New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton doesn’t have many fans in the national media, but he’s very tight with FOX Sports insider Jay Glazer; even to a point where Glazer was a guest on Payton’s float in the post-Super Bowl Orpheus parade back in 2010.
Glazer has broken news before thanks to his friendship with Payton, most notably the blockbuster Jimmy Graham-Seattle Seahawks trade back in 2015. This past Tuesday he did so again, offering a look into the Saints’ thought process and strategy for this year’s free agency period:
With Brees done, saints know what their cap, still want a 3-technique and DB but jimmy graham reunion is top priority if they can pull off— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) March 13, 2018
So there’s a bit to unpack here, some of which we can shed light on through the power of hindsight. Glazer listed three priorities for the Saints in free agency: sign an interior pass rusher, defensive back, and reunite with Jimmy Graham. Let’s hit each of those points:
Three-technique defensive tackle
This is the most-intriguing item brought up by Glazer. The Saints were obviously disappointed when Nick Fairley was medically withdrawn from football, and have since gone to arbitration to recoup some of their losses from last year’s contract extension (sidenote: it appears the Saints were rewarded with an initial $3-million in bonuses paid to Fairley, per ESPN’s Mike Triplett. They could receive more money in the coming days).
Besides the financial aspect, Fairley was one of the team’s best players in this role as a three-technique defensive tackle, lining up over the outside shoulder of opposing guards. He made a big impact both as a pass rusher and a run defender, and offered some versatility inside in a rotation with Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, and nose tackle Tyeler Davison. Without Fairley, the Saints awkwardly moved guys around but never settled on a secure combination.
That’s where Ndamukong Suh comes into play (ironically, a former teammate of Fairley’s with the Detroit Lions). Besides being one of the two best three-technique linemen in football - only the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald, devourer of worlds, is better - he is available and the Saints are interested in flying him into town for a formal visit. No interior lineman logged more tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage than Fairley last year (23.5), and his 43 quarterback pressures were 24-percent of what the Saints managed as a team.
Should the Saints fail to land Suh, they’ll struggle to plug this roster need in free agency. The only other notable talent is Sheldon Richardson, who is fielding offers from both the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. Look to the draft for someone like Michigan Wolverines standout Maurice Hurst (who, unfortunately, has his own heart condition) or the latest Alabama Crimson Tide bowling ball, Da’shawn Hand.
This box was checked twice, by Kurt Coleman and Patrick Robinson. Given the timing of his tweet Glazer (and by extension, Payton and the Saints) probably meant a slot cornerback to take over in the wake of Kenny Vaccaro’s departure. That’s exactly the job that Robinson is expected to fill in his return to New Orleans, as luck would have it.
What’s interesting is that Robinson and Coleman combine as an answer to Vaccaro’s responsibilities. He was aligned more-frequently as a slot cornerback than anything last else last season, but did start the year as a two-high safety paired with Marcus Williams and occasionally rotated into the box as a strong safety. Those three hats are now divided between Robinson and Coleman, who have shown they can execute them more effectively than Vaccaro did (and with fewer negative plays and penalties).
I would be surprised if the Saints target another defensive back, though they were connected to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (cut by the New York Giants) and Tyrann Mathieu (released by the Arizona Cardinals) earlier this week. Stay tuned.
Jimmy Graham role
Obviously the Saints didn’t mend fences with Graham and bring him home. He used the team as leverage with the Green Bay Packers, eventually bagging a three-year, $30-million contract with $22-million in guarantees. I’m sure that there were real talks between Graham’s reps and the Saints, but the team set a price point and didn’t budge on it. So now he’s joining the Packers.
The important thing here isn’t so much Graham himself as the role he fills. He would have been a big slot receiver in New Orleans without question, delegating blocking and inline duties to Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui. This tells me that the Saints are looking for someone like him to create mismatches in the slot and help ease pressure off of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara as the team’s top receiving threats.
So will the Saints find one of the those hybrid tight ends to fill Graham’s role, like former Detroit Lions draft bust Eric Ebron? Or are they just looking for a slot specialist who can fill in, though not to the extent that Graham would have? If that’s the case then a second-tier free agent like Jordan Matthews makes sense.
we’re dangerously close to a world where the NFC Arms Race results in— John Sigler (@john_siglerrr) March 15, 2018
MIN: Kirk Cousins, Sheldon Richardson
LAR: Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib
PHI: Michael Bennett, Haloti Ngata
NO: Patrick Robinson, Demario Davis, Ndamukong Suh
SF: Jimmy Garoppolo, Richard Sherman
The Saints obviously have other interests in free agency that Glazer didn’t mention - like signing a veteran middle linebacker in Demario Davis, a competitor for Taysom Hill at backup quarterback in Tom Savage, or a Senio Kelemete replacement in the familiar Jermon Bushrod. We’ve still got more than a month until the 2018 NFL Draft, and plenty of time for the Saints to make more moves.