Looming 'Free' Agency Period Could Prove Costly For Saints

The NFL's 2012 free agency signing period starts on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 13 (instead of the usual midnight madness), and while it hasn't been the best of times to be a Saints fan lately (Breesus' and Carl Nicks' contracts and Bountygate, anyone?), it's still a heckuva lot better than last year at this time (Lockout/Decertification Blues, anyone?).

There were eight separate CSC NFL Labor Update posts on March 11 last year (plus a Fleur-de-Links by Satch, and a feature on the purchase/gifting to Dave of his old seat from the pre-MB Superdome), starting with this Good Morning Post at 7:00 am by Dave. It was followed by: the players' final consideration of the latest proposal from the owners, NFLPA decertification, a statement from the NFL, Goodell's letter to the fans, the NFL's summary of the final offer, the NFLPA's reasons for rejecting said offer, and then the dreaded Lockout.

We're not here to dwell on the past (unless you want to just keep watching the DVDs of the 2009 season while ignoring what's going on now, but that's between you and your therapist). Free agency WILL begin on Tuesday, and there is no threat of anyone decertifying or locking anybody out, so that's something positive, isn't it?

In today's Times-Picayune/nola.com, Mike Triplett runs down the depth chart, listing each individual player's free agency status, and then provides a descriptive summary by position group. It's a great way to get a grasp on just where the Saints stand in regard to the free agency free-for-all about to commence.

Make the jump to check out some excerpts...

Despite the Brees, Nicks, and Marques Colston situations and the high number of free agents the Saints have available in one form or another (14 unrestricted and 3 restricted), overall Mike doesn't seem to believe the Saints are in terrible shape:

It's important to note that this isn't a doomsday scenario for the Saints. They are still well-stocked with talent, and they should be able to keep at least a handful of core players while adding reinforcements.

The Saints just will have to be value shoppers.

If only "coulds" and "ifs" were more ironclad (and notice below how he stops short of saying "hometown discount")...

They could keep Nicks, especially if a bidding war doesn't break out when he hits the open market. And they could bring back other top free agents such as receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem and cornerback Tracy Porter. Each of those decisions will depend largely on what other teams are offering, and in some cases, on whether players are willing to stay put for slightly less money.

I think we all know what's going on at quarterback, and things are pretty solid at running back and fullback, so let me jump down to tight end, where I saw an interesting tidbit:

(David) Thomas is expected to come back healthy after battling concussions in 2011, so the Saints have decent depth. But they could always look to add talent at a position they use so heavily in their offense.

I guess it's good to know they think Baconator will return, but I have my doubts about whether this will be true and a sustainable answer.

Here are Mike's thoughts on the receivers:

It's hard to imagine Colston catching passes from someone other than Brees, but he'll be expensive to keep. A sure-handed veteran, Colston is expected to earn around $8 million per year in his next contract. If the Saints are in the right ballpark, though, there's a good chance he'll stay where he feels so comfortable. Meachem might be more likely to leave, because other teams could offer more money and a more prominent role. Then again, the Saints might be asking him to play a more prominent role themselves if they lose Colston. If the Saints lose one or both, they could promote Henderson and Arrington into bigger roles. They could also add a mid-priced veteran on the open market -- they worked out Randy Moss last week. Another intriguing mid-range option would be physical former LSU receiver Early Doucet.

The Saints seem pretty settled at tackle, so Mike moves on to guard/center (try not to shudder when you read Olin Kreutz's name again)...

Losing Nicks would be a huge blow, but they probably won't spend big to replace him in free agency if he leaves. The Saints have shown a remarkable ability to move on in recent years with young replacements on the offensive line, from Nicks to Bushrod to Strief to de la Puente. Both Tennant and Olsen could get opportunities to be the next in line. Or the Saints could look to add a veteran replacement at a bargain price. That's what they did last summer when center Olin Kreutz was available at a discount.

Now he's looking at the defense, which we all know needs big help regardless of who is or isn't re-signed. On the defensive line, Jeff Charleston, Aubrayo Franklin, and Shaun Rogers are the only players not under contract, and there wasn't anything here that shocked me:

The Saints have depth after re-signing McBride. And Galette and Romeus are young backups who could improve under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. But the Saints need to improve their pass rush more than any other area, so if they can find ammunition at value, they could definitely add another end.

Although Franklin and Rogers didn't make the impact the Saints hoped for, one or both of them could be even better fits in Spagnuolo's scheme. If the Saints don't re-sign one or both of them, or if they release Ellis for salary-cap reasons, they'll have to add a veteran or two in free agency. The good news is there are plenty of attractive options, including Tennessee's versatile pass rusher Jason Jones, who could also play end. Other top players who are especially good against the run include Miami's Paul Soliai, the Jets' Sione Pouha, Seattle's Red Bryant and Denver's Brodrick Bunkley.

But at linebacker, while I knew things are in flux, I was a bit surprised to think of having difficulty in retaining Jo-Lonn Dunbar...

This group is unsettled. The Saints could release Vilma, Shanle or Herring for salary-cap reasons, leaving second-year pro Martez Wilson as the only real "lock" to be back. Re-signing Dunbar, 26, will be a priority, but he may not be that easy to keep after a breakout year in 2011. Dunbar started at strongside linebacker, and middle linebacker when Vilma was out with a knee injury. Dunbar could look for a starting job in the middle somewhere else. Casillas could also compete for a starting job. And the Saints could look for upgrades from other teams at outside linebacker. If so, they'll have a few decent options that would fit in their 4-3 scheme. Among them are Baltimore's Jarrett Johnson, Minnesota's E.J. Henderson, Seattle's Leroy Hill, Cincinnati's Manny Lawson and the Giants' Chase Blackburn.

To round out the rundown, Tracy Porter is the only significant loss they might suffer in the defensive backfield, but I'm prepared for him to be gone for better money, and the Saints have the specialists all locked up, with Garrett Hartley's health and successful return being the only real question there, but that has nothing to do with free agency.

* * *

So there you have it, Triplett's take on the Saints and free agency. What's your take on his take? Even though Brees had to be franchised and Nicks seems ready to leave, are you there with him that the Saints aren't up a creek without a paddle, or are you in full-blown freakout mode? Are you expecting/hoping for any nice surprises between now and Tuesday?

Let's hear from you in the comment section...

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