New Orleans Saints Free Agency: Tracking 2012 Signings, Targets and Rumors

Will OsgoodAnalyst IFebruary 22, 2012

New Orleans Saints Free Agency: Tracking 2012 Signings, Targets and Rumors

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    Regardless of whom the Saints decide to re-sign from their own roster, they will have some holes to address to improve as a football team and once again become a championship football team. 

    Let's assume they go in the direction proposed thus far. 

     

    Middle Linebacker

    Though Jonathan Vilma is already part of the team, adding D'Qwell Jackson would be a major coup for the Saints. I have identified the reasons here.

    A Jackson signing would likely mean the end of the Vilma era in New Orleans. It would also strengthen the outside by cementing Jo-Lonn Dunbar to that spot. 

    (Note: Monday February 27 the Cleveland Browns re-signed D'Qwell Jackson to a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension.)

    Result: There are zero middle linebackers who match Jackson's pedigree, meaning this position is now up for grabs between Dunbar and Vilma.

     

    Third Safety

    Steve Spagnuolo loves to use the nickel package against passing teams. He will often use three safeties, which will work well with Roman Harper essentially becoming a blitzing linebacker.

     

    Pass-Rushing Defensive End

    Steve Spagnuolo likes to blitz, but not nearly to the same extent as Gregg Williams.Spags would rather create pressure with his front four. Needless to say, the Saints need more talent on the edge to get this done. 

     

    Big, Physical Wide Receiver

    Without Marques Colston, the Saints will be missing their big, physical wide receiver who can go over the middle and hang on despite getting crushed. Though Jimmy Graham and co. can begin to make up for that, throwing money at the more explosive Vincent Jackson might make sense

Tracking Free-Agent Signings, Re-Signings and Roster Moves

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    These are the players the Saints have signed as future contracts free agents since the end of the 2011 campaign:

     

    Josh Victorian, DB

    Phil Trautwein, OT

    Cord Parks, DB

    Kamaal McIlwain, CB

    Jeremiah Hunter, LB

    Nick Howell, OG

    Daniel Hardy, TE

     

    March 3rd: Jay Glazer reports that the Saints have placed their franchise tag on Drew Brees. https://twitter.com/#!/JayGlazer/statuses/176043156381515776

    Tuesday February 28, Brian McIntryre (@brian_mcintyre) confirmed WR Adrian Arrington signed an exlusive rights free agent contract for $540K. 

    Mike Triplett reported LS Justin Drescher also signed the same exclusive rights free agent contract for $540K. 

    Additionally, Larry Holder reported the Saints signed S Jonathan Amaya to an exclusive right free agent contract for $540K. 

    Saturday, the New Orleans Saints used the Exclusive Rights Franchise Tag on QB Drew Brees. Brees will earn a top-five QB salary and is not allowed to negotiate with any other team or be traded. Brees and the Saints can still negotiate a long-term deal at any time. 

    According to ESPN's Pat Yasinkas, on Monday the Saints restructured Will Smith's contract so that his 2012 cap value is merely $825,000. The overall benefit for Smith was a $6.175 million bonus, a late March roster bonus around $1 million and upwards of $150,000 as an incentive for taking part in X number of offseason workouts. 

Last Year's Holes

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    The 2011 New Orleans Saints went up 13-3, won the NFC South Division and won a Wild Card Round playoff game.

    Yet the team has holes, especially on defense. 

    The defense ranked 24th overall while placing 30th in pass-defense. A major reason for their struggles against the pass was a lack of pass rush, which provided just 33 sacks on the season. That number ranked the Saints No. 19 in the league. 

    A lack of overall pass rush from the front four hurt the defense. They were forced to blitz more than 50 percent of the time, leaving the backside one-on-one most downs. The Saints have great corners, but playing on an island is tough—even for the guy in New York who supposedly has his own island. 

    The good news is, Steve Spagnuolo will not leave his corners on an island at nearly the rate Gregg Williams did. The bad news is, with the current personnel, it's unlikely the Saints will even match the 33 sacks they had in 2011 if he chooses to play more coverage. 

