When I started covering the NFL in 1997, then-Titans general manager Floyd Reese let me in on a little secret about how the roster was put together.
In the era of the salary cap, he said, declines in organizational performance are all but inevitable due to the league’s parity-driven business model. The key, he said, was to avoid steep drops.
“You want your ‘low’ year or years to be 7-9 or 8-8,” he said.
The idea, Reese said, was to maintain relevance while quickly switching between cores and reloading for another playoff series. The best managed teams are the ones that can stay competitive during those inevitable rebuilding “dips”, thus retaining fan interest and enthusiasm.
That plan, of course, is easier said than done in a league where free agency, the draft, salary caps and traditional hiring practices conspire to steal from the rich and give to the poor.
With the notable exception of the dynastic New England Patriots, no team has executed Reese’s game plan better than the New Orleans Saints. Since 2000, the team has had only one year worse than 7-9 and that was the infamous Katrina season of 2005, which we can all agree was a circumstantial outlier.
It’s an extraordinary race of competitive relevance. During this period, you can count on your hand the number of meaningless games the Saints have played, the times they have taken the field with nothing at stake.
The one constant in this remarkable run has been Mickey Loomis. During this unprecedented two-decade span, the Saints’ longtime general manager skillfully managed the cap and carefully cultivated the roster in a concerted effort to keep the Saints competitive and relevant even during their bear market days.
Loomis has kept a low profile this season, but if you look closely you can see the mastermind at work.
Since the start of free agency last month, the Saints have signed 12 unrestricted players, including four of their own: Forrest Lamp, Tre’Quan Smith, PJ Williams and James Winston.
Of the eight players they signed from outside the building, four were from the 2017 NFL Draft class: Charlton Tacos; Justin Evans; Jaleel Johnson; and Marcus Maye.
The 2017 draft produced one of the defining classes in recent NFL history. In just five seasons, he’s generated 15 All-Pros and 30 Pro Bowlers. The class produced the core of the Saints roster: cornerback Marshon Lattimore, running back Alvin Kamara, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk and running back/tight end/quarterback Taysom Hill. Each plays a vital role in the success of the Saints. Each signed a second lucrative contract.
The top four of 2017 are the foundation that Loomis is building around this post-Drew Brees-era list. Lamp and backup defensive end Tanoh Kpsassagnon, who signed with the Saints a year ago, are also classmates in the 2017 draft. Meanwhile, two more unrestricted free agent signings this offseason – JP Holtz (2016 draft) and Kentavius Street (2018) – are on similar career schedules.
When you add it all up, the Saints have 10 players from the 2017 draft on the roster, including eight of the top 70 picks from that year. All are between 25 and 29 years old.
Of note, Deshaun Watson, who the Saints have aggressively pursued this offseason, was the 12th overall pick in the 2017 draft, just behind Lattimore.
Coincidence? Think again.
“It’s definitely not a coincidence,” former NFL executive Randy Mueller said.
Mueller would know. He served as the Saints’ general manager from 2000 to 2002 and hired Mickey Loomis as his right-hand man in the front office. The two have been friends and colleagues for decades. He knows how Loomis thinks and acts.
During his tenure as general manager in New Orleans and Miami, Mueller, like most front office executives, kept a multi-year depth chart in his office based on future contracts and their expiration dates. The chart served as a template for building and maintaining his roster, allowing Mueller to predict potential future roster drops.
When he took over the Saints in 2000, Mueller used a similar strategy to sign free agents like Joe Horn, Norman Hand and Fred Thomas to bolster the roster.
“I’m sure what the Saints are doing is a conscious effort to fill in the gaps in a draft or two that maybe weren’t as productive as in other years,” Mueller said. “They need depth, and they’ve identified five or six guys from other teams as up-and-comers who for some reason haven’t worked or just haven’t had the opportunity. Some of them might not work, but if they hit two or three, it might be part of your core.
The Saints have been very economical this year. They have nearly $20 million in salary cap space, but haven’t been rushing to fill it. Loomis is wisely thinking about next year, when Marcus Davenport, Erik McCoy and CJ Gardner-Johnson are expected to be renewed.
The Saints parted ways with Vonn Bell, Trey Hendrickson, Janoris Jenkins, Sheldon Rankins and Justin Hardee last offseason but managed to stay competitive thanks to Loomis’ careful roster construction.
They are in a similar position this offseason after seeing Terron Armstead and Marcus Williams leave for greener pastures.
Time will tell how the Saints fare. They may not win the Super Bowl in 2022, but history tells us they won’t hit rock bottom either.