Now that the Super Bowl is over, and the new league year as started, Saints Facebook groups are now abuzz with free agency and the draft.
And like Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun, some fans dream of Drew Brees firing hip shots off to the likes of Jarvis Landry, or pairing Cam Jordan with Ezekiel Ansah, or even a defensive backfield of Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore and Malcolm Butler.
However, free agency, like the NFL Draft (to borrow a phrase from the late Jim Finks) is a crapshoot. But unlike the draft, mistakes in free agency usually are expensive and financially haunt a franchise for several years after the mistake is jettisoned.
So I thought it would be good to look at the best free agents the Saints have ever signed as well as the biggest mistakes. Now the current version of free agency actually started in 1993, so that will be the starting point for these lists. In addition, I’m only going to consider free agents signed from other teams, not undrafted players such as Pierre Thomas.
And since people seem to remember the mistakes over the successes, we’ll cover the mistakes first.
So here begins the top 10 biggest free agent busts in Saints’ history:
10. The Saints sign Packers OT James “Tootie” Robbins (1993): After the 1992 season, the Saints released long time RT Stan Brock. Brock had manned both the right and left tackle positions, and had been an iron man at that position, since being selected in the first round of the 1980 draft. But after watching Reggie White toss Brock into Bobby Hebert like a rag doll, in the ’92 playoffs, the Saints decided to upgrade their offensive tackle position.
Enter James “Tootie” Robbins of the Packers. The Saints signed a 3-year, $4.7 million deal, which may not sound like much in comparison to the salaries being given out today –but in 1992, Robbins made $675,000.
Robbins entered training camp that summer as the starter at right tackle, promptly injured his shoulder an hour into training camp, and never played a down in a Saints uniform. The Saints waived him during camp, and Robbins left with his $500,000 signing bonus.
However, the reason most Saints fans don’t remember Robbins, is because Saints first round draft pick William Roaf easily slid into the starting right tackle spot and would start that entire season on the right side. In 1994, the Saints moved him to the left side and the rest was history. Roaf would go on to multiple pro bowl and all pro seasons, be named to two “all decade teams” and enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And Stan Brock? Brock would sign with the San Diego Chargers, starting two seasons, with his last game being Super Bowl XXIX, a loss to the 49ers.
So why is Robbins #10? Because this was the Saints first real foray into free agency –and it was a big mistake that was minimized by Roaf. They released Bobby Hebert and Brock, traded away Pat Swilling and brought in Wade Wilson, Robbins and Roaf in an attempt to upgrade the offense. The Saints fell from 12-4 to 8-8, missing the playoffs for the first time since the 1989 season.
The ’93 team started 5-0, but a loss to the Steelers in October seemed to completely unravel the team, and the offense became stagnant, the defense suddenly looked very old. They limped to a 3-8 finish, with Steve Walsh guiding the Saints to their final win over the hapless Bengals.
The Saints front office watched as other teams calmly picked their team apart of valuable contributors on defense and special teams –mainly because of miscalculations or believing age had caught up to them, while the Saints tried to make their offense more explosive adding new players via free agency. It became so bad, the Times Picayune began running a feature after games called “ex-Saint of the week,” spotlighting a former Saint doing well with his new team. The feature would continue until Mora’s resignation in the middle of the ’96 season.
The Saints had a hard time adapting to free agency, and as Robbins showed, different wasn’t always better, many times it was just different.