Disappointing seasons often lead to sweeping change — especially when said season began with championship aspirations.
We’ve already seen some of the pieces fall for the New Orleans Saints.
Major changes have been made to the coaching staff, and coach Sean Payton has spoken out about the lack of leadership in his locker room.
What we haven’t seen is how the changes will affect the roster. With just a little bit more than a week remaining to trim more than $20 million to get in compliance with the salary cap, things have been silent at Saints headquarters.
But what we do know is that change is coming. This roster needs upgrades at several key spots on defense, and hard salary decisions will need to be made at others where players with bloated contracts exist.
How shrewd the team is in trimming the fat from its roster will determine what this team can do in the offseason. With $109 million in cap space tied up in the top 10 players on the roster, it could be difficult to find much room to play with. But several of those hits will be decreased in the coming days when the team converts several roster bonuses to signing bonuses, which can be spread out over a number of years.
And, besides, General Manager Mickey Loomis always seems to find a way to fit players under the cap. It will be interesting to see what he comes up.
In the meantime, here’s a look at how things stand heading into the free agency period:
Even though his numbers appear stellar on paper, Drew Brees left something to be desired in his execution. There were too many interceptions and missed opportunities which, at the end, might have been the difference between winning the weak NFC South and heading home with the sour taste of disappointment.
Still, even with the mistakes, Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. His spot is safe.
Behind him, it appears New Orleans will allow Ryan Griffin and Luke McCown to battle it out for the No. 2 job. There is something to be said for locating Brees’ successor sooner than later, but the Saints can get away with pushing that down the line for another year. The class of quaterbacks entering the league is weak, and New Orleans has too many other pressing needs to address.
The Saints say they want to keep Mark Ingram and have placed a value on him. If Ingram decides his value is something greater and believes he can get it on the open market, the Saints likely will let him walk and shift back to using more of a committee approach at the position.
Khiry Robinson proved he can provide similar production while Ingram was out with an injury, and there are attractive options both on the market and in the draft. With a tight cap, it would be foolish to commit a great deal of resources to this position.
If Ingram walks, the Saints might want to allocate their resources at this position to acquire another “passing” back, who is capable of dictating matchups and opening things up for the offense. That element was lacking last season.
The Saints do not have pressing needs at wide receiver. Brandin Cooks showed flashes last season and should be even better in his second year, and Kenny Stills emerged as a more complete receiver last season.
There will not be a great need to add players at this position, especially if the team can find a way to chop down Marques Colston’s $9.7 million cap figure. The belief here is that both sides will be best served by finding a middle ground. If that middle ground is not reached, Nick Toon could be an option to move into the “X” receiver role.
New Orleans also has a decision to make on Robert Meachem. The veteran played 257 snaps last season but only made seven catches for 114 yards. He provides value as a blocker, which makes up for some of the lack of production as a receiver, but the Saints need to figure out whether there is another option who can contribute in both areas. If the brass determines Brandon Coleman or Seantavius Jones is ready to contribute, it could be bad news for Meachem.
At tight end, Ben Watson’s $1.9 million cap figure could come within the crosshairs, but he is still a quality blocker and provides leadership. Measures could be taken to lower Jimmy Graham’s cap number.
In an ideal world, both Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans would accept reduced salaries and return for another year while a young player is groomed behind the scenes. This would allow the Saints to address other positions of need and address a different position in the first round of the draft.
Both players are still capable of being on the field. The problem is that they are not worth the combined $20 million-plus they count against the cap.
If both or either balks at coming back on a significantly reduced salary, New Orleans needs to be ready to make difficult decisions. The feeling here is that greater efforts will be made to retain Evans.
It would be difficult to find capable players to take over at both spots. If either player leaves, Tim Lelito could be an in-house option to play guard, but it’s more likely someone is brought in from outside the organization. If a need emerges, New Orleans should look to take two guards in the draft.
Attention also needs to be paid to the center position. If Jonathan Goodwin is not brought back, Lelito likely will be tabbed to fill that role, but competition should be created in training camp.
A backup tackle could also be used.
What looked like a strength heading into last season is a question mark a year later. Cameron Jordan is the only player who appears to have his spot locked down. Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley ($6.1 million cap number) could end up a cap casualty, and the future of linebacker/pass-rusher Junior Galette remains up in the air.
Though his domestic violence case was dropped, Galette could face a suspension to start the year. But beyond that, despite recording 10 sacks last season, Galette was a liability against the run, and it would be surprising if there is some regret over the contract he was given last season.
New Orleans could use upgrades in its pass rush both coming off the edge and from the inside. It would be surprising if measures aren’t taken to shore up these positions both through the draft and free agency. It would be a surprise the team doesn’t draft a pass rusher in either the first or second round. Also, expect the Saints to tender restricted free agent Tyrunn Walker, who has shown promise and provides quality depth.
More tough decisions are needed at this position, where both David Hawthorne ($6.01 million cap hit) and Curtis Lofton ($9.25 million) could be asked to rework their deals. If either balks, Hawthorne could be in greater danger than Lofton.
Either way, this is another position where upgrades could be needed. Too many of New Orleans’ linebackers come from the same mold of excelling against the run while struggling in coverage. The team could use a sideline-to-sideline player who is capable of making plays all over the field.
Looking at the financial side, the first order of business will be doing something to lower Jairus Byrd’s $10.3 million cap hit. His $6 million roster bonus likely will be converted to a signing bonus, which will allow the team to spread out the hit, and his $2 million base salary could be cut in half.
On the personnel side, there is a dire need to another cornerback to play opposite Keenan Lewis. The Saints are hopeful CFL import Delvin Breaux can contribute here, but a more known commodity likely will be brought in. New Orleans cannot afford to miss at this position again after striking out on Champ Bailey last season.
So, expect a cornerback to be signed, and it also could be prudent to draft another player at this position. How big of a splash can be made in free agency will depend on how much cap room the team clears in the next week. There also could be value in bringing back Patrick Robinson to cover the slot.?A decision will have to be made on Corey White, who received a $1 million salary escalator for next season.