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What to expect in the early days of the Saints offseason

With the start of the new league year coming Wednesday, who will the Saints sign and lose in free agency?

Well, we’ve all had enough time to get over the bitter taste of the refereeing failure in the NFC Championship Game. (And I’ve had enough time to get myself more situated after a major life change, but you’re probably less concerned with that.) We’re switching to a more irregular posting schedule during the offseason, writing as major events or dates occur on the NFL calendar.

If you haven’t checked out of the Saints and the NFL as a result of that game, then you probably know that Wednesday is the first official day of the league new year, and that Monday teams started negotiating with players (and deals began leaking). Today we’ll look at what to expect from the Saints during the first wave of free agency.

I don’t think the team is going to make any big moves. They’re fairly tight against the salary cap, and moreover, the roster is fairly solid, with no major holes and a lot of strengths. (It better have been, considering four of their seven draft picks were cut and picked up by other teams.) A few positions could be upgraded, but there may not be great options in the market for that.

Instead, I’m going to use this article to look at some players and position groups the Saints might be at risk of losing in free agency. We’ll see what might happen and what a plan for the future might be.

Teddy Bridgewater

The Saints traded for Bridgewater last year as insurance in case anything happened to Brees, and now they face a decision. Bridgewater is a free agent and stands a good chance of getting an offer where he would start immediately. (Although that chance decreased just a little bit with the news that the Jaguars decided to make Nick Foles their starter, handing (well, agreeing to hand on Wednesday) him over $50 million in guarantees on a four-year deal.) If someone does decide to pay Bridgewater to be a starting quarterback, the size of the contract will probably merit a third-round compensatory pick in 2020, a nice recoup for the Saints after trading their 2019 third-rounder for Bridgewater.

In years past, the Saints might have been content to let a player like Bridgewater walk and get the compensatory pick. Things are different now, though, because Drew Brees is 40, his inevitable retirement creeps closer and closer, and the Saints might already have his successor in house. While Brees has continually delivered each season after whispers of a potential decline, each passing year brings him a little bit closer to the inevitable end. This year in particular, Brees’ performance notably declined after Thanksgiving, although it may not have been fatigue, but a hard hit:

In any case, one day Brees won’t be able to answer the call, and that day might be soon if his arm doesn’t bounce back. If the team could get Bridgewater on an affordable deal with the promise of him being the successor-in-waiting to Brees, it could make sense to both sides. I can’t imagine Bridgewater doing it if he gets an offer to start somewhere else, but at the same time, Jacksonville was the big opening in free agency, and everyone else seems set at least for 2019 (unless the Dolphins cut Ryan Tannehill). The chances of Bridgewater coming back are a little better now than they were before.

Mark Ingram

Ingram just wrapped up his second contract with the Saints, a 4-year, $16 million deal that looked like pretty good value. Ingram is 29 now, but he also has less mileage than most running backs his age, having been in a timeshare in his time in New Orleans. It sounds like the Saints want him back, but they may not be able to meet his asking price. Rumor has it that several teams are interested in Ingram, and if one of them makes a substantial offer, I doubt the Saints will match– they can use Alvin Kamara as the lead back and have a strong record of finding late-round or undrafted running backs. Ingram’s been great and for sentimental reasons I hope he stays– he is a good fit for New Orleans with his all-around game– but it just may not be in the cards.

Cornerbacks: P.J. Williams and Ken Crawley

The team is in a bit of an odd spot with these two. Crawley’s play was such a mess early in the year that he was first benched for Williams against Atlanta, before Williams was so bad that Crawley replaced him at halftime, and then the team traded for Eli Apple to fill that starting spot– but not before slot cornerback Patrick Robinson broke his ankle and went on Injured Reserve; Williams filled him for him there and played reasonably well.

If Robinson’s health was of no concern, it would probably be trivial to let Williams walk if someone wanted to pay him. But coming off a broken ankle, and turning 32 the day before the first Sunday of the NFL season, Robinson is something of a question mark. Williams might end up being too expensive to keep as insurance, though, since Robinson would be playing if he’s healthy enough. Crawley is a restricted free agent, so the Saints have options to keep him if they want to. If he’s cheap enough to bring back, he can be an adequate fill-in if necessary, although I’m sure the team would like a better backup option at outside corner. Crawley’s 2018 was bad enough that he might not even be worth tendering, but his 2017 showed enough promise for him to be a fair investment in a comeback year on the cheap.

More likely, though, the Saints may need to find some new options for cornerback depth behind Robinson, Apple, and Marshon Lattimore.

Defensive line: Tyeler Davison and Alex Okafor

Davison is a solid option at nose tackle, but seeing as how he’s not really a pass rusher, it’s not a terribly valuable position. David Onyemata passed him in snaps this year, and even though Sheldon Rankins’ torn Achilles could mean missed time for him (and at the very least means the Saints need to add some depth there), Davison doesn’t seem like an option they’ll spend significant money on. They could give more of his snaps to second-year player Taylor Stallworth, while possibly adding a veteran and someone in the draft (Davison himself was originally a fifth-round pick).

Okafor was a solid second pass-rushing option last year until he tore his Achilles. The team brought him back on a one-year deal, and he was fine if unspectacular. He would make sense as a re-signing on a cost-effective deal, although I imagine the Saints won’t go broke here, as they’d just as soon give Marcus Davenport a bigger role on the defense.

Wil Lutz

He’s been one of the best kickers in the league– and in my opinion a Pro Bowl snub this year– since the Saints picked him up in 2016. He’s a restricted free agent, but he’s brought the most consistency the Saints have had in the kicking game in a long time, and even though RFA tenders can be a little pricey when it comes to kickers, Lutz is probably worth it to keep around.

Next time: We’ll look at whatever happens with the Saints roster in the first few days of free agency. Down the line, we’ll look at potential draft plans (including a review of how the recent Scouting Combine might affect the Saints’ plans) and the areas of positional need that the Saints will need to focus on (which might clear up a bit after free agency).

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