After signing Champ Bailey to a two-year, max $7 million deal on Friday the Saints are a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Admittedly that statement is a bit misleading, because prior to signing Bailey the Saints were still one of the seven or eight teams popularly believed to have a shot at winning it all.
Bailey is the second pro bowler the Saints have added to the defensive backfield this offseason. On one hand, Jairus Byrd is a guy heading into the prime of his career with (potentially) several Pro Bowls ahead; on the other, Bailey is a seasoned veteran (to put it nicely) whose next appearance in Honolulu will be at a retirement home.
The Saints also now have two 35-year-old future Hall of Famers: Bailey and quarterback Drew Brees. The only problem is that at 35 Brees’ output is still on-par with his 20-something year old self; where as Bailey, to be frank, is not.
But don’t just take my word for it.
Over the last six seasons Bailey has played in all 16 regular season games just twice, breaking a nine year stretch where he had played in 14+ games every season to start his career in both Washington and Denver. In those six years, he’s had three or more interceptions only once, and he had two injury-plagued years where he had one or fewer (aka zero … bagel).
He’s seen his ball skills decline across the board, not just in his ability to create turnovers. Removing 2008 and 2013 (years in which he played nine or less games) Bailey has seen a steady decline in passes defensed (2009 – 15 / 2010 – 13 / 2011 – 10 / 2012 – 9).
In his first nine years in the league, Bailey was not only a prolific shut-down corner but he also was a physical force. He had a stretch of six years where he had 60+ tackles, and since then he has only eclipsed that mark twice.
Losing both the physical ability and desire to stick your nose in a running back’s grill is excusable, especially for a guy as talented in coverage as Bailey is. However, when you look at the reduced production across the board and combine that with the perceived propensity for injury it begins to feel like grasping at straws when looking for upside to his game.
The Broncos certainly agree with me, because the cut Bailey (essentially) right of the bat this offseason after watching him become a liability as 2013 progressed. It’s true he was set to count nearly $10 million against Denver’s cap, but if they really believed he had anything left in the tank I would think they’d have made more of an effort to re-structure his deal to keep him in the Mile High City.
Or maybe after watching him flounder with his foot injury and get beat twice by the Ravens in 2012 they decided enough was enough.
Either way, the Saints obviously saw something in him. But what?
It’s true he’ll be playing with potentially the best safety duo over the top that he’s ever had, especially considering Byrd’s ability to play ‘center field’. This may give Bailey more of an opportunity to do what he does best: lock up man-to-man without worrying about getting beat because he’ll have deep help.
Also, he’ll probably end up working into a hybrid cornerback-safety role in nickel and dime packages similar to Charles Woodson later in his career (especially considering that Rafael Bush is now all but gone to Atlanta after giving Bailey the money they could have used to match the Falcons’ offer). The problem with that move is that Charles Woodson’s game is vastly different to Bailey’s. Prior to making the move to safety in 2012, Woodson had been adept at avoiding injury (missing only three total games in six years). He also had been a much bigger part of the Packers’ blitz game (making his move to safety more natural) and his natural ability to create turnovers both via interceptions and fumbles made for a large upside to moving Woodson to a position where he could do that more regularly.
Bailey brings almost none of that to the table, and although the notion of moving him into a similar role to reduce the wear-and-tear of playing lock-down corner back there is little in his game to support him being successful there.
Then there’s the money issue.
God help him Mickey Loomis is doing everything he can to bring a Super Bowl back to New Orleans (both in the form of winning a championship with the Saints and hosting the 2018 event), but it’s moves like this that have given him a questionable (at best) track record.
The Byrd splash was big, but it was one that made sense. A young talented guy that fills a gaping need in your emerging defense: that’s a good move.
But paying a guy whose best years are far behind him a maximum of $7 million when there are serious questions about the amount of time he’ll actually spend on the field is a head-scratcher.
Going into Friday the Saints were about $3.4 million under the cap (with the $1.4 million tentatively tied up in Rafael Bush). Bailey’s cap number has not been released as of yet, but we can imagine that number will be reduced by at least $2 million by the new contract. I’m not a General Manager, but it would seem to me that there’s not much room left to add depth in areas of need such as offensive line, outside linebacker, or wide receiver.
But, there is still the draft. Ah yes, the draft.
Bailey’s signing shouldn’t have a massive impact on the Saints’ draft strategy, although if they’re assuming he’ll be the guy to start opposite Keenan Lewis than it does allow them to go with more of a ‘best guy on the board’ approach. There’s still no telling who will be left at number 27 overall, but if a guy like Kyle Fuller is still there and there isn’t a ‘wow’ guy that has fallen to the late first round I still think the most prudent decision is to draft Fuller and develop him.
To that end, if they do draft Fuller at number 27 it would seem that the Saints defensive backfield then becomes an embarrassment of riches. Fuller then has the benefit of learning under one of the best cover-corners of all time and should still retain the opportunity for solid playing time in an effort to keep Bailey healthy.
However, if Bailey is the guy (and it sure sounds like the Saints staff believes he is) then they can widen their view at number 27 and throughout the draft and just take the guy that’s highest on their board (a method that has proven to build strong teams).
I’ve thrown a lot at you in this article, but when it comes down to it where do we stand?
To me, signing Bailey was a mistake.
Can he help the Saints? Absolutely. If healthy he still may have enough game to make an impact, and off the field there’s no question that his leadership will make an impact in the Saints’ locker room.
But at what cost?
We’ve already mentioned losing Rafael Bush (a talented up-and-coming safety) to the Falcons, as well as the missed opportunity to add any other depth now that the 2014 cap is all but spent. If they aren’t careful it could also cost them their corner back of the future, because if they pass on Fuller for someone they deem to be better and it doesn’t work out you’ve now set yourself back at least the two years you’ve tied up in Bailey without a solid back-up plan.
Bailey is one of the best to ever play the game, and he’s hungry. But hunger does not equal health, and if Saints fans have to endure a season filled with sideline shots of Bailey holding a towel and a gatorade I guarantee the questions surrounding Loomis’ leadership ability will rear their ugly heads.
So celebrate the signing. Drool over the Saints defense in Madden ’15 and how fun it’s going to be beating that guy down the hall because you can finally play cover 2 man all game.
But if you think Champ Bailey is the answer for the Saints’ defense, you’re asking all the wrong questions.