Monday, December 21, 2015

The Kenny Stills Trade

Last offseason the Saints pulled off a couple of high profile trades that caught many fans by surprise. The Jimmy Graham deal got the most attention but there were others.  Ben Grubbs was dealt to Kansas City for a draft choice which wasn't too much of a shock.  The real head-scratcher of the lot was the deal that sent a young, developing Kenny Stills to Miami. 

We knew the Saints were serious about wanting to rebuild their defense but Stills, at the time, seemed like a lot to give up. In his rookie season, Stills was among the NFL leaders in yards per reception.  In his second year, he took a solid step toward becoming a consistent all-around receiver posting 931 yards on 63 receptions.  So the trade surprised a lot of people including Still himself who had "a bunch of emotions" about it. . The Saints had already unloaded Graham. Without Stills there, who was Drew Brees even supposed to throw to?

Now we may not be completely satisfied with the way the Saints answered that question.  The offense lacks the sense of near invincibility it enjoyed during its peak years.  But it hasn't been all that bad.  Drew Brees is on pace to throw for something like 4700 yards and and 30 touchdowns this year which would be in keeping with his customary production. (Consider also that he missed an entire game.)   Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks each have a chance to gain 1000 yards receiving.  Ben Watson even has an outside shot at getting there.  In other circumstances, if the Saints hadn't been taking this entire season off in order to rebuild the defense, for example, they would have produced enough offensively to be successful.

But the defense has been ridiculously bad, probably by design. The Saints knew they were going to spend the year re-tooling. They intended to play a lot of rookies on defense. (I've argued they probably intended to jettison Rob Ryan at mid-season as well.) The Stills trade figured into that re-tooling.

The Saints picked defensive back PJ Williams with the draft choice they received in the deal.  He's been on IR all year so we don't have a verdict on that yet.  The trade also brought the Saints Dannell Ellerbe. The result there, while incomplete, has been intriguing. Here's Bradley Warshauer's Gambit column.
Did you realize the Saints are 4-1 this year in games Ellerbe has appeared in, and 1-7 in games he hasn't? Ellerbe, it turns out, might be the difference between sucking and not sucking.

The win/loss record alone is a pretty incredible piece of evidence. Let's dive in a bit and see if we can learn anything.

Points Per Game

First, the games in which Ellerbe appeared were:

  • Dallas Cowboy, 26-20 win
  • Philadelphia Eagles, 39-17 loss
  • Atlanta Falcons, 31-21 win
  • Indianapolis Colts, 27-21 win
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 24-17 win 
One important thing right away: Four of the five games are the four in which the Saints' defense allowed the fewest points. In fact, those four games are the only ones in which the Saints have allowed fewer than 24 points.

Overall, in games Ellerbe has appeared in, the Saints are allowing an average of 23.6 points. That's not particularly great by the standards of good NFL defense, but Sean Payton's Saints have never really played by the standards of good NFL defense. 23.6 would be tied with Washington at 17th. Graded on a Payton-era curve, that's practically the 1985 Bears.
What does it mean?  Well, it probably doesn't actually mean anything.  It suggests, though, that the Saints may have gotten some value out of the Still trade with regard to their defensive rebuilding project while not sacrificing a whole lot of offense to do it.  We won't be able to evaluate this definitively until next year.  Of course, nothing matters anymore until then, at this point anyway.

That doesn't mean there's no reason to show up tonight, though. Back when I was a kid, a Saints team with a chance to finish 8-8 was big time news. I'm not sure I'll ever take that for granted no matter how many Superbowls I eventually live to see. Also, it's Morten Andersen Night on Monday Night Football.  Y'all probably will want to see this.

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