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Saints eye Peterson, but shouldn't completely mortgage future in pursuit of winning now

A proxy-war for the future of the franchise is happening before our eyes

Seth Dunlap
October 17, 2018 - 7:46 pm
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What kind of franchise do fans of the Saints want to be rooting for – one that sells out to try to win a Super Bowl one a decade or so while fading in and out of relevance, or one that consistently competes for division championships and playoff berths every single season?

Most fans are squarely in one camp or the other, and the two sides are fighting a proxy war this week while debating whether the Saints should, once again, mortgage their future to increase their chances of winning a championship now.   

Arizona Cardinals’ cornerback Patrick Peterson has become available via the trade market, and the Saints have a big need at the position heading into the toughest stretch of their regular season schedule.   Peterson, 28, is a former All-Pro that still ranks among the dozen or so best cornerbacks in the game by most traditional or advanced metrics. 

There’s little doubt that he would make the Saints better.  Pairing him with Marshon Lattimore, the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, would give the Saints one of the best tandems in football.   The question becomes which assets, and how many, the franchise would have to give up to land Peterson. 

If the decision hinges on the Saints packaging some combination of valuable draft capital (future first, second, or third round picks) and young talent currently on the roster (Alex Anzelone?), then General Manager Mickey Loomis should take a hard pass.  The decision shouldn’t be close.

This might have been different if the Saints hadn’t already traded away next year’s first and third round picks, however they’ve dealt those picks already in their current attempt at winning now.   Would it be worth also sending away next year’s second pick for Peterson?  Perhaps, if that’s all the Cardinals wanted for a player of Peterson’s caliber, who still has nearly three years of team control left on his contract.

The Saints have had tremendous success with their recent second and third round selections, drafting Tre'Quan Smith (2018), Alvin Kamara (2017), Marcus Williams (2017), Vonn Bell (2016) and Michael Thomas (2016) in the last few drafts.  Is a couple years of an aging Peterson worth giving away a chance at landing another player like that? 

The decision would be tenuous enough if it only involved the Saints second rounder, but it’s likely the asking price is higher, especially during the ongoing bidding war among teams interested.  Should the Saints be willing to trade a possible 2020 first or second rounder in addition to a selection next season?  Some have suggested sending a young player like Anzelone to Arizona in a package for Peterson.  Are the Saints really in position where they can ship off young talent already on this roster for a better chance to win now?

Remember, that’s all this is.  A chance

There’s no guarantee the Saints would win a Super Bowl with Peterson.  Far from it.  The NFC is possibly as good at the top as it’s been in decades, and the team would still have stiff competition from the Rams and Eagles, as well as possibly the Vikings and Packers in the conference.  Then there’s a looming Super Bowl against the Patriots, Chiefs, or whoever would represent the AFC in this hypothetical Saints Super Bowl matchup.

The best franchises in the NFL typically eschew high risk gambits like sending multiple high picks off in return for an aging player.  It’s also incredibly rare.

Only seven times since 1994 has a team traded away a first round pick in-season.  Here’s a look at all of those deals:

  • 2016 – Vikings send a first and fourth round pick to the Eagles for quarterback Sam Bradford, who played 17 mostly-forgettable games for the Vikings over two seasons, going 9-8 as a start in those games and never suiting up in the playoffs for the Vikings.
  • 2013 – The Colts send a first round pick to Cleveland for running back Trent Richardson, who was a disaster in Indianapolis and was completely out of the league by 2015.
  • 2013 - The Seahawks send first, third, and seventh round picks to the Vikings for wide receiver Percy Harvin, who had electrified the league as a surprise MVP candidate the previous season.  Harvin quickly becoming a well-documented locker room cancer, and was jettisoned to New York after playing only six regular season games for the franchise.
  • 2011 – The Raiders send a first and second round pick to Cincinnati for Carson Palmer, who believed they would become an instant contender with Palmer under center.  That didn’t happen, and the Raiders went just 8-16 with Palmer as their quarterback over the next two seasons.
  • 2009 – The Raiders made another appearance on this list, trading away a first round pick to the Patriots for 30 year old defensive end Richard Seymour.  While Seymour would finish his career in Oakland, he averages less than five sacks per season with the team, who never made the playoffs while Seymour was there.
  • 2008 – The Cowboys traded three picks, including their first rounder, to Detroit in return for wide receiver Roy Williams and a seventh round pick.  This is widely regarded as one of the worst trades in franchise history, as Williams played less than three seasons in Dallas, catching just 94 passes and 13 touchdowns total during his time there. 
  • 2006 – The Seahawks, fresh off a trip to the Super Bowl, traded a first round pick to the Patriots for wide receiver Deion Branch, who looked like a budding star in New England.  Branch was perhaps the most successful player of this group, catching 190 passes during his more than four seasons in Seattle.  The team, however, was less successful during his tenure there, making the playoffs just twice and failing to make another Conference Championship game.

