The New Orleans Saints may be in the midst of a heated divisional race, but it’s never too early to start thinking about next year as the Saints will be facing a number of offseason obstacles before the 2014 campaign begins.
As Monday night’s crushing loss to the Seattle Seahawks suggested, the Saints have several areas they need to improve upon, and they will likely address as many of those deficiencies as possible through the draft and free agency.
But the giant, black and gold elephant in the room is the contract situation of one Jimmy Graham, who’s in the final year of his contract.
The 6’7” All-Pro sits at the top of the heap of the game’s best tight ends. On the season, he has 68 catches for 988 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s the clear-cut favorite target of quarterback Drew Brees and draws the most attention from opposing defenses week-in and week-out.
Many organizations in the league would have already locked Graham down with a fat new contract by now, but that just wouldn’t be the Saints’ style. Even Brees, as a sure-fire future Hall-of-Famer, was in a contractual standoff with the Saints front office for over a year before finally reaching an 11th-hour agreement just before the 2012 season kicked off.
In general manager Mickey Loomis’ defense, the Saints have reportedly extended offers to Graham, but negotiations have stagnated.
New Orleans can unload about $11 million of this by releasing linebacker Will Smith, who is currently on injured reserve. Assuming the Saints make more cuts to free up cap room, there’s still the issue of signing their 2014 draft picks.
Nothing is set in stone, but there is a very realistic possibility that, after freeing up some space and then signing their draft picks, New Orleans will have to slap Graham with a franchise tag in order to keep him in a Saints uniform next season.
Saints fans undoubtedly would like to see their electrifying playmaker signed to a long-term deal, but they’ll have to be patient as a deal is unlikely to happen until after Spring at the earliest.
In addition to the Graham contract situation, the Saints will be facing the task of improving their roster.
Based solely on the eyeball test, a great place to start would be the offensive line. In particular, the all-important left tackle slot could use a significant upgrade.
Former backup Charles Brown stepped in to replace the departed Jermon Bushrod at the beginning of the season and doesn’t appear to be the answer. Pressure on Brees is frequent, and although Brown’s teammates on the offensive line are sometimes responsible, it isn’t difficult to see that he’s struggled for the better part of the season.
Assuming the Saints will be picking in the latter part of the first round, realistic possibilities at offensive tackle include Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson and Iowa’s Brandon Sherff.
Wide receiver is also a position that New Orleans could stand to improve upon. Rookie Kenny Stills is certainly a promising young player, but on the whole, the receiving corps lacks athleticism.
The Seahawks boast a young, dominant defensive unit, and if the Saints are going to regularly compete for Super Bowls, they will have to contend with Seattle for years to come. On Monday night, New Orleans was glaringly inadequate at the receiver position as the physical Seahawk corners jammed the Saints wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and yielded little to no separation for the majority of the night.
As for the upcoming draft, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews, LSU’s Jarvis Landry, and Rutgers' Brandon Coleman are all physical receivers who could immediately bolster the New Orleans receiving corps. All three are currently projected to go in the second to third round in multiple mock drafts.
Another position of need is that of cornerback. Against Seattle, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan didn’t exactly give his corners a vote of confidence. Ryan often used safeties to match up with Seattle’s receivers, and as Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson’s passing numbers suggested, the results were less than satisfactory.
Of course, the Saints could also address their personnel issues through free agency, as they did last year with the signings of linebacker Victor Butler and cornerback Keenan Lewis.
Although the New Orleans Saints players are focused on a strong finish to the current season, many of the issues discussed above are likely already weighing on the minds of front office officials.
When the smoke clears on the current season in February, these offseason challenges will expediently move from the back burner to the forefront of the Saints’ list of priorities, and they will need to be fully addressed if New Orleans is to contend in 2014.