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Free agents that should be on the New Orleans Saints shopping list in 2017

A lot will happen between now and the start of free agency, but here’s the ‘way too early’ version of some favorite targets for the Saints.

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Free agency won’t start until March, and we still don’t have the definitive salary cap figure for 2017. Heck, we’re not even out of the season yet with the playoffs still to take place. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t look ahead. Without question, the New Orleans Saints are one of those teams that are already looking forward to a new season after turning in another losing record.

A lot is going to happen between now and the next several months, which includes restructures and other moves to gain even more than an estimated $24-30 million in salary cap space, so consider this a ‘way too early’ wish list for the Saints and free agency.

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Ronald Leary, Guard

Jahri Evans has been a formidable fill in for the Saints offense this season, and he’s honestly looked better than anyone could have hoped. However, there’s no given that he returns in 2017. So, the Saints could be in line to shop for a guard. There’s really two big names out there on the free agent market: Kevin Zeitler (Bengals) and Ronald Leary (Cowboys).

Zeitler is finishing out his rookie contract, and is already making $8 million annually. So, the smarter play for the Saints would be Ronald Leary. He’s only a year and a month older than Zeitler, and has already generated some interest by the Saints. Leary will cash in on a bigger deal than his $2.55 million from 2016, but should be much cheaper than Zeitler. A dark horse candidate to keep an eye on that I’d throw out there is Chance Warmack, who has been the starting right guard for the Titans and had his fifth-year option picked up, but landed on injured reserve early in the year.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Logan Ryan, Cornerback

Trumaine Johnson (Rams) and Stephon Gilmore (Bills) are likely the two biggest draws for the cornerback market. Johnson is coming off a franchise tag in 2016 that paid him $13.95 million for the season. Meanwhile, Gilmore leads all free agent corners with his five interceptions. There’s another common pairing I’ve seen for the Saints to target, which is A.J. Bouye (Texans), but my vote is for Logan Ryan.

The Patriots will have some free agents of their own to prioritize re-signing like Dont’a Hightower, Martellus Bennett, LeGarrette Blount, and Jabaal Sheard to name a few. Ryan could find himself as the odd man out with, and the Patriots could get by with Malcolm Butler (restricted free agent) and Cyrus Jones (and others). Ryan’s the leading tackler among all free agent cornerbacks (92), and can be used in a variety of looks.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Andre Branch, Defensive End

It’s no secret that the Saints desperately need a pass rusher opposite of Cameron Jordan, and that’s been evident since Junior Galette has been out of the picture. Paul Kruger has been a pretty decent addition, but Dennis Allen’s defense turned in just 30.0 sacks to sit at the bottom of the barrel of the league again. Yes, the Saints will likely get back some of the players that were lost during the season like Hau’oli Kikaha and Obum Gwacham, and there’s a lot of appeal in the draft to nab a pass rusher.

After a down stint in Jacksonville, Andre Branch found a great pairing in Miami. Mario Addison (Panthers) is likely the top rusher in for a big contract, as he’s coming off of a 10.0 sack season. Melvin Ingram (Chargers) is also a hot name fans are looking at. However, Branch (5.5 sacks) split time with Cameron Wake on the left side of the Dolphins 4-3 defense, and led them in snap counts for the season. Even if the Saints land a premiere pass rusher through the draft, it certainly won’t hurt to have a strong backup plan.

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Gerald Hodges, Linebacker

Linebacker depth was once thought of a strong suit for the Saints heading into 2016, but an injury to Dannell Ellerbe, a disappointing James Laurinaitis, the mass regression of Stephone Anthony, and Michael Mauti ending up facing a real doubt for his football future. Craig Robertson filled in admirably after switching over the middle linebacker, but even when the Saints had their full compliment of Ellerbe and Robertson playing, there were plenty of opportunities in speed and coverage.

Chandler Jones (Cardinals), Nick Perry (Packers), Zach Brown (Bills), and Melvin Ingram will be some of the top names teams look for when addressing linebacker needs. My vote would be looking at someone like Gerald Hodges, who quietly turned in a pretty good season despite being on a horrible 49ers team. Hodges, a Penn State product, has versatility to his game and put up some respectable numbers (84 total tackles, 3.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 QB hits, and an interception) for a guy that only played in 584 snaps.

Way back when, the Saints actually met with Hodges prior to the 2013 draft. Maybe their paths could cross again for the team to land some much-needed depth.

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Andre Roberts, Wide Receiver

I’m sure many may think, why in the world go with a receiver? Surely, the Saints could go to the draft to grab one, but there’s a real problem with the return game, and Andre Roberts could be a welcomed addition. I was (and still am) in favor of bringing in Cordarrelle Patterson to the mix, but you gain a punt returner with Roberts. Statistically, his kick return stats stack up to Patterson’s, and he’s among the Top 10 in kick and punt return yards.

Roberts could line up as an outside or slot receiver, and could be a good vertical threat the Saints would absolutely use. Brandon Coleman is a restricted free agent, Tommylee Lewis definitely had his rookie struggles, and there’s some potential bright futures for Jake Lampman and Jordan Williams-Lambert. However, this is a veteran that could help out in a few ways and benefit in an offensive scheme like the Saints.

The main theme I’d stress is that the Saints should look at bargains for free agency, which worked pretty well for them last season. Obviously, most of the focus will center around retaining Nick Fairley, and there’s some players of their own that should be re-signed too. Again, a lot will happen over the next two months before we even get to this point, but once we find out if Sean Payton does in fact stay for 2017, then the focus can shift to helping the Saints get back into the postseason.