The Saints bounced back from a rough 2012 campaign to make a playoff run, which unfortunately came up short. Now that free agency has arrived, they’ll look to shore up as many roster holes as possible in an effort to go even further next season.
Given the team’s success, there are a surprising number of positions that should be addressed in the next few months. Outside of guard, the team could serve to improve – or at least add depth to – every position on the roster, even quarterback given Drew Brees’ age. We’ll take a look at a few of the more interesting spots that the Saints will try to manage with limited cap space to work with.
Potential Cap Casualties
For a team that’s been arguably the most active since the season ended, there’s really not a lot left that can be done. The players already gone include some of the most critical to the team’s success in recent seasons: Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, Will Smith, Lance Moore, Darren Sproles, in addition to the pending unrestricted free agents that won’t (Jon Vilma) or may not (Zach Strief, Brian De La Puenta, Malcolm Jenkins) be brought back. It is not unrealistic for Pierre Thomas to be next on the block if recent reports come to fruition. One thing the group of cuts has in common is that all are over 30, the team clearly trying to younger.
Unfortunately the large number of cuts to this point has only served to get the Saints under the cap with little room to work with going forward. If they’re looking for a little more leeway down the line, Brodrick Bunkley could be considered, as another aging defender.
Even with Jimmy Graham likely back, the Saints don’t have many truly dynamic options in the passing game. Marques Colston is solid, but is more a matchup player in slot, who is getting up there in age and has had somewhat of an injury history. Beyond those two, Kenny Stills had a great rookie season and Joe Morgan flashed in 2012, but it’s unclear if they will be anything more than field stretchers at this point. Regardless, Brees could use more weapons, particularly with Sproles and Moore – and the 193 balls that were thrown in their directions – no longer on the roster
Free Agent Fix: The Saints will probably be forced to look towards the bottom of the barrel given the cap situation. The oft-injured Sidney Rice could be an interesting candidate with high upside. He’s played 9 games or fewer in three of the last four seasons, but has been good when he’s been on the field, grading at +13.3 in 2012. With enough speed and the size and ball skills to win contested passes, Rice would help the Saints on the outside, likely without breaking the bank.
Who will start opposite Keenan Lewis now that Jabari Greer is gone? That’s a key question the Saints will need to answer this offseason. They surely hope Patrick Robinson is that guy in 2014. He flashed the capability both his rookie season and in 2011, but after a subpar season under Steve Spagnuolo and coming off of a major knee injury, he’s far from a certainty. As it stands now, Corey White could be the mostly likely player to take on that role. He allowed just 0.98 yards per snap in coverage last season – an impressive mark – though he tailed off a bit at the end of the year and in the playoffs, grading at -5.5 in his final five games. Even if Robinson and/or White is the answer, there’s not much behind as Rod Sweeting and Trevin Wade combined to play just 86 snaps last season. Bringing back Malcolm Jenkins would help the situation, with his experience and ability to play some at corner, but relying on him in man coverage isn’t ideal.
Free Agent Fix: A somewhat under-the-radar name, Tarell Brown had a stellar 2012 season, in which he got his hands on 17 passes, while quarterbacks rated 77.7 on throws into his coverage. Brown’s play fell off some this past season as he fought injuries, but he still graded at +4.4 in 772 snaps. Having played predominantly on the right side in San Francisco, the 29 year old would fit naturally across from Lewis, who played primarily on the left in his first season as a Saint.
If the Saints could’ve saved any money getting rid of Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, they’d likely have been among the group released already. As it stands, the two certainly didn’t play up to expectations last season, combining to grade at -16.6 during the regular season, and both large culprits for a defense that allowed 4.5 YPC on the ground. Lofton wasn’t particularly bad in any one area, though he missed 17 tackles on the season. While most of Hawthorne’s struggles came in pass coverage – at least until the playoffs, when he graded at -7.2 in run defense in two games.
On the outside, the Saints need to find a player to start opposite Junior Galette. Presumably Victor Butler will be that guy, though a player coming off of an ACL injury is never sure thing and depth never a bad one. The team could resign Parys Haralson, but could serve to find someone more dangerous as a pass rusher.
Free Agent Fix: The draft would likely be the more fruitful avenue for upgrading the linebacking corps, but there are some names on the market that could help. Kavell Conner has graded at +10.3 the last two seasons for the Colts, including the playoffs, in just 477 snaps. Unfortunately, Conner doesn’t offer much value in coverage but the Saints might not be able to afford anyone who truly can, and he could help shore up the run defense. As for outside linebacker, why not Anthony Spencer? He excelled under Rob Ryan’s coaching in Dallas and the fact that he’s on the older side, plus he just had microfracture surgery and played only 38 snaps could make him attainable.
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