Free agency opens in the NFL this week with a mixture of hope and trepidation for fan bases.
An NFL team can send itself to the Super Bowl by bringing in the right free agents — the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots both put themselves over the top the past two years with big investments in free-agent defenders. By the same token, a team can sacrifice precious cap room for underwhelming returns and suffer the disappointment the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts felt this season.
New Orleans has been on both sides.
Free agents like Drew Brees, Scott Fujita and Jabari Greer helped formed the nucleus of a Super Bowl champion.
Other free-agent investments, like last year’s big signings, Brandon Browner and C.J. Spiller, have failed to make much impact.
“We go through this musts, needs and wants process,” Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said in January. “There are going to be musts, or things that we have to get. There are going to be needs of things that we need to get, but they are not as critical as the musts. Then, there is the wants, and the wants are usually depth issues.”
Free agency and the draft go hand-in-hand. If the Saints can sign a clear starter at a “must” position in free agency, New Orleans does not necessarily have to force a draft pick at that position when the No. 12 pick of the first round rolls around at the end of April. Find enough players in free agency at “need” positions, and the Saints have an opportunity to take the “best player available” — a hot-button term this time of year — at each pick.
New Orleans has clear needs.
A defensive overhaul begun last season remains ongoing, with an argument available for every spot.
A year ago, defensive needs forced a series of headline-making moves that included trading Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and Ben Grubbs to create space and pick up draft picks.
Needs remain all over the defense, but the Saints feel like they upgraded enough that there may be fewer surprises.
“I think on the surface you would say (the Saints’ approach will be) probably not as aggressive, because there are a lot of young players in the pipeline that we like the prospects of, more so than maybe a year ago,” Loomis said.
But the Saints, who already have cleared about $11 million in expected cap space with more potentially coming from an expected Brees extension, will still be players in free agency. New Orleans already hosted former Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis for a visit, and the Saints have never been shy about adding veteran help.
The key is spending in the right places.
“My mom is no longer alive, but she loved Sunday garage sales,” Saints coach Sean Payton said in January. “That was her hobby. So we had, probably, 10 couches throughout my childhood. They’d arrive with great fanfare, and then maybe on Tuesday. there would be a wobble. We just have to be careful that we’re excited about it for the full term.”
Last year, New Orleans waited and got defensive tackle Kevin Williams and cornerback Kyle Wilson late in the process; both played better than Browner or Spiller.
With the cap space the Saints expect to have, players like offensive linemen Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete expecting tenders and a need to re-sign players like tight end Benjamin Watson, New Orleans is going to have to find a few more bargains to give itself some flexibility in the draft.
“You just want to make sure that it’s the right fit. Mickey and I look closely at the numbers, and that first week of free agency, there is a lot of risk,” Payton said. “I think after that first week and things calm down, often-times there is an opportunity to sign someone who has more value.”
A look at the Saints free agents
James Anderson, linebacker
Rafael Bush, safety
Travaris Cadet, running back
Matt Flynn, quarterback
Kai Forbath, kicker
Tim Hightower, running back
Tony Hills, tackle
Michael Hoomanawanui, tight end
Luke McCown, quarterback
Mike McGlynn, guard
Khiry Robinson, running back
Benjamin Watson, tight end
Kevin Williams, defensive tackle
Kyle Wilson, cornerback
Jamarca Sanford, safety
Josh Hill, tight end
Senio Kelemete, offensive lineman
Tim Lelito, guard