NFL free agency begins March 15 and the Saints will have quite the time keeping every free agent it wants around, if for no other reason than they have quite a few big name players available who will command big money.
But while this list has a peripheral relation to free agency – several on this year’s list of the Saints’ Indispensable 10 are unrestricted free agents – we’re taking a look at the 10 players on New Orleans’ roster at the end of the 2011 season whom would be hard to replace.
This is the third year of our list and we know the feedback isn’t always, um, agreeable. Nothing wrong with that. We welcome feedback and only ask two things – keep the comments clean and no personal attacks. There will be differences of opinion; it’s what we love about America.
10.) Thomas Morstead, Punter/Kicker (Free Agent after 2012)
As hard as it is to put a kicker or punter or full-time special teamer on a list of 10 players that the team can’t lose, two things come to mind here – A) this should tell you how little we think of some of the other players but B) Morstead has earned his way onto this list.
It’s the second time in three years he has been on this list (No. 10 in 2010).
No one in the NFL had more touchbacks on kickoffs than Morstead and only one punter was better overall – San Francisco’s Pro Bowler Andy Lee.
Once again, he was tasked with pulling off a trick onside kick (against Minnesota) and if not for terrible hands by his teammates, he would have pulled off Ambush for the second time in his career. That it wasn’t was not his fault.
Time and again this past season Morstead lined the defense up with solid field position; it wasn’t up to him to make the stops. He did his part and he did it pretty darn well.
9) Lance Moore, Receiver (Free Agent after 2015)
Here’s all you need to know about why Moore is indispensable – in two of the four games he was out, the Saints dearly missed his precise route running and sure hands.
Yes, the Saints offense put up good numbers in the losses to Green Bay and San Francisco. But there was something missing in both of those games and it was Moore.
In the loss to the 49ers, what was missed most was the route-running; no one on the Saints completes the scheme quite like Moore and he would have forced San Francisco to play less fast and loose, likely opening someone else up.
The clutch receiver was fourth on the team in catches and receiving yards but he was tied for second with eight touchdowns. He also scored on two 2-point conversions during the regular season
This is Moore’s second consecutive year on the list; previously he was No. 6 in 2011.
8) Pierre Thomas, Running back (Free Agent after 2014)
How important is Mr. Thomas? When he went out of the divisional playoff game to San Francisco, everything changed for the Saints’ offense. His concussion changed the trajectory of that playoff game.
When Thomas was out, fellow running back Darren Sproles was taken off of the kickoff team, which put Courtney Roby into the return position. Roby fumbled and the 49ers recovered, eventually scoring off the turnover.
He finished second on the team with 562 yards rushing with a 5.1-yard average. His 50 receptions were fifth-most on the team. And while the screen game cooled off some this year, Thomas remains the best at it in the league in our humble opinion.
Thomas ranked No. 8 in our initial Indispensable 10 in 2010 and moved up to No. 7 a year ago.
7) Jahri Evans, Right Guard (Free Agent after 2016)
It’s not that Evans’ level of play has fallen these past few years. It’s that the Saints have acquired so many more players who have become integral parts of the program.
But he’s still on this list, which you would expect from one of the league’s best interior offensive linemen.
He has started 96 consecutive games, most ever for a Saints player to start his career. He’s part of a line that allowed the second-fewest sacks (24) in the NFL this past season and second-fewest sacks in the NFL since 2006 (122) when he came into the league.
Evans has been to three consecutive Pro Bowls as a starter and has been named an All-Pro the past three years.
This is the third consecutive year for Evans on this list, hitting No. 9 in 2011 and No. 3 in 2010.
6) Marques Colston, Receiver (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Marques Colston was second on the team in receiving yards and third in receptions. He led all receivers with 1,143 yards on 80 receptions and had seven touchdown catches.
This despite missing two games with a broken collarbone. In fact, that he only missed two games was impressive considering he needed surgery to place a plate on the clavicle to hold it together and let it heal.
Colston is expected to command a salary commensurate with some of the top receivers in the league, something he has earned in being one of the steadiest wideouts in Saints history.
