Officially, at 3 p.m. today, the Saints can begin building their roster back to a level they believes will take them back deep into the playoffs.
Unofficially, that building began in January with addition by subtraction.
In the time since New Orleans lost at Seattle and today, the Saints have dispatched with veterans Will Smith, Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles.
Throw in the team’s unrestricted free agents – Malcolm Jenkins, Zach Strief and Brian de la Puente, to name a few – and New Orleans’ roster suddenly feels airy with holes to fill.
Then again, that’s the beautiful thing about the NFL. Just when you think it’s bad, free agency opens up, the draft happens and suddenly the roster is restocked.
It’s similar to 2009, when the Saints parted with the franchise’s leading rusher Deuce McAllister, fan favorite fullback Mike Karney and receiver David Patten.
That year they ended up signing fullback Heath Evans, Greer and safety Darren Sharper while also re-signing receiver Devery Henderson and linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
In other words, while New Orleans isn’t in a great spot cap-wise thanks to having to re-sign tight end Jimmy Graham, there are always underrated gets (Greer), emotionally taxing losses (McAllister) and key re-signs (Vilma).
Here’s our view of the Saints’ five biggest needs when the door is pushed open today:
(*Note: Top available doesn’t necessarily mean affordable)
No. 1: Safety
You could easily put cornerback as the position of greatest need but it’s hard to argue against safety.
After all, in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s safety-heavy alignment, he’ll have only one – Kenny Vaccaro - formally on the roster when free agency begins.
Jenkins would like to return, but he’ll have options; he’s a young player (26) with lots of experience and is a natural leader.
New Orleans tendered Rafael Bush as a restricted free agent and likely will involve him more should no other team swoop in and grab him.
Still, that leaves them woefully undermanned at a critical position.
Price could play a factor here considering what the Saints need on the roster and which position they covet. Then again, the market at cornerback could be pricey.
Top safeties available: Malcolm Jenkins, Jairus Byrd, Donte Whitner, Chris Clemons, Michael Mitchell
No. 2: Cornerback
Again, this could easily have been the top position of need. While Keenan Lewis is solid, we saw this past season what happened when Greer went down with injury. Corey White was solid in spots, woefully overmatched in others.
The depth from there went to Rod Sweeting and Trevin Wade.
The good news is the Saints will get Patrick Robinson back. The bad news is he’s coming off of a serious knee injury that may inhibit his return to his best football for awhile.
For the Saints defense to work like Ryan wants, he needs the back end sealed off, allowing Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks to get to the quarterback.
New Orleans will have youth on the roster to begin the league year. What it won’t have is sure-fire complement to Lewis.
Again, the Saints might be priced out here, though. Brent Grimes already signed a four-year, $32 million deal and Green Bay gave Sam Shields a four-year, $39 million contract.
Top corners available: Aqib Talib, Alterraun Verner, Tarell Brown, Captain Munnerlyn, Walter Thurmond III
No. 3: Center
Brian de la Puente certainly did his job as the team’s center the past three seasons, helping the offense set NFL records en masse in 2011. But with what looks to be a move to a more power-centric run game, his strengths as a pass-blocker are less in need.
He’s a free agent the Saints are comfortable in letting test the market.
Besides, it’s a position they’ve filled in the past more easily than other positions. They went from Jeff Faine to Jonathan Goodwin in 2009 and became one of the NFL’s top lines. In 2011, they brought in Olin Kreutz, who eventually left the NFL early in the season, and went with de la Puente, only to set the league’s single-season yardage record.
Tim Lelito could be the guy – he’s about 10 pounds heavier than de la Puente (the right size for the center they need) and proved that he could get the job done.
Still, the Saints may test the market on this one, deciding instead to go with a veteran who can help transition the offense from a wide-open attack to a power run one.
Top centers available: Ryan Wendell, Jonathan Goodwin, Brian de la Puente
No. 4: Receiver
What became obvious in the past few seasons is that quarterback Drew Brees relied heavily on tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles because A) both were huge mismatches and B) other receivers had a hard time getting open.
With Lance Moore being released and Sproles out, too, the Saints need a receiver who can play underneath, allowing Marques Colston and Graham to own the intermediate areas and Kenny Stills the deep third.
Moore, in his absolute prime, was the perfect complement in the offense – great routes, solid hands and speed to kill.
Colston is getting up in age (and salary cap value) and Stills will be in only his second year in 2014. Nick Toon was in Sean Payton’s doghouse the second half of 2013.
And that’s all the Saints have left for experienced receivers.
New Orleans will need a receiver either in the draft or free agency.
Top receivers available: Eric Decker, Julian Edelman, Golden Tate, Jacoby Jones, Dexter McCluster (Sproles-eque), James Jones
No. 5: Right tackle
The Saints want right tackle Zach Strief back. Strief wants to be back in New Orleans. But right now, with so much up in the air in terms of salary cap, they’re not sure whether they can meet at the right price.
The Saints have Bryce Harris on the roster and he could certainly be a fill in for Strief should the incumbent not return. But if he becomes the full-time, the Saints will still need a quality backup tackle.
Right now, it’d be hard for them to rely on Marcel Jones, who spent his rookie season on IR and his sophomore year on the practice squad.
This may end up being a position of need that ends up being just fine with Strief coming back.
Top tackles available: Zach Strief, Austin Howard, Eric Winston
Here’s what you, the fan, had to say about the team’s top needs:
@wwltvsports DB. No question.— Olde English Bulldog (@WhoDatCitizen) March 10, 2014
@wwltvsports cap space— Angry Who Dat (@angrywhodat) March 10, 2014
@wwltvsports Cb white is not the answer— Darrell Samuels (@ScottPilgrim25) March 10, 2014
@wwltvsports cornerback/safety help should be priority number 1.— Jeff (@jeffalthouse511) March 10, 2014