The New Orleans Saints possibly were no more aggressive in their approach to procuring talent prior to and during the 2018 season than they were in previous seasons.
But it definitively can be said that they weren’t any less so.
So maybe it simply is perception that, as quarterback Drew Brees – who will turn 40 two days after the Saints play their NFC Divisional playoff game Jan. 13 – nears the end of his Hall of Fame career, New Orleans has done all it can this season to construct a team capable of winning the Super Bowl.
But the perception does reflect reality, because General Manager Mickey Loomis and the front office have opened almost every available door in the quest to produce a champion. And more often than not, they’ve liked what they’ve found on the other side of it.
The Saints (13-3) are the No. 1 seed in the NFC, having tied franchise single-season records with 13 victories and seven road wins. They would not have to leave the confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome – as long as they win in the playoffs – until it’s time to play Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3.
And they were able to position themselves thusly because of a willingness to pursue the necessary talent that affirmatively complements the remaining roster.
During the offseason, among the veteran free agents signed were offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod, safety Kurt Coleman, linebacker Demario Davis, cornerback Patrick Robinson and tight end Benjamin Watson.
In the draft, in order to move from No. 27 overall to No. 14 (and draft defensive end Marcus Davenport), they swapped places with Green Bay in the first round and sweetened the package with pick No. 147 of this year and their first-rounder in 2019. And in the last week of training camp, the Saints traded with the Jets to acquire backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a talented insurance policy in the event that the durable Brees would be forced to miss any time during the season.
Seven weeks into the season, they made a trade with the Giants for cornerback Eli Apple. And after receiver Ted Ginn Jr. went on injured reserve after knee surgery, New Orleans signed Dez Bryant and, about a week later, Brandon Marshall.
Neither the Bryant (ruptured Achilles) nor Marshall (released) acquisition worked out; Ginn since has returned from injured reserve. But the additions underscored the Saints’ willingness to kick every tire in an effort to strengthen every weakness.
“I think that process never ends,” Coach Sean Payton said. “It is still, and always has been, about the procurement of talent either through the draft, or in free agency, or during the season. And we're constantly looking to bring guys in that we feel I can help us, either for a specific game or for a number of games. And that's part of our jobs.”
So far this season, it has been a job well done.
Davis led the Saints in tackles (110) and added a career-high tying five sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits, four passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Bushrod started six games – five at left tackle in place of injured Terron Armstead – and remains in play if his hamstring is healed, and Armstead's pectoral isn’t, in time for the Divisional playoff game.
Coleman started nine games, had 32 tackles and produced a critical forced fumble against Pittsburgh in a 31-28 victory. Robinson was the starting nickel for the first three games, before a season-ending ankle injury against Atlanta on Sept. 23.
Watson (35 catches for 400 yards and two touchdowns), who announced this will be his final season, led Saints tight ends in receptions (Coby Fleener led the tight ends last year at 22-295-2), and in his 15th season did not miss a game.
Davenport had 4.5 sacks (tied for fourth) and while recording 12 quarterback hits and six tackles for loss, flashed the disruptive abilities that the Saints were expecting when they drafted him. And Apple, in 10 starts, set a career high with two interceptions, and added nine passes defensed and 52 and tackles, after posting five passes defensed and 23 tackles in five starts for the Giants.
It bears repeating that not every signing worked out as planned, not every addition proved to fit the vision as devised. But as much as hitting on the ones that did, New Orleans wasn’t bashful about swinging.
“You’re trying to put together the team that gives you the best chance to win and win a championship,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “Look at our draft classes over the last couple of years, look at the free agent acquisitions we’ve made, and look at the development of those young players.
“So Mickey Loomis and (assistant general manager/college scouting director) Jeff Ireland, and our entire scouting department, deserve a ton of credit for the research they did to find the right guys. Obviously, draft day is always a crazy deal, not sure where guys are going to land or who we’re going to have an opportunity to get. But our ability to go out and get not only good players – really good players – but great guys, great people, great teammates, I think that’s what has allowed us to build the locker room that we have here. There’s a lot to be said for that.
“When you come to work every day and you come with a mind-set and a work ethic that you don’t want to let your teammates down because you care that much about them, that’s the first step to being a great team.”
As a veteran of 12 seasons, three franchises (New Orleans from 2007-12, Chicago from ’13-’15 and Miami from ’16-’17) and a Super Bowl (the Saints in 2009), Bushrod knows the importance of pursuing the right formula.
“We’re trying to do everything we can,” he said. “I’m fortunate and I’m blessed to have this opportunity, for them to open the doors back up to me, just to come in and embrace the role. And it’s family here, it’s always good to be back here.
“But at the end of the day, we’ve got to go out and get it done. There’s going to come a point in time where they’re going to count on me and I’m hoping that I can continue to do my part for these guys here. We just have a special opportunity, and we have to do everything we physically can to be ready for next week.”