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Saints 2021 free agent targets: AFC South edition

The New Orleans Saints have plenty of realistic free agency targets from the AFC South.

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Indianapolis Colts v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints have been working diligently to clear up the necessary cap space, both for league compliance, and to be viable suitors in free agency. The team has alleviated a significant amount of damage; much in the past week alone, they’ve gone from about $90 million over the cap to $46 million without any major casualties. Save for the unfortunate termination of Thomas Morstead’s contract.

With the expectation that burgeoning stars such as Trey Hendrickson will depart for higher compensation, and the perpetual drive to remain a competitive team, New Orleans will likely be bargain shopping come the first day of free agency, Mar. 17, to fill key roster holes. The last time the NFC South played the AFC South was in the 2019 season; Saints fans might remember that magical performance by Drew Brees in their 34-7 Week 15 win against the Indianapolis Colts.

It’s an inconsistent division, to put it mildly, but several diamonds in the rough can be scoured from all four teams. With free agency imminently approaching, here is one pending free agent from each of the AFC South teams the Saints should target.

Tennessee Titans, Jayon Brown, LB

PFF Predicted Value: Four-year, $47.5M ($11.875M APY), $17.5M guaranteed at signing

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, New Orleans is deemed to have an insurmountable cap deficit; every year, the team not only gets compliant, but also indulges in one or two splash free agency signings. Last year, those players were Emmanuel Sanders and Malcolm Jenkins. But historically, the Saints overwhelmingly target linebackers in free agency.

Since 2016, New Orleans has signed 8 linebackers in free agency; comparatively, the next highest position targeted is tight end at 4. While several of those were misses, mainly, Manti Te’o, the team has bolstered this unit more in FA than through the NFL draft. Of the 28 players the Saints have drafted since 2016, just three have been linebackers, and the earliest selection for the position is the third round.

If there’s anything the team seems to love, it’s injury-afflicted linebackers with a high ceiling. With a season-ending elbow injury limiting Jayon Brown to just 10 games last season, he not only fits that bill, but is likely to be most affordable in the Tier 1 level of free agency linebackers. With the expectation that Matt Milano and Lavonte David are poised to acquire top-dollar deals, Brown may be the odd man out — and the perfect target for the Saints.

While Tennessee is certainly faring better than New Orleans at present, the team remains $8 million over the cap, and has a lot of tough decisions at other positions that may take priority. Namely, of the 20 pending UFAs, WR Corey Davis, TE Jonnu Smith, CB Desmond King, and DE Jadaveon Clowney. Brown may be a cap casualty, and the Saints should be keenly watching his status. Titans GM Jon Robinson has noted two key traits that fit New Orleans bill: playmaking, and versatility.

“I think that he’s a really instinctive player. He’s good in zone coverage, he’s good in man coverage. He’s been disruptive as a blitzer for us,” Robinson spoke of Brown earlier in March. “He’s kind of this — I don’t want to say new age of linebacker — but just kind of this undersized, productive player who relies on his instincts, his speed, and his ability to match players.

Not only is Brown young talent at 26 years old, but he would serve as the perfect mentor for last year’s third round draft pick, Zach Baun, whose trajectory was abruptly paused last season, likely due to the loss of OTAs and preseason games.

One of the best free agency signings in New Orleans history is easily Demario Davis; Sean Payton further indulged in a rare midseason trade in the acquisition of Kwon Alexander in the 2020 season. After several years of misses and positional spending averaging around 26th, the Saints finally got a glimpse of a lethal LB tandem for just a few games last season.

Hard to subsequently give that up, particularly with the status of Alexander’s health up in the air, and the potential loss of Alex Anzalone in free agency. If the team decides to go big, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that Hail Mary thrown at a linebacker of elite-caliber like Tennessee Titans LB Jayon Brown.

Indianapolis Colts, Malik Hooker, S

PFF Predicted Value: One-year, $2M

The Saints are known for quality over quantity, both through free agency in recent years and the NFL draft. This year’s free agency steal might be Colts safety Malik Hooker.

Another player known for his injury affliction, Hooker’s market value will be based on potential. Hooker won’t see an abundance of suitors after a season-ending Achilles tear, and his first three seasons in Indianapolis were underwhelming at best.

