Positions of Need
The Saints missed on Champ Bailey last off-season, cutting him before the season even started, despite giving the ex-Bronco a 500K signing bonus. Even worse than the 500K down the toilet is the fact that he didn’t give them the cornerback opposite Keenan Lewis that they desperately needed. Lewis didn’t have a very good season in 2014, grading out 98th among 108 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus and neither did really anyone else at the position. Lewis could bounce back in 2015, but they need help after him on the depth chart. Corey White and Patrick Robinson were their #2 and #3 cornerbacks last season, but White graded out 106th out of 108 eligible, while Robinson is a free agent this off-season.
Other than Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, no Saint had more than 3 sacks last season. Jordan rushes the passer from the interior in sub packages anyway. They desperately need an edge rusher opposite Galette in sub packages, preferably one who is capable of playing in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 because Rob Ryan is staying as defensive coordinator and likes to use both schemes.
The duo of Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs has been very good for the Saints recently, but not in 2014, as both graded out below average. Maybe if the Saints were in a better cap situation, this wouldn’t be as big of a deal, but Evans and Grubbs are going into their age 32 and age 31 seasons respectively, owed 7.5 and 6.6 million respectively, and the Saints can save 6 million and 3.6 million on the cap respectively by cutting them. I don’t expect both back, so the Saints should need one, if not two new starters at the position this off-season.
Jonathan Goodwin struggled at center last season, grading out 27th out of 41 eligible centers. A free agent going into his age 37 season, I don’t expect Goodwin to be back as a starter this off-season. They need to add at this position this off-season because their best internal option is Tom DeLito, a 2013 undrafted free agent who has graded out below average in his first 2 seasons in the league and played a combined 457 snaps.
The Saints drafted Brandin Cooks in the first round last year and he played pretty well before going down for the season with a wrist injury. He should be a big part of their future receiving corps, as should Kenny Stills, a 2013 5th round pick who has been solid in his first 2 seasons in the league. However, Marques Colston is going into his age 32 season and coming off arguably his worst season as a pro. He caught 59 passes for 902 yards and 5 touchdowns, the first season of his career in which he played more than 11 games and caught fewer than 60 passes and the first season of his career in which he played all 16 games and had fewer than 1000 yards. He was Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible last season. He hasn’t had 1000+ yards in a season since 2012 and the Saints can save 4.3 million on the cap and 7 million in cash by releasing him this off-season. Even if they don’t let him go this off-season, they need a long-term replacement as he’s declining, aging, and expensive on a team with little long-term financial flexibility.
Curtis Lofton was Pro Football Focus’ 57th ranked middle linebacker out of 60 eligible last season. Lofton has graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been with the Saints since signing a 5-year, 27.5 million dollar deal. The Saints can save 7.25 million in cash and 4.25 million on the cap by letting him go this off-season, but, if they do that, they’ll need a replacement because they don’t really have an internal one.
David Hawthorne was another free agent signing from 3 off-seasons ago by the Saints that didn’t really work out. He’s graded out below average in all 3 seasons since signing a 5-year, 19 million dollar deal. The Saints can save 4.5 million in cash and 2.99 million on the cap. He’s less likely than Lofton to be cut because he’s cheaper and a better player, but, even if he’s back, Parys Haralson is a free agent while Ramon Humber was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season in limited action.
Mark Ingram was finally valuable for the Saints in 2014, as the 2011 1st round pick rushed for 964 yards and 9 touchdowns on 226 carries (4.27 YPC), after rushing for 1462 yards and 11 touchdowns on 356 carries (4.11 YPC) in his first 3 seasons combined. However, now he’s a free agent and, if he’s not back, the Saints will need to add at the position. Pierre Thomas is going into his age 31 season and has rushed for just 771 yards on 192 carries over the past 2 seasons (including a career low 45 carries in 11 games in an injured plagued 2014 season), an average of just 4.02 yards per carry. He’s purely a 3rd down back at this stage of his career. Khiry Robinson, meanwhile, has potential, but the 2013 undrafted free agent still has just 130 career carries.
Drew Brees is still playing a high level. The Saints didn’t make the playoffs in 2014, but don’t blame Brees as he led the offense to a 79.14% rate of moving the chains (2nd behind only Green Bay) despite issues on the offensive line and in the receiving corps, completing 69.2% of his passes for an average of 7.51 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked quarterback behind Aaron Rodgers for his efforts. However, he’s going into his age 36 season and his successor doesn’t seem to be on the roster. Brees’ case is especially interesting because he has such an expensive contract on a team with so little financial flexibility so he’s basically always one bad season away from not being worth it anymore.
Key Free Agents
RB Mark Ingram
As I mentioned earlier, Ingram had a breakout year in his contract year in 2014. The 2011 1st round pick was largely a bust for the Saints (especially since they gave up a 1st and 2nd round pick to move back up into the first round to get him), rushing for 1462 yards and 11 touchdowns on 356 carries (4.11 YPC) in his first 3 seasons combined. However, he rushed for 964 yards and 9 touchdowns on 226 carries (4.27 YPC) in 2014. Still, his injury history is concern (14 games missed in 4 seasons), he’s still a one year wonder, and he doesn’t contribute as a pass catcher (53 catches in 4 seasons). Running backs haven’t been getting much on the open market recently and, as good of a natural runner as he is, I don’t expect him to get much on the open market either. A reunion with the Saints would make some sense, but they won’t break the bank for him.
