For the last couple of weeks, we have looked over the New Orleans Saints by each position as the team heads towards the free agent signing period on March 9th. We have looked at the team's players under contract, players with expiring contracts, potential free agents, and how highly the Saints should prioritize each position heading into 2017. Today, we will finish out our free agency preview by doing some "mock" free agent signings.
At the moment, it's reported that New Orleans will have approximately $30 million dollars of cap space to work with this offseason. This, of course, does not include players who may agree to a restructure of their current deals, or Saints that will be released from the team to free up additional cap space. As a guideline, we will stay somewhat close to that $30-40 million cap range as we project these signings. Having said that, let's play the role of general manager Mickey Loomis and sign some new Saints for the 2017 season.
Move No. 1 - Saints re-sign DT Nick Fairley
It will take big money to retain Fairley. Mickey Loomis and the Saints would be wise to do whatever they need to do to get ‘Saint Nick’ locked up before March 9th, and avoid a bidding war. Next to the Chiefs Dontari Poe and Panthers Kawann Short, both of whom could be franchise tagged by their teams, Fairley might very well be the next best defensive tackle available. Once rookie DT Sheldon Rankins was healthy, he and Fairley quickly became a force in the middle. The rotation of Fairley, Rankins, Tyeler Davison, and David Onyemata made the defensive tackle position perhaps the second strongest position group on the team next to the Saints wideouts.
If Fairley is not retained, two names to keep an eye on are Brandon Williams from Baltimore or Sylvester Williams from Denver as potential replacements. Prediction here is that New Orleans will sign Fairley in the days prior to free agency. Look for a contract in the neighborhood of 4 years for around 41 million total.
Move No. 2 - Saints sign OG Kevin Zeitler
Assuming that the Fairley/defensive tackle issue gets addressed, the next move we could see is along the Saints offensive line. Given the names that will be available, this will be addressed within the first day or two of free agency. It is very possible that Jahri Evans may return to the team for his 11th season, and former first round pick Andrus Peat did a serviceable job at left guard—when not filling in for the injured Terron Armstead at left tackle. New Orleans simply cannot count on Evans and 11-year veteran right tackle Zach Strief to continue their high level of play.
Some of the big names likely to be available will be Larry Warford, T.J. Lang, Ronald Leary, and Chance Warmack. Prediction here is that the Saints ink Zeitler, the former Cincinnati Bengals guard, to a contract of around $61 million over 5 years. The 6-foot-4, 314-pound Zeitler is a classic "phone booth" mauler. A terrific in-line blocker with nice drive into the second level of the defense. He isn't a great athlete, but has good effort and knee bend to be effective in the open field.
Coach Sean Payton has had an affinity for players from the AFC North in recent years. Ben Grubbs (Baltimore), Keenan Lewis (Pittsburgh), Paul Kruger (Baltimore and Cleveland), Craig Robertson (Cleveland), and even Dannell Ellerbe began his career in Baltimore. Zeitler would be THE blockbuster signing for New Orleans this offseason.
Move No. 3 - Saints sign MLB Kevin Minter
Tough call here, over A.J. Klein from the Panthers, Zach Brown of Buffalo, or even the higher salary it would take to lure in Dont’a Hightower from the Patriots. The choice here is Minter. The former second round pick from LSU, has manned the Arizona linebackers from the middle for 32 consecutive starts. He's shown good interior blitzing ability (3.5 sacks last year), and has a terrific sideline to sideline motor, evidenced by his 173 combined tackles over the last two seasons. The Saints could, perhaps, or should, still select a middle linebacker in April's draft. The rookie class has three or four potentially good ones, beginning with Reuben Foster from Alabama. Inking Minter to a 4-year deal for around $11 million total would be a nice boost to new linebacker coach Mike Nolan's unit.
Move No. 4 - Saints sign OLB John Simon
Okay, this isn’t exactly the type of signing that would excite Saints fans for the edge rusher position. It is highly unlikely that the Saints will put themselves in the bidding war that would be necessary to bring in an edge rusher like Melvin Ingram from the Chargers or Jason Pierre-Paul from New York. April's draft is somewhat deep in capable edge rushers, so we should expect New Orleans to address the position high there.
