METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints stayed quiet before Tuesday's NFL trade deadline. But they made plenty of waves already this year with some of the league's biggest and most surprising deals.
Now seems like a good time to review how they've panned out.
I still believe former Saints Jimmy Graham and Akiem Hicks have the highest ceilings of the players involved in deals, but a strong argument could be made that the Saints -- who have won three games in a row to improve to 4-4 -- are "winning" all four of their 2015 trades.
"I think that their offseason goal was, 'We've got cap problems, we need to get young, we're not gonna get rid of Drew (Brees), so let's try to sit on the fence of contender and rebuilder.' And I think they accomplished all those," said ESPN scouting analyst Matt Williamson, who acknowledged that his positive judgment might be clouded by New Orleans' 52-point outburst last Sunday.
"If we were having this conversation in Week 3, we would've been like, 'Well, they accomplished none of those,'" Williamson said.
The overriding theme behind the Saints' moves was the need to get younger and improve the offensive line and defense while still producing a top offense without Graham and receiver Kenny Stills. Sure enough, after a sluggish start, the Saints' offense is back to No. 2 in the NFL in yards per game (422.4).
Here is a breakdown of each trade:
TE Jimmy Graham and fourth-round pick to Seattle Seahawks for C Max Unger and first-round pick
Verdict: So far, so good
I'm still not ready to fully endorse this deal since Graham is one of the most unique and disruptive offensive players in the league -- especially for a Saints offense that is so good at exploiting mismatches. The Saints had no problems without Graham this past week, but I think he has been missed while defenses have been able to focus on playmakers Brandin Cooks and C.J. Spiller.
I don't factor in Graham's slow start in Seattle too much (38 catches, 450 yards, 2 TDs) because I think he would be posting bigger numbers in New Orleans. He's too special to dismiss as "expendable."
However, I have agreed with the Saints' philosophy that they could still manufacture a top offense without Graham. And they were in more desperate need of replenishing their offensive line and defense. Unger is an excellent center and a badly needed upgrade for a line that had gotten older and weaker up the middle. Middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, whom the Saints drafted with the pick from the Graham trade, looks like he will be a centerpiece of the rebuilding defense.
For all of those reasons, Williamson said the deal is "probably a wash" -- especially since Unger and Anthony come a lot cheaper than Graham.
ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando, a former Seahawks and NFC West reporter, went a small step further: "I'd say the Saints should be happier than the Seahawks at this point."
Part of that is the Seahawks missing Unger. Their pass protection has been a major issue; Russell Wilson has been sacked a league-high 31 times. And as Sando pointed out, Wilson now handles calling out protections instead of Unger.
Williamson and Sando both expect the Seahawks to figure out how to maximize Graham's potential going forward -- especially in the red zone.
"I think Graham's long-term outlook should be much better than Unger's long-term outlook," Sando said. "But if we're looking at this trade just through Week 8, Seattle is not coming out ahead."
Verdict: Big win for Saints
This deal was a bit of a head-scratcher at the time since Stills was young, cheap and productive. But once again, he was a valuable trade piece, and the Saints were confident they could replace him -- which they have with the unexpected rise of Willie Snead.
Stills hasn't done much in Miami (13 catches, 205 yards, 1 TD). He probably would've done more in New Orleans' offense and might have helped the Saints stretch the field better. But his value seems about equal to a third-round pick. The Saints used the pick on cornerback P.J. Williams, who has spent the entire season on injured reserve.
Adding Ellerbe puts the Saints over the top in this trade. He has battled a series of injuries, but when healthy he has been an active, athletic starter with 28 tackles and a forced fumble.
Verdict: Win for Saints
Even though Grubbs went to a Pro Bowl with the Saints, he was always more solid than spectacular. And he has struggled early this season in Kansas City; Pro Football Focus credits him with five sacks allowed.
Would he be better than New Orleans' current starting left guard, Tim Lelito? Maybe, but it's awfully close, and Lelito, 26, is on the rise while Grubbs, 31, is on the decline. Plus, Lelito makes less money. Grubbs might have been released anyway since he had two years and $13.9 million left on his deal.
The Saints used the fifth-round pick from the Grubbs trade on Tyeler Davison, an athletic big man who has been a regular part of the defensive lineman rotation. He has made two starts with six tackles and a sack.
Verdict: So far, so good
It's a shame the Saints gave up on Hicks for so little after he showed so much potential to be a core player -- even as recently as this summer in camp. I still won't rule out the possibility that Hicks eventually thrives, whether it's in New England or down the road.
But I'm not blind to the fact that Hicks' potential wasn't translating onto the field the past two years. And I have to admit that Hoomanawanui has made a bigger impact than I expected as New Orleans' third tight end. Payton had a "vision," as he often says, for the versatile backup. The Saints offense has been thriving with its heavy use of three-tight end sets, which has opened things up for Cooks and tight end Benjamin Watson, among others.
Hoomanawanui has seven catches for 35 yards and a touchdown, and he has been an asset as a blocker in both the passing game and run game.
Hicks has just three tackles in four games. But ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss said that Hicks "has given the Patriots what they were looking for -- another big-bodied, powerful player at defensive tackle. He is playing as a part of a five-man rotation, usually as the No. 4 man in, and is averaging 16.75 snaps per game."
Hoomanawanui probably wouldn't have been active on most game days for the Patriots, so Williamson agreed both teams probably feel like winners.