Saints' free-agent fumbles have sent them into three-season slump

It’s hard to imagine many teams have fumbled more in free agency than the New Orleans Saints over the past three seasons. They have been one of the NFL’s most active teams, signing a total of 42 players (including re-signing their own free agents). But several big-money misses -- including the soon-to-be-released safety Jairus Byrd -- have led to three straight 7-9 seasons.

Here’s a look at how their decisions have panned out:

Total signings: 42* (third most in NFL)

Total contract value: $205,801,882 (14th in NFL)

Three-season W-L: 21-27

Biggest hit: Cornerback Delvin Breaux. The Saints have fared much better with their under-the-radar moves, like signing Breaux from the Canadian Football League in 2015 and turning him into a No. 1 cornerback. They also scored big by adding receiver Willie Snead to their practice squad during the 2014 season and signing running back Tim Hightower to a reserve/futures deal in January 2015. But none of those moves actually qualifies for this list because they didn’t occur during the standard free-agent signing window. The best traditional free-agent signing New Orleans made over the past three seasons was its one-year deal with defensive tackle Nick Fairley in 2016 that wound up being worth $4.5 million with incentives. Fairley had a career-high 6.5 sacks and will now cost even more as a free agent again in 2017.

Biggest miss: Byrd. Unfortunately, there are a lot of contenders here. If Byrd gets released this week as expected, that will mean the Saints have bailed out of four of their five most expensive free-agent deals from the last three seasons (Byrd, cornerback Brandon Browner, running back C.J. Spiller and linebacker James Laurinaitis). And the jury is still out on the fifth guy on that list -- tight end Coby Fleener. But Byrd is the highest-profile miss because the Saints signed the three-time Pro Bowler from the Buffalo Bills to a blockbuster six-year deal worth up to $54 million in 2014. Byrd suffered a minor back injury and major knee injury that year, and the knee injury lingered into 2015. As a result, he wound up with just three interceptions in three years. Worse yet: The guy that Byrd replaced, Malcolm Jenkins, has developed into one of the NFL’s top safeties with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Sneaky-good move: Linebacker Craig Robertson. Again, I would point to Breaux, Snead and Hightower here. The Saints have fared much better with the sneaky-good moves than the obviously bad ones. As for the traditional free-agent signings, Robertson turned out to be a good under-the-radar addition last year, when the Saints signed him to a three-year deal worth between $5 million and $9.5 million. They originally saw him as a versatile backup who could fill in at all three linebacker spots and be a core special-teams player. But the former Cleveland Browns starter wound up as their starting middle linebacker and led the team with 115 tackles.

Verdict: Guilty -- and sentenced to three straight seasons out of the playoffs. The Saints’ ugly string of free-agent flops is probably the single biggest reason why they have suffered through three straight 7-9 seasons. I don’t mind the philosophy of aggressively trying to win while quarterback Drew Brees is still in his prime. But no team can afford to miss on as many high-priced deals as the Saints have over the past three seasons. It has also led to the most dead money against the salary cap for three seasons in a row, which continues to shrink New Orleans’ margin for error. But guess what? The Saints are likely going to keep swinging for the fences this year, with more than $30 million of cap space to spend -- because they still feel like they’re on the cusp of a playoff run and want to win while the 38-year-old Brees is still thriving.

*Signings made during free-agency period beginning in March.