It’s hard not to think of Jairus Byrd when assessing Saints free agency safety acquisitions; he played just four games in his first season with the team, and his cap hit led to the departure of Malcolm Jenkins in 2014. Byrd was not only much older than 24-yr old Hooker, but he was also signed to a regrettable six-year, $54 million contract that the team couldn’t rid themselves of. Mickey Loomis won’t make that mistake again here, and it’s hard to see any teams biting on a multi-year deal for a player with multiple season-ending injuries.

Should New Orleans lose star free safety Marcus Williams in free agency — though he’s been noted a top priority — this easily becomes a top positional unit of need for the team. Not only that, but the two free safeties past Williams on the depth chart, P.J. Williams and D.J. Swearinger, are also set to be unrestricted free agents. Nor are they exactly awe-inspiring depth players.

The Saints should absolutely have Williams at the top of their list this offseason; even if they retain him, Hooker is a much more enticing backup than an aging Swearinger, and a converted cornerback in P.J. Williams. With the Colt’s decision to decline his fifth-year option, he’d be a risky signing, but arguably has the highest upside of pending free agents.

Houston Texans, Gareon Conley, CB

PFF Predicted Value: One-year, $2.5M, $1M guaranteed at signing

Houston Texans v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Are you sensing a theme yet? Given the cap situation, and glaring question marks still yet to have answers, such as the position of quarterback, the best way the Saints can move in free agency is focusing on redemption. No player fits that bill like Houston Texans CB Gareon Conley.

The former first-round draft pick has had a tumultuous career, and missed the entirety of the 2020 season. He now looks to be the odd-man out under new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith’s coverage plans; Conley is much more potent in man coverage. PFF graded Conley in the 69th percentile in single coverage since entering the league, compared to 37th in zone. What’s most intriguing is Conley’s forced incompletions on 22.2% of his targets, the second-best rate since entering the NFL in 2017.

Per former NFL safety Matt Bowen’s analysis with ESPN’s Mike Triplett, the Saints may be a high-ranking suitor for a cornerback skilled in man coverage. New Orleans played 12.8% of their defensive snaps in Cover 3, which ranks 30th in the NFL. Conversely, the team’s 22.2% of snaps in 2-man coverage led the league by a steep margin.

After years of a migraine-inducing secondary, the Saints finally found success in lockdown coverage with the tandem of Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins. Conley is a highly enticing backup on that depth chart. And one with the potential to have a breakout year under the right schematic fit, and the necessary bill of health.

Jacksonville Jaguars, Sidney Jones IV, CB

2020 contract: One-year, $825,000

Jacksonville Jaguars v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Let’s end this list with a player that has yet to sustain a full NFL season in Jacksonville Jaguars CB Sidney Jones. The Jaguars, with their abundant cap space (a treat), aren’t likely to pursue a player based on seasons cut short and future potential. Instead, it makes him a highly viable target for the Saints.

Sidney Jones, when able-bodied, is best described as absolutely disruptive. In just nine games, Jones recorded two interceptions, broke up nine passes, forced a fumble, and had 21 solo tackles. And two of his best performances came against elite quarterbacks. Those opponents were the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans, and Jones went on an absolute tear.

Shockingly, Jacksonville held Aaron Rodgers to the team’s third-lowest point total of the year, and scoreless in the first quarter. The highest graded player by PFF (74.7) was Jones; he finished leading the team with nine total tackles, six solo, two pass breakups, and an interception. The other time Jones scored the highest PFF grade? Week 5 against Deshaun Watson (91.6) — and it was his first season start. Jones’ presence was quickly made known with three solo tackles, a pass deflection — which led to a pick — and an interception. Watson threw only seven interceptions last season, Rodgers just five, and Jones was responsible for one each.

A stat sheet with nine passes defended, two interceptions, and a forced fumble is a solid grade for a full 16-game season. Jones made this impact in just nine games. For comparison sake, Marshon Lattimore, in his 14 starts last season, totaled 11 passes defended, two interceptions, and no forced fumbles. Janoris Jenkins, in 13 games played, recorded 12 passes defended, three interceptions, and no forced fumbles. Not only is Jones an enticing backup option, but he makes a case for a heavily-featured role — if able to remain healthy.

Injuries, particularly with unknown free agents, are always a risk. However, importantly, they’re also quite cheap. And the Saints aren’t exactly in the best negotiation position. The road to redemption might just go through New Orleans this offseason — and Sean Payton is known for detecting diamonds in the rough.

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