Ranking the 2014 Impact of the New Orleans Saints' Free-Agent Signings so Far
Despite a tight salary cap, the New Orleans Saints have engineered multiple free-agent signings so far in 2014 and some of their moves appear destined to make a strong impact next season.
With the Jimmy Graham contract situation at the forefront of New Orleans’ offseason agenda, it seemed as though the Saints wouldn’t have the cap space to make much noise during this offseason’s free agency period. They’ve proven this notion to be quite flawed, however, as general manager Mickey Loomis has dusted off his old black-and-gold top hat and somehow managed to pull out a few more rabbits.
Following, in ascending order, is a ranking of the projected 2014 impact of the Saints' newly signed free agents.
5. Quarterback Luke McCown
Throughout his tenure in New Orleans, quarterback Drew Brees has been about as durable as they come.
That being said, a season-ending injury can occur at any moment in the NFL, and Brees, like other quarterbacks, is always just a play away from being helped off the field.
Therein lies the importance of having a capable backup. When the Saints signed Luke McCown to a one-year deal this week, they bought themselves a veteran signal-caller who’s logged significant playing time in the league. McCown has nine career starts and nine touchdown passes in his 10-year career, and he has just over 2,000 passing yards.
The Saints may have future plans for 2013 undrafted free agent Ryan Griffin, but he’s yet to play a single down in a league game. The same can’t be said for McCown.
The 32-year-old also serves as holder on kick attempts. There's a good chance he won't see much action this season, but if Brees goes down, McCown's role will change substantially.
4. Kicker Shayne Graham
The importance of having a reliable kicker can’t be overstated. When he wasn’t injured, Garrett Hartley handled New Orleans’ kicking duties from 2008-2013 and could often split the uprights from 50-plus yards out with impressive ease.
Hartley was not consistent, however, and that ultimately cost him his job. He routinely missed kicks from the 35-to-45-yard range, which is unacceptable at the professional level. Coach Sean Payton finally saw enough in last season’s crucial Week 15 loss at St. Louis and handed Hartley his walking papers.
Enter Shayne Graham, who filled in nicely for Hartley and eventually booted the game-winning kick in last season’s Wild Card playoff victory at Philadelphia. Graham had his difficulties in the subsequent divisional round loss at Seattle, but the same could be said for nearly every player on the New Orleans roster.
Graham was re-signed to a one-year deal on Feb. 15, and he gives the Saints an experienced kicker who’s come through in pressure situations. He’ll likely have numerous opportunities to show his mettle throughout the coming season.
3. Fullback Erik Lorig
The Saints are widely viewed as having a pass-heavy finesse offense, but they actually utilized the fullback quite a bit this past season.
Jed Collins was frequently on the field for short-yardage running situations in 2013, and he was an effective blocker out of the I-formation. New Orleans also called Collins’ number on quick out-routes out of the backfield, although his skills were limited as a receiver.
This isn't the case with Erik Lorig, a converted defensive end who spent four seasons in Tampa Bay. Lorig signed a four-year deal with New Orleans on March 18, prompting Collins to sign with the Detroit Lions.
While he’s a capable blocker, Lorig is also an excellent receiver and a versatile athlete. In fact, he logged playing time at both defensive end and tight end for the Buccaneers, although he was primarily used as a lead blocker.
Lorig’s presence in the backfield should force opposing safeties and linebackers to account for him in the short passing game, which should make the Saints’ downfield attack even more potent.
It won’t be a surprise to see him rack up receptions in the 2014 season, as his presence should provide Brees and the offense with an added dimension.
2. Offensive Tackle Zach Strief
Brees is without question the most valuable player on the New Orleans roster. He executes Sean Payton’s complex offense with impeccable precision, and he basically serves as an on-field extension of the Saints’ head coach. New Orleans is also contractually invested in Brees to the tune of $100 million. All this considered, it’s a no-brainer to provide him with adequate protection.
That’s where tackle Zach Strief, who inked a five-year deal with the Saints, can make a significant impact in 2014.
Strief has started at right tackle for the past three seasons in New Orleans, but he struggled at times in 2013. His skills as an effective pass protector, however, were deemed worthy of a long-term contract by the Saints front office.
With second-year man Terron Armstead manning the left side, along with two Pro Bowl guards on the interior (Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs), the Saints have provided Brees with a talented, accomplished offensive front. The group possesses a nice mix of youth and experience, and the starting center spot is all that now remains up in the air.
1. Safety Jairus Byrd
When former starting safety Malcolm Jenkins bolted for a free-agent deal with Philadelphia, a hole suddenly opened up in the Saints secondary.
New Orleans resolved the issue much quicker than expected, however, when it reeled in former Buffalo Bill safety Jairus Byrd with a lucrative six-year contract.
Byrd is a considerable upgrade over Jenkins. He’s able to cover more ground in pass coverage, and he possesses top-notch playmaking abilities. He's no slouch in the tackling department, either, and his versatility will enable defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to be even more creative with his exotic defensive sets.
When all is said and done, Byrd and second-year fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro should make for quite the dynamic duo in the New Orleans secondary not only in 2014 but for years to come.
The New Orleans Saints may have bowed out in the divisional round of last season’s playoffs, but they’ve made a concerted effort to gain some ground on the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks this offseason.
The aforementioned free-agent signings could prove to be quite valuable, as the Saints approach the upcoming draft, and the 2014 season, with an optimistic outlook.
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