He’s one of quarterback Drew Brees’ go-to receivers in tight situations. He was tied for ninth in the NFL on third-down catches with 23, catching three of his seven touchdowns on the down. His 15.1-yard-per-catch average on third down was fifth-best in the NFL for those with 20-or-more receptions on third down.
This is Colston’s second year on this list. He was No. 5 in 2011.
5) Carl Nicks, Left Guard (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans could flip-flop and I doubt few people would argue. There’s no doubt that he’s part of this list, though. And he knows it – the Saints are going to have to offer him big-time money to keep him around for the next contract cycle.
The change in this past season for the Saints came after the St. Louis game; Nicks and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer vocally demonstrated to each other their frustration.
For Nicks, it was an awakening and from then on, he bulldozed his way to a first-team All-Pro honor and a Pro Bowl berth for the second consecutive year. He helped the Saints become a record-setting offense with the passing game No. 1 in the NFL and the running game No. 6.
Nicks jumps to No. 5 from No. 8 in 2011. He was No. 4 in 2010 after the Super Bowl run.
4) Jabari Greer, Left Cornerback (Free Agent after 2012)
Without Jabari Greer, the Saints oft-criticized defense likely would have been criticized even more. Plainly put, Greer returned to his 2009 level and led the team in leadership and ability on defense.
He was fifth on the team with 83 tackles and had one interception along with one forced fumble. But he led the team – and was near the top in the NFL – in passes defensed with 23.
Greer turned back into the Saints’ shut-down corner this past season and was rarely tested. When he was, he came through, such as shutting down Atlanta’s Roddy White after the Falcons receiver had had past success against Greer.
While he was unheralded coming to New Orleans, he’ll likely be a hot commodity next offseason when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Greer has bounced around this list, coming in at No. 2 in 2010, the initial year of our list, and No. 10 last year when he took a few steps back from his career year in 2010.
3) Jimmy Graham, Tight End (Free Agent after 2013)
Jimmy Graham, in only his second year, lit up the NFL and flew up the list of important players on the Saints’ roster. He led the team in both receptions (99) and yards receiving (1,310) and had nearly a fourth of the team’s touchdown catches (11).
Graham proved to be nearly impossible to stop this past season, creating matchup problems with whoever was tasked to guard him. At one point, he had four consecutive 100-yard receiving games, only the second tight end in NFL history to ever accomplish that.
He was tied for 12th in the NFL in third-down receptions with 22 and was 11th in the NFL in scoring for non-kickers with 66 total points.
Few players open up an offense like Graham can and does and without him, the Saints would not have set a plethora of NFL records for offense in 2011.
2) Darren Sproles, Running Back (Free Agent after 2014)
What we wrote about Jimmy Graham goes for Sproles, but even more so. Sproles returns punts and kicks and does everything just about as well as or better than anybody else in the NFL.
He’s the perfect complement to quarterback Drew Brees in the offense. He’s so shifty and versatile that even when he’s not the first option for Brees, he ends up with the ball in his hands.
Sproles was tied for 7th in the NFL in third-down receptions with 25 and scored two touchdowns on the down. He led the Saints on the ground with 603 yards on 87 carries for an astounding 6.9 yards per carry average. He also caught the second-most passes (86) for 710 yards and seven touchdowns.
The diminutive dynamite set an NFL record for all-purpose yards with 2,696.
1) Drew Brees, Quarterback (Unrestricted Free Agent)
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb on this one. After all, there’s a reason the Twitter-sphere has exploded for the past month or so with fans crying out for the Saints to come to an agreement on a long-term contract with the all-star quarterback.
Simply put, Drew Brees is the franchise. With all due respect to coach Sean Payton who runs the show, Brees makes things go. Teammates look up to him and try their best to match his effort and intensity.
I’m not even going to talk about the NFL records he set in 2011 (passing yards, completion percentage, etc.) because, by now, that’s all well known. The Saints know what he means to the team and the city. The fans know what he means to the team and the city. And he knows what he means to the team and the city.
There is no more important player on the Saints roster than Brees.