With the season mercifully over we can now focus on the offseason in earnest. I have to say quickly that it became clear the Seahawks' defense was probably the best since the Ravens in their prime at the very least. Maybe one of the best ever. That's not to slight Marshawn Lynch or Russell Wilson in any way, as they're both great players, but honestly that team could have won the Super Bowl with much less on offense. That unit barely needed to do anything in so many games this year, just not turn the ball over. Hopefully the success will force major contracts to Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman which will deplete the talent they have on the roster and make it challenging to retain such quality depth. As it stands, I think it will be difficult for the Saints to get better than the Seahawks in terms of talent, but each year is different and nothing is given. The good news is the Saints, like the Seahawks, are very young. Before the Saints can improve, though, they first have to hold on to their own key parts. Here are the players looking for new contracts in order of importance:
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
1. TE Jimmy Graham – Obviously the key part of the offseason. Mickey Loomis has already said he will franchise tag him if necessary. Graham is going nowhere. He'll either be franchised and handcuffed to that one year deal, or he'll work out a long term agreement. Rob Gronkowski got $53 million over 6 years with $16.5 million guaranteed back in 2012, so that's the figure to watch. That remains as of now the richest deal in NFL history for a tight end, and Graham's agent will likely push for more. But that's the ballpark. If Graham's camp aims to target a receiver deal we've already seen that will get shot down quickly and could result in stalled talks. When it's all said and done I think Graham will have a deal for around $55 million over 6 years, with approx $20 million guaranteed.
2. T Zach Strief – Strief has been through a rough year personally as he divorced his now ex-wife Mandy, who is from New Orleans. In some ways I could see him wanting to leave and get a fresh start elsewhere. But there's no denying Strief loves the city, has built as close bond with it, and as a captain he's a valuable part of the offense and locker room. Pro Football Focus actually graded him as the top player on offense this season for the Saints, ahead of Graham and Drew Brees. He was very steady and had a good season at right tackle which should command a good contract on the open market. Given the Saints' cap woes I think they are in serious danger of losing Strief and it would be a blow. I kind of view this as a situation similar to Scott Fujita. Strief isn't an elite tackle, but he's solid, and being a leader on a successful team will possibly land him a nice deal on a team desperate for positive influence. Fujita loved New Orleans and wanted to stay back in 2010, but the Browns made his decision to leave easy with the contract they offered him. For some reason I feel like the Dolphins will make a run at Strief after that whole Incognito ordeal for talent combined with character stability. Don't rule out Aaron Kromer and the Bears, too.
3. C Brian de la Puente – It would already be bad enough to lose one starter on the offensive line but losing two would be every difficult to absorb. That's why the Saints must do their best to retain at least one, and I think BDLP will be easier to retain. I thought he regressed a bit in 2013 after a surprise season in 2012, but he's still a serviceable starting center in the league.
4. S Malcolm Jenkins – He's the starter at free safety but I don't know which direction the Saints want to go in here. The transition to safety in general for Jenkins I think has been a bit of a failed experiment. He has talent, but he just doesn' t have the speed, playmaking skills or play recognition ability to truly be a dependable back line player consistently. I don't think he'll command all that much on an open market, so there's a chance the Saints could hang on to him, but giving him a contract like they gave Harper would be a major mistake. There's a decent chance he will not be back.
5. LB Ramon Humber – Humber is a quality reserve linebacker and a solid special teams thumper. He's 26 so he's still in his prime, and while the emergence of Kevin Reddick could put his place in jeopardy I think he's a valuable guy to hold on to. He's proven he can come in and play well when someone gets injured.
6. LB Parys Haralson – He's a starter and he played well in run support this season. I think the one year rental in exchange for a 7th rounder was worth it overall. I'm not sure if the Saints believe he's a long term fit, though. That said, he could easily be had for a minimal deal for one year, and if so there's no reason not to bring him back. With the rehab he's facing of a torn pectoral all offseason he may struggle to find a job. He seems like a good guy to bring back to compete with youngsters in camp.
