With the NFL franchise tag deadline having come and gone, the remaining crop of 2016 free agents hitting the market on March 9th is set. While the Saints have made some dubious decisions in free agency recently, according to Spotrac and factoring in the recent release of Marques Colston, the team currently has just north of $10 million in cap space for the 2016 season.
The Saints are also currently sitting on a league-leading $25 million in dead money (but let's not talk about that).
Impending Drew Brees and Thomas Morstead contract restructures notwithstanding, together with any other upcoming cuts, I anticipate the Saints working cap figure to move into the manageably reckless realm of a single (ostensibly) impact free agent, or a group of middling philistines.
Working inside-out starting with the defense, everyone on the Saints defensive line not named Cameron Jordan is suspect and subject to usurpitude. Kevin Williams is an UFA and, while he had a decent year up front, he's turning 36 this year. John Jenkins and Bobby Richardson were the other two primary linemen up front and, well, there's a reason the Saints were abysmal at pressuring the QB last season.
While it may behoove the franchise to be miserly come March 9th, I don't anticipate such an approach given a) the team's needs (and recent history), and b) it'd be no fun simply saying bank it for a rainy day! After all, what is free agency for us fans if not an opportunity to bemoan overpaid players and to help tighten our mock drafts?
On that heedless note, let's start by having a look at PFF's five highest rated interior and edge defensive linemen from 2015 who are hitting free agency.
Damon "Snacks" Harrison (6'4 350): The 27 year old DT out of William Penn University was signed by the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Comprising a third of Gruden's so-called "Sons of Anarchy" (alongside Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson), Harrison has steadily established himself as among the best run eating interior linemen in the league. PFF ranked Harrison the #7 overall (just ahead of Carolina's Kawann Short, and a spot below Ndamukong Suh) DT in the league for 2015. Was he playing off of elite defenders and within a solid defensive system - unquestionably. Will he translate productively elsewhere? Likelier than not. With the Jets (justifiably) tagging Wilkerson, Harrison will likely hit the market next week to no shortage of suitors. Will the New Iberia, Louisiana native want to return home? I like the idea, but with what I estimate to be no less than a $12 million/annum tender to his name, that's a lotta dough to blow on a DT.
Malik Jackson (6'5 293): MJax is 26 and coming off of an impressive Super Bowl victory in which he recovered a Von Miller strip-sack for a fumble-TD. Playing his best ball in a contract year, MJax will have no shortage of potential suitors. Like Harrison, Jackson played among a slew of very gifted defenders which undoubtedly positively impacted his performance. He's an above average pass rusher and would be an immediate upgrade on the LOS, and for that reason he's estimated to earn over $10 million/year. PFF has him ranked as their 16th best interior defender.
Jaye Howard (6'3 301): The 27 year old Zachary, Louisiana native, Howard was beastly for the Kansas City Chiefs last season, usurping Dontari Poe at NT and amassing 5.5 sacks through 16 games played. Howard was drafted by the Seahawks in the 4th round of the 2012 NFL draft out of Florida and played for the Chiefs from 2013-2015. Since joining the Chiefs the big man has been trending upwards and has become a solid run stopper. Spotrac gives Howard a projected annual $10.8 million market value given his steady incline and relative youth, and I wouldn't be surprised if he were offered more in this market. Personally, I think he'd be a great addition to the Saints front but, as with Harrison, he might be too rich even for PayLoo's collective blood.
Nick Fairley (6'4 308): The Detroit Lions took Fairley out of Auburn in the top half of the 2011 NFL Draft and, outside of his 2013 season, he was hit-or-miss in the Motor City. The now 28 year old DT played last season for the St. Louis Rams on a 1 year deal and had an above average year as the 23rd ranked DT in the league according to PFF. When he got minutes this season he was sandwiched between two of the top defensive linemen in the league in Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn but, he's shown some progress since entering the league and is a fairly competent pass rusher and run stopper. If I had to wantonly assign a $ value to Fairley, given his good 2015 outing but factoring in dubious play in the past, I'd probably put him in the $6-7 million/year range making him the least expensive of the guys in this crop, but perhaps also the least surefire of the bunch. It's worth mentioning that he's from Alabama, so there's the whole "could he return to the South" narrative that may be a factor as well.
