A contract year can bring the best out of a player.
Facing the uncertainty of free agency and an opportunity to play into a big deal, some players dig deep and find more in themselves than they ever have before. Others struggle to deal with the pressure
New Orleans has 17 players on the roster who will be unrestricted free agents after the 2015 season, according to OvertheCap.com. Out of that group, three Saints fit the prototype of a player entering a true contract year, a chance for a young player to seal his next contract.
With that in mind, The Advocate continues its series leading up to training camp by taking a look at those three players.
Akiem Hicks, defensive end
Hicks, a former third-round pick, looked like a budding star after making 56 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks in 2013. Instead, Hicks slipped to 41 tackles and two sacks in an injury-plagued campaign, another casualty of the Saints’ defensive slide in 2014.
Now, Hicks finds himself entering the last year of his rookie contract. A 6-foot-5, 324-pound presence, Hicks is quick enough to play defensive end in the Saints’ base defense and rush the passer from the interior in nickel packages. A big year could make him a hot commodity on the free agent market and let him set his price; another so-so performance would leave him in the middle of the free agent pack.
Nick Toon, wide receiver
Toon, a fourth-round pick in 2012, might be looking at his last chance to establish himself as a productive, essential piece of an NFL team’s receiver rotation. Up until Brandin Cooks went down last year, Toon was a bit player, often inactive on game day.
Then he caught 17 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown down the stretch, and the Saints overhauled the receiver position, opening up opportunities for Toon behind Cooks and Marques Colston as he enters his contract year. Now, Toon has to make the most of it if he’s going to make a case to return to New Orleans or land a solid deal on the open market.
Rafael Bush, safety
Bush finds himself in a slightly different spot. An established cog in the defense, Bush has started 13 games over the past two seasons as a dependable backup at safety. His path to a starting role appears to be blocked by Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd, but Bush is still only 28, and if given the opportunity, a solid performance could help him earn a multi-year deal next offseason.
Hicks, Toon and Bush are the headliners. The rest of the 17 Saints staring at 2016 free agency fall into three categories.
Ben Watson (34 years old), Luke McCown (34) and Parys Haralson (31) are all established veterans who have played key roles on the New Orleans depth chart in recent seasons. The trio is entering a different sort of contract year, trying to extend long careers by landing another year or two, whether it’s with the Saints or some other team.
Veteran free agents
New Orleans did some bargain shopping in free agency, signing severan veterans on one-year, “prove it” deals that allow a veteran to show the NFL he’s still got something left and warrants another look. Of that group, defensive tackle Kevin Williams and outside linebacker Anthony Spencer look earmarked for key spots; guard Mike McGlynn, wide receiver Josh Morgan and nickel back Kyle Wilson could provide depth if they win a roster spot; and running back Tim Hightower and safety Kenny Phillips are trying to break back into the NFL after long absences.
Backups on the bubble
Bryce Harris, Jamarca Sanford, Joe Morgan and Jerry Franklin have all been contributors on NFL rosters – Sanford used to be a starter for Minnesota -- for several seasons. Now they enter training camp competing for backup roles and roster spots.