New Orleans Saints: Top 22 Players to Target in Free Agency and the Draft
One of the beautiful things about being a great team like the New Orleans Saints is that the NFL Draft becomes a supplement to free agency—unlike the crucial event that it is for many franchises.
As such, the New Orleans Saints can wait to come up with a draft strategy until after the bulk of their free agency targets have been signed—either by them or another team.
Obviously the Saints’ main priorities this offseason are to re-sign Drew Brees, Marques Colston and Carl Nicks. And decisions must be made on Tracy Porter and Robert Meachem to name the most high-profile Saints.
But that doesn’t eliminate the necessity to survey the free agent market in hopes of finding a potential free agent gem—something the Saints have done very well under Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton. In addition, the later rounds of the draft and even the free agency period immediately after have served as abundant talent pools for the New Orleans Saints.
Expect the Saints organization to have quite the busy offseason in 2012—aiming to keep key veterans and add enough young talent to get better in the future. Here are 22 guys the Saints should target this offseason—11 of whom are already Saints and thus paired together into four categories, essentially making up four persons instead of 11. They make up half of the entire list.
1. The Big Three (Brees, Colston, & Nicks)
The New Orleans Saints must keep Drew Brees, Marques Colston and Carl Nicks. If the Saints lose any of those three, than this was a bad offseason for Mickey Loomis and the franchise.
In a Times-Picayune article featured here, Loomis went so far to say that if Drew Brees were to leave, "I'd probably be out of a job." Yes, Loomis was being facetious, but there seems to be a lot of truth in that statement.
Though Loomis was responsible for bringing in three of New Orleans' most integral pieces, if he were the General Manager to see them leave—with all three in the prime of their careers—Loomis would have to pull something out of his…well, you know what…to keep his job.
Drew Brees has talked about a desire to keep this team together, which should be music to Loomis’ ears. But money talks—and it might be speaking really loudly in the ear of a player like Carl Nicks, who is widely regarded as an elite left guard. He’s going to expect quite a handsome raise from the one-year tender he signed this past offseason.
Then there’s Colston, the player who many analysts foolishly underrate—assuming that any player could step in and take his place. Sure, the Saints would be okay in some regards if he were to leave. But they’d also miss their most clutch receiver, and a player who forces huge matchup problems for the defense.
There’s only one receiver at any level of football who could potentially be available who could come in and replace Colston—and that man is probably going to demand a higher pay grade than Colston (though there is a possible scenario where I could see the Saints going after that player—more on that later).
The point is that the Saints must sign all three under almost any circumstance. The only way any of these players shouldn’t be signed is if some team comes in and just obliterates the Saints’ offer. And if that were for Brees, the Saints should match it. For the other two, obviously at that point it seems okay to walk away and start searching for other solutions.
2. Mid-Level Free Agents (Porter & Meachem)
While the big three are quite obvious, Robert Meachem and Tracy Porter are important free agent targets for this team as well.
It's possible Porter could command a salary that simply isn't commensurate with his play—that being somewhere in the neighborhood of the four-year deal worth roughly $30 million that Stanford Routt received from the Raiders prior to the lockout becoming official last February.
If Porter is offered something in that area code I’m sure he’ll take it, and the Saints should be fine moving on with Patrick Robinson, Johnny Patrick, and another young mid-round prospect at the cornerback spot accompanying Jabari Greer.
But if Porter is undervalued—say, for example, the going rate becomes 5 years, $20 million—the Saints shouldn’t even hesitate. Here’s two reasons: you know exactly what you get with Porter. He’s going to make a few big plays, but more than that he’s hardly ever going to get beat deep and is remarkably consistent. Additionally, this is a weak draft at the cornerback spot. Finding a solid third corner (assuming Robinson steps in as the No. 2 CB) in this draft won’t be easy.
The Saints have other areas they are more desperate to fill than a backup corner. Why complicate the process if you can help it?
As for Meachem, let’s be honest. Meachem is probably no better than a No. 3 wideout for most teams. Yet for the Saints, his impact is massive. Combined with Devery Henderson, the Saints have a duo that can take the top off literally any defense. In an era where explosive passing is at a premium, you can’t afford to lose a player who can do that.
