Under Mickey Looms, the New Orleans Saints have often been criticized for doling out bad contracts in free agency, whether it be record-breaking numbers to big names or overpaying for veterans well past their prime. Despite these criticisms, general manager Mickey Loomis and his staff have still had their fair share of free agency “hits”.
We’ve looked over the contracts that will be with the Saints for the 2017 season and found the five best values, with the primary criteria being the ratio of production to portion of the salary cap occupied. Additionally, players that have been drafted by the Saints within the past four years have been excluded; under the current CBA, draft pick salaries are slotted and thus having quality players on rookie contracts is mostly a product of efficient drafting rather than the product of making quality free agent signings.
5. Craig Robertson
In the 2016 offseason, the Saints signed Craig Robertson to a contract worth $5 million over 3 years, with nearly $2 million of that guaranteed. While he was expected to play in passing situations and provide quality depth, he ended up being thrust into the starting lineup due to a combination of injuries and poor linebacker play in front of him. Robertson found himself starting in 15 out of 16 regular season games, while also making the switch from starting weak side linebacker to starting middle linebacker.
Despite accounting for a cap hit of only $1.2 million, the Saints got far more production than those salary numbers would suggest. Robertson led the team in total and solo tackles, as well as posting one sack, four pass deflections and one interception. Perhaps more importantly, he provided a stabilizing presence in the middle of an improving Saints defense. Looking to the future, Robertson only accounts for a meager 1.02% of the currently projected 2017 salary cap. No matter what his role is moving forward, Saints fans can feel confident that they’re getting consistently present linebacker play for an absurdly affordable price.
4. Mark Ingram
Mark Ingram has had his ups and downs as a New Orleans Saint, but he finished the 2016 season on a high note after having a career year. He finished with 1,043 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns on an impressive 5.1 yards per carry average. He added 46 receptions and 319 receiving yards to further establish himself as the all-purpose lead back that the Saints have sorely lacked for some time. Perhaps most importantly, he showed big-play ability that had been missing from his game in previous years, with a career-high 75-yard touchdown run against San Francisco that showed him beating fellow first-round pick Eric Reid in a foot race.
What makes Ingram’s contract so valuable is that he’s able to provide a quality, efficient option on all three downs while only taking up 2.96% of the salary cap in 2017. Ingram signed a contract in 2015 worth a total of $16 million over 4 years, with $7.6 million guaranteed. In comparison, his average annual salary ranks only 13th among running backs on veteran contracts, placing him below the likes of C.J. Anderson, Shane Vereen, and former Saint Chris Ivory.
Further improving his value is that he just turned 27 in December, meaning the Saints will have the all-purpose lead back for the entirety of his prime until he turns 29 for the 2019 season. The Saints are paying prime Mark Ingram the same amount of money per year that the Jets are paying 31-year-old Matt Forte. That’s quite the sound investment.
3. Zach Strief
Zach Strief rebounded from a dreadful 2015 campaign season to have possibly the best season of his 11-year career. He was an absolute rock in the passing game, rarely letting rushers get heat on Drew Brees. While Sean Payton and his staff do a phenomenal job of helping their offensive tackles in pass protection, Strief should still be commended for preventing the likes of prominent pass rushers like Von Miller, Khalil Mack, and Dee Ford from recording a sack against the Saints during the 2016 campaign. He also had a heavy hand in establishing a rejuvenated Saints rushing attack during the latter portion of the season.
The Saints signed Strief to a 5-year, $20 million deal with $8.4 million guaranteed in the 2014 offseason. His $5.1 million cap hit for the 2017 season will only take up 2.88% of the salary cap. While that number sounds hefty, consider that he’s one of the best right tackles in the NFL and his average annual salary is good for only 15th among veteran right tackles. The Saints get one of the better starting right tackles in the entire league, as well as a vital locker room leader, while paying for what equates to a replacement-level, average lineman.
2. Delvin Breaux
To be fair, this is cheating a little bit. Delvin Breaux is technically on his rookie contract, as it’s the first NFL contract he has received. However, he was not drafted by the Saints and had the ability to sign with any team that gave him an offer, meaning the Saints were competing for his services on the open market like they would other free agent veterans. Luckily for the fans, the Saints pounced on the opportunity to sign the local kid and have been rewarded greatly for placing their faith in the diamond-in-the-rough.
Breaux signed a 3-year, $1.59 million deal with only $150K guaranteed in the 2015 season. He has since responded by becoming the unquestioned No. 1 cornerback on the Saints roster. His size and physicality combined with his hand strength and foot speed have given the Saints the highly-coveted “matchup” cornerback that all teams desire. Dennis Allen can keep him on one side or allow him to shadow the other team’s best receiver without worry.
Despite missing the majority of the 2016 season, he’s expected to make a full recovery and return to the starting lineup for the 2017 season, when he’ll account for a measly 0.35% of the salary cap. You read that right, he will account for less than 1/200th of the 2017 salary cap. Considering the portion of the salary cap that players like Joe Haden (6.69%) and Byron Maxwell (4.65%) use from their respective teams, minus the ability to truly shadow the opponent’s No. 1 receiver, it’s safe to say that Delvin Breaux is unquestionably one of the most valuable players on the Saints roster.
1. Cameron Jordan
While Cameron Jordan’s sack totals dipped from 10.0 in 2015 to 7.5 in 2016, he found a way to improve upon his already stellar play. A constant terror versus opposing offenses, Jordan was ever-present in all aspects of the Saints defense. Whether it was forcing early and errant throws, batting down passes at the line of scrimmage, or tossing blockers like rag dolls to make tackles for loss, Jordan was by far the most dominant defender for the Saints in 2016. This past season saw Jordan move from one of the better defensive ends in the NFL to among the absolute best of all defensive lineman in the league.
While Jordan does have a hefty contract, worth $55 million over five seasons, you have to take into consideration the current going rate for young, productive defensive lineman. Jordan’s average annual cap hit of $11 million per season places him 14th among defensive lineman and pass rushing outside linebackers. Jordan’s contract never has his cap hit exceed $14.2 million in a single season; in contrast, Malik Jackson of the Jacksonville Jaguars signed a contract in the 2016 offseason in which he will average a cap hit of $14.25 million per year. Further enhancing Cam’s value is that he is an asset on every down, and consistently plays north of 900 snaps per season. He is the definition of a cornerstone defensive lineman.
To add to this, Cam Jordan’s contract will continue to look like an even better deal after the 2017 free agency period in which the likes of Melvin Ingram, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Chandler Jones are all likely to be paid more than Jordan’s $11 million per year. It’s strange that Jordan’s contract is the most lucrative and yet ranks as the most valuable on the team. However, Cam is only 27 years of age, has been the most dominant Saints defender since the 2013 season, and is by far the most annually consistent player on this list. The other players are very good values for solid contributions. Cam’s contract is something else entirely; it’s a very good value for remarkably dependable production at one of the most critical and highest-paid positions in today’s league. You can find good running backs on the market often enough. Rarely will you find an elite defensive lineman and have the opportunity to pay him as if he’s only the 14th best defensive lineman in the league.
All contractual information was sourced from spotrac.com.