     

    Defense

    There were zero glaring holes in the Saints' 2011 offensive unit, but defensively, two of the three levels of the defense struggled. 

    Despite being the most talented group in the entire league, the Saints' defensive backs were victimized time and again by opposing offenses. Nonetheless, the answer does not appear to be changing the personnel on the back end. 

    Adding a third safety to play in sub packages would allow Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins to rotate as blitzing safeties. But aside from that, the Saints' secondary personnel figures to improve as a result of the new schemes from Steve Spagnuolo. 

     

    Defensive Line

    Whether it was Shaun Rogers, Sed Ellis or Aubrayo Franklin, the Saints' interior linemen were unproductive. The unit did a solid job against the run, especially in the second half of the season. But unfortunately, they provided next-to-no defensive pressure and became a liability by the end of the season. 

    On the outside, Will Smith and Cameron Jordan did a really good job of holding up on the edge versus the run, but provided very little in getting after the passer. With Smith's age and cap figure, this is a disturbing factor.

    More and more, cutting him seems like the only answer for this Saints team. 

     

    Linebackers

    Martez Wilson shined in the final four games of 2011. He looks like a player going forward. 

    Jonathan Casillas shined early in the year, but was hurt the second half of the season. When healthy, Casillas has been a very productive player, but his presence in the lineup is unpredictable at best. 

    Scott Shanle proved he is aging fast. Though solid, he no longer can cover over the middle and provides little explosive pass-rush run-game penetration. 

    The unit played way over their heads in 2011 because Joe Vitt is obviously an amazing coach. The Saints cannot continue relying on simply patching up this unit; they need to find solid starters at middle linebacker and the outside linebacker spot opposite Wilson. 

Salary Cap Status

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    Until the NFL announces its official salary cap for 2012 shortly before the league year begins March 13, it's nearly impossible to project the exact salary cap teams will be placed under. 

    But a $5 million increase to $125 million from last year's $120 million is a fairly good approximation. Based on the current players on the Saints' roster and their cap figures, the New Orleans Saints' 2012 cap figure comes in around $80 million. That leaves right around $45 million for all 2012 offseason signings. 

    (Salary Cap Figures taken from Spotrac).


    Problematic Elements of the Saints' Current Cap

    Unfortunately, $46.7 million doesn't go very far when you have three players who are going to take up $30 million of that cap space—assuming you re-sign each of them (Brees, Nicks and Colston—and that doesn't even include Tracy Porter or Robert Meachem).

    It's even more problematic after realizing the Saints are in desperate need of adding an elite pass-rusher and possess no first-round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft.

     

    Positive Elements of the Saints' Current Cap Situation

    Most notably, Pro Bowler and co-All Pro (I'm calling him that even if he didn't officially earn that status) tight end Jimmy Graham has a delightful cap figure coming in at $656,285. Only six players currently signed by the team are paid less than he is. Graham is likely to a demand a raise in a year or two, but the Saints don't have time this offseason to worry about that.

    In the bottom 12 of the Saints' salary structure are other starters—Malcolm Jenkins, who figures to benefit greatly from the new defense Steve Spagnuolo will employ, Mark Ingram whom I predict will have a second-year ascension similar to Ryan Mathews in San Diego, Chris Ivory, Junior Galette, Greg Romeus, Johnny Patrick and Thomas Morstead. All of these players are likely to figure prominently in the Saints' plans over the next five-plus seasons.

     

    Biggest Cap Questions for the 2012 Offseason

    Where should we start?

    Will Smith's cap figure is $9.75 million. The Saints are not getting $9.75 million worth of production from the former Pro Bowler. Mickey Loomis and the Saints' talented group of capologists/negotatiors need to figure out a way to bring Smith's cap figure down by restructuring his contract—or the Saints must cut him.

    After him, Jonathan Vilma's cap number comes in at $6.6 million—and the Saints are not getting $6.6. million worth of production from Vilma (they haven't since 2009). For a similar cap number, the Saints could allocate those funds to D'Qwell Jackson or hand the job over to Jo-Lonn Dunbar and really save some money.

