The Saints pushed all their chips to the middle of the table in 2018, trading away huge chunks of draft capital and running up their cap bill yet again in pursuit of a Super Bowl. They came (depending on your perspective) either agonizingly or delightfully close to getting to one, but then they did not.
The Saints did this because they sensed they were close, and because they knew that their window with Drew Brees was coming close to closing. After absolutely crushing the 2017 draft class, which returned them to relevance after three shaky years, they now find themselves down significant draft capital and reasonably tight on cap space heading into 2019. They should still be good—their moves weren’t all about 2018—but they, like the Rams and their big 2018 splurge, were focused on last year.
The Falcons are not necessarily a smarter or better team than the Saints or the Rams—I’m going to pass on describing the recent history of these three teams for the moment—but they are a team that is taking pains not to zero in on the upcoming year. Both Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli come from the New England front office tree, which has always emphasized nailing the draft and making limited, shrewd signings and trades as a way to bolster the roster, and on keeping things flowing. All previous attempts to get the one missing piece have not pushed this team over the top, though obviously Alex Mack came agonizingly close in 2016. They’re looking to bolster
The benefits and costs of that kind of decision-making are playing out in real-time. The Falcons have taken pains to keep their very best players and will continue to do so, and they’ve largely acquired those players by focusing on acquiring impact players through the draft. But that in turn chews up considerable cap space, which leaves the team largely unable to make the kind of big splashy free agent signings that helped propel the Rams to the Super Bowl a year ago. As a result, the Falcons should have a good roster for the next few seasons if they don’t suffer any massive regression from key players, but their ability to add impact players is limited unless they draft well. The Saints, with their short term focus, are mortgaging post-Brees flexibility in exchange for help in the here and now, with players like Jared Cook joining up to shore up weaknesses.
This is a relevant discussion because there’s a lot of buzz about the Falcons trading up, which I think they may legitimately do this year when they have a small handful of glaring needs and the option to chase elite talents with a top 16 selection and nine picks overall.
The Falcons, even if they do make a swap up for an impact player, will continue to build for the next 3-5 years with the expectation that they’ll keep contending as long as Matt Ryan can throw a football. The fact that they’re doing so might keep our teeth on edge for a pivotal 2019 where it appears coaches and front office staff might be in danger of losing their jobs after a down season, but it’s nice to think this team might not be a barren husk 2-3 years down the line, whether or not the current brain trust is.