With another 7-9 season now in the books, it looks like the Saints are in for a long, hard off-season. There’s the salary cap situation to get back under control, upgrades to be made and roster holes to be filled. At first glance it can look like an overwhelming process that could possibly take a few seasons to complete. In reality though, with a small handful of cap moves, a very controlled free agency and another successful draft, the Saints could be back to form by the time the season opens in September. Here’s how it can be done. Saints Off-Season Review From The Cap To The Draft
Salary Cap Moves
According to OverTheCap.com, the Saints’ salary cap figure is currently $7.9M over the projected 2016 base. At first glance it may seem like a difficult gap to bridge. Each of the past several years the original projected salary cap has been adjusted upward after the end of each season. In 2015 the cap was originally projected to be at $140M but was later adjusted upward by nearly $4.9M. An adjustment of that size to the current projected cap for next season would get the black & gold more than half way to being under the cap. As for whatever amount of money remains to be dealt with once the exact cap number is settled, the Saints have a number of options at their disposal.
The obvious place to start fixing the salary cap is Drew Brees’ contract. With the future Hall of Famer heading into the final year of his contract carrying a cap hit of $30M, something will have to be done. The most likely scenario would seem to be a two year extension of his current contract which would lock Brees down right up to his 40th birthday. Such an extension would allow the Saints to spread out the remaining money on the current contract while providing room to add a few perks to appeal to the long-time signal caller. Despite his detractors in the media, Brees has proven time and time again this season that his skills are not falling off and he can still perform. With a replenished receiving corps and a strengthened offensive line, there’s no reason to think Brees couldn’t play another three seasons at least. Extending his contract through 2018 could easily save the Saints $10M off the salary cap.
Along with the room Brees’ extension will give the Saints, there are likely to be several other moves that will help create some more cap space. The most likely would be Marques Colston. Despite spending his entire career in black & gold and being one of the most beloved players in recent Saints history, it’s hard to deny his career is coming to an end. Ever since one of the best years of his career in 2012, Colston’s numbers have been on a steady decline. From receptions to yardage to touchdowns and everything in between, Colston posted career lows in pretty much every statistical category this season. Watching his film it’s not hard to see that while his heart is still in it, his body isn’t. Colston’s release would give the Saints an additional $3.2M in cap space to work with.
The offensive line holds another opportunity to add cap space in Jahri Evans. While he’s developed a reputation over his career of being one of the best in the business, Evans has struggled to stay healthy over much of the past three seasons. Those injuries have caused him to struggle on the field to the point that he was shopped for a trade last off-season. This year though it seems less likely that the Saints would look to move their veteran guard considering how unstable they are on the opposite side of Max Unger. A pay cut would certainly not be out of the question however. Evans’ base salary this coming season is $3.8M with $2M of that guaranteed. By cutting his base salary down to just his guaranteed money, there would be another $1.8M in cap space. Evans would have a hard time making a case against such a move in light of three straight injury-plagued seasons and $3.1M still going in his pocket.
The offensive backfield will prove valuable in finding cap savings as well. To call C.J. Spiller’s season in New Orleans a disaster would be an extreme understatement. Unfortunately, cutting him would save the Saints less than a million dollars while leaving nearly $4M in dead money on the books. However if they designated Spiller as a post-June 1 cut they would free up $3.25M at the beginning of June. While the savings would do no good for getting under the salary cap or the initial free agency rush, it would give the Saints a second influx of cap space to shop around with after having a chance to evaluate the roster.
On the other side of the ball, one position likely to see some trimming is weak-side linebacker, although how that would happen is a little unclear. The most likely scenario is that David Hawthorne will leave New Orleans while Dannell Ellerbe will take a significant pay cut. While parting ways with Hawthorne only saves half as much in cap space as cutting Ellerbe would ($2.25M & $4.5M respectively), it has become obvious that the team is far less of a fan of Hawthorne. Despite being active in nearly twice as many games, Hawthorne actually played less snaps than his injury-prone teammate. He also trailed Ellerbe in nearly every statistical category for the 2015 season. Hawthorne may not have to be cut though. ESPN’s Mike Triplett wrote shortly before this past season’s trade deadline that Hawthorne could have some trade potential due to his years of experience as a starter. Triplett does say though that the price would have to be low. Even if all he brought in was a 7th rounder or the chance to swap picks and move up a little in the draft, it would still be something in addition to $2.25M in cap savings. As for Ellerbe, he’s been around the league long enough to realize the situation he’s in due to his injuries. A pay cut of $2.6M would be reasonable for both sides. Ellerbe would still be set to pocket $2.6M between his base salary and bonuses while the Saints would gain a total of $4.85M in cap space from Ellerbe and Hawthorne.
Through these half dozen moves the Saints would have $12.07M to work with moving into the new league year with an additional $3.25M midway through the off-season. That money could be put to good use in a number of ways. Saints Off-Season Review From The Cap To The Draft
Free Agency Moves
Before the new league year begins, the Saints need to decide which of their own they want to keep. New Orleans has about two dozen free agents set to hit the open market this spring. Some of the players who should be priorities to bring back include Benjamin Watson, Kevin Williams, Rafael Bush, Tim Hightower, Travaris Cadet, Khiry Robinson and Austin Johnson. With the exception of Watson, Williams and Bush, none of them carried a cap hit of more than a half million dollars in 2015. Even if the Saints re-signed all of these men, they should still have money left over to make a few moves in free agency.
