What would you do if you were GM for the New Orleans Saints this off-season? With the well-documented needs, the fairly advantageous draft position and the unusual cap room, the 2017 off-season for the Saints will be littered with rumors, news and moves as the 2017 roster takes shape. The writers for the New Orleans Saints on lastwordonprofootball.com decided to get together and speak about what their plan would be.
New Orleans Saints: General Manager for an Off-Season
John Butler (Twitter handle: @saintjohnbutler)
Following a third consecutive 7-9 season, the importance of the 2017 off-season can’t be stressed enough. As the 2016 campaign finished, there were a few issues that need to be addressed.
Head coach Sean Payton and his future with the Saints made headlines again this year and anything short of a winning season may push the 11-year head coach out of the Big Easy. Quarterback Drew Brees will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2017 season and though he has plans to continue playing, his future with the Saints may be linked to Payton’s future with the club. The Saints realized a lack of depth at a few key positions in 2016, most notably the secondary. The team ranked in the lower third of NFL teams in 2016 in pass rush as well.
The philosophy for the 2017 off-season should be primarily to bolster the defense. Free agency will come up first and the top priority is re-signing defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Fairley proved his worth in 2016 with 6.5 sacks and 43 tackles. He’s publicly expressed interest in coming back to New Orleans, so for the sake of the article, we’ll assume that happens. Another priority would be addressing middle linebacker and the secondary. Bringing in a true middle linebacker will allow Craig Robertson to move to his natural position at outside linebacker and add range to the linebacking corp. Finally, beefing up the secondary is a must. If we learned anything after the Saints were decimated by injury in the secondary in 2016, it’s that more depth is needed. Second tier, NFL caliber cornerbacks will add depth without destroying the Saints cap situation.
The Saints pick 11th in the NFL draft this season and defensive end should be a priority for a long-term pass rusher. Solomon Thomas (Stanford) and Derek Barnett (Tennessee) seem to be the two defensive ends that have most often dropped to the Saints in most mock drafts. With that addition to a solid defensive line (Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, Nick Fairley), the pass rush will forgive many deficiencies behind them. The balance of the draft can be used to fill the holes mentioned in the previous paragraph that don’t get addressed in free agency. If the needs are met, a later round quarterback project, future tight end or punt returner are lower tier needs.
Caleb Martin (Twitter handle: @CalebMartin33)
The Saints are committed to making title runs as long as Drew Brees still has gas left in the tank. In order to do this, they need to address their uninspiring defense that allowed the second most points in the NFL this season. The Saints have a solid young core on their front line, but there’s certainly holes in the secondary. Delvin Breaux’s season-long battle with injuries was a major reason for the secondary’s struggles, but he’s not going to carry the secondary by himself. In recent off-seasons, the front office in New Orleans has made some gaffes in spending (see: CJ Spiller and Jairus Byrd). While Byrd had somewhat of a bounce back season in 2016, the Saints can’t afford to keep having dead money affect their cap space.
The new league year starts on March 9th and that’s also when free agency begins. This is the first offseason in a while where New Orleans has some wiggle room under the cap. Therefore, they could use free agency to address some of their needs on defense. It all starts at the line of scrimmage in football, so I think retaining Nick Fairley would be a great idea. Some other defensive ends I would look to pair with Cameron Jordan would be Mario Addison or Jabaal Sheard to get edge pressure on the opposing Quarterback. They should also look to add some depth at linebacker with some mid-tier singings.
Good corners come at a price in the NFL so it might make more sense to add a defensive back during the draft. The Saints have the 11th pick in the first round. They should pray that Marshon Lattimore from Ohio State falls that far, but it’s unlikely. Quincy Wilson from Florida and Sidney Jones from Washington are intriguing cornerback options that are more realistic for the 11th pick. Drew Brees just turned 38 in mid-January and the Saints have to be thinking of who could possibly replace him. The Garrett Grayson project hasn’t worked out to this point and I think the Saints need to take notes from the Cowboys and look for a quarterback with upside in the third or fourth. Patrick Mahomes (Texas Tech) and Luke Falk (Washington State) are the two that I like that could potentially be available that late.
Stephanie Fournier (Twitter handle: @StephFournier)
I would change as little as possible on the offensive side of the ball. The New Orleans Saints offense ranked second in total yards last season. I would sign 38-year old quarterback Drew Brees to a 2-year deal. With another 5,000 yard season last year (for the fifth consecutive time), his age does not appear to be a factor. In order to maximize his passing potential, it will be important to keep the dynamic between Michael Thomas, Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks, arguably the best wide receiver trio in the NFL right now. They made franchise history last year becoming the first trio to each have over 70 catches in the same season and combined for more catches than any other trio in the entire league last season. I would give Snead a qualifying offer – a one-year deal at the minimum. As for Cooks, I would exercise his fifth year option for 2018. He is only 23 years old and still under contract at a bargain ($1.56 million in salary and bonuses) but this price will go up very soon.
Although there has been a lot of discussion about special teams and their poor performance last season, I would opt to retain kicker Wil Lutz. Lutz began the season as a liability, missing six field goals (three of which were blocked kicks in games that resulted in close losses) and an extra point. After Kevin O’Dea was hired as special teams coach late in the season to work with Lutz, the improvement was immense. Lutz did not miss a kick in his final six games, finishing 12 for 12 in field goals and making all 18 extra points. With O’Dea remaining on staff to work alongside Bradford Banta, Lutz should be vastly improved next season.
The defense is obviously an area requiring major improvement. I would pick up a couple of pressure players in the draft. This year’s draft is very strong defensively with plenty of defensive ends and pass rushers. An edge rusher to play alongside Cameron Jordan is a must. Possible options are Solomon Thomas, Taco Charlton or Tim Williams. With $40 million in cap space in 2017, I would also invest in a top tier defensive end like Jabaal Sheard of the New England Patriots who is in his prime and only 27 years old. I would also ensure a couple of current players were retained. I would sign defensive tackle Nick Fairley to a long-term deal. He signed a one-year ‘prove-it” deal last year, and has certainly passed the test. He tied for 17th in the NFL with 5.5 sacks and 20 quarterback hits. I would also keep Jarius Byrd, though on reduced pay. It would cost the team $8 million in dead money against the salary cap to release him, and this probably wouldn’t be wise since he began playing his best football the latter half of last season.
While the approaches may be different, the underlying themes seem fairly similar. The talent on the defensive side of the ball needs to be improved. Saints fans will be locked in this spring during the NFL Combine, free-agency and the NFL Draft. The approach of Mickey Loomis and the New Orleans Saints organization will be fun to watch this off-season.