Of the multitude of things Sean Payton will have to deal with when he's finally given the go-ahead by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to return from suspension, dealing with free agents and the Saints' salary cap issues is near the top of the list (the top being figuring out the defensive problems).
When the new league year begins at on March 12 at 3 p.m., 11 Saints players will officially count themselves as unrestricted free agents, three will be restricted, two will be exclusive rights players and six others just hope they get roses from general manager Mickey Loomis and Payton.
When all is said and done, the following is how WWLTV.com (read: Handwerger, Bradley) thinks things will shake out for those 22 players. The Saints, mind you, are on the hook for about $140 million against a cap that's expected to be close to $121 million in 2013. These guesses aren't for who makes the 2013 final 53-man roster, just those who will be around through offseason workouts.
Ivory is a tough call, but not in the way you think. The running back was a healthy scratch for four of the first five games of the season and when he wasn't against San Diego he didn't play. And then Philadelphia happened and then Atlanta happened. He rushed for 120 yards on 17 carries combined, scoring two touchdowns.
The tough call on Ivory is where the team tenders him as a restricted free agent. Because of his past of having to deal with injuries, it's highly unlikely a team will be willing to give up a draft pick for a player who has yet to play a full season. Regardless, Ivory will be back with the Saints.
Brian de la Puente
The Saints have a history of letting centers walk when it comes time for contract negotiations. Luckily for New Orleans, de la Puente isn't quite there yet. He's not the most-overpowering center in the game but he has been the guy snapping the ball to quarterback Drew Brees for two seasons now. In that time, the Saints have set an NFL record for total offensive yards and put up the second-most yards in team history. The Saints' 50 sacks given up are second-fewest over that time.
De la Puente will be cheap and the Saints will likely give him the lowest tender available, which means they would have the right to match any offer but would receive no draft picks should he leave (much like Jonathan Casillas in 2012). In other words, de la Puente will return.
Boy do the Saints have it easy this season when it comes to restricted free agents. Drescher is the third and final guy and long-snappers aren't exactly hot commodities on the market. The Saints will likely tender him at the lowest level (it costs the team nothing). He's a solid long-snapper and the Saints kicker (Garrett Hartley) and punter (Thomas Morstead) are both comfortable with him. He'll be back.
Exclusive Rights FA
The Saints like what Olsen does for them and was the 'is eligible' lineman for much of the latter half of the season after both Zach Strief and Charles Brown went down with injuries. And he grew in the role. As an ERFA, Olsen can only sign with the Saints if they tender him as such. Can't see Olsen going anywhere this offseason.
Bush signed with the Saints after being waived by Denver and turned into one of the team's most valuable special teams players. He filled in nicely at the end of the season on defense, too, and showed upside that could keep him in the NFL for years to come. He finished with 19 tackles this season, including 15 solo, and had a forced fumble and an interception. He'll stick around in New Orleans.
After recalculating, we missed William Robinson as an unrestricted free agent. He came in in a pinch and helped fill a much-needed hole for the Saints when they became extremely thin at tackle. But while he proved his worth, there was a reason he was working at a bar prior to being signed by New Orleans.
Still, because rosters explode in size through training camp, it's easy to see Robinson as being a guy they keep around throughout the offseason. He's a known commodity now and proved that he can play the NFL game when put in a bad spot. He'll be around for OTAs and minicamp.
Waiting for a rose
And here we've arrived at a very non-official category. These players are ones who might be cut for salary reason or at the very least have their contracts restructured to become more cap friendly for New Orleans. We won't make any guess here, but we'll give you points that explain why they're on this list. Like the Bachelor, they're waiting hoping the Saints give them roses to stick around.
All you need to know is that if the Saints part ways with Smith, he'll save the team $7.7 million. When you're about $20 million over the expected $121 million level, this seems like an easy move. Smith already restructured prior to the 2012 season and it's hard to think that'll happen again.
Smith had an average year stat-wise, finishing with 58 tackles and six sacks and had two passes defensed. But Pro Football Focus rated him as the second-worst 4-3 defensive end in football this past season, giving him terribly low ratings for his pass rush abilities
It's likely Smith has played his last game with the Saints.
Here, again, is another guy who could save the Saints a bundle. He took a pay cut in 2012 to play with New Orleans and would still save the Saints about $6 million if they parted ways with him.
He might not be at his marauding best level from 2009, but he's a serviceable player who surprised a lot of people that he still had life left after the multiple procedures on his knee this offseason. The highlight of his season was hic pick-six against Carolina a play that showed he still could diagnose a play and had the athleticism to complete it.
Vilma may want to stay around New Orleans, but he proved in the final 11 games after coming off of the PUP list that he could still play the game. If the Saints cut him, he'll catch on somewhere.
Harper seems like a good candidate for, at the very least, a restructure. Set up as is, he'd save the Saints $3.6 million against the cap this season if he's released.
While it might not have seemed like it, Harper had one of his best seasons in the NFL in spite of not having any sacks. He finished with a career-high 115 tackles, a career-high 11 passes defensed and two interceptions. He proved his versatility in Steve Spagnuolo's system by playing some linebacker, which rewarded his aggressive style of play.
But Pro Football Focus does not look highly on Harper, rating him as the second-worst safety in the NFL this past season. Not that front offices pay attention to PFF, but their grades are likely similar. In other words, they have ammo in convincing Harper to restructure.
This one certainly comes out of nowhere. But as friend Pat Yasinskas, NFC South writer for ESPN.com, writes about Thomas, he might be a little more expendable now that Mark Ingram has emerged as a guy who just might be able to get it done.
Thomas certainly deserves any and everything that comes his way (in a good way). He's fairly reliable and does things that few others can do. But when, as a team, you're in salary cap hell, you've got to look for places to make tough decisions and this could one of them. The key to Thomas is that if they cut him, his cap number goes away completely, which is a very big incentive for them to do something drastic.
He came to New Orleans in search of a starting chance. Instead, he has done very little. In two seasons with the Saints, he has just 22 tackles and sees most of his time on special teams. He's set to cost the Saints $1.9 million against the cap this season, an expensive special teams guy. If they part with him, they save $1.6 million. That's a pretty big savings on what amounts to a 14-play-a-game guy.
The Saints will not be getting rid of a guy who signed a five-year contract prior to 2012. But what they could do is restructure the linebacker, who is set to cost them $4.7 million against the salary cap this year. He played in 11 games, starting 10 and finished with 38 tackles and one pass defensed and spent five games inactive with a right hamstring injury.