You could make a case that Meachem is a luxury, an add-on. I say he is slightly more, and really shouldn’t come at too high a cost. And he seems like a humble player and person who likely wants to return to New Orleans.
3. The Linebacker Corps (Humber & Dunbar)
For a defense with great talent along the defensive line and in the secondary, it was actually the middle three of the defense who performed the best for Gregg Williams' defense in 2011.
Of course, Williams is gone and Steve Spagnuolo is in as the new coordinator of the defense. With that in mind, the linebacker unit may be asked to a fill different role and play with new rules—rules that may not play to the strengths of either of these players.
But indications are that Spagnuolo will stay in a 4-3 defense, and that he will try to keep things schematically as similar as possible. His job will be to call a defense that makes the most of the talent on the front and back ends. If he can manage to maintain the linebackers’ level of play—or somehow enhance it—then the Saints may really have something.
All that is to say that Ramon Humber and Jo-Lonn Dunbar were two of the Saints’ three finest linebackers in 2011. If you lose more than one of them, this unit figures to take a step backwards in the coming years.
Dunbar, then Humber, would be the order of priority for these guys. Dunbar was invaluable stepping in for Jonathan Vilma at middle linebacker in five games, providing a huge boost for a defense which actually became better in Vilma’s absence.
As for Ramon Humber, he is a guy who Gregg Williams mentioned that he was just finding ways to get him on the field. Humber is a really solid special teams player, and the kind of guy every team wants—a reserve who can come in and make a difference despite a limited number of snaps. Ramon managed to create turnovers and big plays when he was on the field for the Saints.
4. Key Reserves (MacQuistan, Franklin, Charleston & Daniel)
Everyone's heard the expression, "you're only as strong as your weakest link." For the New Orleans Saints, depth is one of the great advantages they have over the majority of the league.
It's the reason they can lose their starting running back and maintain one of the finest running games in the league. It's the reason they could miss their starting right tackle for weeks and still assemble one of the finest offensive seasons the league has ever seen.
But it's also important to note that depth in New Orleans doesn't mean a guy simply sits on his hands waiting for an opportunity. The Saints are good at playing every guy, making sure each one gets opportunities to get in the game. It helps them stay alert in case they're called upon in a larger role later in that game or in the season.
For that reason, Pat MacQuistant, Aubrayo Franklin, Jeff Charleston and Chase Daniel are four backup players the Saints cannot do without. MacQuistan took over Zach Strief's role in the Saints' jumbo packages and played the role quite well.
Franklin didn't have quite the impact Saints fans hoped he would. But let's be real, where are you going to find a 6'1", 317 lb. nose tackle who has been to a Pro Bowl on the free agent market, or in the draft?
You simply will not.
As for Charleston, he is a high-motor player who figures to excel in a system where a greater premium is placed on defensive linemen creating pressure on the quarterback. Plus, he's a wonderful special teams player for New Orleans.
Filling out the backup players' list is restricted free agent Chase Daniel. The Saints don't need to worry about filling a backup QB spot in addition to all the other free agents they need to-resign. Getting Daniel back ought to be relatively painless.
5. WR Vincent Jackson
A lot has to happen for Vincent Jackson to New Orleans to even become a conscious thought. Allow me to quickly run through the full scenario that must play out for this to even become a possibilty.
First, Marques Colston would have to betray everyone's intuitions and rapidly sign on the dotted line somewhere other than New Orleans. Then Robert Meachem would have to find a place that guarantees a more featured role in its offense. Then, Vincent Jackson would have to determine he's finally had enough of Chargers' GM A.J. Smith and his games.
Only the third aspect of that scenario seems likely at all. But if all three did happen, Jackson—who came to San Diego in Drew Brees’ final year as a Charger (à la Darren Sproles)—could be a player Drew Brees himself courts in offseason workouts. Don’t think Brees is above such behavior.
Of course the Saints would be bummed to lose the chemistry they had as a unit, but would essentially be paying one player the same amount of money as two guys, yet get the production of those two players.
Vincent Jackson is nearly as physical and clutch as Marques Colston (in 2009 I did a quantitative comparison of the two players). And he is just as much a big-play threat as Meachem.
