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Several Saints entering contract year with varying expectations, leverage

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Mark Ingram, Hau’oli Kikaha, and all the tight ends are up for renewal.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts  gets helped up by Hau’oli Kikaha #44 of the New Orleans Saints in the  first haf of the game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts gets helped up by Hau’oli Kikaha #44 of the New Orleans Saints in the first half of the game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Every spring brings expiring contracts, and the New Orleans Saints are no exception. They handled their 2018 free agency departures well enough, with their only starter (Kenny Vaccaro) still visiting suitors while the team brought in new talent. But what’s the long-term forecast? Which Saints entering a contract year in 2018 will return after that?

Mark Ingram

Ingram should enter the 2018-2019 offseason with every major Saints rushing record to his name. Twelve games post-suspension is plenty of time for him to rack up the 800-ish yards and 6 touchdowns needed to surpass the marks Deuce McAllister established. Ingram will also be turning 29 this December, typically signalling a sharp decline for running backs, but his career spent in a platoon means Ingram should have 900 to 1000-plus fewer touches to wear and tear on his body than other backs like Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, and Frank Gore.

Ingram changed agents earlier this spring ahead of new contract negotiations, and they’ve apparently advised him to hold out of voluntary workouts to build some kind of leverage. That leverage went out the window after Ingram was suspended four games for PED’s, but he’s still going through with the decision to save face, I guess. We could be on the path for an ugly divorce, seeing the franchise champion in rushing records leave after contract talks fall out.

Predicition: Ingram re-signs at another below-market contract, playing in New Orleans throughout his career and setting new franchise records that will last a generation.

Hau’oli Kikaha

Like Ingram, Kikaha also recently switched representatives. Kikaha is now repped by Rosenhaus Sports, one of the larger agencies available to pro athletes. Given the investments New Orleans has made at edge defender - drafting Marcus Davenport, Trey Hendrickson, and Al-Quadin Muhammad and signing Alex Okafor and George Johnson the last two years - it seems Kikaha has a tough road ahead of him to even make the roster.

Kikaha was a hot topic around last season’s October trade deadline, though interest was characterized more as teams calling New Orleans to make offers rather than the Saints shopping their former second-round pick. They ended up trading away Stephone Anthony instead, who was drafted just a dozen spots ahead of Kikaha himself back in 2015. It would be stellar if Kikaha shows this year he can make plays at linebacker (itself a crowded position group) as well as on the edge, and earn an extension in New Orleans. But that’s feeling increasingly unlikely.

Prediction: Kikaha is a last-minute trade at the end of minicamps as some team gets the jump on competitors for his services. The Saints probably get a late-round pick in the 2019 Draft as compensation.

Tyeler Davison

The Saints made nine selections in the 2015 NFL Draft, of which four are still on the team and just two of them starting (Davison and offensive lineman Andrus Peat). That year was Jeff Ireland’s first on the job as college scouting director, and led to immediate staff overhauls and changes in methodology that turned into the epic 2017 Draft class. Davison has been a decent nose tackle, but he’s never taken a big step forward to command doubled-attention. Unless that changes with another year of Ryan Nielsen’s instruction, this is probably his last season in New Orleans.

Teams don’t pay up for linemen who can’t rush the passer - guys like Beau Allen, Corey Liuget, Domata Peko, and Sylvester Williams are only paid $3- to $5.75-million annually. The New England Patriots needed a big body in the middle, so they traded for Cleveland Browns nose tackle Danny Shelton (ironically, one of the 1-31 administration’s better defenders) and declined his 2019 fifth-year option (worth about $7-million). Look for there to be interest from the Saints if Shelton is a free agent next spring - they would have picked him had he been available.

Prediction: The Saints let Davison walk in free agency and he gets a solid deal somewhere. They replace him with Danny Shelton, whose Patriots lose to the Saints in the upcoming Super Bowl.

P.J. Williams

Splashes of nice plays here-and-there haven’t turned into consistent production for P.J., and it hasn’t kept the Saints from restocking the defensive backfield early and often. Now he’s at best fourth on the cornerbacks depth chart behind Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley, and Patrick Robinson. That said, it’s no final judgment: Williams turns 25 in two weeks and has appeared in just 20 games, including last season’s two-game playoff run. He’s got plenty of time to find a role for himself in the NFL.

But just like how teams don’t pay big bucks to nose tackles, they’re prone to cycle through younger defensive backs. Valuing their speed more than other factors, teams rarely re-sign their own corners and seem to prefer fielding cheap draft picks and undrafted players who can just focus on running with opposing receivers. I wouldn’t be shocked in the least if Williams returns on a modest contract, but with Crawley due a big payday in 2020 (assuming he gets a one-year RFA tender after his three-year contract expires) the Saints would be pressed to justify investing too much in a still-unproven player at the position this soon.

Prediction: Williams plays out his Saints contract and leaves for a fresh start, possibly getting a nice contract and returning a rare compensatory draft pick to New Orleans for the 2020 Draft.

Manti Te’o, Craig Robertson, and Nathan Stupar

The Saints have identified their top three linebackers pretty clearly, though it’s unclear yet where each of them will line up - Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, and Alex Anzalone figure to start. That leaves a clear second class at the position who all, incidentally, look to be free agents next spring. Manti Te’o is the youngest of the group (he turned 27 last January) and is probably the best candidate to see a contract extension. Robertson is a solid backup who can spot-start here and there, but the Saints signed him thinking he’d play mostly special teams. Injuries have forced him into a bigger role than they would have liked.

This is a healthy situation despite the number of free agents-to-be. You want to see your aging players phased out by younger, better, and cheaper options. It’s worth noting that if Davis turns out to have been a one-year wonder for the New York Jets, the Saints effectively locked themselves into a two-year contract; it would cost them an additional $4.35-million to part ways with him if things don’t work out in 2019. But I liked the signing and think he’ll be an asset as an experienced, dynamic defender at middle linebacker, so hopefully that won’t be an issue.

Prediction: Te’o continues to play at a high level in his reserve role as a backup middle linebacker and is re-signed in 2019. Robertson is made expendable by young additions, and Stupar moves on.

Benjamin Watson, Josh Hill, and Michael Hoomanawanui

The good news is Josh Hill doesn’t turn 28 until next Monday. The bad news is Hoomanawanui will be 30 next month, and Watson has long-accepted time to be a mere social construct. The Saints have some promising rookies at the bottom of the depth chart (namely Deon Yelder, an undrafted free agent out of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers tight end factory) but there doesn’t appear to be a long-term plan at the position.

I feel more anxious about this position than any other. I’m sure the Saints can return each of these guys at minimal investments, and they probably will. Tight ends are notoriously slow to develop, thanks to complex NFL playbooks that ask them to both block and run routes while going against physical, different defenses than they encounter in college. So if the Saints have to ask a free agent or rookie to step into a starting role next year without an experienced mentor to help shoulder the load, it’s going to be dicey.

Prediction: Watson retires after going out with a Super Bowl win, while Hill is re-signed and Hoomanawanui explores his options in free agency.

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What do you think? Which of these looming free agents would you want to see back next year? Who has the most to gain from a breakout season?