Top 10 Best free agents signed by the Saints:
10. Quinn Early
Here is #9, ..Wesley Walls
In 1993, the Saints traded Pat Swilling to the Detroit Lions for their first round draft pick, #8 overall, and selected William Roaf, a future Hall of Famer.
What people forget was, with their own #1 pick, the 20th overall, the Saints selected Irv Smit, a tight end out of Notre Dame.
I mention this, because Smith figured prominently in first the decision to bring in our next free agent, and also to let him walk away and become an all pro for a division rival – Wesley Walls.
Wesley Walls was drafted out of Ole Miss in the 2nd round of the 1989 draft by the 49ers. There he sat behind all-world TE Brent Jones for four seasons. The 1992 and 93 seasons were particularly frustrating, because he spent both on injured reserve with shoulder injuries.
The Saints saw enough of him in college and in the pros to take a chance as a part time starter behind Smith for their tight end position. In 1994, Walls essentially beat out Smith as the pass catching tight end, and by 1995, Walls set a then Saints team record with 57 receptions –the most ever for a Saints tight end until that point.
He became quarterback Jim Everett’s favorite security blanket on check downs and over the middle for first downs. And, as I said in Quinn Early’s write-up, Walls, Early and Haynes became the most explosive Saints offense since the 1979 team (but not in the category of Mike McCarthy/Aaron Brooks or Payton/Brees’ offensives).
But it all came apart in the 1996 season. Walls was turning 30, and since they signed him to a 2 year deal as a back-up player, the front office was ill prepared to put together a good offer for a guy whom they felt was on the wrong side of 30. The Saints should have checked the mileage instead of the years, because there was a lot of tread left, and the Carolina Panthers benefited.
The Panthers got a five time pro bowler, and four time all pro who played until the 2001 season.
The Saints, stuck with Smith, who only played two more seasons, then played a season in San Francisco and Cleveland before retiring at the age of 28.
The most passes he caught was 45 that 1995 season, but for less yardage and fewer touchdowns than Walls –but the Saints triumvirate that acted as GM after Jim Finks died: Jim Mora, Jim Miller (who dealt with the financials) and Bill Kuharich (who was the Saints player personnel director before he was promoted to director of football operations) , decided that Smith would be the break out candidate after seeing what Walls did.
They were wrong, and along with other miscalculations helped usher in the demise of the Jim Mora era the following season.
So why is Walls on this list?
Because for a brief moment the Saints made the right move and brought in a back-up from another team and got a star player. To me, that is really the model of a successful free agency. You’re not going to hit every time obviously, but too often people get sucked into the name players and assume that the guy who put the skins on the wall for one team is going to do the same for yours –and many times people find out players were playing for that big pay day, instead of playing at a high level because they don’t know how else to play.
Finding that hungry young player who is waiting for an opportunity is a lot harder, and when you find one, you are generally rewarded with a player who stays hungry.
Such was the case with Walls.
And as a post script, Irv Smith’s son plays for Alabama, Irv Smith Jr.