Ian Williams (6'1 305): IWill (couldn't resist this nickname) turns 27 this year and has had a fancifully productive season for the 49ers this year, playing all 16 games and garnering PFF's 18th overall ranking of interior defenders (sandwiched between Pittsburgh's Cameron Heyward and Buffalo's Marcell Dareus). This past season he was a top-end run eater and mediocre pass rusher, but only has accumulated 15 games played in the preceding 4 seasons combined. Spotrac assigns IWill a market value of $7.8 million/year but, despite his play in 2015, that seems a bit rich for a guy with a LinkedIn profile so short.
Robert Ayers (6'3 275): Ayers was selected 18th overall by the Denver Broncos in the 2009 draft and has played with the New York Giants since 2014. Ayers was PFF's 8th ranked overall DE for 2015 (two spots below Cam Jordan) when he tallied 41 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. He's emerged as a top-end pass rusher (despite the horrendousness that was the Giants' defense in 2015) and though he's only ever played a full season in 2011, Ayers has never played fewer than 11 games in a season (take that how you will). With the franchise tagging of the likes of Wilkerson, Olivier Vernon, and Von Miller (as if any of these guys would have been cheap), Ayers is PFF's highest ranked pass rusher on the market and, indeed, 5th ranked overall at this coveted ability. Curiously, Spotrac estimates Ayers' annual market value to be $6.1 million which is thoroughly affordable.
Tamba Hali (6'3 275): A Chiefs lifer since 2006, Hali (33 this upcoming season) has been nothing short of productive and prolific his 10 seasons in the league. He's missed only 4 total games in his career and only once had fewer than 6 sacks in a season (but also has had three double-digit sack seasons). Despite his age, he's a savvy pass rusher and veteran who's averaged over 7 sacks and 3 fumbles forced per season over the last 3 years. PFF ranked him their #11 overall edge defender and given his size and strengths in the run game, I see him as scheme versatile, capable of playing OLB in an odd front (as he has been) or DE in an even. Hali was on a 1 year, $6 million deal with Chiefs this past season, so I don't expect him to yield anything less on average. I would hazard he's seeking something in the range of 3 years/$21 million - totally affordable for a player of his abilities and productivity.
William Hayes (6'3 278): Hayes (30) was the Tennessee Titans 4th round selection in the 2008 NFL draft; he's been with the St Louis Rams since 2012. Hayes had 5.5 sacks last season with the Rams and was ranked PFF's 13th overall edge defender (5th ranked run stopper). Since playing for the Rams, Hayes has only missed 2 games and managed to crack the lineup of a very competitive defensive line in 2014, starting 9 games and then 11 games in 2015. Spotrac doesn't have a market value projection for Hayes, but I project he's fetching somewhere in the neighborhood of $5-6 million a year.
Derrick Shelby (6'2 280): Shelby (27 tomorrow) is hitting free agency after his rookie contract. The Houston native Shelby was a Miami Dolphins (under Jeff Ireland's tutelage) undrafted free agent in 2012 out of Utah. Shelby missed one game in 2014 but has otherwise been active. Stepping in for the injured Cameron Wake last season, Shelby had 9 starts and was ranked PFF's 23rd best edge defender. He's solid run stopping defensive end and an above average pass rusher. His stats aren't overwhelming (9 sacks in 4 seasons) and he did play alongside Olivier Vernon and Ndamukong Suh this past season, so as a free agent he'd be a lower risk, high reward type player. His relative youth might put him at somewhat of a premium, so I'd figure he's in the neighborhood of $6 million/year.
Greg Hardy (6'5 280): Hardy is a gratuitous add to this list ; there's no scenario where he plays for the Saints and, talent aside, I have no interest in a player of his moral scruples. It has been reported that the Cowboys have no interest in negotiating an extension to Hardy's prove-it deal. Without getting into the specifics (not hard to find via Google (or Bing if you're Russell Wilson)), predominantly between his grievous domestic violence allegations, but also factoring in attitude and motivation issues, some team may opt to take a flyer on the 27 year old on skill and past productivity alone - It just won't be our team.
That's all for now, CSCers. Anyone on this list worth a look? Anyone I'm missing? I always like sleeper picks, so sound off below with your feedback! I'll return ASAP with the next group of UFAs the Saints might want to take a look at ahead of the start to FA.