CB Patrick Robinson
Patrick Robinson has essentially been a bust as a 2010 1st round pick, but it hasn’t been for lack of talent. He’s just missed 22 games in 5 seasons and had serious trouble consistently staying healthy and on the field. His best season came in 2011, when he played 15 games (7 starts) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked cornerback, but whoever signs him shouldn’t expect that kind of play from him. In 2014, he played 624 snaps in 14 games, starting 6 of them, and grading out about average. That’s more par for the course from him. He’ll be looking at smaller multi-year deals to be someone’s #2 or #3 cornerback. Considering the Saints’ desperate need at the cornerback position and that Robinson was their best cornerback in 2014, a reunion could make sense.
OLB Parys Haralson
Haralson played 4-3 outside linebacker for the Saints in base packages this season and rushed the passer off the edge in base packages. He graded out above average, excelling as a run stopper, ranking 5th among 4-3 outside linebackers in run stopping grade, but he didn’t get much pass rush. This is nothing new for him, as he’s graded out above average in 4 straight seasons since 2010 (he missed all of 2012 with injury), but he’s never gotten much of a pass rush. He’s only going into his age 31 season, is only a two-down player, and has only played 2068 snaps in the past 5 seasons combined so he won’t draw a ton of interest on the open market, but he has scheme versatility and can still play a role for someone.
C Jonathan Goodwin
Jonathan Goodwin is going into his age 37 season and, after grading out 27th out of 41 eligible centers in 2014, could be at the end of his line. If he plays another season, he won’t be guaranteed a starting job, but it’s worth mentioning that he’s just one season removed from a 2013 season in which he graded out 13th at his position, that he graded out above average in all 3 seasons from 2011-2013, and that centers tend to have longer careerspans than other positions.
Cap Casualty Candidates
DT Brodrick Bunkley
Brodrick Bunkley has been a free agent bust since signing a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle in 2011, including 1st against the run. Bunkley hasn’t been horrible when on the field in New Orleans, but he’s struggled to find a role in either the Saints’ 3-4 or the Saints’ 4-3 since arriving in town and he’s played just 899 snaps in 3 seasons as a result. He’s also graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons and missed 10 games. Even when he had his strong 2011 season, he only played 485 snaps and, even at his best, he’s a two-down player because of his inability to get to the quarterback. The Saints can save 4.5 million in cash and 2.88 million in cap space by letting him go this off-season, going into his age 31 season, and the cap strapped Saints won’t think twice about it unless he restructures and takes a paycut.
MLB Curtis Lofton
Like Bunkley, Lofton is a free agent signing from three off-seasons ago that didn’t really work out. Lofton has graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been with the Saints, with his worst coming in 2014, as he ranked 57th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. His 22 missed tackles led the NFL regardless of position and he was a big part of why the Saints’ defense was so horrible in 2014. The Saints can save 7.25 million in cash and 4.25 million in cap space by letting him go this off-season, a move that would make a lot of sense given their cap situation.
G Jahri Evans
Jahri Evans was a 4th round pick of the Saints’ in 2006 and was a starter basically from the word go, as rare as that is for a 4th round rookie. He’s missed just 2 starts due to injury over those 9 years, so he’s been as durable as they come and he’s also been as consistently dominant as they come, at least up until 2014. From 2007-2013, he graded out in the top-30 in 7 straight years and the top-9 in 5 of those 7 years, maxing out at #1 overall in 2009. However, in 2014, he struggled, grading out below average, 46th out of 78 eligible. Ordinarily, a player of Evans’ caliber would be able to get away with a down season, but the Saints are about as cap strapped as they come and Evans is going into his age 32 season. The Saints can save 6 million on the cap and 7.5 million in cash by letting him go this off-season. If he’s let go, he shouldn’t have much trouble finding another starting job, given his history.
WR Marques Colston
Colston has been with the Saints since 2006 and has been such a big part of their offensive success, but, like Evans, they could be moving on from him this off-season. He’s aging (going into his age 32 season) and coming off arguably the worst season of his career. He caught 59 passes for 902 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2014, the first season of his career in which he played more than 11 games and caught fewer than 60 passes and the first season of his career in which he played all 16 games and had fewer than 1000 yards. He was Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible last season. He’s purely a complementary receiver at best at this stage of his career and could really struggle statistically if he went somewhere without a quarterback like Brees throwing him the ball. He hasn’t had 1000+ yards in a season since 2012 and the Saints can save 4.3 million on the cap and 7 million in cash by releasing him this off-season. Another option is a paycut and Colston is rumored to be open to that in order to stay with the Saints and Drew Brees.
TE Ben Watson
Watson has had a solid, but unspectacular career since he entered the league in 2004 as a 1st round pick of the Patriots, playing 11 seasons for New England, Cleveland, and now New Orleans, but he’s going into his age 35 season and could be at the end of the line. He played a significant role as the #2 tight end behind Jimmy Graham for the Saints last year, playing 578 snaps, but the veteran graded out 48th out of 67 eligible at his position. His salary for 2015 isn’t a ton (1.5 million), but the cap strapped Saints need all the financial flexibility they can get and they can save that whole amount on the cap immediately by cutting him.
OLB David Hawthorne
Like Lofton and Bunkley, Hawthorne is a free agent signing from three off-seasons ago that didn’t work out as he’s graded out below average in the first 3 seasons of his 5-year, 19 million dollar deal. He’s more likely to stay than Lofton because he’s cheaper and better, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible last season and the Saints can save 4.5 million in cash and 2.99 million on the cap by letting him go this off-season.
G Ben Grubbs
Ben Grubbs was another free agent signing from three off-seasons ago. He actually worked out a lot better than Lofton, Bunkley, and Hawthorne, but the Saints can save 6.6 million in cash and 3.6 million on the cap by cutting him and he’s not an absolute necessity, which is why he makes the bottom of this list. Grubbs was a top-16 guard on Pro Football Focus for 5 straight seasons from 2009-2013, but graded out slightly below average last season and now he’s going into his age 31 season. I do expect him to stay, but it’s not a guarantee.