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Barnwell: Saints should follow five cautious steps to success

ESPN analyst Bill Barnwell outlines five key moves the Saints should make in 2018.

NEW ORLEANS, LA:  New Orleans Saints defensive end Alex Okafor (587) prepares to rush New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA: New Orleans Saints defensive end Alex Okafor (587) prepares to rush New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

ESPN analyst Bill Barnwell has had a sometimes-acrimonious relationship with the New Orleans Saints, but this year he likes their odds. He surveyed the NFL and came up with five key steps that New Orleans should take to stay in the thick of the playoffs hunt next fall, and it’s surprisingly-difficult to argue with most of them. You can find Barnwell’s thoughts on all 32 teams by following this link.

1. Re-sign Drew Brees. Crazy, right? The Saints can’t franchise Brees as per the terms of his most recent contract extension, so while there’s really no likelihood of their franchise quarterback leaving this offseason, the organization can’t just slap Brees with the franchise tag and call it a day.

Brees’ last extension was listed as a one-year deal but was really a four-year contract with three voiding years. The move allowed the Saints to give Brees a $30 million signing bonus and spread it over five years, creating badly needed cap space. The move also means that if Brees had struggled or chosen to retire after the 2017 season, $18 million in dead money would have accelerated onto the Saints’ cap for 2018.

The Saints will come to terms with Brees on a new deal before March 14, when his current contract voids, to ensure that the $18 million doesn’t stack onto New Orleans’ current cap. General manager Mickey Loomis has the team in much better cap shape than years past, but the Saints will probably hand Brees another one- or two-year deal masquerading as a five-year contract to push the cap pain down the road.

Yeah, this is a no-brainer. Brees has indicated before that he wants this new (and final?) contract extension ironed out by that March 14 deadline, so finding a compromise to secure his future without wrecking the team’s immediate salary cap resources is in everyone’s interest.

2. Designate Coby Fleener as a post-June 1 release. Fleener seemed destined for huge numbers after joining the Saints as a free agent before the 2016 season, but the former Colt never seemed to find a consistent rapport with Brees. The Saints pushed him down to third on the depth chart at times this season as part of their move toward a run-heavy attack, and the 29-year-old caught only 22 balls before hitting injured reserve with a concussion in November.

The concussion might have already impacted the Saints’ plans as $3.4 million of Fleener’s 2018 salary was guaranteed for injury and became fully guaranteed on Feb. 7, suggesting that the Saints either intend to keep Fleener around in 2018 or didn’t think he was capable of passing a physical. It would now cost the Saints more to cut Fleener ($8.2 million) than keep him, although they can spread the cap hit over two seasons and save $3 million on their 2018 cap by designating Fleener as a post-June 1 release.

Again, it’s no surprise that this move makes the list. Fleener looked like a fit when the Saints first signed him but he just hasn’t made enough plays consistently to start - and that’s before his season-ending concussion. Between errant drops and missed blocking assignments, the Saints couldn’t justify starting him over Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawnui.

Some fans were surprised that he was kept around long enough for a portion of his 2018 salary to become guaranteed, but it makes sense to keep Fleener around. By having him on the roster as a warm body they don’t have t prioritize tight end so highly, giving them more draft flexibility, and waiting until June 1 to release him with the special designation will free up enough salary cap space to sign their rookie class.

3. Retain Delvin Breaux. It’s a surprise that the Saints were able to make a dramatic leap forward on defense without Breaux, who was their top cornerback in 2016 but missed all of 2017 with a fractured fibula. A misdiagnosis of Breaux’s injury led the Saints to fire their team orthopedists and ended up costing the 28-year-old his entire campaign.

Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley emerged as an excellent one-two punch in Breaux’s absence, but there isn’t a team in the league that couldn’t use an above-average cornerback like Breaux. Breaux also belongs in Louisiana, as he famously grew up in New Orleans and enrolled at LSU without playing football after fracturing vertebrae in a high school game. As a restricted free agent, the Saints can retain Breaux by tendering him at one of several levels. My guess is that they tender Breaux at the second-round level, which would cost New Orleans right around $3 million for 2018.

Delvin “Chip” Breaux’s future is a common point of contention among fans right now. He rapidly became a fan-favorite but the injury drama may have sapped some of the goodwill out of his relationship with team management. If a team comes calling about a possible trade, what would you consider the right price?

4. Find the next Alex Okafor. The Saints got an unexpected boost from Okafor, who had fallen out of the starting lineup in Arizona and delivered 4.5 sacks before tearing his Achilles. It wouldn’t be crazy to see the Saints bring back Okafor on a one-year deal, but they should look for the next post-hype player in the free-agent market to suit up across from superstar defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Who could that be? I’d look at the 49ersAaron Lynch, who racked up 12.5 sacks over his first two seasons in San Francisco but lost his way over the ensuing two years. Lynch lost four games to a suspension in 2016 and then hit nearly 300 pounds during the 2017 offseason before eventually working his way into shape. A motivated Lynch could be a useful pass-rusher, and he should be motivated to turn things around given how his career has gone sideways.

This is something else I’m agreeing with Barnwell on. More bargain signings like Okafer rather than splash signings like Jairus Byrd. I’m a big fan of working smarter, not harder. And that ties directly into the last point in his offseason philosophy:

5. Don’t go all in. After several years in which every decision they made seemed to go wrong, the Saints had one of the best offseasons of any football organization in 2017. Their draft was a wild success. Free-agent additions such as Okafor and Larry Warford made instant impacts. New Orleans built a winner around Brees, and at 39, they might not have many more chances to surround their Hall of Fame quarterback with talent.

We saw the same argument from the Saints after the 2013 season, though, and the contracts they handed out over the ensuing three seasons were often disastrous. Free-agent additions such as Jairus Byrd and Brandon Browner were huge mistakes. Draft picks Stephone Anthony and Stanley Jean-Baptiste were busts of staggering proportion.

As tempting as it might be for New Orleans to go after a free agent at the top of the market, like Ezekiel Ansah or Lamarcus Joyner, the Saints can’t approach 2018 like they’re all in and one player away from a championship. New Orleans will thrive or die in 2018 by virtue of the young talent that is already on the roster and how the aging curve hits Brees, not by filling one spot in the starting lineup.