INDIANAPOLIS — The New Orleans Saints are one of a small handful of teams that are not scheduled to have formal media availability this week at the scouting combine.
But former director of player personnel Ryan Pace, who is now the general manager of the Chicago Bears, stepped to the lectern Wednesday morning and shared his thoughts on how his team is likely to attack the offseason. And since Pace cut his teeth in New Orleans, this could offer a glimpse into how the Saints view the offseason period.
“What I like doing is balancing what are the strengths of the draft versus what are the strengths of free agency and kind of balancing it out,” Pace said. “We’ll look at free agency and I’ll know the positions that are strong, areas that we can attack and we’ll do that when necessary. It will be calculated. In a perfect world you address a lot of your needs in free agency to open up the draft for best player available.”
The Saints have a handful of pressing needs entering the offseason. One of the biggest is at cornerback, where there is not an obvious option to start opposite Keenan Lewis. The team could also use another edge rusher, depth on the interior offensive line, and possibly another linebacker.
Depending on how negotiations go this offseason with running back Mark Ingram, who is a free agent, and wide receiver Marques Colston, who will likely need to take a pay cut to return to the team, there could also be needs at running back and wide receiver.
New Orleans has the 13th pick in the draft and could go several different directions with it depending on how they approach free agency. If they follow Pace’s plan, some of those needs could be addressed on the open market — assuming the team can free enough cap space — which would allow the Saints to stay true to their board in the draft.
The Saints could receive a hand from the NFL in creating some financial flexibility.
The league’s salary cap is expected to rise as much as $10 million from last year’s figure of $133 million, according to an ESPN report.
This would be good news for the Saints, who have around $167 million committed to their top-51 players, according to various projections.
That means New Orleans needs to trim at least $24 million in payroll by March 10, the start of the league year, if the cap reaches the optimistic end of the projection. ESPN reported the cap could settle at $140 million.
The Saints have built in mechanisms that should allow them to reach the figure by converting roster bonuses to signing bonuses or by restructuring some bloated salaries.
USA Today reported this week the Saints are one of 10 teams that must increase their cash spending to be in compliance with the collective bargaining agreement.
League rules stipulate that teams must spend 89 percent of the salary cap in cash over two four-year periods (2013-16 and 2017-20). The Saints checked in at 86.2 percent.
If New Orleans does not increase its spending, the difference must be paid to the NFLPA, which can distribute the money as it pleases.
It’s still unknown whether Peyton Manning will return for another season.
What we do know, is that he’s indicated he wants to play another year for the Denver Broncos. And it sounds like the man leading the Broncos wants the same.
“No doubt I want him to be. I think all indications are that (through) everything that he said and through his conversations with John (Elway) he feels good,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “He’s had his self-assessment or however you want to label that, and he feels good about moving forward. So, we’ll just continue with the process.”
Manning has been working out in New Orleans with an eye toward returning for another season. The quad injury that hindered him late in the season is said to be fully healed.
Kubiak took over as head coach of the Broncos this offseason after John Fox became the head coach of the Chicago Bears. He said he’s met with Manning and will be patient as he awaits to find out if the quarterback will return for another season.
“When I came in — I think it will be a month tomorrow that I’ve been in town — I knew all along they were going to take some time, that Peyton
was going to take some time away,” Kubiak said.
Louisiana Monroe kicker Justin Manton is regarded as the best kicker in the 2015 NFL Draft class. What makes him so good? Experience.
“I’ve been through some things that have helped me along the way,” Manton at Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Manton converted 20 of 24 field goal attempts and was perfect on 23 extra point attempts last season. He’d also like to prove to teams that he can do more than kick.
“I’d like to show them that I’m an athlete,” said Manton, who also punted for the Warhawks. “I want to be known as an overall football player. That’s what I can show people here.”
And, with multiple trick plays making an impact last season in the NFL, Manton would love to get an opportunity to throw a touchdown pass like Seattle Seahawks punter Jon Ryan did in the NFC championship game.
“I’m left handed and played baseball, so I can throw a little bit,” Manton said. “That’d be cool, rolling out to the left like Ryan did.”
Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Bryan Bennett was a late add to the Senior Bowl last month, but said Wednesday at the combine that he still learned a lot in Mobile.
“It was a good experience for me because it gave me an opportunity to be put into a situation to learn the playbook in a short amount of time and be able to learn it as quick as possible,” said Bennett, a Hammond native who transferred to SLU from Oregon. “Coming from a spread offense and being put into a pro-style situation was just a good learning experience. There were a lot of positives that came from that.
“Right now I’m just doing everything in my control to get better and be prepared for the opportunities that will come to me.”
Contributor Ron Clements contributed to this report