Since Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis teamed up to run the New Orleans Saints, there has been an obvious importance set on keeping their own players. This strategy has paid off in recent years, as the Saints' chemistry and leadership are among the best in the NFL.
After this season ends, the Saints will have some contract situations to take care of. Mickey Loomis and the front office did a great job of re-signing free agents last year and I expect the same to happen this offseason.
The Saints do not have quite as many free agents this upcoming offseason, but the ones that are going to hit the market are imperative to the team.
Let's take a look at the top five Saints free agents and where they will end up in 2012.
Before I even get started on this list, let's get one thing straight: Drew Brees is the most important free agent for the Saints this year—and in franchise history. I do not think that anyone would argue with that.
With that said, I would not feel right including him on this list. I do not want to list the obvious. Let's treat this list as the most important Saints free agents—except for Drew Brees.
He is the indisputable No. 1 free agent in the NFL this year. The Saints will re-sign Brees, probably before the season is over, and make him one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in NFL history, as he deserves.
Now, let's get to the Saints' most important free agents.
I decided to keep restricted free agents out of the top five because of the good chance that they will be back with the Saints next season. These three guys are good players for the Saints and could potentially be gone next year.
3. Aubrayo Franklin
Franklin has been a bit of a disappointment this year for the Saints. He was graded as the No. 2 run stopper in the league last year for the 49ers, but has not lived up to that reputation so far this year. The Saints thought that the acquisition of Franklin would make their defensive line one of the best in the league, but the group as a whole has not done well this year.
Franklin's contract is up this year and unless he starts to play at a higher level, I do not see the Saints re-signing him. He could come back if he takes a decent pay cut, but I am sure other teams will pay him better than what the Saints offer him. I look for teams like the Raiders, Colts, Browns and Rams to give Franklin plenty of attention in the offseason.
Since they have Tom Johnson, I am not sure that the Saints will need Franklin back in 2012. They can always build more depth at the position through free agency and the draft.
2. Chase Daniel
Daniel is a restricted free agent this year and will more than likely re-sign with the Saints. I believe that Chase is a clone of Drew Brees and has the potential to be a great quarterback in the NFL. I am not sure that he is ready to take over as the starter for a team yet, but he will be at that point soon.
I look for the Saints to bring Daniel back in the offseason and make trade bait out of him within the next couple of years.
1. Johnathan Casillas
Casillas is the only restricted free agent that I can see leaving the Saints. He is probably the best pass-rushing linebacker on the Saints roster and has played well this season. Casillas is a very fast linebacker and is able to play sideline-to-sideline.
I expect the Saints to have Casillas back next year and eventually sign him to a long-term deal.
Shaun Rogers has been very similar to Franklin this year. He has not performed to his potential and definitely did not improve the Saints defensive line as we all hoped.
Through 11 games, Rogers has 16 tackles. That definitely does not jump out at you, but most defensive tackles' stats will not drop jaws. Ndamukong Suh, widely regarded as the best defensive tackle in the NFL, has 33 tackles and three sacks this year. It is the side effects that these players have that cause them to be great.
Rogers has taken up blocks, allowing linebackers and safeties to get to the ball carrier, and that is what is expected from him. He has not played outstandingly well this year, but I have seen some sparks from Rogers that remind me of his Pro Bowl Days.
If Rogers begins to maintain that style of play, I strongly believe he will be back in the black and gold next year.
Robert Meachem will probably be a fairly sought-after wide receiver during free agency. There are plenty of teams that could use his speed and skill set as a deep threat.
The Jaguars, Redskins, Broncos and Patriots would all be interested in a receiver like Meachem. Since being drafted in 2007, Meachem has caught 130 passes for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns. Many would credit his low production to the fact that he plays in a Saints offense that asks its receivers to share catches.
I have no doubt that if Meachem were the go-to guy on a team, he could be a 1,000 yard, 10 touchdown-caliber player every year. He has the speed and route-running ability to shake cornerbacks and has made tough catches throughout his career.
Despite the pursuit from other teams, I believe that Meachem will stay in New Orleans next year. His role in the Saints offense is very important. He could probably be replaced fairly easily, but why would the Saints try to fix what isn't broken? They love to keep their own players and will start by re-signing Meachem.
The Saints would be fine letting Tracy Porter go in free agency. Jabari Greer is locked in as the No. 1 corner and may be the best corner in the NFC South. Patrick Robinson already has experience as the No. 2 corner and has played very well at times this season. The Saints also have a great, young corner in Johnny Patrick.
Porter has played very well throughout his career and made the two most important interceptions in Saints franchise history. He has also been fairly injury-prone and underperformed at certain times during his Saints tenure.
However, Tracy Porter will remain a Saint in 2012. Do we really believe that the Saints will let the hero of Super Bowl XLIV go? It is not as if the Saints passing defense is fantastic, at 27th in the NFL.
Granted, most teams are playing catch-up against the Saints, which causes the pass defense statistics to look horrible, but the team can still use some help.
Porter is a great No. 2 corner or nickelback and will continue to play that role well for the foreseeable future as a Saint.
This seems to be another obvious choice.
Marques Colston is arguably one of the most valuable members of the Saints offense. He is consistently making plays in games and always seems to come up with the big third-down catch. Colston is different from the other receivers on the Saints' roster.
Moore, Meachem and Henderson all have speed and run great routes. They are not what you would call big, possession receivers. Colston is a huge target for Brees, and up until Jimmy Graham exploded onto the scene, he was the only big threat for Brees and the Saints offense.
Colston has been there since day one of the Brees/Payton era and he will continue to be the leading receiver for the Saints. They just gave Lance Moore a five-year deal worth up to $21.5 million and there is no reason to think that Colston has not earned a deal worth more—or that the Saints will not give him that deal.
Colston stays and continues to be a threat for the Saints until he retires.
Carl Nicks' contract negotiation is going to be a very tricky situation.
He is definitely one of the best—if not the best—left guards in the league and has been imperative to the Saints' success since they drafted him. He has played well enough to deserve a massive contract, but it all depends on the Saints' cap room.
There are too many teams to list that would be interested in Nicks' services. He is primarily a pass-blocking guard, but has the ability to open up huge holes in the running game. Nicks is also a great locker room presence.
When he came out of Nebraska, there were concerns about his leadership ability and character issues. Neither has been a problem for the Saints throughout Nicks' career. Nicks has developed into one of the premier offensive lineman in the NFL.
We have already established that the Saints love to keep their own players, especially when they are in the primes of their careers and they will keep Nicks. If they can afford to do it, the Saints will re-sign Nicks to a lucrative long-term deal, but if the cap space limits them, it would not surprise me to see the Saints franchise tag him for the 2012 season.
Either way, Nicks will be a Saint for 2012 and many years after that.