Saints hope costly addition of QB Derek Carr has a big payoff

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Stefan Milic)

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Stefan Milic)

The New Orleans Saints’ 2022 season finale was meaningless in the playoff picture, but it helped shape the future of the franchise.

The Saints scored a touchdown on their first possession against the Carolina Panthers and then didn’t score again in an ugly 10-7 loss. Andy Dalton wasn’t awful — Dalton was actually better last season than most people realize — but that game made it clear the Saints weren’t getting enough out of the quarterback position. They had to make a move. And the options for an upgrade were limited. The draft options were few because they traded future picks last year to draft Chris Olave in the first round.

Good thing the Las Vegas Raiders decided that Derek Carr wasn’t good for Josh McDaniels’ offense.

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The Saints met with Carr, under the guise that Carr might accept a trade to help the Raiders. Then Carr told the Raiders he wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause, Las Vegas cut him and the Saints scooped him up. They paid Carr $150 million over four years, an average of $37.5 million per year. No other free agent who changed teams this offseason got more than $87 million overall or $24.25 million per year. It was a lot of money for a player the Raiders seemed determined to get rid of the past few seasons.

Carr, who is 32 years old, has been good in his career. Not great. Better than Dalton. And he was the best the Saints could do, even at a huge price. It speaks to the desperation teams feel at quarterback when they don’t have one.

“Derek was a guy that obviously I knew, but when our personnel people watched the tape and then our coaches watched the tape, he was clearly our No. 1 target in terms of what we wanted to do at the quarterback position,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said, via the team’s site. “We wanted to be first out there and make sure that he knew he was the No. 1 option.”

This offseason marked another step past the team’s most glorious era. Sean Payton didn’t coach the Saints last season but he was still under contract, and New Orleans traded him to the Denver Broncos. The Saints found what they hope is a multi-year replacement for Drew Brees. That period in Saints history had come to a close already, but it was hammered shut this offseason.

The New Orleans Saints signed quarterback Derek Carr after the Las Vegas Raiders let him go. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The New Orleans Saints signed quarterback Derek Carr after the Las Vegas Raiders let him go. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Saints got Carr because they hope to have a new era of success. New Orleans was 7-10 last season, with a very good defense and some interesting pieces on offense. Olave looks like a future star at receiver. Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas are still around, though Kamara will serve a three-game suspension to start the season over a battery case from a 2022 incident in Las Vegas. There’s enough reason, including playing in a bad NFC South, for the Saints to believe they were a quarterback away from going back to the playoffs.

Saints history has featured plenty of quarterbacks on their second (or third) shot. Brees worked out great. Jim Everett was decent for a couple seasons. Ken Stabler was too far in decline to help. Jameis Winston never stayed healthy enough to level up. We’ll see where Carr falls on that spectrum. The Saints are paying a lot to find out.

Offseason grade

When you don’t have a quarterback or a first-round pick, you do what you have to do. In the Saints’ case, it was paying Derek Carr $150 million over four years, which includes $100 million guaranteed. It’s an overpay but it’s not like the Saints had a lot of options. New Orleans did lose a lot from their front seven: defensive tackle David Onyemata and outside linebacker Kaden Elliss to the Atlanta Falcons, defensive lineman Shy Tuttle to the Carolina Panthers and defensive end Marcus Davenport to the Minnesota Vikings. They did sign Nathan Shepherd and Khalen Saunders to the defensive line, but those are probably downgrades. The offense added running back Jamaal Williams and tight end Foster Moreau. Moreau is a good player (and a great story) but it’s hard to see his fit in a crowded tight end room. The Sean Payton trade saved the draft. New Orleans got the Denver Broncos’ first-round pick this year (29th overall) and a second-rounder in 2024, and the Saints sent Denver a third-round pick in 2024 along with Payton. The Saints got defensive tackle Bryan Bresee, a former No. 1 overall recruit out of high school who dealt with injuries at Clemson, with that first-round pick.

Grade: B-

Quarterback report

It’s hard to explain what happened with Derek Carr last season. In 2021, with a coaching staff in disarray, Carr threw for 4,804 yards and led the Las Vegas Raiders to the playoffs. He was supposedly getting a better offensive coach in Josh McDaniels last season, but regressed. Carr had posted a passer rating of at least 93.9 in four straight seasons, and it fell to 86.3 with McDaniels last season. On one hand, if Carr was great last season he wouldn’t have been available to the Saints. But it’s still a little concerning to go all-in on a quarterback who just posted his worst rating since his rookie season.