The top priority should be filling the hole at left guard. This past season it became clear that Tim Lelito isn’t up to the job. While Pro Football Focus may have ranked him as one of the best run-blocking guards in the league, he was also ranked as one of the worst pass-blocking guards. In an offense where Brees is the signal-caller, the offensive line must be able to pass block. Pending free agent Ramon Foster rated well in both pass and run blocking as well as screen blocking. A veteran guard who can help keep Brees clean regardless of the situation would go a long way toward straightening out the issues along the line. Foster has also developed a reputation as one of the Steelers’ strongest and most respected leaders both on and off the field. That type of character should certainly meet Payton’s standards.
The other new face the Saints need to add to the roster is Trumaine Johnson. Signing the 26 year old cornerback would give the black & gold something they are sorely lacking in the defensive backfield: a certified ballhawk. Over his first four seasons Johnson has managed to haul in 15 interceptions while averaging double digit passes defended. Johnson’s addition would give the Saints a legitimate third option as a starter at corner. Considering they’ve lost one of their starting corners to injury two of the last three seasons, having an extra on the roster certainly can’t hurt. Until he’s needed on the outside Johnson would certainly make a better nickel option than Brandon Browner.
Along with the two new additions, the Saints should bring back an old familiar face. Before his departure for Detroit last off-season, Tyrunn Walker was a promising, productive member of New Orleans’ defensive line. In 2014 Walker was active for all 16 games playing just over 300 defensive snaps and racking up 3 sacks. At that pace Walker could have had double digit sacks if he had been on the field full-time. Over his two seasons on the field for the Saints he also saw noticeable improvement in each of his player ratings from Pro Football Focus. His size and versatility would allow him to move around along the defensive line under the same position coach who helped him flourish before leaving for the Lions. To top things off, Walker wouldn’t cost much to bring back. His one-year contract with Detroit was only $1.75M. Saints Off-Season Review From The Cap To The Draft
Filling even a few key needs through free agency will give the Saints a lot more flexibility in how they approach the draft this year. By filling the three needs mentioned above, the Saints could put themselves in great shape for 2016 and beyond with a draft like this:
Round 1: Laquon Treadwell, WR, Mississippi
It’s true that Brees can make even average receivers look great, but the Saints need to be looking beyond the next few years. If they can get their hands on Treadwell they need to do it. Aside from what Treadwell can offer immediately working with Brees, both fans and the team alike will be glad he’s on the roster a few years down the road when Brees retires and Treadwell is a seasoned vet ready to help the Saints’ new signal caller.
Alternate pick: A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama
Round 2: Vernon Butler, DT, Louisiana Tech
While Jordan and Walker would make a nice set of bookends on the defensive line, there’s still a hole in the middle that needs to be filled. Butler has the ability to step in immediately next to Williams and help consume opposing offensive lines. In addition, he’s also shown that he can get into opposing backfields and cause problems for quarterbacks and ball carriers alike.
Alternate pick: Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
Round 3: Su’a Cravens, OLB, USC
With Hawthorne gone and Ellerbe spending so much time on the training table, the Saints will need a new weakside linebacker. Cravens is a safety/linebacker hybrid who can terrorize quarterbacks, shut down runners in the backfield and pick off passes in coverage. He also has NFL talent in his bloodlines including Dolphins tight end Jordan Cameron.
Alternate pick: Deion Jones, OLB, LSU
Round 4: Le’Raven Clark, OT, Texas Tech
While Evans is likely locked in for this coming season due to his contract, he becomes extremely expendable next spring, especially if he can’t stay healthy or has another down year. Clark is a former guard turned tackle that is poised to move back inside. He seems to have the talent to become Evans’ successor but his technique could use a little polishing up while spending his rookie season as a backup.
Alternate pick: Kamalei Correa, OLB, Boise State
Round 5: Jerell Adams, TE, South Carolina
Watson may have had a career year this past season, but the fact is he’s still going to turn 36 before the end of next season. Adams has the talent and physical gifts to become his replacement. His height, speed and physical talent to be a threat in the passing game anywhere on the field as well as being a serviceable blocker. With a little time in the gym and some polish on his route-running, Adams could be Watson’s successor.
Alternate pick: David Morgan II, TE, UTSA
Round 6: Traded to WAS
Round 7: Ka’imi Fairbairn, K, UCLA
With Kai Forbath unlikely to return, the Saints will again be in need of a kicker. Fairbairn is the 2015 winner of the Lou Graza Award for the top placekicker in college football. His accuracy has steadily improved through his college career and he has plenty of leg as shown by his 60 yard field goal this past season. He also has one of the highest touchback rates in college football which could save some wear and tear on Thomas Morestead.
Alternate pick: Connor McGovern, OG, Missouri
Every off-season has a lot of moving parts. Obviously there are any number of ways the Saints could choose to go. The point is that no matter how much negativity gets thrown at New Orleans, the problems they are facing are far from insurmountable. With an off-season like the one described here, it is possible for the Saints to get the team back on track before the 2016 season kicks off with some minor trimming from the payroll and the roster while signing the right mix of talent for both the present and the future. Saints Off-Season Review From The Cap To The Draft