Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Saints Free Agency 2016

            A month into NFL free agency, the rabid pace of signings has slowed to a crawl as teams shift their attention towards the draft at the end of April. Thanks to this lull in activity, we figured it would be a good time to look at the Saints’ biggest free agent moves as they attempt to rebuild the defense and remain in the playoff hunt in the later stages of quarterback Drew Brees’ career.

            We’ll start by looking at the players that the Saints have lost over the past few months either through signing with other teams or being released. The list below contains the most significant players.

TE Ben Watson
Signed with Baltimore Ravens
S Rafael Bush
Signed with Detroit Lions
G Jahri Evans
WR Marques Colston
CB Brandon Browner

Watson: Following the trade of Jimmy Graham last offseason, many Saints fans expected Josh Hill to step into Graham’s shoes. Instead, the 34 year old Watson emerged as Brees’ top tight end option. Watson caught 74 passes for 825 yards and 6 touchdowns. He finished 13th in Football Outsiders defensive yards adjusted received metric (DYAR). While Watson represents a loss to the Saints tight end position, they’ve tried to address his departure (something we’ll discuss below).

Bush: While not a starter, Bush frequently played because of injuries to starters Jarius Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. Bush signing elsewhere isn’t a huge loss, but he had been one of the few consistent players in the Saints’ defensive backfield.

Evans: Evans entered the league as a 4th round pick of the Saints in 2006. In ten seasons, Evans went to the Pro-Bowl six times and was named to the All-Pro team 4 times. In 2015, Evans agreed to restructure his contract to help ease the team’s salary cap woes. This offseason, Evans declined to restructure his contract again and New Orleans released him rather than absorb his $8.4 million cap hit.

Colston: Colston, as we wrote about in December, went from a draft afterthought in 2006 to the best wide receiver in Saints’ history. In ten seasons, Colston caught 711 passes for 9,759 yards and 72 touchdowns—all from Drew Brees. With the Saints tight against the salary cap (again), an aging Colston became another casualty of the Saints poor management.

Browner: The Saints cut the penalty machine and designated him a post-June 1 cut, meaning they will receive $2.25 million in salary relief this year. Saints fans blessedly won’t be subjected to Browner’s insistence on interfering with opposing receivers and giving their opponents better field position any longer. Delvin Breaux, signed from the Canadian football league last season, will assume Browner’s spot in the lineup across from Keenan Lewis.

Having looked at the Saints free agency losses, let’s look at what they’ve gained.

QB Luke McCown
TE Coby Fleener
Signed from Indianapolis Colts
LB James Laurinatis
Signed from Los Angeles Rams
DT Nick Fairley
Signed from Los Angeles Rams

McCown: McCown played well in his one start this past season, filling in for an injured Brees against the Carolina Panthers. Having McCown on the roster gives the Saints some time to see if last year’s third round pick, Garret Grayson, will develop into a useful contributor.

Fleener: Soon after the opening of free agency, the Saints signed Fleener to a five year, $36 million contract. This contract has all the hallmarks of a bad Mickey Loomis move. Fleener only counts $2.4 million against the cap this season. But in order to keep that number so low, New Orleans had to offer large guaranteed salaries on the back end of the deal. So if the Saints are up against the salary cap (as they always are), they’ll have to convert that money into a signing bonus and spread it over all the years of Fleener’s contract. So if Fleener doesn’t pan out, the Saints will pay a heavy price. And there’s a pretty good chance that might happen since Fleener ranked 46th of 51 qualified tight ends by DYAR last season.

Laurinatis: The Saints signed Laurinatis to take over defensive play calling from rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony. The Rams released Laurinatis after his inconsistent play last season. New Orleans has to hope that Laurinatis can reverse his declining play and justify shifting Stephone Anthony, one of last year’s few promising defensive players, off of his inside linebacker position.

Fairley: Fairley possesses prodigious talent. The Lions picked Fairley 13th overall out of Auburn University where he anchored their defense. During his career with the Lions, Fairley struggled with weight and maturity issues. He played last year for the Rams as a effective reserve player. In New Orleans, he should step into a starting role with the Saints after signing a 1 year, $3 million contract. This is precisely the kind of low-risk, high reward contract the Saints should be pursuing. If Fairley plays well, then he fills a major hole in the Saints defense at a good price. If he fails, then New Orleans can move on without hurting their cap in the future. 

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