NFL free agency is a whirlwind of activity every March, but it’s important to note how few of those contracts expire naturally. Players are cut every year to save salary cap space for the teams that signed them, which inadvertently makes opportunities for rival franchises.
If a player is released from his contract before it expires, the team that signs him will not be credited against compensatory draft picks in the following year. Those compensatory picks are allotted when a team fails to sign more players than it loses.
Teams that take advantage of this loophole reap the rewards; it’s why the Baltimore Ravens routinely receive many compensatory draft picks. They deliberately sign players like Steve Smith Sr, Eric Weddle, and Mike Wallace to fill their roster needs while preserving future draft capital.
So let’s take a quick look around the NFL at experienced players who could be bargains for the New Orleans Saints.
Jacksonville Jaguars Tight End Julius Thomas
Julius Thomas (6-foot-5, 256-pounds, 28-years old) never matched the production from his breakout 2013 season when he averaged 56.3 yards per game while scoring a dozen touchdowns. Thomas has appeared in just 21-of-32 games since signing a five-year, $46 million contract with Jacksonville. When he has been healthy, Thomas has struggled to develop a connection with Blake Bortles, a young quarterback who has gotten sloppier and less efficient in his second year as a starter.
Thomas was at his best when catching accurate passes deep downfield from Peyton Manning, an experienced quarterback who threw with elite anticipation and touch - qualities shared with Drew Brees. In Jacksonville, Thomas was deployed on shorter routes where he was expected to break tackles and run - which is not his specialty. The Jaguars recoup just $4.7 million in salary cap space for 2017 by releasing Thomas, but free up $16.5 million over the next two years. If released, Thomas should come at a bargain price and be a candidate for a strong comeback in the right situation.
Cleveland Browns Cornerback Joe Haden
The Saints reportedly inquired about Joe Haden’s health and availability right before the 2016 trade deadline, but did not make any offers to pick him up. The diminutive cornerback (5-foot-11, 190-pounds, 27-years old) barely played in 2015 after posting monstrous stat lines in 2013 and 2014 for a combined seven interceptions and forty (40!) pass breakups. Haden saw somewhat of a revival in 2016, notching three picks and eleven deflections, but it’s clear he isn’t the same guy he once was. Haden recently underwent groin surgery which may indicate he’s on the path to true resurgence.
The Browns aren’t known for being good at anything, much less boasting a top-flight pass defense. Haden himself may be overrated compared to other defensive backs around the league. But Cleveland has enough of a nucleus moving forward between rookies Jamar Taylor (led all Browns cornerbacks in snaps played with 921) and Briean Bobby-Calhoun (571 snaps played) that they may choose to part ways with Haden. If they do, they’ll regain $8 million in 2017, plus $21.7 million over the next two years.
Philadelphia Eagles Defensive End Connor Barwin
Once upon a time, Connor Barwin (6-foot-4, 253-pounds, 30-years old) was a coveted Houston Texans pass-rusher hitting free agency at the same time J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus were breaking out. Barwin signed a respectable contract with the Philadelphia Eagles for six years and $36 million, then racked up 26.5 sacks in three years. The fiery defensive end looked at home rushing off the edge in wide alignments and sometimes dropping into soft zone coverage.
Things took a turn for the worse for Barwin when Jim Schwartz entered the scene as new defensive coordinator in 2016. Barwin’s snap count dropped precipitously from 1,052 in 2015 to just 709 in the following year. He was miscast as a cerebral player in a defense that asked less thinking from the edge rushers. Barwin is at his best rushing off the left side and reading and reacting, which allowed him to diagnose the play before it happened. If Dennis Allen lets him do that, he could be due for a big year in New Orleans should Philadelphia choose to free $7.75 million in 2017 cap space and $10.25 million in 2018 by releasing him.