New Orleans Saints Free Agents: Who Is in Play for the Franchise Tag?

Murf Baldwin@@MurfBaldwinContributor IJanuary 13, 2014

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 27:   Jimmy Graham #80 of the New Orleans Saints reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 27, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The 11-5 New Orleans Saints were bounced from the playoffs with a 23-15 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs. After concluding the 2012 season with a 7-9 record, this season was undoubtedly a success. 

New Orleans won its first road playoff game in franchise history, which sounds silly considering it won the Super Bowl on a neutral field in 2009. In addition, first-year Saints coordinator Rob Ryan performed yeoman's work by taking the worst defense in NFL history (statistically) and transforming it into the fourth-ranked unit this season.

Furthermore, the offense stayed the course, finishing fourth a year after being ranked No. 2. Most of the success should be placed squarely on the construction of the roster. General manager Mickey Loomis built a team with quality youth to go along with its highly productive veterans. 

Outside linebacker Victor Butler
Outside linebacker Victor ButlerDerick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

In fact, the Saints achieved success despite injuries to key free-agent acquisitions Victor Butler (outside linebacker) and Kenyon Coleman (defensive end)—both of whom were brought in as scheme-specific fits for Ryan's defense.  

Wide receiver Joseph Morgan tore ligaments in his knee prior to the season, while previously embattled veteran linebacker Jonathan Vilma continued to rehab his own knee injury.

Rookies Kenny Vaccaro (safety) and Kenny Stills (receiver) earned their keep in their first seasons in the Big Easy. Third-round pick John Jenkins showed that he will be a viable long-term option at nose tackle.

Chief free-agent acquisition Keenan Lewis (corner) played at an All-Pro level, while defensive ends Cameron Jordan (12.5 sacks) and Junior Galette (12 sacks) are undoubtedly the twin anchors that will lead the defense for years to come.

Any mention of the Saints that doesn't involve future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees is virtually un-American! Brees had another stellar year—for the most part—and doesn't look to be slowing down.

The Saints have a roster that can compete for years to come...that is, if they can work out a contract with their best player on offense.

Franchise Contract Candidates 

Jimmy Graham

This discussion begins and ends with tight end Jimmy Graham. With how the Saints are presently constructed, they rely on Graham to not only stretch the field but to move the chains as well. Graham should be classified as a receiver, as he lines up in the slot or outside as much as he does on the line.

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 21: Tight end Jimmy Graham #80 of the New Orleans Saints celebrates a touchdown in the second quarter against the Atlanta Falcons during a game at the Georgia Dome on November 21, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Ge
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With the Saints currently being $11,190,704 past the cap limit, per, the decision on what to do with 6'7", 265-pound freak of nature becomes murky. According to Jason La Canfora of CBS, if the Saints were to tag Graham, we could expect arbitration on just how he'll be classified.

If he's listed as a tight end, the Saints will incur a $6.7 million expense. If he is deemed to be a receiver, that number jumps to $11.6 million. So needless to say, it can be a very expensive one-year proposition.

The Saints' best bet would be to somehow sign Graham to a long-term contract, as he's undoubtedly earned it, and stagger the money in a way that doesn't affect 2014 all that much. Some people are under the impression that Graham is expendable after the disappearing act he pulled in the playoffs, but his loss would potentially shake up the balance of power.

Malcolm Jenkins

In the interest of extending this article (haha), I will include safety Malcolm Jenkins in the discussion—because if the franchise tag is going to be applied, it would more than likely only go to Graham. But there's a chance the Saints could target Jenkins.

With fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro recovering from a broken ankle suffered in the penultimate game of the season, and veteran Roman Harper potentially on the chopping block, the Saints could find themselves thin at safety.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 04:  Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints talks with Malcolm Jenkins #27 against the Philadelphia Eagles during their NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field on January 4, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylv
Al Bello/Getty Images

Rafael Bush has shown himself to have range and big-hitting ability—as witnessed by quite a few players in the last game against the Seattle Seahawks. The Saints could let Jenkins walk and try to pick up another safety via free agency or the draft, but that would not be the best option. 

Jenkins played the best ball of his career, registering 68 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.

At 26 years old, Jenkins is too good of a talent to let walk away. He could be franchised until the Saints are able to work out a deal.

Brian De La Puente

File this one under the "not likely to happen" category. Center Brian De La Puente would be an interesting choice. Three out of the five starting offensive linemen (for most of the season) are unrestricted free agents. Left tackle Charles Brown, right tackle Zach Strief and De La Puente.

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 15: Center Brian de la Puente #60 of the New Orleans Saints directs play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers September 15, 2013 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Saints won 16 - 14. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

If it were up to fans, all three would be allowed to seek employment elsewhere via free agency. Brown was unceremoniously benched for rookie Terron Armstead, who looks like a budding star. Strief struggled periodically through the season, with De La Puente following suit.

The Saints should re-sign De La Puente, as he has been a very efficient player for most of his New Orleans tenure. He has a great rapport with Brees and is generally the leader of the line. As bad as Brown was, he seems like he would be a viable option at right tackle.

Strief should be allowed to walk with Brown starting in his stead. It's hard to think of anyone along the offensive line receiving the franchise tag, but De La Puente would make the most sense.

Saints' unrestricted free agents
Malcolm JenkinsS
Zach StriefT
Brian De La PuenteC
Victor ButlerOLB
Parys HaralsonOLB
Jonathan VilmaILB
Shayne GrahamPK
Luke McCownQB
Jimmy GrahamTE
Will HerringILB
Ramon HumberILB
Charles BrownT
Keyunta DawsonILB
Robert MeachemWR

As you can see, Graham stands out head and shoulders above any of the eventual free agents. The decision should be pretty simple. In a perfect world, the two sides would come to an agreement on a long-term contract and have Graham play his entire career for the Black and Gold.

While Graham's talent is undeniable, we've seen others leave the presence of Brees and have less-than-ideal results—namely receiver Robert Meachem. The Saints can't afford to mess this one up.

For a perfect explanation of the Franchise Tag, check out this article by Bleacher Report's Samir Ismail.  

Note: I won't be around to cover the bright future of the Saints. I will be switched over to cover my hometown Atlanta Falcons (I know how much you guys love the Falcons) after this week. Thanks for making my first season at Bleacher Report one to remember. The Saints have awesome and knowledgeable fans whom I will undoubtedly miss. It was fun while it lasted!


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