No matter the success the New Orleans Saints achieve to finish out the 2013 season, the roster ahead into the 2014 campaign will see some significant changes. In a sport that can literally come down to inches, possessing personnel that provides you with the best opportunity to win supersedes all.
General manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton have a ton of tough decisions to make if they want ensure the Saints stay among the upper-echelon teams. Whether it's underperforming veterans or addition-by-subtraction moves, elite teams make difficult decisions regardless of the backlash it may generate from fans and pundits alike.
The Saints have one of the very best front offices in the entire sport, but with most of the up-and-coming teams being located in NFC, time may be running out on their near decade-long reign of dominance.
Let's take a look at players who are in danger of not going along for the ride.
Lance "Dance" Moore has been an integral piece of the puzzle, when healthy, since the 2008 season. His ability to operate in the short-to-intermediate area of the field has been nothing short of a blessing for quarterback Drew Brees.
Moore understands coverages and has very good hands to boot. But with the emergence of rookie Kenny Stills it may be time for the veteran to find a new home. This season has revealed Moore's lack of toughness and dependability.
Above all, he's gone from a career year in 2012 (65 catches for 1,041 yards with six touchdowns), to an extremely disappointing one this season (37 catches for 457 yards with two TDs). When you factor in that Stills (32 receptions for 641 yards and five TDs) is bigger, faster, stronger and more cost-effective—the writing may very well be on the wall.
With resident deep threat Joe Morgan returning next season (from injury), and fellow receivers Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Nick Toon on the roster, this leaves the soon-to-be 31-year-old Moore on the outside looking in.
The Saints' No. 1 priority should be to re-sign tight end Jimmy Graham—who receives the lion's share of targets. Consequently, a player of Moore's ilk would be relegated to maybe the fifth target at best.
Fifth targets need to be young, developmental receivers who are extremely cost-effective. Morgan and Toon both fit that bill. So getting rid of Moore would allow the younger prospects to divide his targets.
Moore has been a good player for the Saints for many years. But his time in the Big Easy should now be over.
We sure will miss those touchdown dances, though....
Jabari Greer is a solid veteran corner whose athleticism is in decline. When you take into account that he is currently rehabbing a serious knee injury, this decision shouldn't be very hard. But when you have been the best corner on a team for a while, it has to be hard for the staff to let you walk away.
Veteran corner Keenan Lewis is the undisputed No. 1 corner with Corey White having the skills to be the No. 2—although some disagree. Rookie Rod Sweeting deserves the opportunity to develop into the nickel role with Trevin Wade being a swing corner (or vice versa).
The Saints should look toward one of their first two picks in the draft for another young corner to develop in case White doesn't work out. And with the defense usually employing safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro at the nickel, in certain packages, this leaves Greer as the odd-man out.
It's hard to justify bringing back a 32-yard-old corner who showed that he struggles against the athletic monsters of today's NFL (e.g. Alshon Jeffery of Chicago). And you can only imagine how murky the situation will get now that a major injury is involved.
Greer still has a couple of decent years left in him, but those should be spent in another uniform.
This one is personally difficult because corner Patrick Robinson, my favorite Saint, has the talent to be a game-changing player. He's by far the fastest of all the corners and is not afraid to get involved in the run game.
In 2012, he recorded three interceptions to go along with 18 pass deflections. The previous season, he generated four interceptions and 15 pass deflections. Robinson has some serious ball skills, which is something that most corners lack.
When you factor in his size (5'11", 191 lbs), speed (4.46 40-yard speed according to NFL Combine Results) and aggressiveness, you have a player who has similar traits to the best corner in the NFL in Darrelle Revis (Tampa Bay).
In a perfect world, Robinson would return as the No. 2 corner with White playing the nickel. But with Robinson coming off a serious knee injury of his own, it's very conceivable that the critics may get the out they've been looking for.
As the only first-round pick, at corner, on the team—many label Robinson a bust. But he's far from one and could be a significant asset in the secondary next season.
