The New Orleans Saints looked to have a very clear strategy going into the beginning of free agency on March 9th. They wanted to strengthen a woefully weak and undermanned linebacking corps. Check, with the signing of former Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein. They wanted to hopefully retain talented defensive tackle Nick Fairley, after he played some of the best football of his career last season. Check. Fairley actually re-signed for a deal that was significantly less than many had even projected. They wanted an established and young offensive lineman for a group that surpassed the expectations of many in 2016, but was aging in key areas. Check. After losing a bidding war with Cleveland for Kevin Zeitler, they inked 26-year old Larry Warford away from Detroit. Re-signing veteran guard Jahri Evans may still be a possibility, but the offensive line appears solid either way.
The Saints came into free agency with approximately a reported $30 million in cap space. After the above signings, along with receiver Ted Ginn, they currently have a little under $12 million in estimated cap space remaining. There is still a lot of work the Saints need to do to address some different positions of need. They have five picks within the first 103 selections of April's draft, so we should expect them to fill most of those remaining needs at that time. Let's have a look at some of those positions, with a few remaining free agent names that could help the Saints in 2017.
Sean Payton has stated unequivocally that pass rusher was the 'number one offseason need' for this team. Not surprisingly, there were not many big names made available on the free agent market. Expect the Saints to spend at least one, and likely more, of their high draft choices on someone that can compete with Hau'oli Kikaha to put pressure on opposing passers opposite Cam Jordan. There are a couple free agent names still available that would either provide depth, or perhaps even surprise with an opportunity.
Alex Okafor (age 25): He reportedly visited with the Saints on Monday. Still a player with some upside, Okafor had 8.0 sacks with the Cardinals in 2014. A bit lost in the shuffle of a change of scheme and other signings in Arizona saw him notch only 5.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Okafor has good size (6-foot-5, 264-lbs) and good strength to play end in passing situations.
Connor Barwin (age 30): Barwin was released by Philadelphia prior to free agency, and has already visited with multiple teams. He has over 50 sacks in his 8-year career, including five last year.
Even if New Orleans does sign Okafor, Barwin, or anyone else it should not affect draft strategy here.
Yes, the Saints now have Klein, and Craig Robertson played some very good football last season. Beyond that, they're hoping that Stephone Anthony proves he can bounce back from bust-like status, and looking at yet another year of keeping their fingers crossed that Dannell Ellerbe stays on the field—which would be a first in his career. There are a few names still available that could bolster this unit.
Kevin Minter (age 26): Minter has been a solid and versatile linebacker for a good Arizona defense. A career high 3.5 sacks from his inside spot came on the heels of a career high 99 tackles in 2015. Coming into free agency, this was my top linebacker choice for New Orleans, narrowly over Klein.
Manti Te'o (age 26): Te'o has already visited with New Orleans, and is thus far still unsigned. He has struggled with injury throughout his career, but is a solid tackler when healthy.
There are a handful of very good linebacker prospects available in the draft, such as Haasan Reddick (Temple), Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State), and Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt). Look for the Saints to continue their linebacking upgrade with a draft choice.
Malcolm Butler is still a possibility, despite not being included in New England's trade for Brandin Cooks on Friday. Doing so will probably cost New Orleans a high draft pick, but would be a significant and proven upgrade at cornerback. Otherwise, the best remaining free agent option for the Saints is a familiar face.
Sterling Moore (age 27): Moore was signed off the street early in the 2016 season after the Saints were ravaged by injury at the position. At times, Moore was the team's best coverage option.
I had also listed Kayvon Webster, but he was signed to a two-year deal by the Rams late Monday night.
A few higher priced veterans could attract interest here as well, such as Alterraun Verner, Morris Claiborne, or Sam Shields. Barring a deal for Butler however, it seems that New Orleans will not make a huge transaction here through the rest of free agency. By many accounts, cornerback may very well be the deepest position in this year's draft. It seems likely that the Saints may roll into 2017 training camp with a cornerback crew of Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams, Ken Crawley, De'Vante Harris, Damian Swann, Jimmy Pruitt, and a high or mid-round draft choice.
The starters are set, with Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell. Erik Harris, Shiloh Keo, and Chris Banjo all return to solidify depth. The release of all-time free agent flop Jairus Byrd caused some to think that New Orleans might move to replace the position in either free agency or the draft.
Rookie prospects like Malik Hooker from Ohio State or Jamal Adams from LSU could both be gone by the time the Saints make their first draft selection at 11th. Budda Baker from Washington or Marcus Williams from Utah are both intriguing Day 2 prospects. If New Orleans looks to free agency to strengthen the safety position, they might look to a familiar foe.
Bradley McDougald (age 26): McDougald has been a thorn in the Saints offense for the last three seasons as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s solid center fielder that is also aggressive coming up to the ball. McDougald would likely command a lower salary than the Saints would have paid to Byrd this season, and would stabilize the amount of over the top pass plays that plagued this defense last season.
At the moment, the Saints only have four running backs under contract, Mark Ingram, Daniel Lasco, Marcus Murphy, and fullback John Kuhn. Ingram is the clear-cut starter, but previous backup Tim Hightower has been forced into action numerous times over the last two seasons. Obviously, it’s not a priority here, but still worth watching.
Tim Hightower (age 31) and Travaris Cadet (27): There is a good chance that either of these familiar teammates will be back in a Saints uniform in 2017. Familiarity with the offense and quarterback Drew Brees have helped them make significant contributions, particularly Hightower.
Rex Burkhead (age 26): Burkhead brings a similar skill set to the offense that Hightower has provided for two years. He has visited with multiple teams, including both Super Bowl 51 participants.
The majority of the Saints running backs in the Sean Payton era have been "homegrown", either drafted or signed directly out of college by New Orleans; Hightower and Darren Sproles being notable exceptions. We should expect nothing different now. Look for either Hightower or Cadet to return on another short-term deal, with another offensive toy to be added in the mid or late rounds of the draft.
The Saints have already upgraded their roster with a few key free agent signings, and will make other important additions when the draft begins on April 27th. Are there any veterans that you would like to see New Orleans add before then?