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Saints don’t have to sign Willie Snead long-term, but they should

The former undrafted free agent isn’t due a long-term payday just yet, but the Saints should get ahead of the curve and give him a new contract.

New Orleans Saints v New York Giants
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - New Orleans Saints receiver Willie Snead IV (83) catches a touchdown against the New York Giants during the fourth quarter at MetLife Stadium.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

As the NFL salary cap increases and the league continues to draw in more revenue, it’s natural that players are going to see their contracts grow.

The New Orleans Saints are no exception. They fielded the game’s best trio of wideouts last year in Rookie of the Year snub Michael Thomas, deep threat Brandin Cooks, and do-it-all slot receiver Willie Snead IV. Of those three, Snead is the only one not under contract for 2017.

But Snead isn’t headed for free agency. He will probably play out the 2017 season under an exclusive-rights free agent (ERFA) tender. This is a rare, one-year contract similar to those given to more common restricted free agents. Only players with two or fewer NFL seasons qualify, and Snead may be the biggest name to have this designation in recent memory.

Because Snead has those two accrued seasons (years in which he was active for six or more games), he will qualify for a non-guaranteed one-year contract worth about $630,000. He played last year on a $525,000 ERFA tender, so this would be a very slight pay increase, though nowhere near what he could expect on the open market.

In a show of good faith, the Saints should offer Snead a long-term contract. The figures I have in mind are a four-year, $17.1-million contract with $8.9-million guaranteed.

This average-per-year rate of $4.275-million would make Snead the 29th-highest paid wide receiver in the NFL, slotting in between Jermaine Kearse (Seattle Seahawks) at $4.5-million and Julian Edelman (New England Patriots) at $4.25-million.

If the Saints choose to take the cheaper route and let Snead play out this ERFA tender, he’ll qualify for a restricted free agent tender in 2018. That would open the door for other teams to try and sign him away from New Orleans, though they could potentially lose a draft pick in compensation. If nothing else, Snead will be scheduled to reach unrestricted free agency in 2019.

By the same token, letting Snead play out on the cheap could raise his price. Snead has hit the ground running much faster than either Kearse or Edelman, racking up consecutive seasons of nearly 70 catches and almost 900 yards receiving. He’s an integral piece of the Saints’ offense and is a favorite target of quarterback Drew Brees.

Another productive year like that could earn him a contract similar to what the Denver Broncos paid Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders: three years, $33-million with $26.9-million guaranteed. A team that sees Snead as a potential second receiving option rather than a third could pounce and outbid the Saints for his services.

With Brandin Cooks entering the fourth year of his rookie contract and the Saints likely transitioning to a new quarterback in the near future, re-signing Snead now is the best bet. Strike while the iron is hot and get him at a lower number than he will cost this time next year.

A four-year deal like what I suggested will get Snead into the market at 29 years old and ready for another windfall. Choosing to pay him more than six times the minimum that he’s owed in 2017 would be a great sign of loyalty to a young player who is popular in the locker room. Again, the Saints don’t have to give Snead a contract extension yet. But they should.