pacific Northwest.
A bounce back 2016 season proved to be the outlier in Graham’s career outside of New Orleans. He lasted one more disappointing season in Seattle before somehow earning two more big contracts with the Packers and Bears. Despite playing with Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, glimpses of the old Graham were few and far between.
Besides getting less impact from their star acquistion than expected, this trade really crippled Seattle. On the bright side, they did a great job with the pick they received, coupling it with some of their own picks to trade up for Tyler Lockett.
That’s about all we have for the bright side. Trading away the linchpin of their offensive line led Seattle down the dark path of turnstiles protecting Wilson they’ve become known for.
As we all saw, age and injuries hit the Seahawks hard. The youthful and exciting Legion of Boom crumbled quickly. The money dedicated to Graham or the departed first-round pick would have been the perfect means to replenish the defense. Or reinforce the offensive line. Instead, those holes went on to sink Seattle’s championship aspirations.
Wilson and Pete Carroll have overcome these issues remarkably, with the aforementioned streak of winning seasons being truly mind-blowing outside of New England. Once the calendar turns, though, the heroic efforts of those two fall short against more complete teams.
It would’ve happened eventually, but the Graham trade accelerated Seattle’s transition from a young and deep team to an aging and incomplete one.
New Orleans Post Trade
Nothing really changed early on for New Orleans. The offense remained potent and the defense porous. Just as they did in Graham’s last year, the Saints went 7-9 in 2015 and 2016.
With Sean Payton’s genius guiding him, Brees continued to light defenses up, as Brandin Cooks took over as his favorite target. Overall, the Saints didn’t seem to lose much by trading Graham. Given that, it almost didn’t matter what the Saints did with the crown jewel of their return—Seattle’s 2015 first-round pick.
Well, it’s a good thing it didn’t matter because that pick did not turn out well. Their selection, linebacker Stephone Anthony, flashed as a rookie before injuries and inconsistency led the team to give up on him. Shortly into his third season, the Saints flipped Anthony for a fifth-round pick. Needless to say two unspectacular years of play and a day three pick in return are not a good return on a first-round pick.
That pick was the meat of the deal, but the sides ended up making up for the main course in this case. Dumping Graham’s contract helped to unclog the Saints’ perennially messy books. Max Unger started all but one game and made a Pro Bowl in his four years with the team. He played a large role in establishing the offensive line as a strength of the team, as it has remained for years now.
Both Unger and the money saved were instrumental in leading New Orleans to this current era of regular season dominance. There have surely been times when Brees missed his old favorite target, but that trade was a key stepping stone to the current team status.
Final Verdict: Saints Won
This trade was neither great nor destructive for either side. While Seattle got less impact out of Graham than anticipated, he was still solid and the pick they received was key to landing Lockett.
New Orleans completely botched their pick and missed the playoffs the first two years after the trade. Still, they win this trade relatively comfortably. They were going nowhere fast with Graham, so getting out of his contract while picking up a stud center was a shrewd move.
Who do you think won the Graham trade? What trade should I look at next? Sound off in the comments.