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The Saints traded Jimmy Graham with the best of intentions

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The Saints' decision to trade Jimmy Graham was surprising, but at least there was a clear rationale behind it.

The decision to trade Jimmy Graham just one season after signing him to an extension seems like the sort of over-correction that good franchises make when things go bad. The Saints went 7-9 last season in an awful division one season after going 11-5. In response, they appear to have tossed away one of their most gifted offensive weapons for a center and a late first-round pick.

But let's give the Saints the benefit of the doubt. They have earned that much by being one of the NFL's best team of the last 10 years. On the surface, the team is trying to put itself in a neater position next to the salary cap for the next several years. The deal is heavy with subtext, however, and it may be the biggest sign that the franchise is in the midst of a longterm transition.

Namely, the Saints are trying to figure out what they are going to do without Drew Brees.

First off, Max Unger is a big deal

In Unger, the Saints received one of the best centers in football. He graded out particularly well as a run blocker, addressing a point of emphasis for the Saints. The team wrapped up running back Mark Ingram on a four-year deal paying $4 million per season on the assumption that he will continue to be the good player he has been for the last year-plus, and not the presumed first-round bust he had been for nearly three seasons.

The trade for Unger and the deal for Ingram suggest that the Saints are readying to scale back their passing attack. Though known as a pass-heavy offense, the Saints have ranked among the best rushing offenses in the NFL in the recent past. In 2009 and 2011, the team finished sixth in the NFL in total rushing offense with more than 2,100 yards on the ground. Those two seasons were also the only two 13-win seasons in franchise history, with 2009 ending in a Super Bowl victory.

The Saints may see correlation as causation, bolstered by the fact that the Seahawks -- and Unger -- just went to a second straight Super Bowl after leading the NFL in rushing by a wide margin. Graham wasn't much as an inline blocker, so why not cash him in? But then what to do with the $100 million quarterback ...

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The Saints want to succeed without Brees

That's the logical extension of thinking about the deal, even if it sounds backward. Brees may have been the only reason that the Saints won even as many as seven games. While all around him floundered, Brees led the league with 4,952 yards passing. His 20 turnovers were a detriment, but he has done worse. Brees still accounted for 34 touchdowns.

Brees struggled with consistency, however, especially down the stretch. He recorded his three lowest-rated outings in the Saints' final four games. Two of those games were blowout losses to division rivals, a win over either of which would have sent the Saints to the playoffs.

The team's problem with Brees is not that he struggles, it's that he can't struggle, not if the team is to have any success. At 35 years old, Brees accounted for more than 75 percent of the team's total offense. He has accounted for at least 73 percent of the Saints offense in every season since 2007, except for 2009, when the Saints running game was one of the league's best. The Saints' trade Tuesday may be their way off taking pressure off their quarterback.

The Saints may be doing it against Brees' will. The quarterback will certainly miss Graham, and has already tweeted out a picture of his tiny adorable children as proof. Brees is also set to make nearly $54 million over the next two seasons, and the Saints don't appear to have any plan to restructure the deal, so he can't complain too loudly.

And anyway ...

This wasn't about money

That might have been the first thought when Graham was traded, but the deal actually added to the Saints' league-leading deficit against the cap -- Graham's $9 million in dead money and Unger's salary adds another roughly $2 million. Getting Graham's $40 million off the books will help the team down the line, but for now it's essentially a wash.

General manager Mickey Loomis did talk extensively about improving the defense when discussing the trade, however. With two first-round picks, New Orleans can inject youth into the lineup and hope to scrape its way back out of the cellar in total defense.

The Saints gambled, certainly, but the move appeared to have been made in foresight, as opposed to desperation. It's easy to see how it could backfire -- final judgment will depend on how the Saints' young pass catchers step up in Graham's absence, and what happens in the upcoming NFL Draft and next year's free agency. The Saints have shown their work, however, and that's more we can say of some franchises in the frenzied hours since free agency began.