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Saints Offseason Brief: The Receivers

A look at how the team stacks up at wide receiver and tight end, and what they might do in the offseason at those positions

Last time we looked at how the Saints stacked up at quarterback and running back. Today we’ll take a look at the offseason plans at wide receiver and tight end. The format will be a little different than last time, as with the end of the season, teams can now sign players to reserve/future contracts in order to secure their services for 2018, as long as they remain under the 90-man roster limit for the 2018 season. I’ll make mention of those players as well. (Free agents can’t be signed to standard contracts until March 11, the first day of the new league year.)

(Contract figures and salary-cap numbers are mostly courtesy of spotrac.com, with the occasional information from overthecap.com. Ages are as of the first day of the 2018 season.)

Photo from neworleanssaints.com

WIDE RECEIVERS

2017 Players and Cap Information

Player Age 2017 Cap Hit 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Ted Ginn 33 $3,000,000 $4,500,000 2019
Michael Thomas 25 $1,163,403 $1,396,083 2019
Willie Snead 25 $506,470 N/A Free Agent (RFA)
Brandon Coleman 26 $615,000 N/A Free Agent (RFA)
Tommylee Lewis 25 $541,666 $631,668 2018 (RFA)
Austin Carr 24 $465,000 $555,000 2019 (RFA)
Travin Dural 24 $465,000 $480,000 2018 (ERFA)
Dan Arnold 23 $465,000 $555,000 2019 (RFA)

 

New Signings for 2018

Player Age 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Josh Huff 26 $705,000 2018 (RFA)
Paul Turner 25 $555,000 2018 (RFA)

 

Wide receiver is an interesting group for the Saints, because they have decisions to make on two significant but not irreplaceable contributors.

The starters will almost certainly remain the same. Ted Ginn had one of the best seasons of his career in 2017, and I see no reason the Saints won’t bring him back. Michael Thomas is still on a rookie contract, and while the Saints will obviously extend him, they can (and probably will) wait another offseason to do so.

Willie Snead is an interesting question; he’s performed well in the past, cracking 1,000 yards in 2016, but saw his role dramatically decline this season. He’s a restricted free agent, so the Saints have the right to match any contract offer he receives and keep him. If teams want to pay for his 2017 performance, the Saints should be able to match easily. If a team pays him in hopes of getting his 2016 performance, he may be too expensive for the Saints to want to matc. (And in a year where the Saints don’t need to make too many changes to the roster, it might be better to let a player like Snead walk and try to get a compensatory pick for him in 2019.)

Brandon Coleman is also a restricted free agent. He’s been adequate in his role, and I could see the Saints bringing him back on a cheap deal. However, his best season was 2015, when he had 30 catches for 454 yards; that kind of production is fairly easy to replace.

The Saints claimed Austin Carr from the Patriots at the 53-man roster deadline, which mandated keeping him on the 53-man roster all season. It’s not clear how much of a future they see Carr as having, but Carr is a good route runner with sure hands and was highly productive his final year at Northwestern, dominating the share of targets, yards, and touchdowns in their passing game. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saints see Carr as their next Snead, and choose to bring him into a bigger role in 2018 (he was mostly inactive in 2017) while moving on from Snead.

I’d expect Tommylee Lewis to stick around in his role as special teamer, fifth receiver, and occasional gadget offense player, unless the Saints find another undrafted free agent-type this year who can do all those things better than Lewis does them.

Travin Dural was on the practice squad all year and seems likely to return there, unless he takes a significant step forward (possibly, say, to take Coleman’s place on the roster). Dan Arnold was signed after attending the rookie minicamp tryout last May but was placed on injured reserve. He seems most likely to be a training camp body. This is probably also true for the team’s new signings for 2018, although Josh Huff was a third-round pick for Philadelphia in 2014. In theory, he has the pedigree to be a difference-maker in the right offense. (In actuality, he’s probably a case of then-Eagles coach Chip Kelly drafting a player he had coached at the University of Oregon far too early.)

Whether or not the Saints have room to bring in a new wide receiver depends on what they do with Snead and Coleman. It’s possible that they draft one or add one in free agency if the value and fit are right. Seattle’s Paul Richardson seems like the kind of player they might target, someone whose career production to date will leave him undervalued, but who started showing signs of reaching his full potential this past season. (Though many of the Saints’ bigger free-agent signings have not worked out, they have a relatively good track record of signing undervalued players or players who are on the verge of breaking out and go on to perform very well for them: think Jabari Greer or Joe Horn.)