At 6’5”, 230 lbs., Jackson’s size is almost identical to Colston’s. Though Jackson only recorded 60 receptions in 2011, his yards per reception average, 18.5, was three yards greater than the big play threat of Meachem. Of course Jackson isn’t going to see as many targets in the Saints’ diverse offense. But he would certainly make big plays. If you review some of the situational stats, they compare pretty favorably to those of Colston’s as well.
You could make the argument that the Saints would be spending their money in a wiser way by signing one player than trying to bring back both Colston and Meachem. Doing so would open up a roster spot in another key area and could save the Saints a few bucks—or not. That part is still very much up in the air.
6. C Nick Hardwick
Similar to Vincent Jackson, the acquisition of Nick Hardwick would take a lot of time and odd circumstances. But his time in San Diego could be one possible reason he may choose to leave for greener pastures in New Orleans.
First, Carl Nicks would have to sign with someone other than the Saints. Then the Saints would have to determine that Hardwick and his physical presence are worth bringing in at center. Once that decision is made, Hardwick would have to physically check out okay. Then the Saints would simply commit to starting Brian de la Puente or Matt Tenant at left guard in 2012.
If anything happens to Hardwick—who has a fairly nasty injury history—the loser of the left guard battle gets inserted into the lineup at center, or moved over to guard.
Hardwick would likely come at a low cost, but would add a physical presence in the middle of the line—something the Saints haven’t had much of in the current era.
7. DE Cliff Avril
Though the Saints saw Cliff Avril up close and personal at his worst in 2011, they may like what they see when they put on the tape of free agent pass rushers. Playing a majority of his games on the turf, Avril didn't put up huge sack numbers.
Unlike most Saints defenders, that is not because he isn't talented. In fact, Avril is one of the most talented pass rushers in the NFL. He has natural quickness and burst that are rare. Given Steve Spagnuolo's ability to get the most out of his front four, Avril could really flourish in New Orleans.
Even better, Avril should come at a relatively low price, given the availability of Robert Mathis (and possibly Mario Williams if the Texans are unable to get a deal done with him before the start of free agency) on the market.
8. LB D'Qwell Jackson
D'Qwell Jackson was a tackling machine in 2011, racking up 158 of them on the season. For our English majors, that’s just shy of 10 per game.
He also had 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. In other words, he was a playmaker on a very underrated defense. It’s likely Jackson is going to want out of Cleveland, meaning someone will be getting an excellent football player in the prime of his career.
Jackson played the middle for Cleveland in their 4-3 defense, which of course brings up the whole Jonathan Vilma issue. While any Saints fan is going to naturally feel a special connection to Vilma, the NFL is a business after all. The bottom line is all that matters.
In 2012, D’Qwell Jackson would give the Saints a better opportunity to win than Vilma. It is likely that Jackson will require a similar cap number to Vilma—meaning with the cap hit the Saints would take on Vilma they’d be paying almost double for one player.
But a championship might be at stake given the two choices. Jackson would be worth it if I were Mickey Loomis.
9. S Dashon Goldson
Despite his diminutive size, Dashon Goldson is a safety who will come up and whack you. The picture above shows that as well as anything. Even more, he is a good deep-cover guy, though he isn't great in man-to-man coverage.
Goldson isn't going to sign up to become a backup, thus the Saints must commit to: a) regularly playing three safeties; b) moving Malcolm Jenkins back to corner, or truly playing him as a hybrid player (as I've suggested they should for years); or c) trade Harper or Jenkins.
Of those three scenarios, Jenkins moving into more of a hybrid role seems most likely, though not guaranteed. This whole possibility is a pipe dream at best. But the Saints wouldn't mind adding a Pro Bowl safety to their already talented defensive secondary.
Of course, in this scenario Tracy Porter would probably be allowed to walk, moving Pat Robinson into the starting lineup at corner and placing Jenkins at the nickel/hybrid spot.
10. DE Chandler Jones, Syracuse
I will detail Chandler Jones in greater detail at a later date with a full scouting report. But for now here are a few reasons the Saints should take a run at the senior defensive end from Syracuse:
First, Jones is the brother of Arthur Jones of the Baltimore Ravens and Jon Jones—a UFC fighter. The guy has the DNA of a freak, and that’s just what he is.
Second, he was First-Team All-Big East in 2011 after earning second team honors in 2010. In just seven games he had 4.5 sacks and a multitude of other stat sheet accomplishments.
