We continue a series that will likely span the length of the entire New Orleans Saints offseason where we look a key questions the Saints will face at various points of the year - the 2017 NFL Draft, free agency, and the 2017 regular season. We turn to a bittersweet question on Saints free agency: Did the performance of 2016 Saints free agents, originally planned to be rotational pieces, play their way out of New Orleans?
RB Tim Hightower, originally coming off a reserve/futures contract, signed a one-year contract with the New Orleans Saints in 2016 with a total cap hit of $840,000. Signed to be Mark Ingram’s back-up, Hightower actually started two games for the Saints when Ingram was temporarily benched due to successive games with a costly fumble. On the year, Hightower finished with over 700 total scrimmage yards and scoring more total TDs in a year since 2009.
CB Sterling Moore was another playing who signed a one year deal to come to New Orleans with a total cap hit of $600,000 in 2016. Moore was originally slated to play behind Keenan Lewis, Delvin Breaux, Damian Swann and P.J. Williams but after injuries (and an outright release to Lewis) opened up holes in the secondary, Moore was pressed into action. Moore filled in admirably for the Saints, putting up a career year in 2016, matching career-highs in both passes defended and interceptions.
Then there’s DT Nick Fairley. Fairley’s salary in 2016 on a one year deal was $765,000 (but he did receive another $250,000 in incentives plus a signing bonus over $2 million). We all know how well Fairley performed after 2016 1st Round Pick Sheldon Rankins went down before the 2016 regular season.
So between Hightower, Moore and Fairley, the Saints have three free agents who all were originally brought in to be back-ups or rotational pieces who received significantly more playing time in 2016 than they (and the Saints) probably expected. All three combined for a salary of just over $2 million in 2016. That’s $2,205,000 paid in cap space to all three players in 2016.
With Fairley reportedly seeking a multi-year deal worth over $9 million per year, that could pay the 2016 salaries for himself, Moore, and Hightower four times. If all three players were to remain with the Saints in 2017, their roles would not be projected to be any different than what their 2016 projections were - Hightower would be a clear back-up behind Mark Ingram, Moore would be a back-up to Breaux and Williams (or the latter being replaced by a free agent acquisition like Logan Ryan or K’Waun Williams), and Fairley would be used on rotation with Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata.
So you would potentially be looking at three players whose best role with the 2017 New Orleans Saints would not be as a starting player, but might end up receiving fringe starting salaries in free agency due to their performance in 2016. Even with a projected $30 million in cap space this year, the Saints have too many holes to overpay for expensive back-ups.
While the 2016 New Orleans Saints underperformed to the tune of 7-9, it’s possible that three of their pending free agents outperformed their way out of New Orleans.