The New Orleans Saints and the crazy art of trading up in the draft

I get tired just thinking about the New Orleans Saints. I wish they would relax, if only for a second.

For what seems like forever, New Orleans has been walking a tightrope between shrewdness and recklessness. When it comes to managing the cap and using their draft capital, they use a win-now-worry-about-the-future-later strategy to get it all in every year. When longtime football czar Sean Payton retired in January, however, the franchise got a chance to hit the reset button and catch its breath after years and years of seemingly unsustainable moves to mortgage the future. Instead, the team’s think tank, led by GM Mickey Loomis, looked at a list that earned initial total win over/under 7.5 from vegas bookmakers and decided to put all their chips in anyway.

After retooling or retooling most of their key players from last year and making a targeted push in free agency, the Saints doubled down in 2022 and sent a package of future picks to the Eagles in a blockbuster trade in early April, acquiring a second first-round pick in the project (giving them numbers 16 and 19). It’s not finished yet, saints then gave the Commanders a few more picks on draft night to move up an additional five spots, selecting Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave at no. 11. Combining in the team’s pre-draft and draft day trades, the Saints essentially gave up five picks to select Olave: two 2022 third-rounders, a 2022 fourth-rounder, a 2023 first-rounder , and a second-rounder in 2024. That’s an absurd amount of recruiting capital for a team to surrender for any one player. And that’s especially true when that player isn’t a quarterback.

The team’s maneuvering over draft weekend (which included selecting offensive lineman Trevor Penning at No. 19) makes it clear that Loomis and Co. believe they are only a starter or two away from fielding a championship-caliber team — and that Olave more is especially capable of pushing the team over the top. The bellAll Index’s all-new All In-dex confirms that thought: New Orleans is heavily leveraged in 2022, landing the sixth-highest spot on the list thanks to a combination of lavish cash spending over the next two years ($440 million total, third largest among NFL teams) and a relative lack of fundraising over the next three — the latter mostly due to Olave-centric deals.

All this means is that the Saints are nerds. I hate everything about their process. But if Olave’s gambit goes to plan, they could look like geniuses, too.

Success often finds teams that move when everyone else is moving, and it’s clear that while most clubs are looking to stockpile future picks and build their rosters for the long term, New Orleans is content to take a road less traveled . No one carpewith the diem just like the Saints, who have traded 24 times in the last 16 drafts and haven’t traded back since 2007. That’s their thing.

However, Olave is particularly emblematic of the Saints’ well-established team-building process, which is built on an unshakable, almost delusional, belief in their scoring skills. One could argue that in an era where quality wide receivers are plentiful, New Orleans probably didn’t have to move heaven and earth to grab the speedster from Ohio State. But as head coach Dennis Allen said after the draft, and I paraphrase, the heart wants what the heart wants.

“Chris was someone we coveted from the very beginning of this project,” Allen said. “I thought there were some good receivers in this draft, but [Olave is] the only person I felt like, “Man, I know exactly what I’m getting in this player.” … I just felt [he was] the best well-rounded receiver in the draft.”

Allen, Loomis and the team’s scouting department may be correct in their assessment. As I noted in my preliminary scouting report on Olave, he is a super smooth runner with extremely quick feet and excellent body control. He bursts past defenders, tracks the ball well and was a prolific touchdown scorer, finding the end zone 35 times in his career with the Buckeyes. That skill set was undoubtedly a priority for a team that struggled to run the ball downfield in 2021. Additionally, Olave should mesh well, at least in theory, with quarterback Jameis Winston, who has always been willing to stretch the field vertically and to attack deep coverages. If Olave is as good in the NFL as he was at Ohio State, no one will lose too much sleep thinking about the hypothetical players the team could have drafted with the picks they gave up to take him.

The Saints approach the draft with the belief that one elite player is worth far more than a bunch of role players. As Loomis said after the project, “I wouldn’t say volume is a priority for us. I think quality is a priority for us.”

I could point to dozens of examples of the type of quality he mentions here, franchise-changing players worth acquiring. But we don’t need to look back any further than last year, when the Bengals took Ja’Marr Chase at No. 5 in total. At the time, there was a lot of debate about whether or not Chase was a better overall value to the team than someone like offensive lineman Penny Sewell, but it didn’t take long for the former LSU pass catcher to silence those arguments. Chase caught 81 passes for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns as a rookie, immediately establishing himself as an elite receiver while helping to elevate the Bengals’ entire offense. Chase’s ability to score both deep down the field and as a run creator after the catch more or less negates the fact that Cincy’s offensive line is one of the worst in the NFL. Who needs a left tackle when you’ve got a great receiver?

That’s the bet the Saints are making with Olave, who, while stylistically very different from Chase, brings what New Orleans undoubtedly envisions as a similar ability to tilt the field to the team’s offense. The big problem, of course, is that there’s no guarantee that Olave’s potential will ever translate into production. If Olave goes down — or even if he’s just fine — the opportunity cost of the picks the Saints gave up could be significant in the long run. Rookies on cheap contracts help teams spend big on established veterans. They give decision makers and list builders more flexibility. They provide much-needed depth during a long NFL season. They are often the backbone of a healthy lineup.

This is why there is a lot of risk in trading up. And a trade—even if a team loves that player—doesn’t change the fact that the drop rate of players in each round is high. Picking players in the draft is probably a little like picking stocks: in a short period of time, a promising hedge fund manager can look like a genius, making big money on a few hot stocks to create huge profits for his clients. But over a long enough period of time, these winning streaks tend to look more like luck than anything else — and the list of stock pickers who can consistently beat the market is short. NFL decision makers aren’t that different. Seahawks GM John Schneider is a great example of this. Schneider helped build his team into a powerhouse by landing a handful of first-round picks over three years from 2010 to 2013, including Earl Thomas, Cam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson. And while he’s had some nice picks in the decade since, poor drafting has been a big reason the Seahawks haven’t made it back to the Super Bowl since 2015.

Basically, as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell wrote in 2016, “all the empirical evidence we can find suggests that nobody in the league is actually good at picking players.” A quick look at draft history saints over the last decade will reinforce this study. Loomis and Co. hit a home run with their 2017 draft, landing players in Marshawn Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara and Trey Hendrickson. But if you zoom out, the team also has its fair share of wobbles and misses). Many teams seem to accept that draft is mostly crap, that it’s nearly impossible to predict how well a few fallible human beings will perform over years, and have concluded that bulk draft is the way to go; The more darts you have, the more likely you are to hit the target. The Saints, obviously, are not one of those teams. And with nine 10-win seasons in the past 16 years — most of which came in the Sean Payton and Drew Brees eras — they haven’t had a huge reason to change.

But Brees isn’t walking through that door, and with Peyton gone, uncertainty prevails. The Saints are ready for 2022 because they just are. And with the addition of Olave, the return of Michael Thomas, the signings of Tyrann Mathieu and Jarvis Landry and the relatively good sentiment surrounding Jameis Winston in the offseason, the Saints’ Vegas win total has reached 8.5 with the season opener just around the corner.

When it comes down to it, the best and easiest way to win the NFL Draft, build a strong team and compete for the Super Bowl year after year is to select the right players. No team is more confident in their ability to do that than the Saints. And Olave will provide another good litmus test for this approach.

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