The first thing the New Orleans Saints need to do this offseason is create cap space needed to upgrade the roster.
Entering the offseason, before the final numbers are set for the 2015 season, New Orleans is projected to be more than $20 million over the cap. That means the front office will be busy restructuring deals and trimming any unnecessary fat from the ledger.
While the bookmakers are taking care of those issues, coach Sean Payton will spend his days figuring out how to replace his exiting assistants and determining the fate of those who remain in the balance.
And while those issues are being discussed and solved, the team also needs to figure out how to answer five burning questions facing this team:
1. What should be done with Marques Colston?
The Saints and their longtime receiving star should enter the offseason looking for a way to make things work.
Colston, now 32 and coming off a down season by his high standards, should be wise enough to know that his $9.7 million cap number is far too high for a player who caught 59 passes for 902 yards and five touchdowns. But the Saints should also be wise enough to realize Colston is a good fit for this system and still has something to offer — at the right price.
New Orleans can create $7 million in cap space by releasing Colston. The key here will be to get him to agree to a restructured deal that lowers his cap number and makes both sides happy. If Colston refuses, then New Orleans should walk away.
Coslton’s cap number next season is slated to be the 12th-highest in the NFL at his position. He was in the top 10 for 2014. If he refuses to play ball, the Saints could take that money and invest it in a younger player with more upside.
But the ideal situation would be to get him to come back at a cheaper price, grouping him with a promising young corps of receivers that includes Brandin Cooks, Kenny Stills, Nick Toon and wild cards Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones.
2. How will the offensive line shape up?
One of the bigger disappointments this season was the play of the offensive line — particularly the interior.
While he qualified for the Pro Bowl and garnered a pair of All-Pro votes, Jahri Evans did not play up to the high level he has set for himself. The right guard was graded by Pro Football Focus as allowing 41 pressures and six sacks; that’s too inconsistent for a player who is due to count $11 million against the salary cap next season.
It wasn’t much better for left guard Ben Grubbs, who allowed 33 pressures and one sack. He’s due to count $9.6 million against the cap in 2015.
The harsh truth is these two players did not look like they were worth a combined $20 million this season. New Orleans is going to have to find a way to lower their cap numbers or start exploring ways to make changes.
An easy fix could be made at center. It’s only fair to note Jonathan Goodwin fought multiple injuries this season, but his struggles made things harder on the guards. Getting a better player in that spot could alleviate some of the issues Evans and Grubbs faced.
3. Who’s No. 2 at cornerback?
If one issue defined the season, it was New Orleans’ constant search for a No. 2 cornerback.
After Champ Bailey busted out in training camp, the Saints spent the next 16 games trying to find someone to put on the field opposite Keenan Lewis. Patrick Robinson, Corey White, Brian Dixon and Terrence Frederick all tried their hand, but no one stuck.
It’s imperative that the Saints find someone to fill that role this offseason. The best move might be to target someone in free agency. New Orleans cannot afford to miss by taking the wrong prospect in May’s draft.
The Saints also must decide whether it’s worth bringing back Robinson, who is set to reach free agency. At the right price, he can still provide quality depth.
4. Is Mark Ingram worth it?
Was the success the running game saw this season because of Mark Ingram, or was it more the result of the offensive line figuring out how to better execute the new blocking schemes it struggled with in 2013?
If the team decides Ingram deserves the credit, he will have a better chance of receiving a second contract with New Orleans. If the Saints determine the offensive line made the difference, then they should move on and look to add another running back in the draft to pair with Khiry Robinson, who will be entering his third year.
If it’s a little bit of both that led to Ingram gaining 964 yards on 226 carries over 13 games, then New Orleans will have a more difficult decision. But given the cap situation, it seems unlikely this team will invest heavily at running back if it believes it can get something close to what Ingram produced this season at a fraction of the cost.
If that’s the case, New Orleans should feel comfortable moving forward with Robinson, who performed well while Ingram was out this season, and whoever else it finds to pair with him.
5. What’s the (pass) rush?
A perceived strength of this defense entering 2014, the Saints too often struggled to put pressure on the quarterback, finishing with 34 sacks.
There’s no sugarcoating that number. It was a disappointment. Junior Galette (10) and Cameron Jordan (7.5) put up decent sack figures, but both likely would admit there were too many opportunities left on the table or not enough opportunities created.
Opposing quarterbacks often seemed comfortable in the backfield and were given too much time to get passes off, which exacerbated the issues the secondary was fighting through.
The Saints need to search for another player who can help create havoc coming off the edges. Speeding up quarterbacks also would help the secondary in terms of yards allowed and turnover opportunities.