Simon would bring a relentless motor to the Saints defense. The 6-foot-1, 257-pound fourth-year pro has great upper body strength, excelling at defensive tackle for a time in college at Ohio State. Simon isn't a great athlete in coverage, only adequate in shorter coverage drops. As a rusher, he has good upper body bend, maintains pad level, strong on inside stunt rushes and is athletic enough to get outside on most right tackles. The 26-year old Simon could hopefully be brought in on a 3-year deal worth about $10 million total.
Another low-risk/high-reward signing to consider here would be Alex Okafor from Arizona. More of a power rush specialist, the 26-year old Okafor had a career high 8.0 sacks in 2014 but has tailed off since (3.5 sacks last year).
Move No. 5 - Saints sign CB Kayvon Webster
Cornerback might very well be a position that the Saints make a major move in free agency. Names like A.J. Bouye (Texans), Trumaine Johnson (Rams), Logan Ryan (Patriots), Prince Amukamara (Jaguars), and Stephon Gilmore (Bills) may all be available. However, it would take a major financial move to get them. While it would not be surprising; if New Orleans makes a major investment in Fairley and into an offensive linemen, then they will probably look into the second and third tier of players entering free agency to bolster their roster their roster at cornerback.
That brings us to Webster, the 5-foot-10, 195 pound fourth-year pro from the Broncos. A terrific athlete, but still raw at the position. He has shown improved coverage skills, even while playing behind corners Chris Harris, Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby in Denver. Webster has shown a good willingness to improve and is a special teams demon. A player like Webster would sign for a 3-year deal for perhaps around $8 million. The Saints could then snag one of the top six cornerback prospects within the first two rounds of the draft. With Sterling Moore having a good chance to be paid higher elsewhere in free agency; the signing of a player like Webster and drafting of a highly regarded rookie could still solidify the New Orleans coverage deficiencies.
Move No. 6 - Saints re-sign RB Tim Hightower, but not Travaris Cadet
Hightower could not be a more perfect backup to Saints feature back Mark Ingram. He's a veteran with strong leadership presence in the locker room, and can be an effective spot starter when asked. Don't be surprised if Hightower isn't re-signed immediately. He will probably be given an opportunity to explore other options. In the rather slim chance that Hightower doesn't return; the Saints could look towards a younger player like Rex Burkhead from Cincinnati to fill a similar role.
Running back Travaris Cadet has been a third down specialist, and it's a 50-50 chance that the team will re-sign him. If they do, the price tag will be relatively cheap. If they decide to go another route, they could bring in someone like Rams runner/returner Benny Cunningham on a 1 or 2-year deal. Cunningham would fill a similar role as Cadet, only a much more effective kick returner. Cunningham has a career average of over 27 yards per kick return.
Move No. 7 - Saints tender WRs Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman; begin negotiations on a multi-year deal with Snead
Snead is one of the most popular players on the team with fans, and is one of Drew Brees' favorite targets. New Orleans will tender Snead, an exclusive rights free agent, to a contract for 2017 with views towards a longer term contract. Even if Snead isn't signed to a 4-year deal during free agency, the agreement will likely be done before the Saints take the field for their 2017 season opener.
Four new players at positions of need, along with with Fairley, Evans, Snead, Coleman and Hightower re-signed. Fairley, Zeitler, Simon, Minter, Webster's deals alone would total around $32 million on average yearly salaries by this prediction. This does not take into account backloaded contracts, which of course have gotten this franchise into trouble before, or any additional moves to free up salary cap space. Obviously the New Orleans front office still has a lot of work to do.
I’ll say this for Mickey Loomis. Whether we agree or disagree with the personnel moves he has made over the years, he has always managed to bring in players. I think we will continue to see the Saints focus on the so-called 2nd tier of free agent players, like we did with Robertson, Stupar and Moore last year.
What free agents would you like New Orleans to pursue?