    Of course, Dunbar is not signed either, but is a restricted free agent.

     

    To Franchise or Not to Franchise?

    As I detailed here, the Saints face quite a conundrum of who (if anyone) to franchise in 2012. The most logical choice would seem to be Drew Brees, though he is also the most likely to agree to a long-term deal prior to the March 5 franchise tag deadline.

    Franchising a player means you must pay that player the average of the top-five salaries of that position in the league. It is quite a hefty sum of money, especially for a quarterback, but the Saints are likely to pay him the highest salary at the position anyway.

    It’s a huge question—one the Saints have approximately two weeks from the time of writing this to answer. 

    Answer: Drew Brees franchised. 

    March 3rd: Jay Glazer reports that the Saints have placed their franchise tag on Drew Bress. https://twitter.com/#!/JayGlazer/statuses/176043156381515776

    March 5th: Pat Yasinkas reported Will Smith's salary restructure opened up $4.78 million for the Saints' 2012 Salary Cap. 

    The effect of Smith's restructure means the Saints have much more flexibility to make a significant run at re-signing Carl Nicks and Marques Colston. It is believed the Saints are still aiming to re-sign their big three, while it is unclear if Robert Meachem or Tracy Porter remain in the team's plans. 

Listing the Saints' 2012 Free Agents

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    Spotrac lists the following Saints players as unrestricted free agents (UFAs), meaning unless New Orleans negotiate a deal in advance of free agency's start date, any NFL team has the ability to offer these players a contract:

    Tracy Porter, CB

    Courtney Roby, WR/ST

    Alex Brown, DE

    Aubrayo Franklin, DT

    Shaun Rogers, DT

    Turk McBride, DE

    Marques Colston, WR

    Carl Nicks, OG

    Jeff Charleston, DE

    Robert Meachem, WR

    Fabian Washington, CB

     

    The following players are listed as restricted free agents (RFAs), meaning the Saints can offer them a one-year tender, which any other team must match with draft picks:

     

    Chase Daniel, QB

    Jonathan Casillas, LB

    Jo-Lonn Dunbar, LB

     

    In determining compensation for matched qualifying offers, a $2.562 million tender must be matched with first- and third-round draft picks from any other team in pursuit, a $2.017 million tender is good for first-round compensation, a $1.417 million tender constitutes a second-round tender and the lowest base tender of $927,000 constitutes matching the RFA's original draft pick (i.e. if the player was selected in the third round, the pursuing team must offer a third-round pick in exchange).

    Any team matching or holding on to the qualifying offer must pay that number as the player's base salary for that season.

Determining Contract Value and Worth for Every Saints Free Agent

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    With the high number of free agents the Saints have in 2012, it's almost impossible they can re-sign all of them given their current cap number. But it's worth examining what each potential free agent is going to command before jumping to such a conclusion about whether it's theoretically possible. 

     

    Drew Brees, QB: $20 million (estimated)

    Regardless of how Drew Brees gets paid in 2012 (long-term deal or being franchised), he's going to make roughly the same salary. Brees has said he wants the Saints to be a winner and is willing to do things structurally to make that a reality. So the cap hit may not equal out to $20 million per year, but Brees will make at least this much from the Saints in 2012. 

    Note:  Brees will make the average of the top-five QB salaries in 2012 (approximately $16 million). 

    March 3rd: Jay Glazer reports that the Saints have placed their franchise tag on Drew Bress. https://twitter.com/#!/JayGlazer/statuses/176043156381515776

    Carl Nicks, OG: $8 million (estimated)

    Given Jahri Evans signed a deal that is paying him approximately $50 million over the whole course of the deal, Evans figures to make at least that much if not more since Nicks has outperformed Evans the past two years. 

    The good news is that Evans' cap figure only comes in at $4.7 million. The Saints would love to get Nicks around $5-6 million, but if he chooses to leave New Orleans, he will get much closer to the $8 million I have estimated. 

