NFL free agency starts Thursday and the question is what will and what should the New Orleans Saints do?
We can only predict the future by looking at the past, and the past tells us Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton love free agency as a way to make the Saints better. The Saints love free agency so much that since Loomis has been general manager they've received only three compensatory draft choices for losing more free agent players than they signed in any given year.
Now we can sit here and argue whether the draft or free agency is the better way to build a winning team, but history tells us the Saints believe in betting BIG in free agency. In 2006 the Saints went all in during free agency to sign Drew Brees and it worked out spectacularly. In 2014 they went all in to get Jairus Byrd out of Buffalo, and well, they just cut him after three mostly injury-plagued and mediocre seasons.
Win some, lose some right? Free agency is the craps table of the NFL and the 2017 Saints are the guy with money burning a hole in his pocket itching to roll those dice. In my mind the question isn't if the Saints are going to spend big, it's how they will spend a lot of Tom Benson's money. Drew Brees is 38 and in the final season of a two-year deal, the Saints have gone 21-27 the last three years, so why wouldn't the Saints go all-in one last time with Brees? Of course they will.
Is it a bad idea? Probably.
Bill Belichick has shown the best way to win in the NFL is to stock pile draft picks, avoid big money free agency, and try to build a deep roster around a Hall of Fame quarterback. That's not how the Saints operate. The Saints are your dad at the craps table thinking he's about to get hot with 'them bones' and retire to Cancun. So we can either complain about how reckless it is, or maybe we can help dad place some better bets? What do you say?
Let's spend a couple hundred million of Tom Benson's money and get ourselves incredibly excited about an idea that history shows is a very bad idea. For the Saints to win in 2017 they need to have three things happen; their defense needs more sacks, they need to do everything possible to keep Drew Brees healthy, and they need better injury luck. Two of those things they can control.
First, the defense needs to sack the quarterback more. Since the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009, teams that won the Lombardi trophy have averaged 43.5 sacks. The 2016 Saints had 30, so we got some work to do.
Sure the Saints can draft a pass rusher early but to expect a rookie you pick at #11 to get 10 or more sacks is being a tad ambitious, so we are going to have to use free agency to get more sacks. Saints should begin by re-signing Nick Fairley, because if Fairley walks out the door, the Saints returning sack total drops to 23.5.
Fairley was a big reason the Saints run defense was actually pretty good and finished 19th in rushing yards allowed. Is signing a guy like Fairley, who has had weight and motivation issues, to a big deal risky? Oh yes. And guess what? Defensive tackles that had 6.5 sacks GET PAID. So let's all swallow hard and give Nick 4 years $36 million.
The problem for the Saints is since the salary cap went up, all the potentially good defensive ends and pass rushers got franchised. So if we can't sign a top-shelf defensive end like Chandler Jones, what's the plan? Sign better corners and give the defensive line more time to get to the quarterback. I believe the Saints played approximately 345 guys at cornerback due to injury in 2016, so we'll need to upgrade with at least one or possibly two corners.
Is spending $105 million on two corners a good idea? Making sure B.W Webb is pushed far down the Saints depth chart is worth any price I say. Oh look, we just gave Patriots corner Logan Ryan 4 years and $40 million and the Bills Stephon Gilmore 5 years $65 million. Why? Because a wild Saints free agency spending spree is never fully complete without a reckless Buffalo Bills player who will disappoint us all come September.
CJ Spiller and Jairus Byrd nod solemnly.
We've spent $141 million but we are hardly done. The 2017 New Orleans Saints are about no regrets and as the kids say #YOLO.
The second thing the Saints need to do is make sure Drew Brees remains healthy and happy. The man is 38, which ain't exactly young, and I'm sure he's getting pretty fed up being awesome on 7-9 teams. So Drew, we just bought you a brand new guard for 5 years and $60 million dollars. Say hello to Kevin Zeitler of the Cincinnati Bengals.
You might be thinking, "Ralph, no guard has ever gotten a contract averaging $12 million dollars a year. That seems insane." Look around friends, everything costs more, I just spent over $100 taking my family to an LSU baseball game in Houston. $12 million is a small price to pay to keep Brees in one piece and our fall Sundays enjoyable.
Zeitler would allow the Saints to send Senio Kelemete/Tim Lelito to the bench, and not have to hope and pray they get another half decent year out of Jahri Evans. Adding Zeitler would also mean the Saints could sustain 1 major injury to any offensive lineman besides Max Unger, shuffle players around, and still be as good as 2016. If the Saints got good health though, a line of Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Max Unger, Kevin Zeitler, and Zach Strief is pretty damn appealing. And all it took was handing out the most money to a guard in NFL history. It's practically a bargain. We just crossed the $200 million free agent spending mark! Spending someone else's money is intoxicating. I hope Mr. Benson uses a credit card that gets him points on all these purchases so he can buy something real nice for Gayle.
Guess what though? We aren't done yet! Brandin Cooks apparently wants to be traded and since multiple teams are interested and the Saints wouldn't come out right away and deny it to end the speculation, my hunch is Cooks is probably a goner.
When I read that New England offered the 32nd pick in first round, my initial reaction was Mickey Loomis should thank Bill Belichick for beating Atlanta in the Super Bowl, and then tell him to go play in traffic after such an insulting offer for a receiver who just had over 1,100 receiving yards. Then I thought about it for a bit and began to wonder if this is all just Loomis and the Saints talking to any reporter that will listen to create a better trade market for Cooks. The Saints and Patriots hardly ever leak trade details early. Hell, the Saints dropped the Jimmy Graham trade clear out the sky when nobody was even mentioning or thinking it was possible, but now suddenly it gets out New England made an offer for Cooks? Riiiiiiiight.
I believe Cooks will be dealt, hopefully for a 1st round selection, which means the Saints will need to replace Cooks deep threat ability. Say hello to underachieving receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. He did set a career high with 52 catches in 2016, but his real value to the Saints would be he can return kicks and punts, be a special teams gunner, and catch about 35 Drew Brees bombs. Think of him as the Swiss Army version of Devery Henderson. Imagine the Saints being able to return punts and kickoffs with competence? Why that's worth 5 million a year BY ITSELF! Cordarrelle? You just got 3 years and $15 million of Benson's money to sort of, kinda replace Brandin Cooks. Sean Payton will probably make it $19 million, if unlike other Saints wide receivers, you promise to stay off social media forever.
So what’s our final bill come to? $220 million for 5 players. Free agency is the time of dreams and Thursday is my birthday so let's hope for the best because, while the Saints might not spend the $220 million dollars of my free agent fantasy, history says they won't sit on the sidelines either. Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at email@example.com, find him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.