It’s a question NFL teams face every year. As playoff hopes die, do you tank for a high draft pick, or play hard, possibly to foster competitiveness?
The question, for the Saints at least, is somewhat moot. And not only because the Saints haven’t yet been eliminated from playoff contention.
No matter the situation, you can be sure that Sean Payton would never tank a team. I, for one, agree with the approach.
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But I very much understand why so many Saints fans want the team to tank.
For years, the Saints have been searching for that transcendent player on defense. And despite the high picks garnered by a few consecutive losing seasons, the team’s drafts have yet to produce any true game changers. It feels like what the team really needs is one of the top top top picks, somewhere that they can draft an elite, top tier defensive talent.
Of course, with the way the team played against Detroit, it’s somewhat possible that they land a top 5 draft pick without deliberately tanking. But I expect they’ll win at least one of their final four games. And despite what most fans think after last Sunday’s thrashing, it’s entirely possible that they do win out. The question is, though, with Atlanta firmly in the driver’s seat in the NFC South: would that be beneficial to the team?
It’s hard to argue for the benefits of not tanking. The only real argument to be made is vague. But I support it, nonetheless.
The argument is that tanking kills competitiveness.
If the teams wants to look at how to best develop their roster, how to develop their players, then they can look at these final four games as something of a training camp. Strengthen the team’s bond, light a fire under them, what have you, breed competitiveness. Sean Payton praised the Saints for spiking the ball late in the Detroit game, because it showed that, despite the impossibility of winning, the team was competitive. That’s what he’s looking for now.
I don’t expect the sort of roster overhaul that we’ve seen the last two years in New Orleans, but the point remains that each player is now fighting to prove their value on the roster. And plenty of real questions remain heading into the offseason. What are the Saints going to do with Nick Fairley? Jairus Byrd? What are their biggest positions of need, besides DE? CB? OG? LB?
And the fact of the matter, when it comes to draft picks, is that premium rosters are built through draft depth.
Yes, much of the league’s top tier defensive talent was drafted in the first round. But many of the NFL’s best players were drafted beyond the first round, or late in the first. Transcendent talent is available for the Saints whether they have the first pick or the twentieth.
Drew Brees was drafted in the second round. The Saints’ second-best offensive player, Terron Armstead, was drafted in the third. And just as often as the first round turns out a Cam Jordan, it turns out a Stephone Anthony.
There’s no guarantee that the Saints benefit from drafting high. And there’s no guarantee that the roster benefits from competitive play in meaningless games.
At the end of the day, though, I want this team to play to the last snap. It’s why I watch sports, it’s why I watch the Saints. And, hey, if they can beat the Falcons in Week 17, I’d be a happy man. That game will more likely than not be meaningless.
And then again, it may not be. But if it does mean something, that will be because this team fought hard to the very last. And that’s an attitude I want the Saints to foster.