With the 2013-2014 football season in the books, all eyes will now turn to the NFL draft, and just as importantly, to the looming free agency frenzy.
For teams that were at the bottom of the league, it is rebuilding time. Those that finished just outside of the playoffs last year will be looking to improve their chances at a postseason berth. For a few elite squads that fell just short however, it is time to reload.
That last category is where the New Orleans Saints find themselves. After being one victory away from getting into the NFC Championship game for the second time in three years (with losses in the divisional round of the playoffs in both 2011 and 2013), New Orleans knows it is just a few key pieces from a return trip to the Big Dance.
In 2013, the Saints finished with the fifth-ranked offense in the NFL (according to the Weighted DVOA Offensive Rankings from Football Outsiders). However, New Orleans was just 10th in the league in scoring at 25.9 points per game (ppg). Although these numbers might delight most teams in the NFL, there was no party in the Big Easy. The reason is simple: this was the lowest scoring output for New Orleans in the past three years (second in 2011 at 34.2 ppg and third in 2012 at 28.8 ppg).
One noticeable shortcoming of the typically high-scoring Saints offense this past year was the unusually below average production from the team's wide receiving corps. Ryan Edwards wrote an excellent piece detailing the wide receivers contribution to New Orleans offense in 2013. You can find it here.
In view of the Saints relative dip in offensive scoring numbers, many experts and fans alike have been advocating the draft of a highly-touted wide receiver to bolster the team's aerial attack. In order to do so, the draft is one of two ways to go; the other being free agency.
The 26-year old Decker (6'3", 214 lbs.) played out a rookie contract that paid him $3,315,150 over four years in Denver. He had 87 receptions for 1288 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013, following an outstanding 2012 campaign in which he had 85 catches, 1064 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Worth emphasizing is the fact that Decker's exceptional numbers last year (136 targets, 87 receptions) were posted while having to split targets with standout wide receivers Demaryius Thomas (142 targets, 92 receptions) and Wes Welker (111 targets, 73 receptions).
Needless to say that Eric Decker is going to command a high price on the free agency market this offseason, which could make it nearly impossible for the cash-strapped Saints to sign him. He has also made it clear that he would like to re-sign with Denver.
However, as we all know, there is no such thing as impossible when it comes to NFL free agency. Decker, although a Denver Bronco at heart, will probably elect to go to the highest bidder, as evidenced by this quote he gave to NFL insider Ian Rapoport: "Obviously for me, I would love to come back. ...I would love to play here. Unfortunately it's something that isn't always in my control."
For the Saints, I order to make the numbers work, signing Eric Decker would most certainly mean parting ways with a veteran receiver like Lance Moore and probably a few additional players as cap casualties. It would also unquestionably involve restructuring the contracts of some of the veterans the team will elect to keep. Ryan Edwards in his piece also examines the cap hit for each veteran wide receiver currently on the Saints roster.
Although inking Decker to a contract would be quite expensive, the positive aspects of such a signing are numerous.
Firstly, New Orleans could then focus on using their early draft picks next May on improving the team at the cornerback position or on the offensive line, instead of going for a wide receiver early.
Secondly, it would obviously provide an incredible boost to the Saints passing offense to give Drew Brees the option to throw to Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Eric Decker as the primary targets in 2014. Adding to that trio would be second-year wide receiver Kenny Stills who had a great rookie season, Nick Toon who will have to improve in order to remain on the team and (hopefully) a recovered Joe Morgan as the designated deep threat. With such a crew, New Orleans could boast one of the scariest wide receiving corps in the entire NFL.
Could the Saints sign Decker and find a way to make it work financially? They certainly have the ability to do so. However, Decker is sure to be a highly sought-after free agent and New Orleans may not be able to win the bidding war for his services.
The question now is: if you were Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis, would you go for it? If I were in their place, I would strongly consider it.