Reviewing the Saints first round of free agency

It’s been a week since free agency kicked off in the NFL, and the first round of moves have settled some questions for the Saints. Let’s look at what they did.

The retentions

Craig Robertson and Chris Banjo – Not major signings, but the Saints bring back two of their core special teamers. Banjo in particular stood out last season and might even see some snaps at safety after the Saints released Kurt Coleman last month.

Wil Lutz – The team made Lutz the NFL’s highest-paid kicker by signing him to a 5-year, $20.25-million deal. Lutz has brought much-needed stability to a kicker position that was a revolving door for the Saints in the decade before Lutz’s arrival. Lutz’s accuracy and strong leg made him one of the best kickers in the NFL last season, and now he’s paid like it. The way the contract is set up, the team can move on after two years with no guaranteed money beyond the signing bonus, but with Lutz’s age and level of performance, I don’t see a reason to expect that.

Teddy Bridgewater – This one was a big relief for me; it’s a surprisingly important keep for a team that seems set at QB. As I said last time, Brees is now 40 and nothing lasts forever. Bridgewater apparently did get an offer from Miami with a chance to start, but he elected to take a shorter contract here, citing, among other things, the importance of being in the right situation rather than taking the first opportunity to start that came to him. Bridgewater is back on a 1-year, $7.25 million contract, with another potential $5 million in incentives (presumably, designed to kick in if he does end up taking over for Brees). The Saints are set at QB for the short term, and could be set for the long term if Brees falters or retires and Bridgewater proves capable of replacing him. Bridgewater signed the deal 13 years to the day after Brees came to New Orleans; the historical significance was not lost on him:

Like Brees, Bridgewater was the 32nd pick in the draft; like Brees, he suffered a significant injury that caused his original team to move on from him, and like Brees, it was uncertain whether he would ever play again because of that injury. And like Brees, Bridgewater was either going to go to the Saints or the Dolphins. (Unlike Brees, though, he had the choice, whereas in 2006 Miami was not comfortable with Brees’ shoulder and instead traded for Daunte Culpepper– who, ironically, never regained his old form after his knee injury.) Interestingly, Bridgewater’s potential career path of starting in Minnesota before being out of the game for a couple of years, resurfacing as a backup elsewhere, and eventually developing into a very good starter with a coach who recognizes his unique talents is similar to a path taken by another ex-Viking late bloomer: 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon.

The replacements

Latavius Murray – After eight years, Mark Ingram is a Baltimore Raven. The Saints and Ingram hit an impasse in contract negotiations, so the Saints made a move to sign Murray from the Vikings. It’s a four-year, $14 million deal that, practically speaking, is a 2/7 for the guaranteed money (and easy to get out of if it doesn’t work out).

Murray is younger and more athletic than Ingram; although Ingram’s well-rounded game was a good fit with the Saints offense, Murray offers a better likelihood of breaking runs open, and he is good enough in the passing game that it won’t be a liability to the offense or a tip-off to the upcoming play if he’s on the field. (You may remember the results when the Saints tried to spell Alvin Kamara last September while Ingram was suspended.) What is clear, in any case, is that this is now Alvin Kamara’s backfield.

Reports of the deal the Ravens gave Ingram, at $5 million per season, suggests that he and the Saints weren’t far off. (Apparently the Saints offered $4.5 million per year.) But it seemed like Ingram and his agent might have thought they could get more than that, and when they seemed to be at an impasse, the Saints moved on. It’s a bit of a disappointing way for the biggest mainstay of the backfield in the Drew Brees era to finish his career with the team– less than 100 yards short of breaking Deuce McAllister’s franchise record for rushing yards– but nothing lasts forever, and Ingram gave us eight good years. Salute to a Saint once and always as he proceeds to the next phase of his career.

Malcom Brown – The former Patriots first-round pick isn’t much of a pass rusher but is a very good run stopper; the Saints are presumably bringing him in as the starter to replace Tyeler Davison in that role (and also because we don’t know when Sheldon Rankins will be back to form; there’s a good chance he starts the year on the PUP list while Brown and David Onyemata start).

