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The Saints and the Art (and Madness) of Trading Up in the Draft

No one trades up in the draft more than New Orleans, who seem hell-bent on pursuing short-term results at the expense of a long-term plan. Will the wheels ever fall off? Or is this front office actually on to something?

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NFL teams have spent the past six months reshaping their rosters and now, finally, the 2022 regular season is nearly upon us. But which teams have truly pushed all their pieces to the middle of the table and are ready to make a serious run to Super Bowl LVII? Welcome to The Ringer’s All In Week, where we’ll examine the quarterback moves, team-building philosophies, and gambles that teams have made to compete for a championship and determine what it truly means to be all in.

I get tired just thinking about the New Orleans Saints. I wish they would chill out, if only for one second.

For what seems like forever, New Orleans has walked the tight rope between shrewd and reckless. When it comes to cap management and the utilization of their draft capital, they employ a win-now-and-worry-about-the-future-later strategy to go all in every year. When longtime football czar Sean Payton stepped down in January, though, the franchise was handed a chance to hit the reset button and take a breath after years and years of making seemingly unsustainable, future-mortgaging moves. Instead, the team’s brain trust, headed up by GM Mickey Loomis, looked at a roster that earned an initial win total over/under of 7.5 from Vegas bookmakers and decided to push all their chips in anyway.

After re-upping or restructuring most of their key starters from last year and making a targeted free agency push, the Saints doubled down on 2022 and sent a package of future picks to the Eagles in an early-April blockbuster trade, acquiring a second first-round pick in the draft (giving them nos. 16 and 19). Not yet finished, the Saints then gave up a handful more picks to the Commanders on draft night to move up an additional five spots, selecting Ohio State receiver Chris Olave at no. 11. Combining the team’s predraft 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 2024 second-rounder. That’s an absurd amount of draft capital for a team to surrender for any one player. And it’s especially true when that player is not a quarterback.

The team’s draft-weekend maneuvers (which included the selection of offensive tackle Trevor Penning at no. 19) make it clear that Loomis and Co. believe they’re just a starter or two away from fielding a championship-caliber squad—and that Olave in particular is capable of pushing the team over the top. The Ringer’s brand-new All In-dex confirms that thought: New Orleans is leveraged to the gills in 2022, coming in sixth highest on the list thanks to a combination of lavish cash spending over the next two years ($440 million–plus in all, third most among NFL teams) and a relative lack of draft capital over the next three—the latter mostly due to the Olave-centric trades.

All of this is to say that the Saints are maniacs. I hate everything about their process. But if the Olave gambit goes to plan, they could also end up looking like geniuses.

Success often finds teams that zig when everyone else is zagging, and it’s clear that while most clubs are looking to hoard future picks and build their rosters for the long term, New Orleans is content to take a road less traveled. No one carpes the diem quite like the Saints, who have traded up 24 times in the past 16 drafts and haven’t traded back since 2007. This is their thing.

Olave, though, is particularly emblematic of the Saints’ well-established team-building process, which is built upon unshakable to downright delusional conviction in their evaluation skills. One could have argued that in an era when quality wide receivers are abundant, New Orleans probably didn’t need to move heaven and earth to grab the speedster out of Ohio State. But as head coach Dennis Allen said after the draft, and I’m paraphrasing, the heart wants what the heart wants.

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

Allen, Loomis, and the team’s scouting department may end up being correct in their assessment. As I noted in my predraft scouting report on Olave, he’s a super-smooth route runner with hyper-quick feet and excellent body control. He explodes 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 push the ball downfield in 2021. Plus Olave should mesh well, at least in theory, with quarterback Jameis Winston, who’s always been willing to stretch the field vertically and attack coverages deep. If Olave is as good in the NFL as he was at Ohio State, no one’s going to lose too much sleep thinking about the hypothetical players the team could’ve drafted with the picks it gave up to get him.

The Saints approach drafting with the belief that one elite player is worth far more than a bunch of role players. As Loomis said after the draft, “I wouldn’t say that 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’s referencing here, franchise-changing players who are worth going big on to acquire. But we needn’t look back further than last year, when the Bengals took Ja’Marr Chase at no. 5. There was much hand-wringing at the time about whether Chase was a better overall value to the team than a guy like offensive tackle Penei Sewell, but it didn’t take the former LSU pass catcher long 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 entire Bengals offense. Chase’s ability to win both deep down the field and as a run-after-the-catch creator more or less canceled out the fact that Cincy’s offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL. Who needs a left tackle when you have a great receiver?

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

That’s why there’s plenty of risk in trading up. And trading up—even if a team loves that player—doesn’t change the fact that the bust rate on players in every round is high. Picking players in the draft is probably a little like picking stocks: Over a short time horizon, an up-and-coming hedge-fund manager can look like a genius, hitting big on a few hot stocks to create outsize gains for their clients. But over a long enough time horizon, those win streaks usually look more like luck than anything else—and the list of stock pickers who can consistently beat the market is a short one. NFL decision-makers aren’t all that different. Seahawks GM John Schneider is a great example of this. Schneider helped build his team into a juggernaut by making a handful of absolute moon-shot picks over a three-year stretch from 2010 to 2013, including Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, and Russell Wilson. And while he’s sprinkled in a couple of nice picks in the decade since, poor drafting is a big reason the Seahawks have failed to return 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 any good at picking players.” A quick glance at the Saints’ draft history over the last decade will reinforce this study. Loomis and Co. hit a home run with their 2017 draft, finding difference-makers in Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, and Trey Hendrickson. But if you zoom out, the team has its fair share of swings and misses, too. Many teams seem to accept that the draft is mostly a crapshoot, that it’s mostly impossible to predict how well a bunch of fallible human beings will perform years down the line, and have come to the conclusion that volume drafting is the way to go; the more darts you’ve got, the more likely it is you’ll hit the target. The Saints, clearly, are not one of these teams. And with nine 10-plus-win seasons over the past 16 years—the bulk of which came in the Sean Payton–and–Drew Brees era—they haven’t had a huge reason to change.

But Brees ain’t walking through that door, and with Payton gone uncertainty prevails. The Saints are all in for 2022, because it’s just who they are. And with the addition of Olave, the return of Michael Thomas, the signings of Tyrann Mathieu and Jarvis Landry, and the relatively good vibes around Jameis Winston’s offseason, the Saints’ Vegas win total has edged up to 8.5 with the start of the season just on the horizon.

When we get down to brass tacks, the best and simplest way to win the NFL draft, build a strong team, and compete for Super Bowls year in and year out is to pick the right players. No team is more confident in its ability to do that than the Saints. And Olave’s going to provide another good litmus test for that approach.