The New Orleans Saints need an improvement along the offensive line. It will be difficult to do this offseason, though, as the team is handicapped by the salary cap.
Looking at just a few of the high-figure contracts the team possesses indicates that restructuring or outright cutting certain players is a necessity to get under the projected 2013 salary cap and field a team capable of winning the Super Bowl.
Free-agent linemen Jermon Bushrod and Sedrick Ellis are coming off the books prior to any restructuring. But Jon Vilma—owed $4.8 million in 2013—and Will Smith—owed an astounding $9 million in 2013—are scheduled to resume their careers in black and gold in 2013.
Their respective contracts are the most obvious to be slashed. Even so, the team would remain $2-3 million off from clearing necessary cap space just to field a team in 2013 (the NFL is not like the NBA or MLB where a team can go over the salary cap and pay a luxury tax).
Releasing Will Herring, and his $1.5 million owed in 2013, would help. Zach Strief and his nearly $2 million contract would finally get the team into the green. David Thomas, and the $1.5 million he is owed, would allow the Saints to look into signing one or two bargain-buster free agents.
Trading players still working under their rookie deals, such as Mark Ingram or Malcolm Jenkins, would do little good other than opening up $1-2 million of space. Even releasing a veteran like Chris Chamberlain would net the Saints little in terms of open cap space.
(All contract information courtesy of spotrac.com/nfl/new-orleans-saints/yearly/)
It is fair to say, though, that cutting Vilma and Smith are necessities.
Here’s the best guess possible as to how the team spends any remaining money after these stated cuts have been made.
Few players on the Saints' defense made the impact in the 2012 season that Rafael Bush did in half a season. He proved he is a playmaker who instantly makes this defense better.
He is an exclusive rights free agent in 2013, meaning his only option is to retire or sit out. It is the Saints' option whether they want to keep him or not.
Given the way the defense improved with him in the lineup, he will be back in 2013.
Just like Rafael Bush, Eric Olsen is an exclusive rights free agent. Given the way the team used him in their extra-lineman/jumbo package, it is highly likely the team will bring him back.
With that in mind, Zach Strief, who once played the spot that Olsen occupies, is all but guaranteed to be cut, given that the team will go with Charles Brown at right tackle in 2013 and in the process save nearly $2 million.
Chris Ivory leads an important group of free agents the Saints must re-sign. The reason is that no restricted free agent will cost the team any more than $2 million per year.
In Ivory's case, the team must tender him and pray another team offers a draft pick in exchange for his services. That would allow the Saints to rid themselves of that cap number and find an impact player it is not charged for on the 2013 cap.
As obvious as it is that Brian de la Puente is not a great option at center, he is the best option for the team in 2013 given the salary cap.
Drafting his replacement for 2014 and beyond, though, is of great importance.
Junior Galette is among this group as well. His presence in 2013 could help the team become one of the league's better pass-rushing defenses.
Elbert Mack proved to be a nice fit for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's hybrid coverage schemes. He was effective in coverage and a playmaker when placed in zone coverages.
D.J. Moore is a similar type of player, but with even better ball skills. He also happens to be one of the most effective nickel blitzers in the game.
His presence would turn the Saints into 49ers' east in terms of ability to create turnovers. And he'll likely come on the cheap.
The Saints would love to turn Chris Ivory into a franchise left tackle.
It breaks Mickey Loomis' common approach to the offseason, but given the Saints' salary cap situation, help will have to be found in the draft.
If you're scoring at home, neither Jermon Bushrod nor Sedrick Ellis were re-signed. Devery Henderson was omitted as well.
Eric Fisher is a top offensive tackle prospect the Saints could trade up a few spots from 15 to secure as the franchise left tackle of the future. This is where the Chris Ivory move comes into play. If Ivory can be traded for a pick, the Saints could turn around and package the 15th pick with the Ivory pick to move up and acquire Eric Fisher.
A late-round defensive tackle and defensive end would also make a ton of sense. A late-round outside linebacker and tight end should also be added to replace Jon Vilma and David Thomas, respectively.
The Saints are fortunate that they've built a deep roster and finally decided to field an approach that allows for the "next man up" approach to be heeded.
There are not a ton of holes on this roster. The return of Sean Payton will mask some of the team's biggest issues. It should also add one or two wins to the team's total (Saints were expected to win eight in 2012, meaning with Payton that likely would have been 10).
The 2013 version of the Saints should notch an expected win-loss ratio of roughly 11.5-4.5 with the prescribed moves above.
That leaves room for some luck to possibly carry them to 13-3 and with bad luck makes them a 9-7 team.
Either way, the Saints will be better in 2013 than they were in 2012.
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