What We've Learned About the New Orleans Saints After the Start of Free Agency
NFL free agency began this week, and with the New Orleans Saints making no shortage of waves, it’s already clear that next year’s Saints squad will have a very different look than the team who took the field in 2013.
New Orleans signed free safety Jairus Byrd on Tuesday, inking the former Buffalo Bill to a six-year deal. Two days later, the Saints traded away a highly accomplished offensive weapon in running back Darren Sproles. New Orleans acquired a fifth-round draft pick from Philadelphia in exchange for Sproles, which gives the Saints an opportunity to build depth through the draft with a young player.
The team’s busy offseason didn’t just begin this week, however, as the Saints have been on a furious, cap-space-clearing binge since before free agency began. A quartet of marquee players from past seasons were handed their walking papers, including cornerback Jabari Greer, linebacker Will Smith, safety Roman Harper and wide receiver Lance Moore. New Orleans also parted ways with free-agent linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
These moves have drawn some backlash from Saints players and fans, but with New Orleans in penny-pinch mode, bigger priorities prevail, such as competing for a championship.
The recent flurry of moves, followed by an active week on the free-agency front, is somewhat revealing as to the intentions of New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis. Following are five things we’ve learned about the Saints since the start of free agency.
1. The Saints Are Committed to Getting Younger
Some NFL front offices make claims about wanting to get younger, but when push comes to shove, they sometimes find it too difficult to say goodbye to proven, yet pricy, veterans.
In Moore, Sproles and Greer, New Orleans had a trio of veterans who have all heavily contributed to the team’s recent success. As to Moore and Sproles, it’s apparent that Loomis decided to part ways a year early rather than risk waiting a year too late.
If last year taught the Saints anything, it’s that they need to inject some new blood into the franchise, particularly on offense. This can’t happen without unloading some of the large, burdensome contracts that serve as a hindrance to potential roster changes. With the team’s recent moves, New Orleans has cleared some much-needed salary cap space, while creating open roster spots for future draft picks.
2. The Saints Are Committed to Upgrading the Secondary
Defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks spearheaded a much improved Saint defense in 2013, and linebackers Junior Galette and David Hawthorne had their best seasons in Saints uniforms.
As for the secondary, the start of free agency has signaled big change in New Orleans. Starting safety Malcolm Jenkins was quickly snatched up by the Eagles, but the loss was soon an afterthought, as the Saints promptly struck a deal with Byrd.
A three-time Pro Bowler, Byrd has better range in pass coverage than Jenkins, and he’s racked up an impressive 22 interceptions over the past five seasons in Buffalo.
His arrival gives Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan two top-flight talents to work with at the safety position. 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro enjoyed a fine rookie season and looks to have a bright future in New Orleans.
Ryan’s scheme works best when he has press-man cover corners who can lock up with outside receivers and playmaking safeties capable of covering lots of ground. He has one lock-down corner in Keenan Lewis, and now he has two athletic safeties who can cover, tackle and make plays all over the field.
The lack of a true No. 2 cornerback is still a concern, but free agency is far from over, and the Saints could still reel in an accomplished cover man.
3. Pierre Thomas Is Part of the Saints' Future Plans
With one year left on his contract, two capable younger backs on board in Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson, and New Orleans in the midst of a cap-room-clearing frenzy, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Pierre Thomas given his release.
After the signing of a two-year extension on Wednesday, however, it appears that Thomas fits into the organization’s future plans. The eighth-year running back out of Illinois was second on the team in receptions last year with 77 and has proven over the years to be one of the league’s most dangerous scoring threats off of the screen pass.
With the trading of Sproles, the suggestion could be made that New Orleans is making more of a commitment to a downhill, power running game led by Ingram and Robinson. The decision to keep Thomas doesn’t appear to go against this notion, as the 29-year-old is quite capable in his own right as a between-the-tackles runner.
It also can’t be forgotten that injuries can pile up quickly at the running back position, and depth at the spot is highly important. If the New Orleans backfield is banged up come late November, with crucial playoff positioning at stake in every game, the Saints could be overjoyed to have an accomplished veteran like Thomas in the fold.
4. Signing Jimmy Graham Is Still a Top Priority
For the Saints, the giant black-and-gold elephant of this offseason is the contract of Jimmy Graham.
The Pro Bowl tight end has been given a non-exclusive franchise tag by New Orleans. If he accepts a contract offer from another team, the Saints can elect to match it, or they can accept two first-round picks as compensation.
The fact that the Saints are still trying to clear cap room suggests that they’re still committed to inking Graham to a long-term deal. Of course, two first-round draft picks isn’t a bad consolation, either.
Despite the possibility of New Orleans making more of a commitment to a power rushing attack, the Saints are a pass-first team. With prolific quarterback Drew Brees running the show (and bringing in a gargantuan salary of his own), this is likely to be the case for the next several seasons.
By locking up Graham, New Orleans will provide Brees with a No. 1 target for years to come. Yes, the Saints need to bring in some help at receiver, but signing Graham looks to still be a major priority for the organization.
5. The Saints Will Likely Select a Wide Receiver with an Early-Round Draft Pick
Wide receiver is one of the Saints’ biggest areas of need this offseason. While New Orleans has made noise in other areas, the team has yet to address the position, other than by releasing Moore.
Make no mistake, the Saints receiving corps is in serious need of an upgrade. As a whole, the group struggled to consistently get open last season, even with Graham often blanketed in double-coverage. New Orleans needs another top-flight receiver to take pressure off of Graham in the passing game, and it doesn’t look as though they’re interested in overpaying for one in free agency. That leaves the draft.
There’s no shortage of first- and second-round receiver talent in this year’s class. With the Saints clearing cap space, while not yet making a move to sign a free-agent wideout, the front office is likely preparing to select a receiver early on in this year’s draft.
The recent surplus of roster changes may have been surprising to some New Orleans Saints players and fans, but it appears as though Loomis is taking a Patriot-like proactive approach to re-stocking the cupboard. The Saints are apparently making a strong push to get younger now as opposed to later, when their celebrated veterans are no longer capable of getting it done on the field.
As a coach, Payton has a reputation for loyalty to his players. On the other hand, he and Loomis are both striving toward one common goal for the 2014 season—getting to and winning the Super Bowl. All other attachments, sentimental or otherwise, ultimately fall by the wayside.