With more salary cap space to play with this year than the last three offseasons combined, expectations are high for the New Orleans Saints. The team has been aggressive despite limited resources and many fans want to see bold moves towards fixing the woeful defense. To an extent, the Saints have delivered (or begun to deliver) on that thought with the negotiations surrounding a trade for star receiver Brandin Cooks.
But I’m not sure the Saints will be as active in free agency’s opening salvo as fans expect.
Looking back at last year’s signings, each of them were carefully-chosen and measured scheme fits. Linebackers Craig Robertson and Nate Stupar ended up playing crucial roles as the defense was eroded by early-season injuries, while free agent signee James Laurinaitis was not physically able to run with opposing offenses after a decade of punishing action. Laurinaitis was released from his contract without much cap penalty thanks to smart structuring.
The Saints really only invested big in tight end Coby Fleener. Again, the Saints demonstrated new foresight by giving Fleener a contract averaging out to $7.2-million per year, which is ranked 12th at his position. Fleener earned that in his first year as a Saint, ranking 18th in catches and first downs, 13th in yards, and 4th in big plays. A second year in New Orleans’ offense should be good for him.
The only other major free agent signing was defensive tackle Nick Fairley, and it took the Saints a few weeks to court him. They ended up getting Fairley under contract for just a year, which brings us to the topic of what to do now.
In-House Free Agents
The Saints have already started this process, having re-signed fullback John Kuhn and safety/special teams ace Chris Banjo to low-cost contract extensions. Wide receivers Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead were issued exclusive-rights tenders, though the team hopes to lock Snead up long-term with a bigger contract later this summer.
That message has also been conveyed to the reps for safety Kenny Vaccaro and linebacker Michael Mauti. If safety Jairus Byrd is indeed released with a post-June 1st designation, look for the money that frees up in a few months to be used in signing Snead, Vaccaro, and Mauti. Other free agents like Sterling Moore, Tim Hightower, Jahri Evans, and Tim Lelito may return in the coming weeks.
But Fairley is clearly the biggest fish in this pond. He was a linchpin of a Saints defensive line that finally seemed to be making strides towards being good, and bringing him back is imperative. Fairley will test free agency and see what his market looks like around the league, but I feel his best fit is in New Orleans.
Unless someone offers him an outlandish contract, Fairley should return on a mutually-agreeable contract. This is purely my own speculation, but I imagine a fair deal for Fairley looks like four years, $33-million with $16-million guaranteed. That guaranteed money can be structured so that Fairley could be released without much penalty by the third year, and paying him more up-front (say, $8-million in 2017 and $6-million in 2018) could fight off other bidders. For what it’s worth, Fairley’s average annual salary of $8.25-million would rank 9th leaguewide at his position.
Outside Free Agents: Defense
The best available pass rushers are off the board, and bidding is already flaring up for the top cornerbacks. The Saints may make a late aggressive play for someone like A.J. Bouye (Houston Texans), Dre Kirkpatrick (Cincinnati Bengals), or Logan Ryan (New England Patriots), but it’s more realistic for them to target a guy such as Morris Claiborne (Dallas Cowboys) or Prince Amukumara (Jacksonville Jaguars). It just doesn’t make sense for the Saints to try and go toe-to-toe with teams more flush with cap space. Considering the talent at defensive back in this draft class, they can better afford to wait.
That doesn’t mean the secondary should be neglected. Patriots safety Duron Harmon has excelled as the third safety in New England’s big nickel packages, playing centerfield defender and limiting big plays. He has a good feel for what’s happening in his zone and much of what he’s done well for New England should translate to Dennis Allen’s defense. The Saints could probably sign Harmon for an average per year number in the $5.5-million range, which I’ve extrapolated into a four-year deal worth $22-million with just $7.4-million guaranteed.
The Saints are very much on the outlook for someone “to affect quarterbacks”, and my ideal guy for the job is Houston Texans pass rusher John Simon. Simon has been a major part of Houston’s pass rush the last few years as a part-time player, and wouldn’t have to do much differently to thrive in New Orleans. Simon is equally effective getting after quarterbacks as he is holding up in run support and sometimes dropping into soft zone coverage. I’ve based a contract for Simon off of what similar players like Brian Robison (Minnesota Vikings) and William Hayes (Los Angeles Rams) have gotten: three years, $17.5-million with $6.8-million guaranteed.
Despite the contributions of Robertson and Stupar at linebacker last year, they’re both miscast as the play-calling middle linebacker. The hope is that new linebackers coach Mike Nolan can turn Stephone Anthony’s young career around, but in the meantime I really like the fit of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Gerald Hodges. Hodges has been a consistent producer for the Vikings and a couple different 49ers defenses, but I doubt his free agent market will be electric. He might be available for a low-profile contract similar to what the Saints gave Robertson and Stupar: three years, $5-million, with about $1.8-million guaranteed.
Outside Free Agents: Offense
The Saints posted an elite offense again in 2016, but not all is well on that side of the ball. Too often New Orleans’ offensive line was overmatched by dominant interior linemen like Aaron Donald, Kawann Short, and Gerald McCoy, while fleet-footed defensive fronts like the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers were able to match up with receivers underneath. Adding a little inexpensive juice to the pass-catchers and bolstering the interior line could work wonders.
Detroit Lions right guard Larry Warford is a dominant run blocker and proven pass-protector, having shown to use efficient footwork and above-average awareness to keep his teammates clean. He would fit in perfectly between Zach Strief at right tackle and Max Unger at center to make the Saints’ right side one of the toughest in football. I don’t expect Warford to threaten Kyle Long (Chicago Bears) and David DeCastro’s (Pittsburgh Steelers) $10-million per year figure, but a four-year contract for $33.8-million with $10.8-million guaranteed would fit well between them and Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff (Kansas City Chiefs).
My choice to give the Saints’ offense a shot in the arm is Cordarrelle Patterson (Vikings). The wide receiver has struggled to get on the field in some poorly-managed offenses up north thanks to noted all-star playmakers like Sam Bradford and Norv Turner, but he could be freed in New Orleans. Patterson was a dynamite deep receiver at every level of his college career but hasn’t had the opportunities as a pro. He has since worked hard at making an impact in punt coverage and, most famously, on kickoff returns. A three-year, $13-million contract with just $3.9-million in guarantees should mitigate any risk in case he doesn’t work out while giving him the opportunity for another payday in his prime should Patterson excel.
The abundance of quality running backs in the draft and the lack of many pass-catching specialists on the Saints roster seems like a perfect storm. But the Saints can make that position less of a need by adding Arizona Cardinals free agent Andre Ellington, who was the guy until David Johnson displaced him. Ellington has been effective splitting reps in a backfield with a more bruising runner, and he could do that well in conjunction with Mark Ingram. Ellington will not be expensive and may cost just the veteran minimum salary of $645,000 for 2017. A guaranteed bonus of up to $80,000 may be all it takes to shy away contending bidders. The Saints signing Ellington would not take guys like Christian McCaffrey (Stanford Cardinal), Alvin Kamara (Tennessee Volunteers), and Curtis Samuel (Ohio State Buckeyes) off their draft board, but it would allow them some more flexibility on draft day.