Why Saints should target situational pass-rushers in free agency
The Saints have already been one of the most active teams of the offseason, releasing four players, including former All-Pro Jahri Evans (73.2). Even with those players off the payroll, they still need to make more moves in order to stay under the salary cap. Here is a blueprint that the Saints need to follow in order to make a playoff run in 2016.
QB Drew Brees
While most teams have a list of their own free agents to re-sign at the top of their priority list, for the Saints, the most important thing is to add more years to Brees’ contract. Currently, he has a $30 million cap hit, which is the most for a quarterback. By signing him to a new contract, that will free up cap space to help the Saints make some moves to stay competitive.
Brees is also in his last year of his contract, so by re-signing him, that will ensure that the Saints keep their QB for a few more seasons. Despite the overall team struggles, Brees remains a top NFL quarterback. His 87.6 overall grade was fourth-best among the league’s QBs last year. Since the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning season in 2009, Brees has been among the top seven quarterbacks in accuracy percentage each year.
Outside of Brees, there are no players that played in New Orleans in 2015 that will be heavily sought after by other teams. If the price is right, the Saints should happily bring back free agents like defensive tackle Kevin Williams (77.7) and tight end Ben Watson (73.0), but that is only if they can get their cap situation under control.
RB Tim Hightower
The Saints should let most—if not all—of their unrestricted free agents walk. Half of them will be 31 or older by next season, and most of the players younger than 31 played fewer than 100 snaps last year. The highest-graded free agent the Saints have is Tim Hightower (82.4), and New Orleans should let him walk, too. In his last two games, he had 188 yards, three touchdowns, and forced nine missed tackles. However, the Saints have their workhorse back in Mark Ingram. Ingram’s elusive rating of 59.4 was the second-best for those with at least 120 carries. Even though C.J. Spiller was under-utilized, he was one of the better receiving backs in the league, with a PFF receiving grade of 81.2. While Hightower proved he deserves another shot in the NFL, it doesn’t make sense for the Saints to bring him back, considering who they already have and the limited cap space available to them.
CB Brandon Browner
There are a few additional moves the Saints can make that would make sense for both on- and off-field reasons. The first is cutting Brandon Browner (24.7), which is inevitable. He allowed 964 receiving yards, second-most among cornerbacks in 2015. Letting Browner go will only free up a small amount of cap space and leave a lot of dead money, but it’s a needed move based on his performance.
WR Marques Colston
The next move is releasing long-time wide receiver Marques Colston (60.7). He is the seventh-oldest wide receiver currently under contract for 2016, and is coming off of back-to-back poor seasons. He had career lows in nearly every statistical category in 2015, including catches, yards, and touchdowns. The Saints have a trio of younger wide receivers in Willie Snead (80.2), Brandin Cooks (79.4) and Brandon Coleman (73.6) all ready to see more opportunities, so the Saints wouldn’t necessarily need to look elsewhere for a replacement. Releasing Colston would free up $3.2 million in cap space.
DT Adrian Clayborn or OLB Dwight Freeney
While the Saints had a historically bad defense in 2015, they still had some players in place to build on. Addition by subtraction should help, but the Saints are in desperate need for more pass-rushers. The only front-seven player with both a positive pass rush grade and at least one sack in 2015 was Cameron Jordan.
There are plenty of good edge defenders that the Saints probably can’t afford. Instead, they can go for a player who only plays pass downs, like Adrian Clayborn (74.0) or Dwight Freeney (74.2). Clayborn had three sacks, 15 hits, and 26 hurries playing both inside and out during his one year with the Falcons. Freeney had a strong end of the season with four sacks and 13 hurries over his last four games. Either player would be a big upgrade as a second best pass-rusher on the roster.