Inside Terron Armstead’s departure and where Saints go from here

The decision to let Terron Armstead go is understandable, but that doesn’t mean anything about moving forward will be easy.

Armstead is one of the most talented players to suit up during the Sean Payton era. The perfect left tackle for this era of football: Fast, athletic and technical beyond belief. If it weren’t for the injuries, which have defined his career as much as his rare ability, he might be in the conversation for best left tackles of all time.

Unfortunately, the injuries did pile up, and bit by bit, they chipped away at Armstead’s otherworldly athletic ability. Very rarely did anyone ever notice because he compensated for it by developing his technique and learned the game so well that he became a player others around the league sought out for advice. But all those times when you could see Armstead dragging his leg down the field and doing whatever it took to play added up, and even though he remains one of the quicker left tackles in the NFL, he’s no longer the same guy athletically as back in 2013.

Those things are why Armstead isn’t here. It’s not that the Saints don’t believe in his talent or no longer want him here. They simply didn’t want to make the same commitment that the Miami Dolphins were willing to make, or even the one that Carolina put on the table and Armstead turned down. The five-year deal he signed is worth up to $87.5 million, with $43 million guaranteed. The incentives in the deal, which take it from $75 million to the up-to amount, are said to be easily attainable.

New Orleans could have matched that offer. Nothing about the average annual value is outrageous, and the overall deal probably came in lower than expected thanks to a weird tackle market that saw some players take cheap deals early on. But the organization’s actions say it didn’t want to take a bet on paying Armstead into his 30s. The approach is understandable, considering how close this team plays to the salary cap every year, which lowers the margin for error. When a big investment goes sideways, it can be too much for the team to overcome. We saw that same impact last year when Michael Thomas didn’t play.

We’ll see if the team is right. Sometimes being a little early on these decisions is better than being a little late. But while we wait to see how this situation plays out long-term, the immediate impact will be felt in New Orleans. The team now has a significant hole to fill, and there isn’t anyone close to Armstead’s equal waiting to step in and fill it. James Hurst is the smart bet, but the team could still sign someone or draft a tackle early.

There was some talk about keeping Armstead around, specifically as the Saints pursued Deshaun Watson. One of the quarterback’s requests when considering coming here was for Armstead to get re-signed, and the team talked to the tackle about that possibility. Jameis Winston was also hoping for the same thing, and Armstead would have been willing to come back to play with him, but the situation didn’t work out. New Orleans made an early offer to Armstead, but it was well short of what he ultimately received from Miami.

From both perspectives, everything makes sense. New Orleans could have theoretically tagged Armstead and got one more season out of him, though it would have cost $16 million, plus the $12.9 million that Armstead leaves on the cap after pushing money down the road on his last deal. That level of investment in one position, let alone for one player, is far too high.

The only way to keep him and avoid paying his dead-money hit this season would have been to sign Armstead to a legitimate extension, which carries a risk that might not make sense for this roster. New Orleans will field a solid team, one good enough to make the playoffs, but it probably isn’t in the range where it looks like Super Bowl or bust.

With Watson at quarterback, it would have made more sense to go all in and taking resources from the future in exchange for a great chance of success today. With where things stand now, taking on some dead money and resetting a little bit while remaining competitive could be the more logical path.

That doesn’t make losing a top-tier talent to another team any easier, especially when the contract looks affordable, but that’s the hand the Saints believe makes more sense to play.

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