It’s hard to call any one of those trades a resounding success for the teams sending away a first round pick.  Most you could classify as abject disasters.  In addition, only three of those seven players were Peterson’s 28 years of age or older at the time of the trade – Bradford, Palmer, and Seymour.

Just one of those teams, Seattle, won a championship in the aftermath of their trade.  It would be disingenuous, however, to suggest that their trade for Harvin vaulted them to their title in the 2013 season.  Harvin played just one game that season and was an afterthought, except for a meaningless return touchdown he scored in their Super Bowl blowout of the Broncos.

The Seahawks are also an interesting case as their 2006 trade for Branch hamstrung the franchise for years.  They didn't emerge from irrelevance until they heavily invested in the draft and young, homegrown talent during the early Pete Carroll years.   They were title contenders when they stuck to that philosophy, only recently fading when they made multiple trades where they dealt first or second round picks away for Harvin, Jimmy Graham, and Duane Brown. 

As those deals above prove, making a blockbuster-type trade in season far from guarantees you Super Bowl success.  The Saints could use Peterson’s services at cornerback, a position of need for the team, but acquiring him would only nominally increase their chances of a title now while unquestionably making it harder for them to be a consistent winner in the future.

That’s where the two sides in this proxy-war diverge the most.  The Saints have the young foundation pieces in place across the roster to be a consistent playoff contender far beyond whenever Drew Brees rides off into the sunset.  It’s hard to find a quarterback that is capable of winning a Super Bowl.  It’s much harder to rebuild a franchise from scratch when you have traded away multiple high round picks and saddled the franchise with bloated contracts for veteran players who are past their prime.

This is exactly what’s been happening in Dallas and Oakland the past 20 seasons.  Those teams have regularly sold their fans that winning now is so important that it trumps and mortgage of the future.  Well, they didn’t win now, and they’ve been stuck in perpetual rebuild mode.

Want to be Cowboys or Raiders?  Make high-risk trades and decisions in free agency that can handcuff your franchise for years or even decades.  Want to be the ever-steady Steelers, Packers, Ravens, or Patriots?  Keep acquiring, and keeping, young talent and draft assets while staying away from those high-risk, all in, type moves that haunt the rest of the league.

This isn’t to say teams should never be aggressive. The Saints have already shows a willingness to be aggressive in the waning years of the Drew Brees era by trading up to draft Marcus Davenport, who looks like a breakout star in the making. If Peterson’s price tag is just a second round pick, maybe that’s a risk worth taking.  Maybe.  

These talented, young Saints players like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Marcus Williams, Sheldon Rankins and Marshon Lattimore will eventually need to be paid.  They’ll also need to replace aging pieces on the roster through the draft or free agency.  That’s going to be very hard to do if the team is left with few draft picks and little cap space with which to do it.

Fans who are clamoring for the Saints to do anything to win now, ask yourself if one more Super Bowl run is worth a long period of irrelevance that could follow a complete mortgaging of the future by the franchise.  Now, ask yourself if it’d still be worth it if the Saints don’t make that championship run?

The Saints as a consistent, year-in and year-out contender sounds much more fun than that.  Hopefully Mickey Loomis and the Saints front office agrees.

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