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Stunning Jimmy Graham trade one of Saints' best moves in 2015

Last year, just hours before the start of free agency, the New Orleans Saints dropped a bombshell on the NFL by trading star tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks.

It was their most dramatic -- and their most second-guessed -- move during a fairly radical offseason overhaul.

And surprisingly, it was one of the few moves that actually panned out for New Orleans.

Although the Saints finished 7-9, they still fielded the NFL’s No. 1 passing offense and the league’s No. 2 total offense. Graham’s replacement, Benjamin Watson, had a career year even though he turned 35 in December.

Meanwhile, the Saints acquired three things in return that can now be considered building blocks as they head into Year 2 of their renovation: veteran center Max Unger, second-year linebacker Stephone Anthony and millions of dollars in salary-cap space now that Graham’s contract is off the books.

That’s not to take anything away from Graham, who was downright dominant at some points during his five years in New Orleans -- the biggest impact playmaker New Orleans has had during the 10-year Sean Payton-Drew Brees era.

Although Graham didn’t make quite the same impact in Seattle, catching just 48 passes for 605 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games before suffering a torn patellar tendon, there is little doubt that the Saints' offense would be even more potent if they still had him.

But the success of the Saints’ trade last year was in the belief that they could still field a top offense without Graham -- not to mention receiver Kenny Stills, whom they traded to the Miami Dolphins.

New Orleans correctly felt that it needed more resources to help shore up its woeful defense and aging offensive line.

Unger, who was a two-time Pro Bowler for the Seahawks, started every game for New Orleans and played at a high level, helping to shore up an interior line that has started to erode in recent years. The 29-year-old’s presence will be even more important in 2016 after the Saints released six-time Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans last month.

Anthony also started all 16 games for the Saints at middle linebacker after being drafted with the 31st pick in Round 1, which was acquired from Seattle. The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder served as New Orleans’ defensive signal-caller and ranked 20th in the NFL with 112 tackles. He also had a sack, an interception and two forced fumbles.

The Saints are on the lookout for a veteran “quarterback of the defense” type in free agency, which could signal a potential position switch for Anthony. But he should still figure heavily into their plans in one way or another, with his impressive combination of poise, athleticism and physicality.

The Saints probably won’t make the same kind of dramatic trades this offseason that they made during the first week of free agency last year -- shipping out Graham, Stills and veteran guard Ben Grubbs while loading up on draft picks.

But the philosophy should remain the same, since the defense and the interior offensive line continue to rank as their most pressing priorities.