    With Brees being franchised, Nicks will not be unhappy and is thus more likely to re-sign with the Saints. And the franchising also means more potential money for Nicks; again opening up the likelihood of his re-signing. 

     

    Marques Colston, WR: $8 million (estimated)

    With Lance Moore commanding a cap figure of $4.6 million, Colston figures to nearly double that.

    Though Colston has never made a Pro Bowl, he is widely regarded as one of the top 10 receivers in the league (to me, he's top five after the two Johnsons and Larry Fitz). Colston is going to command a four or five-year deal, which will save a team a bit of money in the long run.

    Can the Saints pay one receiver this much money?

    The Brees franchise tag also opens up the possibility of re-signing Colston because there will be more available money. 

     

    Robert Meachem, WR: $2 million (estimated)

    Robert Meachem's value to the Saints' offense is probably very underrated, even by the Saints themselves. As I monologued in the franchise piece, Meachem could actually be more valuable to the Saints in the future than Colston if they end up morphing into a more run-oriented offense as I expect. 

    Therefore, re-signing Meachem for $2 million-plus for five years may be more cost-efficient than re-signing Colston for five years at quadruple the amount. 

     

    Tracy Porter, CB: $5 million (estimated)

    With the Chiefs paying Stanford Routt $6.5 million in guaranteed money, Porter should be a shoo-in for $5 million a year. Porter is one of the most consistent corners in the game while also possessing playmaker skills that are hard to come by at any level. 

     

    Aubrayo Franklin, DT: $3 million (estimated)

    In 2011, Franklin made $4 million as a supposedly highly coveted free agent. After a disappointing season in New Orleans, Franklin is going to be surprised if he thinks he's going to make an equivalent salary.

    The talent remains, and in a front four-friendly system, Franklin could excel and demand a higher salary in 2013. 

     

    Jeff Charleston, DE: $900,000 (estimated)

    Charleston is a high motor player whose greatest contributions have come on special teams for the Saints. If he re-signs with New Orleans, they figure to pay him above the minimum as a reward, but he doesn't figure to warrant much more than that. 

     

    Courtney Roby, WR/ST: $900,000 (estimated)

    Similar to Charleston, Roby's primary role on the team is as a special teams player. Re-signing either of these two players won't cost the Saints much, but then again, neither would a fifth or sixth-round rookie with a higher ceiling. 

     

    Fabian Washington, CB: $900,000 (estimated)

    Unlike the previous two players, Washington still has some value and upside. He could provide tremendous depth at corner for the Saints and could potentially fill the role of Tracy Porter at a much lower cost. 

     

    Jo-Lonn Dunbar, LB: $3 million (estimated)

    As a restricted free agent, the Saints figure to benefit in that they can keep Dunbar on a minimum tender (their likely play). If he were to be tendered by another team, he could easily make $3 million or more. 

     

    Jonathan Casillas, LB: $2 million (estimated)

    Casillas' value seems to come in a little below Dunbar's mainly because of his injury past. But he is definitely going to be viewed as a prized target by some teams, and like Dunbar could be tendered by an outside organization. 

     

    Chase Daniel, QB: $2 million (estimated)

    Daniel figures to receive the same tender as Casillas, which is essentially a mid-round tender. The total cap hit comes in at roughly $2 million per year.

    For a decent backup, QB the Saints could do a lot worse. 

     

    Justin Drescher, LS: $900,000 (estimated)

    No matter how good you are as a long snapper, you're not going to make much more than the league minimum. Drescher figures to get similar deals to Charleston, Roby and Washington. 

    [Update: Drescher was signed to exclusive rights free agent contract for $540,000.]

Projecting Which Free Agents the Saints Will Re-Sign and Which Will Walk

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    With such limited cap space and what seems like a genuine crossroads in the direction of the franchise, the Saints have some amazingly difficult situations staring them in the face over the next month or so. 

    Obviously, throwing the franchise tag at Brees, Nicks or Colston would be a good start to maintaining continuity for 2012, but then they must consider the ramifications that may have for 2013 and beyond. 