7. DL Kenyon Coleman (retiring, will not return) – Like Haralson he's older and he's been on IR with a torn pec as well. He's had the benefit of rehab all season, though, so he should be far ahead of Haralson in terms of recovery. He may retire but I know Rob Ryan loves him. With the emergence of Akiem Hicks, a clear cut starter now, Coleman would only be needed in a possible reserve role. If he still has the desire to play after that injury, though, he's another guy they should bring back to camp on a minimum deal.
8. LB Keyunta Dawson (re-signed 1 year deal) – He was a pleasant surprise as a reserve pass rusher and came up with one big play at Atlanta to help with a game (pictured above). I assume the Saints will re-sign him to compete for a job in camp.
9. K Shayne Graham (re-signed 1 year deal)- The Saints desperately need an upgrade at kicker in 2014. His two misses in Seattle leave it open ended as to whether he's the right fit. His makes in Philadelphia earned him the job in 2014 before the Seattle game left doubt. I think the Saints will bring him back to compete for the job, but they have to bring in solid competition and make him truly earn the spot. I'd like to see a wide open competition this camp with 2 or 3 guys having a legitimate shot at the job.
10. QB Luke McCown – Ryan Griffin will have a chance to earn the backup spot behind Brees in 2014, but I think the Saints will re-sign McCown in case he's not ready. Griffin won't be handed that job and McCown has been solid as a backup in preseason for two straight years. I think Payton trusts that McCown could come in in a game situation and make throws. The jury is still out on Griffin. So McCown isn't a priority neccessarily, but he knows the system and he's a trusted veteran, so I believe he'll be back.
11. LB Will Herring – He's a reserve cover guy and a special teamer. He played ok this year but he's just not a high priority. Again, he coud easily be brought back to compete in camp.
12. WR Robert Meachem – The Meachem experiment kind of failed this year. The wild card is that Sean Payton loves the guy, and he's a capable blocker. But clearly he's lost that explosive big play ability and he looked an awful lot like the 2012 version of Devery Henderson. It's time to get younger and more explosive at receiver. I would be surprised if the Saints bring him back.
13. LB Jonathan Vilma – All signs point to Vilma being done, unfortunately. Maybe he'll try to give it another run after a year of recovery but I just don't think his knee will allow him to be the same ever again.
14. T Charles Brown – When he was benched in favor of Terron Armstead at the end of season that basically severed all ties. I'd be shocked if he's back in 2014. I'm sure someone will sign him as a backup given his high draft status and experience starting this past season. I do not think that will be with the Saints, though.
15. S Jordan Pugh – Could be brought back for camp, but not a big part of the team's future plans.
RESTRICTED/EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
1. S Rafael Bush – A MUST to bring back. With Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins both on the fence about returning, Bush is a necessity and a rising improving player that has shown some real potential. He's restricted so the Saints will have to tender him at a 2nd round level at minimum. He was undrafted so tendering him at the lowest amount would risk losing him and forcing the Saints to match a big deal. No one will give up a 2nd round pick for him so they should be safe there.
2. FB Jed Collins – While fullbacks are a little bit easier to find because there's so many available ones out there, Collins is a big part of the Saints' blocking. I'd like to see him back as he's a good locker room presence and a quality player. A low tender may be enough to keep him, even though he was undrafted, because I don't see another team giving him a big offer sheet the Saints can't match.
3. T Bryce Harris (re-signed 1 year deal) – He's an exclusive rights free agent so he's not going anywhere. Keeping him is very important because Strief is in limbo and Charles Brown is a goner. He'll have a shot at competing for starting right tackle if Strief bolts and even if he doesn't he's the primary edge backup.
4. WR Joe Morgan – Coming off a major knee injury the big question is whether he can be the same explosive player. He'll be back to battle in camp, almost for sure, but given the injury I tend to think it's going to be an uphill battle for him to make the team. Still, I look forward to watching him come back and compete.
5. DE Tom Johnson (will not be tendered) – He's a rotation defensive lineman that in my estimation under performed a bit in 2013. The Saints don't want to pay him the minimum tender so they'll let him test the free agency market and there's an outside chance he could still come back at a minimum deal (which is less than the minimum tender).
6. DB Trevin Wade (re-signed 1 year deal) – As many injuries as the Saints had at DB, Wade was playing a decent amount of nickel in the playoffs and he did ok. He's an exclusive rights player so he won't be going anywhere.