The Saints lost Drew Brees and Sean Payton — and still opted not to rebuild. Will it work?

·7-min read

This is not a rebuild

I repeat: This is not a rebuild.

That’s effectively what New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis has said for the past two offseasons despite losing Drew Brees to retirement after the 2020 season and then losing head coach Sean Payton after the 2021 season.

"I think our team feels confident in our ability, but there's so many variables that go into a season,” Loomis said at the start of training camp this year. “But we're not a rebuild. This isn't a rebuild, I guess is the best way to describe it. Yeah, we think we can win now."

He proved that this offseason by circumventing the traditional teardown roster strategy.

Instead of trading away key assets to bolster draft capital, Loomis traded up twice in the 2022 draft to select Ohio State receiver Chris Olave with the 11th overall pick and then grab Northern Iowa offensive tackle Trevor Penning with the 19th overall pick. Instead of pinching pennies in free agency, Loomis paid for veteran players like receiver Jarvis Landry and safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye, all while clearing $110 million in cap space primarily by pushing big cap hits to future years.

And finally, Loomis didn’t go out and mortgage the future by acquiring a new quarterback — even though there were many available this offseason. He re-signed Jameis Winston to give the position some semblance of continuity with the majority of the offensive coaching staff returning under new head coach Dennis Allen, who was promoted from defensive coordinator.

With all of these moves, Loomis and the Saints are trying to pull off one of the hardest things in the NFL: a soft reboot of the roster without a succession plan at quarterback.

And it just might work.

The New Orleans Saints aren't rebuilding despite the retirement of Drew Brees and the stepping away of Sean Payton the last two years. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
The New Orleans Saints aren't rebuilding despite the retirement of Drew Brees and the stepping away of Sean Payton the last two years. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Saints like to add, not subtract, under Loomis

One of the tenets of Loomis’ roster-building strategy, according to his former boss, colleague and ex-Saints GM Randy Mueller, is to never get rid of good players. The idea is simple enough because it guarantees some level of consistency across your roster and keeps the team at least as competitive as in years past, barring injury or decline in production.

“He's seen the work that they've done to get these players. Why would we change course now?” Mueller told Yahoo Sports. “He just wants to add to it that, that's why you see some of these signings. … And that's always been our philosophy.”

Take a look at what the Saints will look like in 2022. They return most of the key contributors to their 2021 defense, which finished third in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA but replaced safety Marcus Williams with Mathieu and Maye. Running back Alvin Kamara is back. Receiver Michael Thomas is back and healthy. The offensive line is mostly intact save for Terron Armstead, who earned a lucrative deal with the Miami Dolphins in free agency. And Winston is recovered from his Week 8 ACL tear.

Loomis then added a good possession receiver in Landry and injected the dynamic Olave to supercharge Winston’s receiving corps.

“I think they're gonna be one of the better teams in the league, in my opinion,” Mueller said, “if they get some consistent play from the quarterback. I think they're better this year than they were last year.”

Loomis has done the complete teardown before. When he replaced Mueller in 2002, Loomis traded star running back Ricky Williams to the Miami Dolphins for four picks, including two first-rounders, sent Pro Bowl tackle Willie Roaf to the Kansas City Chiefs, and let defensive tackle La’Roi Glover walk in free agency. All in one offseason.

And it didn’t work.

The Saints toiled in mediocrity for years before Loomis hired Payton and traded for Brees in 2006. That year, the Saints immediately won the division and made it to the divisional round of the playoffs. Loomis' previous team, the Seattle Seahawks, went to the postseason just four times during his 15-year tenure before he followed Mueller to New Orleans in 2000.

So forgive Loomis if he doesn’t want to go back to being a bottom-half NFL franchise again.

Jameis Winston is the key

The Saints didn’t have a firm quarterback plan in place for a post-Brees world (despite Payton’s Taysom Hill experience), so Loomis is once again banking on the former No. 1 overall pick in Winston to play well enough to keep the Saints afloat in 2022.

That’s a risky decision when you consider the successful succession strategies with the Green Bay Packers (from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers) and Kansas City Chiefs (from Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes), but Winston proved to be a more-than-serviceable quarterback for the Saints before his season-ending ACL tear in Week 8.

He had the highest touchdown percentage of any quarterback through the first seven weeks of the season and only threw three interceptions up to that point. His 102.4 passer rating ranked 11th and his yards per competition ranked eighth. Winston’s completion percentage and passing yards were below average, but the Saints still held a 5-2 record before his injury.

“I don't think they're expecting Jameis to elevate everybody else,” Mueller said. “They just want him to be functional and understand the system and make the plays that come his way. They don't need a hero.”

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Winston initially only signed a one-year deal in 2021, so that left a possible opening for the Saints to go out and upgrade their quarterback in the draft, free agency or in a trade this offseason. Even though the Saints were at one point among the suitors for Deshaun Watson (who ended up being suspended 11 games anyway), Loomis eventually determined that Winston was their best option and re-signed him to a two-year deal. They didn’t target a quarterback in a draft class perceived to be weak or sign any else in free agency like Mitchell Trubisky or Marcus Mariota.

“They put the best spin on what they had available right now,” Mueller said. “I don't think the Saints are turning their back on the future of the quarterback. They just think Jameis gives him the best chance this year and they'll figure it out next year if he doesn't for whatever reason.”

Is this the right call for the Saints?

There are effectively three different methods of moving your team forward after losing a franchise-level player, depending on ownership: a complete teardown, where a brand new GM and coaching staff jettison expensive or aging players for draft picks and salary cap relief; a partial teardown, where certain players are traded away but the front office and coaches remain mostly intact (think the Seahawks right now); and then the Saints’ reboot, with the same front office, roster and most of the coaching staff.

Once the Saints opted to keep Loomis and promote Allen to head coach in lieu of making an outside hire, they decided on a direction that would ultimately lean into aggressive roster construction.

Trading up to draft Olave helped the Saints find what they believe to be the missing piece of their offense. They also brought in veterans to round out the shaky depth spots across the roster. And they didn't trade away key pieces that have fueled their recent history.

The other issue with a true rebuild? You never know when you’ll get out of one. Look at the New York Jets, who’ve missed the playoffs a league-leading 11 consecutive seasons. Or the Detroit Lions, who finally embraced a true teardown by trading away long-time quarterback Matthew Stafford for a bevy of picks in 2021.

For the Saints, they felt this was the best path forward.

“It's the only way I ever would've thought of doing it,” Mueller said. “I'm not surprised that they're trying to put the best team forward this year as they can. And I think every year you should be all in.”