    With that in mind, here is our projection of who will re-sign with New Orleans and who the Saints will allow to walk. 

     

    Drew Brees, QB: Re-Signed

    Letting the cornerstone and MVP of your franchise go would kill everything Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton have created over the past six years.

    The good news is that Brees wants to stay. Figuring out all the details will be difficult, but I have a feeling, in the next week or two, he will agree to a long-term deal. 

    March 3rd: Jay Glazer reports that the Saints have placed their franchise tag on Drew Bress. https://twitter.com/#!/JayGlazer/statuses/176043156381515776

     

    Estimated Contract: Five years, $100 million

    Note: Brees re-signed via franchise tag and can still be re-signed long-term. 


    Carl Nicks, OG: Re-Signed

    Nicks is simply too valuable to the direction of this football team.

    The Saints are going to have to rely on their offensive line in the next five years. Having the best guard in football (Nicks) and one of the top five (Evans) will be very helpful in recreating this team's identity to become a power football team. 

    The Saints will likely end up giving Nicks more than his value because his value is greater to the Saints than it would be for just about any other team. But they will be creative to keep his cap figure at $8 million. 

    Estimated Contract: Five years, $50 million


    Marques Colston, WR: Allowed to Walk

    Though Colston's value comes in around $8 million per year, some team will throw more money at him.

    Unfortunately, the Saints are not able to come up with that much money. It's unfortunate because Colston will find the grass is not greener in another locale. The money will be, though. 

     

    Robert Meachem, WR: Re-signed

    By allowing Marques Colston to walk, the Saints must keep Robert Meachem.

    Meachem's incredible blocking and deep play theatrics make him a great value. He will become the Saints' best wide receiver in the absence of Colston and will actually outperform his deal by several million bucks. 

    Estimated Contract: Five years, $10 million


    Tracy Porter, CB: Allowed to Walk

    As much as it hurts me—and I assume most Saints fans—Porter's value exceeds the amount the Saints can give him. With Jabari Greer possessing a $6.15 million cap value, adding a second corner at $5 million-plus simply doesn't make sense.

    Plus, the combination of Fabian Washington, Pat Robinson and Johnny Patrick should be able to make up for the loss. 

     

    Aubrayo Franklin, DT: Allowed to Walk

    The Saints found out in 2011 that Franklin is more successful as nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme than in a traditional 4-3 defense. With Spags coming to town, the defensive alignment will feature more of the same.

    Thus, Franklin has almost no value for the Saints. 

     

    Fabian Washington, CB: Re-Signed

    Washington will be a flyer re-signing. The Saints have done the same with other players such as Dan Morgan and Clint Ingram, whom they brought back hoping that player would regain their previous form.

    My bet is it will actually work with Washington. He can be very valuable as a third corner behind Greer and Robinson. 

    Estimated Contract: One year, $900,000


    Courtney Roby, WR/ST: Allowed to Walk

    As I said before, Roby doesn't bring anything special to the team. Players like him are a dime a dozen. 

     

    Jeff Charleston, DE/ST: Re-Signed

    The Saints need as many good pass-rushers as they can find. Though Charleston is not as talented as some of the other defensive ends on this roster, he is more than capable of putting up huge numbers in a scheme designed by Steve Spagnuolo. 

    Estimated Contract: One year, $900,000


    Jo-Lonn Dunbar, LB: Re-Signed

    Dunbar brings tremendous value in that he can anchor the middle of the defense, or roam outside and play sideline-to-sideline.

    He is the most valuable defender the Saints have to make a decision on this offseason. Thankfully, he's a restricted free agent, so keeping him becomes slightly easier. 

    Estimated Contract: One-year tender, $2.562 million


    Jonathan Casillas, LB: Re-Signed

    Casillas will command the mid-level tender unlike Dunbar, who received the top tender possible.

    Casillas doesn't get the level of Dunbar because of his injury history. When healthy, Casillas can be as good a player as Dunbar, if not even better. 

