Yesterday, ESPN’s official NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas published a post which explains that the New Orleans Saints lead the league in potential free agents this offseason with 27. While he makes it clear that no player will reap the benefits of free agency until a labor agreement is agreed upon, it is obviously still an area of concern for this Saints team. With this dilemma in mind, let’s take a look at each Saints player eligible to become a free agent. The most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement states that players with 3 years or less of NFL experience are restricted free agents (any offer from another team can be matched by the player’s current team), while all other players can become unrestricted free agents. The following list of players was acquired from an article written by Mike Tripplet for NOLA.com. The odds of the Saints re-signing each of player cannot be determined with certainty until the new CBA is in place, but why not speculate a little?
FAs with 3 Years of Experience or Less (2010 salary) – Only four of the Saints’ 27 free agents fall into this category, but New Orleans will likely look to hang onto most or all of them. All of these players have been paid on the rookie wage scale thus far, and since they were all either late round picks or went completely undrafted, none of them have been receiving much more than the league minimum. As a result, the Saints will have to be careful when deciding which offers they plan to match for each player.
Must retain: G Carl Nicks (400K) and K Garrett Hartley (400K). Nicks is going to be one of the tougher players for the Saints due to how significantly he has out-performed his contract, as he has turned into an above-average guard in this league. You can bet another team will give Nicks a handsome offer, and the Saints will have to look long and hard at matching it; if they can afford to pay him, I don’t think the team wants to let him walk. As for Hartley, although he had his early season struggles, he was one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL throughout the second half of the season. Kickers generally don’t cost very much to keep, so I expect the Saints to match any offers made to the young kicker.
Should retain: LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar (400K). Dunbar is a solid backup, but not a starting-quality linebacker for a respectable NFL defense. If the Saints can bring him back at a price comparable to his wort as a good second-string LB, they’ll do it, but if another team offers him starting LB money, they’ll probably let him go.
Expendable: LB Anthony Waters. He’s a special teams player on the team, nothing more; I doubt he’ll receive any legitimate offers from any other teams. If the Saints value his production as a special teams player, they may look to bring him back at the league minimum, otherwise he’s probably gone.
FAs with 4 Years of Experience or More (2010 salary) - Overall, there is some good newss and bad news about the Saints’ free agency situation. The good news is that not many of their impending free agents are absolutely essential or irreplaceable. The bad news is that of the players that the Saints need to re-sign, the vast majority of them will be in line for substantial pay raises. Unfortunately, the question of how much of an increase in payroll the team can afford will not be answered until the new CBA comes out.
Must Retain: S Roman Harper (500K), T Jermon Bushrod (500K), DT Remi Ayodele (500K). I know many Saints fans are still a bit bitter about Harper’s faceplant against Seattle, but the fact is that he is an above average safety in this league. At age 28, he’s no longer “young” by football standards, but he should have around 3-4 more fully productive years left, and the Saints would be making a mistake to let him go without a suitable replacement. Both Bushrod and Ayodele are essential as well; neither one is a star, but both have proved their worth as low-end starters in the NFL, and the Saints simply don’t have enough behind them to justify letting either player go. New Orleans will likely look to address both offensive and defensive tackle in the draft, but it is doubtful that anyone they select will come in and make an immediate impact.
Should Retain: LB Scott Shanle (2.2mm), DT Anthony Hargrove (600K), WR Lance Moore (1.55 mm), TE David Thomas (550K), T Zach Strief (1.55mm), DE Jeff Charleston (450K), LB Marvin Mitchell (450K), S Usama Young (450K), S Chris Reis (450K). Most of these players fall under the category of valuable backups for the Saints, except for Moore. Lance is the closest thing to a ”must retain” out of all of the “should retains”; I’m just worried that another team is going to offer him more than New Orleans can afford to pay him. The Saints’ offense works by getting everybody involved, which is beneficial in the sense that no one player in the offense is completely irreplaceable (Besides Brees, of course). As long as no other team offers Moore a contract that would pay him like a starting WR, I think the Saints will absolutely re-sign him. Besides Moore, the trickiest player on this list may be Thomas; he would serve as an excellent backup for surefire new starter Jimmy Graham, but that would leave the Saints in an undesireable position with Shockey still under contract (though he is entering the last year of his deal). I would not be surprised if the Saints shop Shockey around given Graham’s emergence last season, but their might not be many takers due to his hefty $4.2 million price tag. If Shanle will take a slight pay cut and understand that he is returning as a backup unless there is no suitable replacement, then he will probably be back (and at this stage in his career, he should agree to those terms). Hargrove, Strief, Charleston, Mitchell, Young and Reis have all had a positive impact in limited action for New Orleans, and you can be sure the Saints will try to bring back all of them if they are affordable.
Expendable: C Jonathan Goodwin (2.25mm), S Darren Sharper (1.7mm), FB Heath Evans (1.35mm), DE Jimmy Wilkerson (1.75mm), RB Julius Jones (2mm), RB Ladell Betts (1.35mm), LB Danny Clark (1.4mm), LB Kawika Mitchell (2.4mm), S Pierson Prioleau (800K), S Matt Giordano (700K), WR/KR Courtney Roby (550K), CB Leigh Torrence (1mm), RB Pierre Thomas (450K), TE Tory Humphrey, RB DeShawn Wynn (450K). Most of these players are either past their primes or the Saints cannot afford to pay them what they will likely ask to receive. Goodwin, Sharper, Wilkerson, Clark, and Mitchell are all over 30 and can be affordably replaced with younger players who likely won’t demand quite as much money. In some of their cases, the Saints already have replacements either waiting for their chance or already playing (Matt Tennant for Goodwin, Malcolm Jenkins for Sharper, Jonathan Casillas for Shanle). Outside linebacker is the one position that the Saints will likely look to fill through outside free agency, not through re-signing their own free agents. Runningbacks Jones and Betts were only brought in as injury replacements and are no longer needed; Wynn’s case isn’t much different. Prioleau and Giordano (safeties) along with Humphrey (tight end) are special teams players, nothing more. Torrence is by far the Saints’ worst CB, and I can’t imaine that they’ll look to keep him around. The two tough cuts on this list are Courtney Roby and Pierre Thomas. I really like Roby in the return game, but I just think that Adrian Arrington has shown too much potential with the chances the Saints have given him that there may not be a spot for Roby on the roster. The Saints have enough talent to handle the return game without him, so I think they’ll probably let him walk. Finally, there’s the PT Cruiser. Surprisingly, this decision was fairly easy. No matter what, there will be an NFL team that offers him starting RB money despite his injury troubles, and the Saints just can’t afford to pay him that kind of money. The emergence of Chris Ivory will allow New Orleans to give he and Reggie Bush the most touches, along with bringing in a low-priced short yardage 3rd RB. As long as Ivory and Bush can stay healthy (although this is asking a lot from Reggie), the Saints should be fine in the run game.
So there you have it, my list of who the Saints need to bring back and who they should let go. As always, I would love to hear anyone’s feedback concerning what I got right and what I got wrong.