This class also seems to have a decent crop of receivers, some of whom could be available in the middle rounds. Maryland’s D.J. Moore is a favorite sleeper for many, but I think his stock may rise ahead of the Saints’ third-round pick. (Is he worth a first-rounder? I don’t know yet.) Other potential names in the later rounds who could provide a valuable return on investment include Washington’s Dante Pettis, LSU’s D.J. Chark, or Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown, which might be the most fun name to put on the back of a Saints jersey since Stanley Jean-Baptiste (and who can’t possibly be as big a bust).

Photo credit: Chuck Cook, USA TODAY Sports

TIGHT ENDS

2017 Players and Cap Information

Player Age 2017 Cap Hit 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Coby Fleener 29 $7,500,000 $8,000,000 2020
Josh Hill 28 $2,595,833 $2,833,334 2018
Michael Hoomanawanui 30 $1,933,333 $1,933,334 2018
Garrett Griffin 24 $136,765 $555,000 2018 (ERFA)

 

New Signings for 2018

Player Age 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Alex Ellis 25 $555,000 2018 (ERFA)

 

(spotrac.com mistakenly lists Mitchell Loewen as a tight end; he’s a defensive lineman.)

Coby Fleener is probably one of the most obvious candidates to be a cap casualty this offseason. I wasn’t a fan of the signing at the time, thinking he was being paid more for name recognition and draft pedigree than performance. (And I thought his draft pedigree was largely a product of playing with Andrew Luck at Stanford.) That said, Fleener deserves credit for being one of the league’s best-performing tight ends last season in clutch situations– although that was almost entirely due to his performance in the fourth quarter of the Saints’ furious comeback against Washington.

All in all, though, he never really became a significant part of the offense, and if the Saints designate him a post-June 1 cut, saving $3 million this year (but still having $5 million in dead cap this year and $3.2 million next). Alternately, if the Saints decide they have room to carry his full $8 million cap charge this year, they can release him next offseason and save $5.8 million. The fact that they kept him around this long, past the February 7 date when $3.4 million of his 2018 salary became guaranteed, suggests they either plan to keep him around for 2018, or else believe he hasn’t recovered enough from the season-ending concussion he suffered to pass a physical. (Teams can’t release injured players unless they come to a settlement; a player who is injured in a football activity has his salary guaranteed until he is no longer injured.)

Josh Hill was a capable secondary receiving tight end, although someone Sean Payton may be a little too fond of: Hill had some crucial fumbles in the red zone and was the target on the Deion Jones interception that ended New Orleans’ comeback drive at Atlanta, and Payton has called plays like a reverse to Hill in crucial fourth-and-short situations (it did not work). Michael Hoomanawanui is a solid blocking tight end and seems to be a favorite of the coaching staff in that role. While the team could save a decent amount of money releasing either of them ($2 million and $1.6 million, respectively), it seems unlikely they’ll do so.

Garrett Griffin went undrafted in 2016 and spent both years since on the Saints’ practice squad, until he was called up in December after the Fleener injury, before going on IR himself with a foot injury in January. It’s not clear yet if the plan is to keep him on the practice squad, or to give him a chance to replace one of the top three tight ends on the final roster.

I don’t know anything yet about Ellis; like most futures contracts, he’ll probably be a training camp body unless he impresses enough in camp to make the final roster. (The Saints do give players like that a chance; see Trey Edmunds, Justin Hardee, and Arthur Maulet this past year.)

Tight end was a big position for the Saints when Jimmy Graham was around, although its role has been diminished since, particularly in 2017 with the offense primarily going through the running backs and Michael Thomas.  It’s a difficult position to evaluate what the Saints might do, because while they’re seemingly fine at the moment, there’s a chance none of the current top three tight ends will be on the roster in 2019.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to draft a player they liked at the position; even if they don’t intend for him to have a big role this year, the status of the contracts at the position beyond 2018 demand at least looking into the possibility of making a move to stabilize the position long-term. Mark Andrews of Oklahoma is generally considered the draft’s top tight end prospect, and would not be an unreasonable selection at the Saints’ #27 pick. Dallas Goedert of South Dakota State seems to fit the profile of an athletic pass-catching tight end, if the Saints want to attempt to return to having a Graham-type element at the position in the long term.

Of course, Graham himself is a free agent this year; while age and a patella injury have reduced his athleticism and effectiveness a bit, he would still be the best tight end on the roster if the Saints decided to bring him back. While I wouldn’t expect another 2013 season (86 receptions, 1215 yards, 16 touchdowns), I also think he’d probably be more productive back in New Orleans than he was  The other potential prizes in the free agent class are Philadelphia’s Trey Burton, who emerged as a starter-caliber player but was stuck behind Zach Ertz; and Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert, a dominant red zone weapon when healthy, which is almost never. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Saints pursue one of these players, especially if they decide to release Fleener.

Next time: The offensive line.

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