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Analyzing the Saints’ moves in the first wave of free agency

Looking at the significant free-agent signings the Saints have made so far

It seems like all the major dominoes of the first round of free agency have fallen; with Ndamukong Suh officially choosing the Rams on Monday, the last major player (and the last major player the Saints expressed interest in) is off the market.

With all that behind us, let’s look at what the Saints have done so far, and how it shapes their roster going forward and what they might do in the draft and the rest of the offseason.

Kurt Coleman
3 years, $16,350,000
$6,200,000 guaranteed

Now that we have the details of the Kurt Coleman contract in place, the numbers seem a lot more reasonable, another sharp job of finessing the salary cap by Mickey Loomis. Coleman is getting a $4.5 million signing bonus and a $1.7 million base salary in 2018, all guaranteed. Including his $100,000 workout bonus, that means his contract only carries a $3.3 million cap hit this year.

Coleman’s salaries balloon the next two years; if he doesn’t work out as well as hoped, the Saints could cut him next offseason and shave $4 million off their cap.

What impressed me watching some Coleman film was his speed sideline to sideline, which makes him both effective in coverage and as a back-end tackler to prevent big plays. He should be an improvement on Kenny Vaccaro in that regard, and is likely going to start over Vonn Bell, who was decent but didn’t grade particularly well by any metric I could find. Speed is the name of the game in the NFL these days, and Coleman has it.

Plus, if he doesn’t work out, he’s cheap enough to get rid of next year.

Demario Davis
3 years, $24,000,000
$16,000,000 guaranteed

Davis is the biggest contract the Saints handed out this offseason, as the never-ending search for an every-down star at linebacker continues. Davis had a big breakout season for the Jets in 2017, playing every snap on defense, leading the league in solo tackles, and adding 5.5 sacks. Though he’s a bit of a late bloomer, he’s shown he can play well in every aspect of the game. Hopefully the Saints are getting that player, and not a guy who played hard during a contract year only to go back to his old level of performance.

Last year’s search for linebackers led the team to draft Alex Anzalone and sign A.J. Klein and Mant’i Teo. All three had their moments, but Te’o isn’t a three-down linebacker, Anzalone got injured early (a common theme of his college career), and Klein, whose season also ended in injury, delivered mostly solid play but didn’t particularly light up the field. Davis is most likely an attempt to upgrade on Te’o in the top three and to move Klein to the sidelines on passing downs.

Patrick Robinson
4 years, $20,000,000
$10,000,000 guaranteed

The Saints’ former first-round pick didn’t play particularly well on his rookie contract, and bounced around for three other teams on one-year deals afterward, but with the Eagles, he took a major step forward and played like one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league. The Saints presumably signed him with the intent to use him in the role where he excelled; like Davis, there’s a risk here that the one season was an outlier, but Robinson should shore up a position where the Saints struggled last year, while Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley continue to man the outside. If he regresses, the Saints can get out of the contract after two years with only $2.5 million of dead money– and the way it’s structured, they’ll save money cutting him any time after the first year.

Jermon Bushrod
1 year, $1,105,000
$269,118 guaranteed

The Saints couldn’t afford to keep Senio Kelemete, who was offered starter money by the Houston Texans, so they brought back an old favorite to fill the swing lineman position. Bushrod developed into a two-time Pro Bowler starting at left tackle for the Saints, before leaving for a big-free agent deal with Chicago, and then spending a couple of years in Miami. Bushrod played more guard than tackle in Miami, and that experience should serve him well as he fills in to both roles. I imagine, like Kelemete, he’ll be asked to fill in for the occasional injury at guard or right tackle, and perhaps will be used as a sixth lineman on the Saints’ heavy package (as Kelemete and Josh LeRibeus were last year).

Bushrod will be 34 this season, and so Saints fans shouldn’t expect a high level of performance from him, but his familiarity with the offense and versatility should make him a fit for his new role.

Alex Okafor
2 years, $6,787,500
$1,500,000 guaranteed

Okafor played quite well last year, a bargain signing who ended up being one of the Saints’ most consistently effective players at stopping plays in the backfield, both run and pass. Unfortunately, Okafor tore his Achilles in week 11 against Washington, and missed the rest of the season. An Achilles injury can seriously sap a player’s explosiveness, and so there’s certainly concern as to whether Okafor will regain his form, even as he enters his prime at 27. The Saints signed him to another value contract, with a nearly $2 million roster bonus in year two, which gives themselves an option to get out cheaply if he doesn’t return to form, while giving them the right to retain Okafor at an affordable figure if he does. And if he does, he should slide right in as at worst one of the Saints’ top three defensive ends. (The Saints may still take a pass rusher in the draft, or Trey Hendrickson may take enough of a step forward to claim the job for himself.)

Benjamin Watson
1 year, $2,000,000
$645,000 guaranteed

A late-breaking signing: The Saints have brought Ben Watson back from Baltimore on a one-year deal. Watson had a career year with the Saints in 2015 at age 34; he’s 37 now, but still posted reasonable numbers with the Ravens last year even though he tore his Achilles in the preseason in 2016. The Saints have been interested in upgrading their tight end position this offseason, and though Watson isn’t the sort of premium talent that would take the passing game to another level, he was a reliable option who finished second in targets and receptions for the Saints in 2015, and should provide steadier production than the team’s tight ends did last year. It’s probable this means the end of Coby Fleener’s time with the team.

Next time: Who the Saints let walk, what they didn’t address in free agency, and where they might look in the draft for those positions.

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