The New Orleans Saints have won only four their first ten games, so it’s understandable that fans’ attention will begin to turn towards the NFL Draft. New Orleans is currently slated to pick tenth overall, which would be their highest pick since Sedrick Ellis was picked seventh overall back in 2008.
It defeats the purpose of building a mock draft if you don’t have context, which is provided by free agency signings. With their 2017 salary cap space expected to land between $37- and $40-million, the Saints will be able to add some veteran talent. So I’ll run through some key free agents that they should consider in the spring. You can find my mock draft later this week, and I’ll link back to this free agency blueprint to give context for my decision in future mocks.
Melvin Ingram, DE, San Diego Chargers
Premier NFL pass rushers don’t often hit the ground running, and Melvin Ingram is no exception. The 6-foot-2, 247-pound edge defender shed a ton of body fat in the summer of 2015 to finally find consistency, and that’s been rewarded: the captain of the San Diego Chargers defense has logged 12.5 sacks and 53 solo tackles in his last 16 games as his team’s best pass rusher.
Ingram is the perfect speed-rushing compliment to Cameron Jordan, and is a great athlete who can drop into coverage when called upon, so his fit in Dennis Allen’s scheme is unquestionable. Ingram will only be 27-years old when he signs his next contract, and the Chargers are projected to have one of the lowest salary cap space numbers in the NFL in 2017. He should headline the Saints’ free agent class.
A.J. Bouye, CB, Houston Texans
The emergence of A.J. Bouye as a legit starter on the boundary has been a welcome surprise. Physically, he reminds you of Keenan Lewis. Bouye is a long, slender corner (listed at 6-foot-1, 192-pounds) with terrific change-of-direction ability and some ball skills. Despite having only 13 starts to his name (five of them coming this year), the formerly-undrafted corner has picked up 26 pass breakups and 6 interceptions.
He’s been an important player in the Houston Texans’ rotation, having appeared in 44 games over the last four years, but for the first time he’s being trusted to stand in the starting lineup and go toe-to-toe with the league’s best: he’s recently matched up well with Oakland Raiders wideout Amari Cooper. Houston has plenty invested in their defense as it is, and with three capable corners ready to hold it down in Kevin Johnson, Kareem Jackson, and Johnathan Joseph, Bouye should be a great mix of value and availability for the Saints in the spring.
Tony Jefferson, SS, Arizona Cardinals
All the talk about the Arizona defense goes to Deone Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu, but Tony Jefferson has been the unit’s breakout star. Undrafted back in 2013, Jefferson has worked his way into the starting lineup after diligently honing his craft and shaving his body fat percentage down to become a better athlete. Now he’s one of the NFL’s best young defensive backs. Jefferson takes great angles to the football and is a sure tackler in the box and out in space, in the same vein as Denver Broncos safety T.J. Ward.
Jefferson isn’t a ballhawk who will drop into deep coverage often, but he can definitely man the strong safety position and match up with almost any tight end in the league. He’s also got a knack for turnovers: Jefferson has forced five fumbles in his last two years in the starting lineup. Jefferson’s free agency interest wasn’t there in 2016, but I would bet he’ll be a hot commodity next spring. A three-safety defense featuring Jefferson, Kenny Vaccaro (incidentally, one of Jefferson’s closest friends), and Vonn Bell could be dangerous.
Realllyyy liked Tony Jefferson as a box safety. Showed a bit of everything. Prob the Best value FA w low RFA tender pic.twitter.com/nlMrJMXoed— KP (@KP_Show) March 6, 2016
Ronald Leary’s saga has been a weird one. Originally expected to be a mid-round draft pick, Leary was diagnosed with a degenerative knee condition and went undrafted. The 27-year old has since been in and out of the starting lineup with unrelated injuries to himself and fellow unexpectedly-undrafted guard La’el Collins. Recently Leary seized the opportunity to start in Collins’ place and has punt on a show on the NFL’s best offensive line.
Leary is a smart and tough guard who has mainly played on the left side, which would mean a position switch for either he or Andrus Peat. But Leary has proven his talent and nearly joined the Saints earlier this year if Dallas had accepted a trade offer. Leary is popular with Saints players on social media and it looks like his joining the team in the spring will be a formality.
Often the forgotten man on the Dallas line, a really nice rep from Leary. https://t.co/rH8Le5MFWT— OL Watchdog (@OLineScout) July 12, 2015
The Saints have had a revolving door at tight end following a season-ending injury to Michael Hoomanwanui and Josh Hill needing some early weeks to get into the lineup. Coby Fleener has proven fears about being a liability when blocking at the line of scrimmage, and with Hoomanawanui an unknown quantity the Saints are going to need legit options at tight end in the future.
Enter Rhett Ellison: the 28-year old towers at 6-foot-5 and 250-pounds, but blocking is his specialty. He roughs up opposing defensive linemen on a weekly basis, clearing paths for Minnesota’s mediocre running backs and making a bright spot in Sam Bradford’s latest underwhelming offense. Ellison would be great competition for Hoomanawanui as the third tight end and could give the Saints a nastiness along the line of scrimmage that they’ve lacked in recent years.
Good to see Rhett Ellison continuing to be the Vikings best blocker.. https://t.co/Aic0uqr4tL— Luke Inman (@Luke_Spinman) October 26, 2016
Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals
It seems like every year Michael Floyd is hyped up as the next big thing at wideout, and every year he falls flat. Floyd hasn’t shown off great hands, featuring a career catch rate of only 53.3-percent, but some of that could be chalked up the quarterbacks targeting him. Since 2012, only Carson Palmer has completed more than 60-percent of his passes in a season, but Palmer has never seen more than 63.7-percent of those throws converted into catches. For comparison, Drew Brees has completed 68.3-percent or more of his passes every year of his career since 2009 (except for an outlying Sean Payton-less 2012).
Floyd wouldn’t be expected to take on opposing teams’ top corners, instead seeing Brandon Coleman’s reps as the fourth receiver behind Michael Thomas, Brandin Cooks, and Willie Snead. Standing at 6-foot-3 and weighing 225-pounds, he’s exactly the kind of barrel-chested pass-catcher who can be open even when covered. Adding another receiver is a luxury for a Saints offense that already has three great options, but because of his lack of production, Floyd should be an inexpensive competitor for Coleman with tremendous upside.