BetMGM odds breakdown

The Saints’ win total at BetMGM is 8.5, and the over has heavy juice at -150 odds. I still like the over. The main reason is the NFC South. The Saints have the easiest schedule in the NFL this season, according to Sharp Football Analysis, which uses win totals to determine strength of schedule. The Saints and Falcons have the easiest schedules this season by a wide margin, according to Sharp. Getting to 9-8 isn’t too much to ask.

Yahoo’s fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Early Yahoo drafters have been bullish on Alvin Kamara, pushing his ADP into the 60s — significantly above his global average. I think that optimism is a mistake. Even with Kamara’s legal situation cleared up — resulting in a three-game suspension — this is one running back I will not draft proactively.

“The fantasy problem with Kamara is on the field — he hasn’t been a special talent the last two years. Since the beginning of 2021, he’s averaged a modest 3.9 per carry (his career mark is 4.5) and his receiving efficiency is also down. The Saints of late have been reluctant to use Kamara in a touchdown-friendly role; he spiked just four times last year. With Jamaal Williams around to poach the goal-line work this season, Kamara’s upside is likely capped. And he’s also entering his age-28 season, which is often a danger zone for modern running backs.”

Stat to remember

In 2019, Michael Thomas had 149 catches and 1,725 yards and won NFL Offensive Player of the Year. At the end of 2019 Thomas had played four NFL seasons and posted at least 92 catches and 1,137 yards in all of them. In three combined seasons since then, Thomas has 56 catches, 609 yards and three touchdowns. His fall has been remarkable. If Thomas doesn’t bounce back to post another 1,000-yard season, his record-setting 2019 and subsequent drop will be one of the weirdest stories in NFL history. And at age 30, with injuries limiting him to 10 games the last three seasons, it’s far from a guarantee that Thomas will have another great season. He’s a total mystery heading into this season.

Burning question

Can the Saints defense be in the top 10 again?

The Saints finished last season ninth in points allowed, fifth in yards allowed and eighth on defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. It was a top-10 unit by many measures. But there were some losses in free agency, especially up front. The Saints will have an elite secondary with safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye, and corners Marshon Lattimore, Paulson Adebo and Bradley Roby. That’s a good foundation. But a lot of the pass rush depends on another great season from Cameron Jordan, who will be 34 years old. If Jordan has another strong season, or someone like 2021 first-round disappointment Payton Turner (three sacks in two seasons) emerges, the Saints should be good on defense again.

Best-case scenario

Derek Carr has had a few above-average seasons. The Saints might be pretty good if Carr is a top-12 quarterback and a few other things fall into place, like Michael Thomas having a healthy season and the pass rush staying strong. The Saints didn’t feel far off last season and they have, by one metric, the easiest schedule in the NFL. It’s not that crazy to think the Saints could win double-digit games and the NFC South.

Nightmare scenario

If Derek Carr isn’t good, the Saints could realistically get out of his contract after two years, but that’s not the point. The Saints don’t want to start over that quickly at quarterback. It’s at least possible that what we saw from Carr last season was less about Josh McDaniels and more about the player’s decline. The Raiders were in a hurry to get rid of Carr by the end of last season, willing to get nothing back in return. That’s a red flag. It’s also worth noting that defensive excellence is harder to predict year by year, so maybe the Saints’ fine defensive season in 2022 won’t repeat. Dennis Allen was a reasonable pick as Sean Payton’s replacement, but if he follows up a 7-10 season with another double-digit loss campaign, there wouldn’t be a guarantee of him being back for year three. While it’s nice to believe that an upgraded quarterback situation pushes the Saints to better things, it’s also possible things get worse this season.

The crystal ball says …

I think the Saints are the best team in the NFC South, though the Falcons might have a good case. Derek Carr will be what he has mostly been through his NFL career, a solid quarterback who won’t carry the team but won’t often be the reason it loses either. I like the defense due to a strong secondary and Dennis Allen’s coaching. The Saints are the most likely NFC South champion (I do like the Falcons at their longer odds as a better bet) though it’s hard to see them making a deep playoff run. But a division title, even without much postseason success, wouldn’t be the worst outcome for the Saints this season.

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