Third, and most important, Jones is built like a pass rushing outside linebacker, but plays like a 4-3 defensive end. He may not be the greatest player against the run but he possesses a non-stop motor and will make plays away from him. And he’ll never stop applying pressure on the quarterback.
It’s only injuries that prevent Jones from being a first-round prospect. But at No. 59 it’s hard to imagine the Saints could find a better player than Jones.
11. DE Jacquies Smith, Missouri
Jacquies Smith was twice named second team All-Big 12 as a defensive end. Though his namesake, Aldon, made the transition to outside linebacker despite similar size Jacquies figures to stick in a 4-3 as a defensive end.
He doesn't possess the natural ability of Aldon, or even Chandler Jones, but Smith is a hard worker who flies around the field making plays.
As a late round talent, Smith should begin his career playing special teams until he has time to learn the intricacies of playing defensive end in the NFL at game speed.
12. WR Juron Criner, Arizona
Juron Criner suffered through a few injuries and a lot of losing at the University of Arizona. But the kid never lost his talent.
That talent was on full display last week at the Senior Bowl, where he impressed coaches and scouts. He was probably the most complete receiver in Mobile, and as a result his stock went way up the charts.
At 6'2", 220 lbs., Criner doesn't possess the height or bulk of Marques Colston. But his game figures to be the most similar to Colston's of any draft prospect, other than the enigma known as Jeff Fuller.
If the Saints fail in their efforts to re-sign Colston or bring in Vincent Jackson, Criner could and should be a New Orleans Saint.
13. WR Joe Adams, Arkansas
Regardless of how the Marques Colston saga plays out the Saints should make a move on Joe Adams if Robert Meachem doesn't return to The Crescent City.
Adams is diminutive in comparison to Meachem, measuring in at a little under 5’11” and just 174 lbs. But Adams is a tough kid who brings tremendous speed and quickness to an offense. His route running is as good as Devery Henderson already and his explosion greater than Meachem’s.
Additionally, Adams may finally solve the riddle that is the Saints’ kick return game. As a punt returner Adams registered the college football play of the year in a game against Tennessee in November when he broke 87 tackles to reach the end zone and ice any hope the undermanned Volunteers had of an upset bid.
Adams could come in and play a similar role in the offense to that of Lance Moore—just with more explosive ability.
14. TE Cory Harkey, UCLA
Pardon me for getting sentimental and gushy for a moment. But one of my last memories as a UCLA Football season ticket holder is of Cory Harkey catching a last-minute touchdown against Stanford in 2008 to beat an (at the time) lousy Stanford Cardinals team.
From that point on I fully expected Harkey to explode as an elite receiving threat. He never really did as a collegiate player.
But the UCLA coaches considered him the finest blocking tight end they'd ever had the opportunity to coach. He was a key to UCLA's running success in the "Pistol" offense they ran the last few years.
After viewing Harkey at the East/West Shrine Game, Harkey proved that very notion true. In the passing game, he appears to run decent routes but still lacks the explosion to break away from coverage.
While he may not seem like a natural fit in a New Orleans offense known for slinging footballs around as if the quarterback were a batting cage, Harkey would help re-establish New Orleans' offense into a run-first offense—something that seems inevitable once Drew Brees hangs up the cleats and Sean Payton retires.
For now, the Saints could use the physicality to further grow in their ability to play nasty and kick the crap out of the opponent.
15. TE Nick Provo, Syracuse
At 6'4", 249 lbs., and with a working knowledge of the Saints' offense thanks to head coach Doug Marrone, Nick Provo is the perfect fit for the New Orleans offense as a backup tight end.
Provo had quite an impressive senior season, and dating back to his junior season finished his career with at least one reception in 23 consecutive games. If nothing else he's consistent.
Provo would provide an able blocker, someone who is physical yet flexible, and a player who David Thomas could nurture from NFL baby to NFL veteran.
The Saints desperately need a reliable third tight end behind Jimmy Graham and David Thomas. Whether it's Provo, Harkey or someone else, the Saints need to look in that direction this offseason.
Of course that is one of many key areas this team needs to address. I feel as if I've only touched on all the necessary moves that loom in the distance for the Saints' front office.