New Orleans Saints receive harsh offseason grade from ESPN

Jan 6, 2016; Metairie, LA, USA; Sean Payton talks to the media announcing he will remain as the head coach for the New Orleans Saints during a press conference at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 6, 2016; Metairie, LA, USA; Sean Payton talks to the media announcing he will remain as the head coach for the New Orleans Saints during a press conference at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /

New Orleans Saints fans, it’s time to get your blood boiling again. ESPN Staff Writer Bill Barnwell handed out his offseason grades for the NFC South on Wednesday, and it has the black and gold with the worst grade in the division.

Before we dive into the negative, Barnwell did state he felt the Saints upgraded their interior pass rush with the addition of Sheldon Rankins and Nick Fairley. However, that’s about where it stops.

Barnwell called attention to the areas where he felt the Saints failed or went wrong this offseason. The areas focus around paying too much for tight end Coby Fleener, failing to extend quarterback Drew Brees, and going all in on free agent cornerback Josh Norman.

Here’s his full assessment of the D+ grade:

"They paid a premium for Coby Fleener. The Saints were one of the worst defenses in football history last season. You don’t need me to tell you that, but I’m going to do so anyway. It’s not just that they were last in DVOA. The Bears, who were 31st in defensive DVOA, were closer to the Patriots in 12th place than they were to the Saints in 32nd. New Orleans allowed a 78.8 QBR to opposing quarterbacks, which means the average passer against the Saints would have been the second-best quarterback in football.So given that the Saints have one of the worst cap situations in football, to the extent that they had to put in the aforementioned voidable years just to fit a little more than $2 million for Nick Fairley on their cap, why on earth are they paying a premium for a decent tight end? If anything, given what Benjamin Watson did last year when moved into the primary role, the Saints should see Sean Payton and Drew Brees as a blessing and try to find a useful, athletic tight end on the cheap.Instead, they gave Fleener a five-year, $36 million deal with $20.9 million due over the first three years. Because they have precious little cap space this year, the Saints had to structure the deal in a way where Fleener’s fully guaranteed cap hit in 2017 will go from $2.4 million to $7.5 million, at which point he will have the sixth-highest cap hit for a tight end in football, assuming the Ravens cut Dennis Pitta. This is for a tight end who never topped 800 yards in a season with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. Watson’s out-of-nowhere year at 35 would be Fleener’s best season, and Watson is a far better blocker.Fleener will be productive and post his best career numbers with the Saints, but that’s not the issue. The Saints can plug a lot of tight ends into this offense and produce big numbers. They can’t do the same on defense, where they’ve been a mess for years now. I’m not sure spending the money they’ve assigned to Fleener on a cornerback or edge rusher would have solved the Saints’ problems, but it would have at least addressed an issue of concern. Tight end should be one of the last things the Saints are worrying about. It’s reminiscent of the 2015 offseason, when they were facing down a terrible defense and decided to double down on running backs by re-signing Mark Ingram and adding C.J. Spiller.They failed to extend Drew Brees. One way to clear out cap space would have been to address their star quarterback’s contract situation. At 37, Brees is in the final year of his contract and has a staggering cap hold of $30 million. That’s not just the largest number in football; it’s the largest number by nearly 24 percent, given that Eli Manning‘s in second at $24.2 million.Brees is still playing at a high level and worth a top-dollar quarterback contract, but the Saints badly needed to create short-term cap space by giving Brees an extension. Brees’ side knows this, of course, which is why they have all the leverage in carving out the terms of a deal. That goes even further when you remember that the Saints really can’t franchise Brees next year, given that his cap hit would rise even more dramatically. It speaks to how mismanaged the Saints’ cap is that they find themselves in this situation and weren’t able to throw enough money at a Hall of Fame quarterback to make a deal happen before free agency began.They tried to go all-in for Josh Norman. And yet, somehow, it’s even worse to consider that they reportedly tried hardest to extend Brees in an attempt to sign Norman. The Saints certainly need him, but a player at his price tag just doesn’t make sense for Dennis Allen’s defense, which sorely needs to add depth and avoid trotting out replacement-level players for meaningful snaps. This is an organization that, on a daily basis, is regretting the Jairus Byrdsigning, which was made under similar circumstances. The Saints would have needed to give Norman a massive second-year roster bonus and convert that to a signing bonus to fit Norman under their cap, a move that has bit them twice with Byrd and Junior Galette. The time to extend Brees to create cap space was February, not April.At the end of the day, the Saints seem to be in denial about their problems. They repeat, or at least attempt to repeat, the same mistakes over and over. The result has been a team that is wasting the final years of one of the great quarterbacks in football. It’s fascinating to see the contrast between the Saints and Panthers. Carolina made it to the Super Bowl and felt like it wasn’t one player away from winning. New Orleans finished 7-9 for the second consecutive season and felt sure it was."

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons received a C+, the Carolina Panthers received a B-, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers received a C.