Ranking the New Orleans Saints' Best Remaining Free-Agency Options
Thus far, New Orleans’ biggest free-agency pickup is former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, who signed a six-year deal following the departure of former Saints starter Malcolm Jenkins. Since the Byrd signing, New Orleans has re-signed veteran right tackle Zach Strief, backup linebacker Ramon Humber and backup wide receiver Joseph Morgan. The club has also parted ways with running back Darren Sproles, who was traded to the Eagles in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick.
While most of the league’s top 2014 free agents have already put pen to paper on contracts, there are still a few unsigned players who could fill a role for a playoff-contending team like New Orleans. There’s a good chance that general manager Mickey Loomis will make room for one or two more additions, most notably a certain Pro Bowl tight end.
Ranked in order of most likely to sign with New Orleans to least likely, here are the five best remaining free-agency options for the Saints.
1. Tight End Jimmy Graham
The Jimmy Graham contract situation has proved to be the 800-pound gorilla of the Saints’ 2014 offseason.
New Orleans has placed a non-exclusive franchise tag on the All-Pro free agent, which makes it possible for another team to snatch him up. If he agrees to a contract with another club and the Saints don't elect to match it, New Orleans would receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.
After receiving his tag, Graham was expected to file a grievance with the NFL, challenging his designation as a tight end and claiming that he should receive his franchise tender as a wide receiver. The difference between wide receiver and tight end franchise tender is roughly $4.5 million.
No grievance has been filed as of yet, and the deadline for filing is April 22. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reports that the Saints are likely to get a deal done by then.
It’s in both sides’ best interests to keep the relationship from becoming toxic, and if a deal does in fact occur, it would allow the Saints to shift their primary focus to the draft.
2. Center Brian De La Puente
Whether it’s addressed through the upcoming draft or free agency, center is a position in desperate need of attention from the Saints’ front office.
Two-time Pro Bowl selection Alex Mack is probably the best center in free agency this year, but with the Saints doing all they can to free up cash in their quest to lock up Graham, Mack is most likely not an option.
Brian de la Puente has started for New Orleans at center for the past three seasons. His play has been outstanding at certain times while subpar at others. Despite his inconsistency, he is one of the better options in free agency at the position, particularly for the Saints.
He already knows the nuances of coach Sean Payton’s offense, and he obviously has plenty of experience working with quarterback Drew Brees. De la Puente has also logged an abundance of playing time next to Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs. When considering the importance of cohesion along the offensive line, bringing back De la Puente makes a lot of sense.
3. Center Jonathan Goodwin
He’s spent the last three seasons in San Francisco, but Jonathan Goodwin is no stranger to New Orleans. The former Pro Bowler started 47 games for the Saints from 2006-2010 and was a key cog on the offensive line during the 2009 Super Bowl Championship season.
Are the 35-year-old's best days behind him? Absolutely. That doesn’t mean, however, that he can’t play an important role next year in New Orleans.
The better collegiate center prospects usually don’t hear their names called until the middle rounds of the draft. New Orleans could select a highly rated center in Rounds 3 through 5, such as Colorado State’s Weston Richburg or Florida State's Bryan Stork. If the Saints sign Goodwin to a one-year deal, he would likely slide right into his old starting position and anchor the line until the rookie is ready to take over.
This scenario is speculation, of course, but it wouldn’t be a bad course of action for the Saints to take to solidify their offensive line in 2014 and beyond.
4. Linebacker Parys Haralson
When Victor Butler, a key free-agent acquisition for 2013, went down with a season-ending knee injury last June, New Orleans was suddenly in need of outside linebacker help. The Saints then traded their seventh-round pick in this year’s draft to the 49ers for the rights to Haralson.
The move paid dividends, as he performed admirably in Butler’s stead. The 30-year-old veteran had 3.5 sacks and made a significant contribution to New Orleans’ defensive turnaround in 2013.
He is now a free agent, and while he would prefer a multi-year deal, there isn’t much buzz about him signing with another team.
New Orleans has already inked backup linebacker Ramon Humber to a one-year deal, but he isn’t the proven commodity that Haralson is.
By signing Haralson up for another year, the Saints can buy themselves a season to evaluate Butler’s performance while having a solid backup in the fold in case Butler or Junior Galette go down with an injury.
5. Cornerback Terrell Thomas
New Orleans is a strong candidate to select a cornerback early in the draft, but it wouldn’t hurt to bring in some additional depth at an affordable price.
The 29-year-old Thomas had 67 total tackles, an interception and a sack last year with the New York Giants. He’s unlikely to be signed as a starter on the outside, but with the surplus of wide-open passing offenses found throughout the league, his signing would provide crucial depth at the position.
New Orleans has cornerbacks Keenan Lewis, Corey White and Patrick Robinson under contract. Of the three, only Lewis can be relied upon as a true lockdown cover man. With Robinson out with an injury for most of last season and recently released starter Jabari Greer also injured, the Saints were often forced to play safeties in slot coverage in dime packages.
This is far from an ideal situation, especially for a team contending for a championship. Even if the Saints acquire a No. 2 corner through the draft, they’re still an injury away from the same scenario repeating itself. If they want to bring in another corner for a one-year deal, they might consider Thomas.
With the NFL draft fast approaching, the New Orleans Saints are still putting the pieces in place for another run at the Super Bowl in 2014.
While the Graham situation looms large, the center position is also still up in the air. The Saints have made some significant roster moves during this free-agency period, but they may not be done making waves just yet.