    Estimated Contract: One-year tender, $2.017 million


    Chase Daniel, QB: Re-Signed

    Daniel has a chance to become a Matt Flynn-type prospect an offseason from now, but he isn't at that level yet.

    Remaining in the Saints' system ought to help him become that. When Pete Carmichael Jr. gets a head coaching job next offseason, he will likely try to bring Daniel with him much like new Dolphins coach Joe Philbin will do this offseason. 

    Estimated Contract: One-year tender, $2.017 million


    Justin Drescher, LS: Re-Signed

    Drescher has brought stability to a position that lost some after the Jason Kyle mess. Stability in the NFL apparently costs a little more than $900K. 

    [Drescher has been re-signed at $540,000]


Available Cap Space After Signings

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    Available Cap Space (Projected): $7 million (approximately)

    Based on the projected $125 million salary cap and the current cap figure around $96 million, the Saints will be left with just a little more than $11 million under the cap, assuming they re-sign the players at the figures we have here. 

    This assumes a ton.

    First, this assumes Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma are kept on the roster at their current cap figures.

    Second, it assumes the Saints make the same players a priority as we have established here.

    And third, it assumes cap figures aren't played with in a creative way (which they obviously will be). 

    Nonetheless, we must move forward with these assumptions for now until we know otherwise. 

    At $11 million under the cap, it's hard to imagine the Saints can do much in the 2012 free-agency market. 

Biggest Needs After Re-Signings

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    Regardless of whom the Saints decide to re-sign from their own roster, they will have some holes to address to improve as a football team and once again become a championship football team. 

    Let's assume they go in the direction proposed thus far. 

     

    Middle Linebacker

    Though Jonathan Vilma is already part of the team, adding D'Qwell Jackson would be a major coup for the Saints. I have identified the reasons here.

    A Jackson signing would likely mean the end of the Vilma era in New Orleans. It would also strengthen the outside by cementing Jo-Lonn Dunbar to that spot. 

    (Note: Monday February 27 the Cleveland Browns re-signed D'Qwell Jackson to a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension.)

    Result: There are zero middle linebackers who match Jackson's pedigree, meaning this position is now up for grabs between Dunbar and Vilma. 

    Third Safety

    Steve Spagnuolo loves to use the nickel package against passing teams. He will often use three safeties, which will work well with Roman Harper essentially becoming a blitzing linebacker.

     

    Pass-Rushing Defensive End

    Steve Spagnuolo likes to blitz, but not nearly to the same extent as Gregg Williams.Spags would rather create pressure with his front four. Needless to say, the Saints need more talent on the edge to get this done. 

     

    Big, Physical Wide Receiver

    Without Marques Colston, the Saints will be missing their big, physical wide receiver who can go over the middle and hang on despite getting crushed. Though Jimmy Graham and co. can begin to make up for that, throwing money at the more explosive Vincent Jackson might make sense

Identifying Free Agents the Saints Could Sign

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    In addition to the four I mentioned in the previous slide, there are a variety of other ways the Saints could choose to allocate their limited available funds.

    Perhaps the most impactful signing they could make would be former No. 1 pick Mario Williams—a player they likely would have taken six years ago in the 2006 NFL Draft had Houston not passed on Reggie Bush.

    Perhaps destiny could shine brightly on the Saints, and Williams could play the very role he was always meant to play. He is exactly the kind of player Steve Spagnuolo needs to make the Saints’ defense great. 

    Other options include lower-end players:

     

    Laurent Robinson, WR

    Despite putting up big numbers in Dallas in 2011, the Cowboys are unlikely to keep Robinson, and he is unlikely to receive huge money. Robinson possesses good size and ability to catch the football in traffic. He's not Marques Colston reincarnated, but we've already established there really isn't such a thing. 

     

    Plaxico Burress, WR

    After a disappointing season in New York with the Jets, Burress' stock is not really high. He can likely be had for a small penny.

    Burress' big body, hands and experience could be just what the doctor ordered in replacing Marques Colston. 

     

    Chaz Schillens, WR

    Schillens is the least-known of the three receivers here.

