But, man, when you add those guys together, that is a lot of proven experience and leadership leaving the building all at once.
Here’s the positive spin:
The Saints could potentially upgrade their tight end spot following the 38-year-old Watson’s retirement if they sign free agent Jared Cook, who visited with the team late last week.
They have already replaced Ingram (who signed with the Baltimore Ravens) with another veteran running back in Latavius Murray -- who hasn’t been quite as productive as Ingram but certainly seems capable of filling the No. 2 job alongside Alvin Kamara.
Unger will be the hardest to replace after the surprising news of his retirement broke on Saturday. But the rest of the Saints’ line is loaded with talent, and they just signed an experienced potential replacement in free-agent center/guard Nick Easton. Also, this day was bound to come sooner than later for Unger, who turns 33 next month.
But all three of those guys were titans inside the Saints’ locker room. Unger and Watson had been elected captains at least once. Ingram was described by many players as the “heart and soul” of the team -- and it was clear from the social media reactions of several close friends on the team, including Kamara, how much he’ll be missed.
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I hope y'all don't think this gon stop!! My brother for life. I'm not een talkin bout football. Dude kicked game to me bout how to stand tall through the bull and how to stay grounded when you on top of the world. Never once complained. Poured everything he had into me and for that I'm forever grateful. Probably the smoothest first 2 years an NFL player has ever had and I owe a lot of it to you brother. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. ALL CONDITIONAL MUDDAPUCKKAAAA. 🗣
Furthermore, the Saints are losing three guys who knew Sean Payton’s complex offense inside and out. Unger was responsible for making calls at the line of scrimmage. Watson was equally valuable as a blocker and pass-catcher. And Payton talked about how valuable it was to know he could use Ingram in every role, from short-yardage situations to running routes to pass protections. Ingram proved how hard he was to replace when so many other guys failed to nail down the role on even a temporary basis during Ingram’s four-game suspension to start last season.
I’m not going to go all doomsday here and compare it to when the Saints’ chemistry and culture imploded back in 2014 after they parted ways with defensive leaders Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer all at once. That was different because the Saints found out they didn’t have enough of the right guys on defense to fill the leadership void that year. In this case, they still have great veteran leadership on offense, starting with Drew Brees and offensive tackle Terron Armstead. And they’re confident in the character of the guys they’ve added in recent years.
But the Saints did admit in the years following 2014 that losing all of that leadership at once hurt them even worse than they expected. And this week's losses of Ingram, Unger and starting defensive end Alex Okafor (who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs) do serve as a harsh reminder of just how hard it is for NFL teams to maintain their continuity and chemistry from year to year.
And it won’t get any easier for New Orleans in the coming years. Brees is 40 years old, making him “year to year” at this stage of his Hall of Fame career. And it will be very difficult financially to hang on to young stars Michael Thomas, Kamara, Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyk, among others, once they hit their second contracts.
Thomas and guard Andrus Peat are scheduled to be free agents in 2020, followed by Jordan, Kamara, guard Larry Warford, linebacker Demario Davis and safety Marcus Williams in 2021 (the same year Lattimore and Ramczyk's fifth-year options kick in).
Listen, turnover is inevitable in the NFL. So the Saints are out here navigating the same hurdles as every other team. And there’s not much they could have done about Watson and Unger wanting to retire.
The only actual decision the Saints made that could really be second-guessed -- as most fans and even some players have been doing on social media this week -- is letting Ingram get away.
But from all indications, Ingram’s departure was the result of a classic negotiating standoff.
After talking with sources from both sides, it sounds like Ingram was seeking a lot more than the three-year, $15 million deal he wound up accepting from the Ravens -- a lot more. And he never gave the Saints any indication he would sign for that amount. So the Saints felt they had to move on so they didn’t miss out on Murray (who signed an even more affordable four-year, $14 million deal).
Would the Saints have gone as high as $5 million per year to keep Ingram? Maybe, maybe not. But they never got a counteroffer in that ballpark.
Meanwhile, according to a source, the Saints’ best offer to Ingram was four years, $17 million with only $5 million guaranteed. And Baltimore offered more guaranteed money in addition to a possible bigger role in the offense.
Would Ingram have stayed in New Orleans if the two offers were identical? Again -- maybe, maybe not. But the Saints never offered him as much.
It’s a shame we’ll never find out. And perhaps the Saints should have waited another day for Ingram to learn more about his market value, even if it meant risking the loss of Murray.
But it’s also possible this could end up in a win-win for both sides if Ingram gets a shot at career highs in rushing yards and attempts in Baltimore and Murray brings similar value in New Orleans at a cheaper price.
No matter how optimistic you are, though, it’s clear the Saints have taken some big roster hits so far in free agency. And they will be felt as much off the field as on it.