Free agency has recently been a time of dread for New Orleans Saints fans, but 2017 is shaping up differently. The Saints are out of “salary cap hell” and poised to make a splash with nearly $30-million in cap space. Beyond defensive tackle Nick Fairley (722 snaps played in 2016), cornerback Sterling Moore (805), and guard Jahri Evans (1140), they don’t have many of their own free agents to retain. The Saints should be able to look for upgrades outside their building with confidence.
However, a handful of teams should directly compete with the Saints for attention from highly sought-after free agent signings. All financial information is taken from the experts at OverTheCap.com. Almost every team will be active in free agency to some degree, but I’ve narrowed this down to teams with similar position needs and number of players under contract. For reference, the Saints currently have $29.5M in cap space and 65 of 90 possible players under contract for 2017.
1. Seattle Seahawks ($26.9M, 59 players under contract)
The Seattle Seahawks are one team that can throw a wrench in the Saints’ plans. Their pursuit of Baltimore Ravens right tackle Ricky Wagner may not affect Saints head coach Sean Payton’s decision-making much, but the Seahawks seem like an obvious candidate to lure Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell. Campbell (6-foot-8, 300-pounds, 30-years old) is one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL, able to win inside at tackle with raw strength and technique or legitimately bend the edge with flexibility that looks inhuman in someone so tall.
Campbell will likely walk away from the Cardinals in free agency because of the many other free agents they have to re-sign. In addition to Campbell (830 snaps played), other defensive starters Kevin Minter (1003), Chandler Jones (938), Tony Jefferson (929), and D.J. Swearinger (837) rarely left the field and are each set to enter free agency, though Jones will reportedly be franchise tagged and cost a tremendous $17.05-million against the salary cap. Campbell may well be the odd man out if general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians value those other players and anticipate a second-year jump out of 2016 first round pick Robert Nkemdiche, who played just 82 snaps as a rookie.
Franchise tag period opens today. Based on a $168.1M cap projection teams are using, here are estimated tag figures. pic.twitter.com/M74za81rYp— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) February 15, 2017
Should Fairley depart the Saints, Campbell is a candidate to take over his role as a disruptive inside force (20 combined sacks and tackles for loss in 2016) and veteran voice while helping Cameron Jordan defend the edge. The Seahawks have two highly productive edge rushers in Cliff Avril (11.5 sacks) and Frank Clark (10 sacks), but Michael Bennett did it alone inside while leading the defensive tackles with just five sacks. OverTheCap.com projects the Seahawks to have slightly less cap space to the Saints with $26.9-million, but their recent winning history should help court free agents.
2. Indianapolis Colts ($54.2M, 60 players under contract)
The Indianapolis Colts’ defense was nearly as unproductive as the Saints’ last year, with 31-year old outside linebacker Erik Walden (11 sacks, 3 forced fumbles) providing the only notable pressure on quarterbacks. Walden is a free agent but likely to re-sign given his importance to the unit (his 760 defensive snaps played ranked third on the team). 33-year old linebacker D’Qwell Jackson wasn’t far behind with 707 snaps played.
With money to spend and clear needs on the roster, new general manager Chris Ballard should make his team in play for some of the same free agents the Saints will look to pursue. AFC East linebackers Zach Brown (Buffalo Bills) and Dont’a Hightower (New England Patriots) are two playmakers who fit holes on the Colts roster as well as the Saints’, and Indianapolis has more cash to offer either of them than New Orleans.
Most intriguing is the free agency of Los Angeles Chargers pass rusher Melvin Ingram. Spotrac projects Ingram’s contract on the open market to average $17.2-million per year and at just 27-years old, Ingram very well may see the end of it. That’s a price point that the Saints will struggle to match, but teams like the Colts can accept.
Like the Saints, the Colts also need help on the back end of their defense. Defensive back Mike Adams (3 interceptions) and Darius Butler (2) were the Colts’ only defenders to create multiple interceptions. Watch out for the Colts to and Ballard, a former Kansas City Chiefs executive, to make a run at All-Pro safety Eric Berry (4 picks last year) and cornerbacks like Dre Kirkpatrick (Cincinnati Bengals) and A.J. Bouye (Houston Texans).
3. Chicago Bears ($51.4M, 56 players under contract)
Remember how badly the Saints’ defense was hit with injuries? That happened to the Chicago Bears’ entire team. Four different quarterbacks, four different guards, six different tight ends, nine different wide receivers, nine different cornerbacks, and twelve different linebackers all saw action in 2016. It was horrific, or so I’m told. I can’t stomach snuff films like that.
The Bears spent big last offseason, signing guys like linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, offensive linemen Josh Sitton and Bobby Massie, and tight end Zach Miller, as well as former Saints Akiem Hicks and Tracy Porter. Of that group, only Massie played 90-percent or more of snaps.
So look for the Bears to be in on the bidding again for free agents the Saints covet. Sitton and right guard Kyle Long have already started trying to (however tongue-in-cheek) recruit Green Bay Packers guard T.J. Lang.
The Bears have a decent group of pass rushers between Willie Young (7.5 sacks), Hicks (7), 2016 first round Leonard Floyd (7), and when healthy Pernell McPhee (17.5 sacks in his last three years). But they could very well have an opening for Saints defensive tackle Nick Fairley, and should be in the market for other interior linemen like Brandon Williams (Baltimore Ravens) and Johnathan Hankins (New York Giants).
I could see the Bears taking a hard look at some cornerbacks, too. Their pass defense was below-average, though not as bad as the Saints’. Their safeties are solid but Porter is an aging free agent who led the team in passes broken up. Contending for the services of free agents like Morris Claiborne (Dallas Cowboys), Logan Ryan (New England Patriots), or even Trumaine Johnson (Los Angeles Rams) with a team that can offer more money will be difficult for the Saints.