Max Unger retired Saturday in a manner befitting his wildly underrated career. He didn’t announce intentions before the 2018 season began, or post a statement on social media. Instead, Unger’s retirement simply showed up on the NFL’s transactions wire when his name was listed on the reserved/retired list. Unger, who came to New Orleans in exchange for tight end Jimmy Graham and a first-round pick in 2015, earned one first-team All-Pro berth, three Pro Bowl nods, and one Super Bowl ring during his excellent 10-year career.
But by hanging up his cleats, Unger has left the Saints in a bit of a lurch. Fully expected to compete for championships for the rest of Drew Brees‘ career, New Orleans now has a gaping hole in the middle of its offensive line. The only realistic option on the Saints’ roster to replace Unger is 2017 undrafted free agent Cameron Tom, who some observers have considered New Orleans’ center-in-waiting.
The Saints are clearly fans of Tom, as they bumped up his practice squad salary during the 2017 campaign in order to keep him from leaving for another club. After two years in the New Orleans system, Tom should be familiar with the club’s offense, but he’s started only one game for the Saints since being promoted in October 2017. Pro Football Focus assigned Tom poor marks for his 178 offensive snaps last year.
If the Saints aren’t comfortable moving forward with Tom as their starting center, they’ll have three paths available via which they could find a new pivot: the upcoming draft, a trade, or by sorting through the remaining free agents. Let’s take a look at each avenue:
After entering the 2017 draft with the fifth-most draft capital in the NFL, the Saints have since eschewed the concept of acquiring top-end, controllable assets over the past two seasons. With the now-40-year-old Brees under center, it’s difficult to argue with that win-now approach, but the strategy has limited New Orleans’ ability to place multiple bets in the draft. In 2018, the Saints started the draft with only 30.2 point of draft value (29th in the league), and my preliminary calculations have the club in the same range or lower for 2019.