But with the pass defense ending the year as the No. 2-ranked outfit, Robinson's presence is no longer a necessity. At just 26 years old, Robinson will undoubtedly bounce back, and it could be inside of the division.
Thinking of Robinson teaming with Revis in Tampa should give Saints fans the chills. Hopefully the Saints have an epiphany and bring back this talent!
Will Smith is old, unathletic and, well, old.
Since the moment he stepped foot inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Smith was the best player on the Saints defense. He has 67.5 career sacks to go along with 20 career forced fumbles.
An unfortunate injury in the preseason derailed a silly experiment that saw the 282-pound Smith moonlight as an outside linebacker in the Saints' new defensive scheme. Smith was an obvious scheme misfit, as noted in this article.
His absence provided an opportunity for Junior Galette who promptly earned his keep by achieving virtually the same amount of sacks as Smith had the previous two seasons combined. By cutting the soon-to-be 33-year-old Smith, the Saints can create $11.55 million in cap space, according to Rotoworld.
That in itself should seal Smith's fate. But the fact that he doesn't have the prerequisite versatility the defense requires should be the primary factor in the decision. For the Saints to take their defense to the next level they need players who fit the scheme requirements.
As good as the Saints defense was in 2013, it can be even more effective once coordinator Rob Ryan accumulates the type of players he covets. In the NFL, if you aren't improving, you're progressively getting worse.
Holding onto Smith would be a step in the latter direction. Smith should see his number retired in the ring of honor, but his time in New Orleans should officially be up.
Safety Roman Harper has been the tone-setter in the secondary since the 2007 season. He's a big hitter who is great at blitzing. But unfortunately, his coverage skills leave a lot to be desired. Harper does have some football left in his body, but it should undoubtedly be spent in another uniform.
Most will point to the emergence of rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro as the primary reason why Harper should be jettisoned, but it's the play of fellow safety Rafael Bush that should seal the fate of the "silver-haired fox."
Malcolm Jenkins is the best safety on the roster with Vaccaro quickly creeping up as his equal. Bush has the range, tackling ability and instincts to fill in for either player. This leaves the crafty veteran Harper as the odd man out.
With the Saints facing major salary-cap implications for 2014, it should be a foregone conclusion that the ineffective Harper shouldn't be in the plans. A team like the New England Patriots could figure out a way to use Harper's specialized skills, but his time spent in the Black and Gold ends when this season does.
On another note: Harper should think about shaving his head bald. His hair color almost makes it seem as though he's in his mid-40s. He just turned 31 and should have a few good seasons left in the tank.
Right now, he looks like someone's old, "swole" uncle.
This is an extremely tough one.
Pierre Thomas may be one of the most underrated running backs of this generation. He has been a phenomenal kick returner, can run in between the tackles and is one of the very best in the screen game.
But this season went a long way into proving that Thomas doesn't have what it takes to be a lead back in a dominant run game (or a below-average one like the Saints'). Thomas received a career high in carries (147) but ended up with his worst production to date (in a season where he virtually played every game).
His 3.7 yards per attempt, combined with his 6.7 yards per catch (on 84 receptions) exemplified that theory. Thomas lacks the explosiveness to really make teams pay when he has his hands on the ball. Furthermore, Thomas will turn 30 toward the end of next season.
While he certainly has a few years of tread left on his tires, his presence would only diminish the opportunities of two backs who look like they could form a pretty formidable duo in Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.
Jack-of-all trades back Travaris Cadet looks like he could be a really good rotational player. This would leave veterans Darren Sproles and Thomas to fill the last spot in the rotation. Sproles, who'll be 31 next season, is more explosive than Thomas and also adds value in the return game.
There's no reason for a team to carry five backs, especially one who only runs the ball 14 times a game—on most days. Robinson and Ingram are both power backs who can grind down a defense and should receive 90 percent of the carries—with Ingram being the primary.
Thomas would be gobbled up in a heartbeat by a team on the cusp of greatness. But his subtraction would provide more opportunities for more explosive and effective runners.