The sound that you heard Friday afternoon from the Gulf Coast was a collective sigh of relief from Saints fans over the re-signing of middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
There were some late reports that Tampa Bay may be able to sway the defensive cog to join the Bucs' rebuilding team.
Vilma was the one constant force in the Saints' rebuilding defense. He was eighth in the league in tackles and played every defensive snap.
At five years and $34 million, he was a relative bargain.
The Jets, Vilma's former team, signed Bart Scott to a six-year $48 million deal to play the same position Vilma occupied during his last two seasons in New York.
Now that the Saints have fulfilled their No. 1 offseason priority, what's next for the black and gold?
Creating Cap Space
Besides Vilma's signing, perhaps the biggest offseason present for the Saints came from the NFL front office. The NFL raised the salary cap by $7 million and gave the Saints a little bit of room to chase one or two more free agents.
The Saints, though, may have to do a little bit of work on their own to create more cap space. Here are a couple of players whose contracts the Saints may consider restructuring:
1) Mike McKenzie
Since arriving in New Orleans during the middle of the 2004 season, McKenzie has been the Saints' best defensive back and one of their best defensive players.
McKenzie, though, has suffered season-ending knee injuries in consecutive seasons and surely has lost some of the speed that made him a force in the secondary.
He is expected to count more than $5 million against the cap in the last year of his contract.
2) Charles Grant
No fat cat has been more of a disappointment for the Saints over the past three or four seasons than Charles Grant.
Since recording back-to-back 10-sack seasons in 2003 and 2004, he has totaled just 14 sacks over the past four seasons.
Not only are his sack numbers down, but his overall tackle numbers are down as well. His drop from 65 solo stops in 2004 to just 39 in 2007 suggests that he is not getting off his blocks well and not creating much havoc in the backfield.
To compound matters, Grant will likely miss the first four games of the 2009 season, pending the ruling in his Starcaps case.
He is scheduled to count for $5.4 million against the cap in 2009.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Expect the Saints to work tirelessly to bring in defensive players to fit into Gregg Williams' system and upgrade the overall talent on defense.
Bartell is taller than any of the Saints cornerbacks at 6'1" and defended more passes last season than any other New Orleans defender.
Sensabaugh is a young, incredible athlete. He holds the NFL Combine record with a 46-inch vertical jump in 2005. His 2008 numbers suggest that he is better than any of the safeties the Saints currently have.
However, buyer beware.
Sensabaugh has been arrested three times during the past three years on a variety of driving and weapons charges.
Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton have proven to be very cautious in the past when considering players with character issues.
Last season, the Saints took a chance by drafting Carl Nicks. Nicks had been banned from Nebraska's pro day following an off-campus arrest.
Whether Bartell, Sensabaugh, or others are brought in for offseason visits, the Saints would be wise to add players to shore up a defense that ranked 23rd in total yards allowed and suffered a litany of injuries.
Re-sign More of Their Own Players
The Saints made an effort to keep many of their own players before free agency even began.
Jahri Evans, Lance Moore, Zach Strief, and Leigh Torrence all are restricted free agents who were offered one-year tenders by the Saints. The Saints offered Evans the highest possible one-year tender.
If another team were to sign him to a contract and the Saints didn't match, Evans' new team would owe the Saints a first round and third round pick in this year's draft.
Here are some of the unrestricted free agents the Saints are going to have to make decisions on within the next few weeks:
1) Josh Bullocks - The Saints' free safety showed his (lack of) worth in 2008 when he lost his starting spot to Kevin Kaesviharn. He does not show good awareness in the open field and is often beat deep by receivers.
His biggest asset is that he played in all 16 games last season.
2) Troy Evans - The veteran Evans will never be a starter for the Saints barring injury to a linebacker. He is counted on for depth and is one of the Saints' special teams standouts.
3) Aaron Glenn - Glenn will be 37-years-old at the start of the season and played just four games in 2008 before being placed on injured reserved. Glenn has value because of his leadership and veteran experience, but isn't worth more than the league minimum.
4) Martin Gramatica - Don't let the door hit you on the way out.
5) Joey Harrington - The former Detroit Lion and Miami Dolphin served off and on last season as the team's third quarterback. After a year in the Saints' system, Harrington may be able to serve better as the Saints' backup than Mark Brunell.
6) Devery Henderson - As an alum of the same university as the speedy receiver, I really wanted the former LSU Tiger and second round pick to blossom in New Orleans. Henderson is the Saints' only legitimate deep threat but possesses some of the most inconsistent hands in the league.
New Orleans should wait and see with Henderson. There may be a team that wants him as their No. 2 receiver and offer him that kind of money. As a Saint, he would be no better than the third receiver.
7) Aaron Stecker - With Deuce's departure, Stecker may have some value for the Saints. However, he wouldn't be more than a third down back and special team player.
He may be able to find a larger role with another team.
The Saints' activity in free agency will help shape their draft strategy.
Most can agree, though, that the league's best offense just needs a piece (power running back) here or there.
No matter who the Saints bring in through free agency, they likely will select a defensive player who can start immediately with the 14th pick in the draft.
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