Ranking the Biggest Free-Agent Priorities for the New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints find themselves in a precarious situation as free agency rapidly approaches. The team lies somewhere around $10 million over the projected 2013 salary cap. Yet, it needs to find at least a few solutions through free agency to become a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2013.
This creates an odd spectacle for Mickey Loomis. He must find some key contributors with a very limited amount of salary cap room.
With Jermon Bushrod as a possible departure due to a high asking price, the Saints have needs on offense along with some obvious needs on the defensive side of the football.
Which is the greatest need? And who is best suited among the 2013 free agents to fill that need?
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After dropping 2011 third-round pick Johnny Patrick earlier this week, the New Orleans Saints weakened their cornerback depth. Production at the spot was not altered negatively, however. If anything, dropping Patrick in and of itself is a victory.
Still, the team has questions at the spot. Is Jabari Greer still good enough to warrant a roster spot, much less a starting spot? Is Corey White ready to start? Mostly, is Patrick Robinson ready to step up and play like the No. 1 corner that he’ll be expected to be in 2013?
If the answer to any of those questions is “No,” the team must make a move on a guy to take that spot. Even if the team answers in the affirmative to each question, a first-round corner could be a possibility in April’s draft.
Let’s assume the team wants to save itself some more cap space and is ready to move on from veteran Jabari Greer. Elbert Mack could step in as the full-time nickel corner in 2013. Even so, for depth purposes, another corner—equal to Mack, if not better—is a necessary add.
Best Free-Agent Option: Alan Ball, Houston Texans
Alan Ball played under Wade Phillips the past two seasons in Houston. Phillips’ coverage schemes are similar to the ones employed by new Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Ball competed at all times for Houston.
In fact, he is a cost-effective improvement who will not start but provide quality veteran depth at the corner spot.
4. Nose Tackle
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Nose tackle is a new position the New Orleans Saints need to fill in the 2013 NFL offseason. It is a position the team previously had no need to study or peruse the free-agent and college market for.
But with the impending move to the 3-4 defense under Rob Ryan, nose tackle becomes one of the prominent needs in the 2013 offseason. Granted, the team could choose to find its answer in the NFL draft. Abundant speculation has occurred since the offseason began about which defensive lineman the team would target in April.
The team seems to have multiple options for the nose tackle spot in incumbents Brodrick Bunkley and second-year budding phenomenon Akiem Hicks. It is possible the team could determine that neither is best suited for the nose tackle spot in Ryan’s defensive scheme.
If it decides to answer this question in free agency, it should look no further than a former 3-4 nose tackle who transitioned to a 4-3 defense in Seattle the past two years.
Best Free-Agent Option: Alan Branch, Seahawks
Though Branch fled the desert for the more comfortable crispness of the Northwest climate, he did not leave for a completely new defensive style of play. Though the Seahawks technically play a 4-3, it is a scheme that more so masquerades as such. It is really a 3-4 in disguise.
Thus, Branch is ready to transition to a more well-defined 3-4, where he’d also be asked to perform true 4-3 concepts from time to time. The Saints may determine Branch is a better fit for the middle of their defensive line than Bunkley. To make the replacement they would simply cut Bunkley and give the same money to Branch.
3. Tight End
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Even before Tuesday’s official release of David Thomas, the Saints appeared in the mix for a tight end in the 2013 NFL offseason. Thomas’ release only made that reality more imminent. In fact, adding a tight end in free agency may not eliminate the possibility of also using a 2013 draft pick on a developmental prospect at the position.
That’s how desperate the team currently is at the position. With the free-agent acquisition, Mickey Loomis should be looking to add a player whose skill set is similar to the departed Thomas—a guy who succeeded as an in-line blocker and occasional pass-catcher.
Best Free-Agent Option: Kevin Boss, Kansas City Chiefs
At this point in his career, Kevin Boss likely fits that description. He, of course, made a name for himself as the primary tight end on the Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl championship team. Since then his career has gone downhill.
But Boss still possesses much of the same talent he did at that point. He has just had some major injury difficulties to battle. If he proves healthy, Boss could likely be had with the veteran minimum. He’d be a great veteran to come in and compete for a roster spot.
He could handle David Thomas’ role and teach a young developmental tight end for the future.
2. Left Tackle
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If Jermon Bushrod does in fact leave via free agency, which at this time must be held as a distinct possibility, the Saints will be seeking an immediate answer at left tackle—the most important position in football not named quarterback.
Considering that Bushrod is being hailed by many as a great offensive tackle due to his consecutive Pro Bowl selections, some team is likely to overpay for him. That is fine for New Orleans. It has other options that will come with far less expenditures required.
Though the ideal situation would be to draft Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher—who might be the best offensive line prospect since Joe Thomas came out of Wisconsin—it will not happen unless the Saints mortgage much of the 2013 draft, and likely some of 2014’s as well.
In other words, finding a player equal to Bushrod must be accomplished through free agency.
Best Free-Agent Option: Will Beatty, New York Giants
Insert Will Beatty. The former Connecticut Husky struggled for much of the early part of his NFL career until he figured it out in 2012. He started 15 of 16 games and gave up fewer sacks than in 10 games in 2011 (3.0 in 2012 to 3.5 in 2011).
He did have seven total penalties in 2012. Still, Beatty would likely come at half the cost of Bushrod. For that reason, he is a tremendous option for the Saints. In fact, he is likely the best option.
1. Outside Linebacker
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With the impending move to the 3-4 defense the Saints are in desperate need of a stud pass-rusher off the edge. That guy is almost always the outside linebacker (see Kansas City and Washington as prime examples).
Martez Wilson figures to receive the starting nod at one outside linebacker spot. Junior Galette should not be the opposite starting outside ‘backer. Instead, Galette projects as a wonderful rotation player at the spot. Braylon Broughton and Greg Romeus could also work as rotation guys.
The team could get lucky by seeing Dion Jordan or Barkevious Mingo fall into their laps in the April draft. Of course free agency precedes the draft, meaning if the team is going to make a move, it will do so without the foreknowledge of what will actually happen come draft time.
Best Free-Agent Option: Paul Kruger, Baltimore Ravens
Connor Barwin and Paul Kruger really could be co-No. 1 options. Each will come at rather affordable prices (compared to Anthony Spencer). Both have played in defenses similar to the one being brought to New Orleans by Rob Ryan.
Kruger had 9.0 sacks in 2012—a season in which the Ravens struggled mightily on defense compared to previous seasons. With the talent mostly in place in New Orleans, Kruger could likely match that figure, if not eclipse it in 2013. Having the explosive Martez Wilson starting opposite him, Kruger could dominate.
The former defensive end has the requisite skill set to do everything Ryan wants from his outside linebackers. Acquiring him would instantly make the Saints defense better. The same could be said of Barwin.