    A San Diego State alumnus, Schillens has displayed tons of talent, yet produced little in his four-year career. He has size similar to Burress and Colston, and with Drew Brees' ability to make grandmas look like superstars, Schillens may be the cost-efficient answer for the Saints as their next big-bodied receiver. 

     

    Korey Sperry, TE

    Though I failed to mention tight end as a position of need thus far, finding a third-stringer has to be a priority for the Saints either in free agency or the draft. A player who excels as a blocker, and can provide versatility and receiving skills is the ideal.

    Sperry provides all of that and would come pretty affordably. However, Sperry is likely to return to San Diego. 

     

    Dave Ball, DE

    The former UCLA Bruin star, Ball has had a quiet yet productive NFL career in Tennessee. He is a pass-rush specialist who uses good technique and a high motor to pressure the quarterback.

     

    Matt Roth, DE

    The former Iowa Hawkeye possesses a ton of talent and has never truly lived up to his potential in the NFL. Steve Spagnuolo could be the guy to get something out of him. He would most likely not be the long-term answer, though (as could be said of most of the guys on this list, save Mario Williams).

     

    Kroy Biermann, DE

    The Saints know Biermann well. When playing the Falcons, it seems as if Biermann creates headaches for the Saints' offensive linemen more than any other player that team has. This signing would be worth it almost as much for taking him away from a rival than even the production he will give the Saints. 

     

    Thomas DeCoud, S

    Just as with Biermann, taking away a good player from the Falcons would be great. DeCoud is very underrated and is likely to be retained by Atlanta, though they also have some big-time decisions to make regarding their own free agents. 

    A combination of a few of these players are possible with the $7 million-plus cap availability at Mickey Loomis' disposal. 

Projecting Contract Values for the Saints' Free-Agent Targets

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    To review, the following players are targets the Saints could and perhaps should go after in free agency, dependent upon the cap figure of the players they would retain:

     

    Cliff Avril, DE (Detroit Lions)

    Vincent Jackson, WR (San Diego Chargers)

    Mario Williams, DE (Houston Texans)

    Michael Griffin, S (Tennessee Titans)

    Thomas DeCoud, S (Atlanta Falcons)

    Kroy Biermann, DE (Atlanta Falcons)

    Dave Ball, DE (Tennessee Titans)

    Matt Roth, DE (Jacksonville Jaguars)

    Laurent Robinson, WR (Dallas Cowboys)

    Plaxico Burress, WR (NY Jets)

    Chaz Schillens, WR (Oakland Raiders)

    Korey Sperry, TE (San Diego Chargers)


    Of those, the two Jacksons, Goldson, Avril and Williams are likely to be re-signed by their current teams or get handed kajillions of dollars by someone with more cap space.

    Let's now look at the most realistic targets and what their cap figures could look like:

     

    Michael Griffin, S (two years, $6 million)

    Due to Griffin's inconsistent effort, he figures to make a relatively low figure this offseason. For $3 million, the Saints could do a lot worse in adding a player who would likely play about 40 percent of the defensive snaps. 

     

    Thomas DeCoud, S (three years, $12 million)

    As I said, Thomas DeCoud is underrated, but offering him any more than $4 million is probably not a great investment for a player who would come in as the third safety.

    Given that Roman Harper's current deal runs out in three years, a three-year deal would allow the Saints to re-evaluate their second safety spot in three years. 

     

    Kroy Biermann, DE (two years, $4 million)

    Considering the Saints pretty much have to offer Jeff Charleston a contract in the $900,000 range, I think Biermann is worth $2 million per year. He almost figures to come in and gain the 6.5 sacks Will Smith had a season ago. Biermann could be a bargain. 

     

    Dave Ball, DE (two years, $3.5 million)

    Though Ball has been fairly productive for a late-round draft pick, he's not a superstar and has limited upside. 

     

    Matt Roth, DE (three years, $6 million)

    Of the three defensive ends I've identified, Roth possesses the most upside and raw ability. For those reasons, a three-year deal figures to good incentive to bring him in, and the Saints could get a lot of production out of the player. 

