Leading up to the start of this free agency period, the Saints re-signed fullback John Kuhn, safeties Shiloh Keo and Chris Banjo, tendered contract offers to wide receivers Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman, and releasing all-time free agent bust Jairus Byrd. New Orleans came into free agency with the luxury of having a bit more salary cap space than they've worked with in year’s past.
The positions that seem to need to be addressed the most this offseason are edge rusher, inside linebacker, offensive line, cornerback and/or safety, running back depth, and kick returner. Even with the salary cap limitations in recent seasons, Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have always been able to make "splash" signings that have sometimes even shocked the landscape of the NFL. Let's have a look at the Saints moves on the first day of free agency:
Saints sign LB A.J. Klein
The first signing announced was this 26-year old linebacker, pryed away from division rival Carolina. Craig Robertson played well for New Orleans last season from both outside and middle positions, but the linebacker cupboard is somewhat bare after him. The James Laurinaitis experiment failed miserably, and the jury is still out on Stephone Anthony and his struggles. Klein, a former 5th Round pick from Iowa State, has started 23 games in his career. Keep in mind that he was playing behind Luke Kuechly, one of the best and most durable linebackers in the league.
Klein has underrated sideline to sideline speed, and was highly regarded within former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's cerebral scheme. Downfield pass coverage is not one of Klein's strengths, but he is quick and effective in the short and mid-range zones. Multiple sources have reported Klein's contract at 3 years, $15 million, with a fourth-year option and essentially $10 million guaranteed. As thin as the Saints linebacking group is, it is likely that we will see more moves here via draft or later in free agency. Klein is a very good addition to this defense.
Saints sign WR/KR Ted Ginn Jr.
Memo to those who thought this move sealed the fate of Brandin Cooks as a Saint, just stop. This signing was made with an eye towards the anemic Saints return game. The 32-year-old Ginn will be joining his fifth team over 11 years. The former 9th overall draft pick has always been an accomplished deep threat with a severely limited route tree and questionable hands, evidenced by a career catch percentage of under 52%. Ginn is a sure-fire home run threat, and has a combined for seven kick or punt return scores. This move has very little to do with whether or not Cooks remains a Saint.
Saints sign OG Larry Warford
The Saints reportedly had heavy flirtation with former Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler which lasted well into Thursday afternoon before Zeitler elected to sign a record-breaking contract with Cleveland. The Saints "consolation prize"? Signing the mammoth 26-year-old Warford away from Detroit. Mobile enough to fill in at tackle occasionally for the Lions, Warford provides a strong push in the running game as well as interior security for quarterback Drew Brees and the passing game. Although contract details were not available as of this writing, Warford's signing should solidify the all-important guard spot for this offense in years to come.
Saints re-sign DT Nick Fairley
The probable "crown jewel" of this year's free agent class for the Saints was already in the building. Fairley was considered one of the top defensive tackles available. His addition alongside rookie Sheldon Rankins made defensive tackle a clear strength on this defense. The reported contract details for Fairley was four years, worth approximately $30 million total, and were actually a relative bargain compared to some of the projections prior to free agency. This a huge check mark off the list to improving the New Orleans defense.
Elephant in the room - Brandin Cooks’ future
Despite reports to the contrary, Brandin Cooks is still a New Orleans Saint. Philadelphia seems to be out of the running, due to the signing of receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. The New England Patriots, with reportedly multiple offers, and the Tennessee Titans are both rumored to be very much in the mix. Stay Tuned....
Day One of Saints free agency should be viewed as a huge success. They kept the biggest two free agents on their own team by locking up Fairley and tendering Snead. They addressed one of their biggest weaknesses in Klein, and strengthened the means to protect their Hall of Fame quarterback in Warford. Expect the Saints to address depth throughout the remainder of free agency, with a possible eye on more linebackers, cornerback (Prince Amukamara or bringing back Sterling Moore), and perhaps a safety (Bradley McDougald). What grade would you give New Orleans after day one?