Evaluating NFL Talent is Tricky this Time of Year

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason, and hope is, mostly, ubiquitous among the league’s 32 franchises. With free agency open and the draft, to be held April 25–27, teams’ leadership and fans are looking forward to supplementing their rosters with fresh faces to hopefully make them competitive for a championship.

But, as many Saints fans can attest, the process doesn’t always work out as planned. Any Who Dat? who claims to be a diehard fan can surely name a few players who rode in with fanfare and high expectations only to be let go or traded for much less value than their original appraisal.

In the draft, think Shawn Knight, the defensive end who the Saints picked with the 11th overall selection in 1987 and was gone by 1988; Ricky Williams, who was the Saints’ only draft pick (No. 5 overall) in 1999 after head coach Mike Ditka traded the team’s entire 1999 draft slate to Washington to move up to get him, or Russell Erxleben, a kicker/punter the team selected with the 11th overall pick in 1979 who became known as “Hurtslegen” because of constant injuries.

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Free agency hasn’t always been kind, either. Think Brandon Browner, who signed a three-year, $15 million deal but would be released after one year in which he set an NFL record with the most penalties by a corner; WR Albert Connell, who the team signed to a five-year, $14 million contract only to cut him after 11 games after he failed to crack the starting lineup and was caught stealing from teammates; or Jason David, the restricted free agent cornerback who cost the Saints a fourth-round draft pick and was signed to a four-year, $15.6 million deal only to be cut after he was exposed as a fraud.

Of all the Saints’ missteps in evaluating talent and trying to build the team, one of the biggest mirages and one that, arguably, hurt the most was the acquisition of quarterback Steve Walsh in 1990.

At the time, the Saints were in a moment of transition. With local boys Bobby Hebert and John Fourcade as the team’s starting quarterbacks, the Saints had their first winning season and reached the playoffs for the first time in their then 21 years of existence in the strike-shortened 1987 season. Although they had winning seasons, they failed to make the playoffs in ’88 or ’89. As they entered the 1990 season, things looked bright, but Hebert and General Manager Jim Finks got in a heated contract dispute that ultimately resulted in Hebert sitting out the entire season. Fourcade struggled, so the Saints traded their first- and second-round picks in 1990 and their third-round draft pick in 1991 to Dallas – who had Troy Aikman, the 1989 No. 1 overall pick – for Walsh, who the Cowboys selected with the second overall pick in the ’89 supplemental draft.

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At 6’, 3” and 215 pounds, Walsh appeared to be a prototypical NFL quarterback, and he had the pedigree to match. He led the Miami Hurricanes to the 1987 national championship, finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting in ’88, and posted a record of 23–1 in his two seasons, just missing a second national championship.

Dallas hired Jimmy Johnson, who had served as the Hurricanes head coach, as its head coach in 1988. With Aikman and Walsh, he had, arguably, the two best young quarterbacks in the league on his roster. Of course, Aikman, who went on to win three Super Bowls and have a Hall-of-Fame career, prevailed, and Walsh became expendable.

When news broke that the Saints landed Walsh, excitement tore through the Crescent City. While Hebert and Fourcade were loved, it looked as if the Saints had acquired the best quarterback talent in franchise history. Combined with the “Dome Patrol defense,” thoughts of the Super Bowl danced in Saints fans’ heads.

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It wasn’t to be.

Walsh led the team to an 8-8 record and wild card appearance in 1990. The team’s struggles led Finks to re-sign Hebert, who regained the starting job and led the Saints to playoff appearances in ’91 and ’92 before more questions about his value led him to sign with the archrival Atlanta Falcons in 1993.

Walsh would only start eight games for the Saints between ’91 and ’93 and was waived in April 1994. Ultimately, his tenure as a Saint was a letdown, and fans are still eft wondering what would have happened if Finks and Hebert could have worked out their differences and the team could have used the draft picks they gave up for Walsh to find impact players who would have regularly seen the field and actively contributed to the team’s success.

Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football.

Chris Price

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