The 2017 New Orleans Saints barely recognize the 2013 edition. That much change has occurred during the time between when last the Saints advanced to the playoffs to the current edition.
Only 10 members of the ’13 playoff team are on the ’17 roster: Quarterback Drew Brees, right tackle Zach Strief, punter Thomas Morstead, defensive end Cam Jordan, running back Mark Ingram II, safety Kenny Vaccaro, left tackle Terron Armstead, tight end Josh Hill, safety Rafael Bush and offensive lineman Senio Kelemete. Two of them, Vaccaro and Strief, are on injured reserve and won’t play Sunday in the Wild Card game between New Orleans (11-5) and Carolina (11-5) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Dip back further, and only Brees, Strief, Morstead, Jordan and Ingram played for the last Saints team that won the NFC South Division in 2011 and, even more, just Brees, Strief and Morstead were members of the Super Bowl champs in ’09.
Personnel turnover is a given in the ever-changing NFL. But for the Saints, from one playoff appearance to the next, it has been a near-purge and regroup over four years to find the right combination of players to put the franchise back in contention after three consecutive 7-9 seasons.
“We lost a lot of guys after that ’13 season, guys that had been here for a long time, guys that had been great leaders for this team and really mainstays for this team,” Brees said. “A lot of those guys had been a part of the ’09 championship run and the 2010 and ’11 playoff teams as well.
“We went through a little bit of a roller coaster ride there in ’14 and ’15 with the roster turning over and just trying to find ourselves again, re-establish what we had built when (Coach) Sean (Payton) first got here in 2006. I think that’s what was realized, was that we need to go out and acquire the right type of guys.
“So we’re going to really value character, toughness and intelligence in the way that we draft, in the way that we go out and look at free agents. And that’s really been the process here the last two years. You look around the locker room, you see those types of guys and that’s the reason why we’re successful.”
It was, for the franchise and fans, a painstaking process.
The ’13 season concluded with the Saints winning the first road playoff game in franchise history, at Philadelphia, and an eight-point loss in Seattle in the Divisional round. But that promise was followed the next season by several significant deductions (including running back Darren Sproles and defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper), a few injuries, a couple of dips in production and an inconsistent season in which New Orleans never spent a day above .500.
Much the same occurred in ’15 before the Saints, via the draft and free agency, began to find the combination of talent and chemistry they sought. The ’16 offseason yielded the likes of draft picks Sheldon Rankins, Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell and David Onyemata, undrafted rookies like Ken Crawley, Wil Lutz and Tommylee Lewis, and free agents like Craig Robertson, Nate Stupar, John Kuhn, Coby Fleener and Chris Banjo.
And last offseason, the Saints replicated that success with draft picks Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, Alex Anzalone, Trey Hendrickson, undrafted rookies Justin Hardee and Taysom Hill, and free agent additions including Larry Warford, A.J. Klein, Ted Ginn Jr. , Bush, Alex Okafor and Manti Te’o.
It’s part of an ongoing process that remains in flux even during the season.
“It happens with intention in the offseason, where there’s turnover and teams change from year to year,” Payton said. “And then, what’s also interesting is to track in-season change – in-season roster change as a player goes to IR (injured reserve), and another player comes up, and another player goes to IR, and another player comes up, and the practice squad.
“There’s a moving unit there and if you just said, ‘Hey, it’s 53 (man) roster and it’s 11 practice squad,’ because we get the exemption with (defensive end Alex Jenkins), and then you started at the beginning of the year and you actually charted week by week the 53, and then week by week that practice squad, you begin to see that the numbers would be more in the 70s or 80s on the active at one point or another, and the practice squad. I think that’s somewhat common, even leading up to this playoff game.”
It's common enough that players aren’t surprised that few remain from ’13.
“You can assume that four years later that the teams aren’t going to be much the same, just from my time here in the business,” Ingram said. “The turnover is crazy.
“But everyone is cool, everyone is working hard together, everyone wants to play hard for one another and we’re all gelling well as a unit. We all know what’s at stake, everybody is preparing well. I think we have a great group of guys. In order to be where we’re at, you have to have guys that care about one another, want to play for one another and have each other’s back.”
It required significant change, but the Saints believe they have just that.