Mario Edwards, Jr. – After the Chiefs moved on from their two best pass rushers so they could run Steve Spagnuolo’s defense (you may remember Spagnuolo as the coordinator of the worst defense in history, right here in New Orleans in 2012), they signed Alex Okafor to a multi-year deal worth $8 million per, a figure the Saints were never going to match, especially as Marcus Davenport was going to see more snaps and probably become the starter. Edwards was a high second-round pick, but he’s a pedestrian athlete (well, to be clear, for the NFL) and hasn’t made much impact as a pass rusher. He’ll probably be a run-stopping backup.

The Saints are still looking for another outside pass rusher to round out the crew; the team has brought in Ezekiel Ansah for a look and has also been in trade talks with Miami to acquire Robert Quinn. Neither one is at their peak anymore after years of injuries, but they would be good additions as the third pass rusher behind Cameron Jordan and Davenport.

Marcus Sherels – The Saints recently signed the Vikings return man to a one-year deal in an effort to get more production on punt returns without having to risk putting Alvin Kamara or Ted Ginn back there. Sherels is getting older but still has a solid record of production, along with five punt return touchdowns in eight seasons as the Vikings’ primary returner. Tommylee Lewis is gone (see below).

The surprise

Max Unger – Unger announced his retirement last week; apparently the Saints had known for some time, but it was a rather unexpected move for the fan base. (Perhaps this is what Sean Payton was alluding to when he suggested the team would need more depth on the interior offensive line.) Unger was only 32 last season and had one more year on his contract; I think most observers expected him to play it out. But Unger was ready to be done; he mentioned in his announcement that he didn’t think he could physically make it through a full season.

Nick Easton – To replace Unger, the Saints signed Nick Easton away from the Vikings. The former undrafted free agent bounced around in 2015 before landing in Minnesota; he started twelve games in 2017 and seemed to be headed on an upward trajectory, but he broke his ankle in the 2018 preseason and missed the whole year. The Saints moved swiftly once news of Unger’s retirement became public, and they inked Easton to a four-year deal (although they had to rework it after the original was voided by the league office due to quibbles with some of the language). If Easton bounces back, he could be another valuable pickup for the Saints’ interior line, a position where they’ve often found underrated gems. (And, of course, Will Clapp or Cameron Tom could take a big step forward and seize the job.)

The rest

The team didn’t tend Tommylee Lewis an offer, and he signed with the Detroit Lions. The teams’ current wide receiver depth chart is Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Tre’Quan Smith, Cameron Meredith, Keith Kirkwood, and Austin Carr. It’s unclear if the team will make a move there; there was speculation about adding a quality slot receiver, but Adam Humphries and Cole Beasley, the two most likely targets, quickly signed elsewhere.

Ken Crawley was a restricted free agent New Orleans tendered with an original-round offer. He’ll make a shade over $2 million in 2019. 2018 was a disaster for Crawley, but he showed enough talent in 2017 that hopefully he can bounce back and grow from it.

P.J. Williams remains unsigned; it’s unclear if the team is at all interested in bringing him back.

What’s next?

One big hole on the roster is tight end. Nobody was any particular shakes in 2018. Ben Watson was a talented receiver who turned 38 during the season, and it showed– and I say “was” because he retired. Josh Hill is what he is, a capable and versatile backup. Dan Arnold has potential but is still young and inexperienced. A replacement for Watson is one of the bigger needs for the Saints; the latest word has them expected to sign Jared Cook, most recently of Oakland (where, after a decade-long career of tantalizing athleticism, he had his best season ever and made his first Pro Bowl). If they don’t sign Cook– and maybe even if they do– they could look at the position in the draft. It’s deep enough at tight end that they should be able to get a quality player at 62, and they seem to have eyes on at least one:

Iowa’s dual threats at the position, Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, will probably both be gone before the Saints pick, but they could still reasonably draft Smith, Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger, or even LSU’s Foster Moreau. The Saints were of course at LSU’s pro day, and Moreau seems on the rise after his workouts suggested his talent didn’t go fully utilized in college.

Next time: Updates on offseason transactions and possibly a draft preview (although the Saints won’t be doing much drafting).