The New Orleans Saints are looking at one of their most intriguing offseasons in recent memory.
Having already signed Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator, it has become clear that several players could be allowed to walk in favor of more 3-4 defense/Ryan-friendly free agents.
There are also one or two offensive free agents who could be signed to once again make the Saints' unit the most elite in the NFL.
The odds of any of these moves happening is obviously less than 1-to-1. But there are some good bets that could be won in free agency. Here are six possibilities.
There's almost no chance Sam Baker re-signs with the Atlanta Falcons. Though he has been moderately successful, he has underwhelmed given the monumental expectations placed on him as a first-round pick responsible for protecting franchise quarterback Matt Ryan's blind side.
Baker still has loads of potential. He could be a tremendous fit as a right tackle, especially for a team such as the Saints. It is also conceivable the Saints could bring him in as competition for Charles Brown and Marcel Jones at left tackle, assuming Jermon Bushrod leaves via free agency.
Given the expected contract demands of Bushrod and the team's current salary cap situation, Baker and the duo of youthful tackles seem to be the better bet for New Orleans in 2013 and beyond.
To say that Victor Butler would be a fit in New Orleans is to state the obvious. Having been a member of the Cowboys' 3-4 defensive scheme the past two seasons under Rob Ryan, Butler would bring a familiarity that few members of the current Saints' defense could.
As a backup outside linebacker in Dallas, his career-high is three sacks, which he's accomplished in three of his four seasons in the league. That was as a backup.
With the Cowboys switching to a 4-3 defense, Butler has no spot on the roster. At 25 years old (he'll be 26 in July), it is possible that Butler may just be coming into his prime. He is a bit undersized, but knows how Ryan requires his outside linebackers to play.
If nothing else, he could be a rotational player at the spot, and he figures to come cheap.
Anthony Spencer will be among the biggest names available on the 2013 NFL free-agent market. Coming off his finest season (11 sacks and 55 tackles), Spencer figures to be a high-dollar player either for his Cowboys (possible despite the switch to a 4-3 scheme) or some other team desperate to acquire a quality pass-rusher.
With Rob Ryan now with the Saints, expect the chatter to pick up about Spencer coming to New Orleans—and rightfully so, too. There is little doubt that he would instantly become one of the team's best players.
He may instantly be its most important player. One potential pitfall is his age. He's 29 years old and has already played six seasons in the league. Pass-rushers normally fade quickly, in much the same way as running backs.
Manny Lawson is the same age as Anthony Spencer. Both will be 29 when the 2013 NFL season begins.
Lawson has spent his NFL career with two teams in two very different defensive schemes.
Though effective in his past two seasons with the Bengals in Mike Zimmer's 4-3 scheme, it is obvious that Lawson is better suited for the outside linebacker spot in a 3-4 scheme.
When he was in San Francisco, he had success playing that role. With the Saints, he could be a rotational player.
At the Super Bowl media day, Ed Reed sounded like a player who would surely consider returning to his hometown of New Orleans to culminate his NFL career.
After having won a Super Bowl in the Big Easy with the Ravens, he may also feel he's fulfilled all personal obligations to the city of Baltimore. Such motivation could open the door to a Reed return.
Saints fans should enter through that door with extreme caution, though. At 34 years of age (he'll be 35 on September 11), Reed is well past his prime, even if his numbers do not demonstrate it as obviously as they seem they should.
Additionally, Reed will not come on the cheap. Don't expect a "hometown discount."
Finally, where does he play? Is he going to take the spot of Roman Harper or Malcolm Jenkins? No, both are currently better players.
Here's a quick disclaimer. The Saints should avoid Andre Smith. After giving up 7.5 sacks in 2012, then being arrested on gun charges in January, Smith is a player and person who simply seems to be more of a headache than an upside guy.
But if somehow the Saints can get him to turn his life around, maybe his play on the field will follow suit. He would certainly be an upgrade at right tackle over Zach Strief.
Smith, a former sixth overall pick from Alabama, has the tools to be great. He just needs to put it all together.
Smith is only one of a handful of players with character or on-the-field production issues in the 2013 free-agent class. He is simply the biggest name among that group. He represents a host of players the Saints could eye if better players/targets are unavailable.
There are other players of intrigue who may be available. We'll begin finding out in about a month who the Saints will retain and obtain.
The waiting game will carry on only a little longer. Hallelujah!