     

    Laurent Robinson, WR (one year, $2.5 million)

    Despite having a wonderful campaign in 2011, Robinson hasn't proven he's a great NFL receiver. A one-year deal gives him an opportunity to show he's more than a one-year wonder. 

     

    Plaxico Burress, WR (two years, $5 million)

    Because he missed two full years of football, Burress is more like a 32-year-old than a 34-year-old. While Burress excels on the outside, he does possess the ability to go over the middle and catch the ball. 

     

    Chaz Schillens, WR (three years, $9 million)

    Schillens is still young and possesses tons of talent. He's never played with a great quarterback (the best he's played with is Jason Campbell) and should excel in the Saints' system.

     

    Korey Sperry, TE (two years, $3.25 million)

    Sperry is a wonderful option as a third tight end. He's still young with room to grow and provides all the versatility the Saints want in a tight end.

    Look for him to re-sign with San Diego, though. 

Analyzing the Saints' Draft Strategy and Positions of Need

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    As we've shown, the Saints are not desperate to add great talent at every position. They can afford to be selective and add the right player. 

    That said, they are pretty desperate at defensive end. With no first-round selection, the Saints have to get a little lucky that an elite pass-rusher falls to them in the second round or later. The good news is, most scouting services have Syracuse's Chandler Jones ranked right around pick No. 59. 

    Jones would be the perfect player for the Saints given their needs. He would likely come in and start, or at least be the team's go-to pass-rusher in nickel situations. 

    As always, the Saints want to add some young talent that can develop and eventually challenge for a starting spot. 

    Positions the Saints would like to add competition at:

     

    Quarterback

    Tight End

    Offensive Tackle

    Defensive Tackle

    Defensive End

    Outside Linebacker

    Safety

     

    Luckily, because of their record, the Saints are in the position where they can afford to select the best player available in every round of the draft. 

Draft Names to Keep an Eye on

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    We already have beaten the horse to death in terms of naming the defensive end position a priority. And we identified Chandler Jones as the primary player to keep an eye on at that position.

    With that in mind, here are some other players at each position who could be targets of the Saints in the 2012 NFL Draft:

     

    Tight End

    Nick Provo (Syracuse) is a guy I've placed in multiple Saints' mock drafts because he comes from Doug Marrone's offensive system, which is a derivative of the one Marrone helped coordinate for three years in New Orleans. 

    Additionally, Cory Harkey (UCLA) is a wonderful blocker who would further help bring in the power-running era in New Orleans. 

     

    Offensive Tackle

    Tony Bergstrom (Utah) figures to be available come the fourth round at the tackle spot. Being from Utah, you know he'll be a multi-dimensional player who plays with good technique. 

    Nate Potter (Boise State) is a smart, well-coached right tackle prospect who would compete and eventually earn a starting spot for the Saints. 

     

    Defensive Tackle

    Mike Martin (Michigan) is another player likely to be targeted by these New Orleans Saints. He has experience in multiple schemes and can bring more versatility to the defensive tackle position. 

    Kheeston Randle (Texas) is another player who has upside and whose stock is on the rise. He is a fourth-round prospect. 

     

    Defensive End

    In addition to Chandler Jones, the Saints could target Missouri's Jacquies Smith (Aldon's namesake and cohort on the Tigers' defensive line from 2008-2010).

    And keep an eye on Miami's Olivier Vernon. He is an underclassmen whose stock is low right now, but he could go on the upswing as workouts consummate. 

     

    Outside Linebacker

    Miami's Sean Spence is another player slotted right around the Saints' first selection at Pick No. 59. Being from "The U," he promises to be a good athlete. The Saints like Miami players and could fall in love with Spence. 

    Two Mountain West guys—TCU's Tank Carder and San Diego State's Miles Burris—are two intelligent football players who could come in and play right away if necessary. 

     

    Safety

    Wisconsin's Aaron Henry and Kansas State's Tysyn Hartman are two safeties who figure to come across the Saints' radar.