Opinion: The Saints are getting younger and better with recent moves

saints_logoLegendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh did it. He was referred to as “ruthless” when it came to cutting veteran players he thought were declining.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, a three-time Super Bowl winner, does it. He has let a number of popular veterans walk over the years, including cornerback Ty Law, wide receiver Deion Branch and offensive lineman Dan Koppen.

Sean Payton, the Saints head coach, does it too.

They all have released or chosen not to re-sign franchise mainstays who were aging, their most productive days likely behind them. It’s the “I’d rather release a player a year early than a year late” mantra. It works, usually, when there is young talent in the pipeline ready to step up.

Try to remember a player who has been let go by the Saints under Sean Payton and gone on to a place where the grass was actually significantly greener. Robert Meachem? Jeff Faine? Jeremy Shockey? LeCharles Bentley? Donte’ Stallworth? Payton and Mickey Loomis have proven to be pretty shrewd at evaluating aging talent on the roster.

When salaries are high, production is down and younger, cheaper, more talented players are waiting in the wings, changes happen. Sometimes they are gradual, sometimes they come at warp speed. Sometimes the team’s hand is forced by other contracts that need to get done. See Jimmy Graham and Drew Brees.

It’s always difficult to say goodbye to players who have contributed so much for so long. But Saints fans have been here before. Bobby Hebert, Morten Andersen, Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Pat Swilling… the list goes on. And so have the Saints.

The Saints franchise has enjoyed relative stability among its core players since Sean Payton arrived in 2006. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. But that doesn’t mean all good times must come to an end.

Who Dat Nation has been in a frenzy lately with all the cap casualties, many of whom were fan favorites. But when the moves are looked at objectively, void of any emotion, a clearer picture may emerge in the sometimes-clouded minds of die-hard fans.

Sure, it’s a tough pill to swallow when so many go so quickly. In the bat of an eye, Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma were jettisoned from the defense. Then Darren Sproles and Lance Moore walked the plank on offense. Maybe Pierre Thomas is next… and maybe the Saints aren’t done.

Collectively, that looks like a talent. And it was a lot of talent — in 2009, when the Saints won the Super Bowl. But there have been four Super Bowl champs since then and none were the Saints. The formula the Saints used to win then isn’t as intimidating now. Evolution has to happen. Change is inevitable. The Saints’ championship window is closing.

So here we are. A crossroads in the Sean Payton era. An opportunity to push the window back up slightly.

When looked at individually, the player losses are anything but crippling. In fact, they will make the team younger and likely spur improvement.

Cornerback Jabari Greer, 32, is coming off a terrible knee injury. In 10 games last season, he had one interception. Greer was likely winding down his time in a Saints uniform anyway. The blown out knee sealed his fate. He was loved, but…

Defensive end Will Smith, 32, is also coming off a major knee injury. Before he tore his ACL in the preseason, Smith, while still a decent pass rusher, had lost a step. Will he land elsewhere? Probably for a season and he’ll likely be a mediocre situational player. He was loved, but…

Linebacker Jonathan Vilma is 31 and has battled knee injuries for several years. He played in one game last season, 11 in 2012 and 11 in 2011. Vilma likely won’t play in the NFL again. He was loved, but…

Safety Roman Harper, 31, missed seven games because of injury last season. He became a liability in pass coverage and gave up a ton of big plays over the past few years — most noticeably in playoff losses to San Francisco and Seattle. Harper is also a poor tackler and isn’t as quick as he once was. The emergence of rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, 23, made Harper expendable. He was loved, but…

And let us not forget — the defense, without those guys for much of the season, was the fourth-ranked unit in the NFL. As a bonus, linebacker Victor Butler returns from injury in 2014. Add a free agent or a two and a decent draft pick and the defense will be solid for a while.

Exhale, Who Dats.

Now to the offense. It hasn’t need much tinkering over the years, but here we go. Now is the time.

Wide receiver Lance Moore, 30, has been a Saints stalwart. Undrafted out of Toledo, he signed with the Saints nine seasons ago and became one of Drew Brees’ most reliable and consistent targets. Moore tallied 4,281 receiving yards during his Saints career, but was pushed aside last season by 21-year-old rookie Kenny Stills. Moore’s production dipped from 1,041 receiving yards in 2012 to 457 receiving yards in 2013. Stills displayed difference-making speed and skill on his way to 641 receiving yards. Stills made Moore a very expensive backup that the Saints could not afford. He was loved, but…

Running back Darren Sproles, 30, was electrifying for a bit with the Saints. He replaced Reggie Bush in 2011 and ran for 603 yards, caught 86 passes for 710 yards and returned a punt for a touchdown. Compare that to last season’s numbers 220 yards rushing and 604 yards receiving. Sproles’ 4.2 yards-per-carry average was the second lowest of his eight year career. The return game hasn’t struck fear into anyone for a while. He was loved, but…

Running back Pierre Thomas, 29, ran for 549 yards and caught 77 passes for 513 yards last season. Thomas is one of the best pass catchers in the NFL when coming out of the backfield. He executes the screen pass as well as anyone in the league. He pounds out tough yards. However, his paltry 3.7 yards-per-carry was the second-lowest of his career. As Thomas ages, he gets injured more often. Whether Thomas is traded or released remains to be seen, but unless he restructures his contract it seems unlikely he will return to the Saints. He is loved, but… 

The blow of losing Sproles and, potentially, Thomas in the backfield will be lessened by the young running back corps already in the fold. Khiry Robinson is 24 and ran for 224 yards in limited action last season. He showed flashes of brilliance and dominance. Mark Ingram is also 24.  He pounded out 386 yards after coming on strong late in the season. Travaris Cadet, 25, is a wild card. He may or may not be on the team next season, depending on running backs drafter or signed during free agency.

Exhale, Who Dats.

I like where the team is headed. An aging roster is getting younger. With only a few years left for Drew Brees under center for the black and gold, the Saints are operating in a way that would make Bill Walsh smile. It might even make Bill Belichick nod in approval.

The end result of this roster overhaul will take several months to reveal itself, but until Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis fail Who Dat Nation, which they haven’t yet, it’s best to give them the benefit of the doubt.

A final note: Don’t blame all of this on Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham. Plenty of teams have a couple of highly-paid stars. It’s a good problem to have. Would you rather Brees not be here? Maybe Bears free agent Josh McCown would do alright in New Orleans. Brees won’t and shouldn’t take a pay cut. He’s earned his money. So has Graham. Now it’s time for a new generation of future Saints’ stars to earn theirs.

Best of luck to all the former Saints who did so much for the organization over the years. We loved you all, but…

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