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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Sean Payton's Ahab Complex: Do the Saints have any idea what they're doing?

Posted By on Thu, Oct 1, 2015 at 11:28 AM

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Yesterday, the Saints traded defensive lineman Akiem Hicks to the New England Patriots for bottom-of-the-depth-chart tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. The move was surprising, to say the least, because Hicks is ostensibly a starting lineman, ever on the verge of a breakout year, a physically-imposing man with the most magical of athlete words attached to him: potential. Hoomanawanui has a cool name.

What on earth is Sean Payton thinking?

First of all, Akiem Hicks is not a very good football player. Saints fans have a by-now long history of dramatically exaggerating the skill of the team's defensive players, grading them on a curve, so to speak. Hicks has physical ability and looks like a good defensive lineman. Back in 2013, Hicks did this:



Never mind the player he tossed aside, Falcons offensive tackle Lamar Holmes, played terribly in 2013. Never mind that Hicks, even then, disappeared for games at a time between such plays. Hicks won our hearts with this play, and a handful of others like it, and defined himself as a potential big-time football player.

He never developed. There may never have been anything to develop. The Advocate's Nick Underhill reports:

The former third-round pick had his best season in 2013, when he finished with 4.5 sacks. It created expectations heading into the 2014 season, when many expected him to provide interior pressure. The only issue is that he only had 15 other pressures during the 2013 season (734 snaps). Hicks finished with 20 pressures in 2014, but he only had two sacks (747).

Maybe Hicks just needs the proverbial change of scenery. Maybe Bill Belichick's defensive genius will extract more from him than Sean Payton's defensive mismanagement. Maybe Hicks will become a star in New England. But I doubt it. Defenders who have left the decade-old calamity that is the New Orleans defense don't have a track record of suddenly improving elsewhere.

Of the two dozen or so drafted Saints defenders since 2006 to move on to another roster, only one, Rob Ninkovich, clearly improved after leaving. In Ninkovich's case, part of the issue was health and the other part was Belichick's superior defensive coaching. Other still-active players, like defensive backs Usama Young or Tracy Porter, are either the same guy they were in New Orleans, or an inferior player now. And Saints fans may be frustrated by any success Malcolm Jenkins has in Philadelphia, but his career there has been pretty similar to his one here, all told.

So the problem, Ninkovich aside, with the Saints' defense hasn't been a failure to develop players like Hicks. It's been the simple fact those players aren't good to begin with.

If Hicks is a pretty bad football player, why should we be surprised the Saints up and traded him for another pretty bad football player?

Well. For one thing, the Saints don't have anyone clearly better to replace him with. In fact, without Hicks, the Saints are down to only three defensive linemen who even had NFL experience entering the 2015 season. Of the linemen who don't have previous NFL experience, the one with the most supposed value, according to the 2015 draft, is fifth round pick Tyeler Davison; most of the others are undrafted rookie free agents.

The Saints' defensive line is now composed mainly of players who were considered for last year's Big Ten, SEC, and ACC honorable mention teams.

It seems unlikely that Hoomanawanui is the best the Saints could have gotten for Hicks. More likely is Sean Payton had grown tired of waiting on potential Hicks will never meet, woke up yesterday concerned about his third tight end spot, and chose to address that spot by trading away the most highly-regarded lineman on his roster who isn't Cam Jordan. 

Since late last season, Payton has been on a rampage through Saints headquarters. It's as if he's obsessed with a prize, only the prize isn't clear. He wants a good football team, obviously, but seems to be acting without a plan. A few months ago, Akiem Hicks was a slimmed-down, active starter ready to take on a new role. Now he's gone. Like Melville's maniacal sea captain, Payton seems willing to "strike the sun" for insulting him. And it's long been difficult to see this story ending any better for Payton than it did for Ahab.

Things were looking up before Payton's latest randomly-tossed harpoon, though. The long-awaited cavalry may be about to arrive. Cornerback Keenan Lewis says he will play Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys. Current signs indicate Drew Brees will be back Sunday, too — and if he's not back Sunday, he'll be back very soon thereafter. Payton indicated CJ Spiller is ready for the big role in the Saints' offense that was envisioned for him upon his signing. And missing safety Jairus Byrd was sighted alive and well in the Saints' locker room.

That's a whole lot of returning talent, more than most bad 0-3 football teams ever get back. It's enough to make a guy optimistic. But only days after signs that Sean Payton's still got it, we're again left wondering who's driving this boat — and where he thinks he's going.

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