It was an eventful offseason in New Orleans, where the Saints entered the month of March way over the salary cap, necessitating a handful of trades, cuts, and restructures. With Drew Brees leading the way, the Saints should always have a chance to contend in the NFC South, but 2015 has been a year of transition for the club, and a new-look Saints team will take the field this year when the season gets underway.
- Brandon Browner, CB: Three years, $15MM. $7.75MM guaranteed.
- Mark Ingram, RB: Four years, $16MM. $6.1MM guaranteed.
- C.J. Spiller, RB: Four years, $16MM. $5.75MM guaranteed.
- Kevin Williams, DT: One year, $1.5MM. $500K guaranteed.
- Parys Haralson, LB: One year, minimum salary benefit. $350K guaranteed.
- Ramon Humber, LB: Two years, $2.085MM. $334K guaranteed.
- Anthony Spencer, LB: One year, minimum salary benefit. $230K guaranteed.
- Luke McCown, QB: One year, minimum salary benefit. $80K guaranteed.
- Kyle Wilson, CB: One year, minimum salary benefit. $80K guaranteed.
- Bryce Harris, T: One year, minimum salary. $60K guaranteed.
- Mike McGlynn, OL: One year, minimum salary benefit. $30K guaranteed.
- Tim Hightower, RB: One year, minimum salary benefit.
- Josh Morgan, WR: One year, minimum salary benefit.
- Kenny Phillips, S: One year, minimum salary benefit.
The Saints may have parted ways with more than one of Brees’ favorite receiving targets, but they made sure to keep the offensive backfield well stocked — the team’s two biggest free agent deals of the offseason, in terms of years and dollars, went to running backs.
One of those backs, Mark Ingram, is a familiar face in New Orleans, re-signing with the club after a career year in which he racked up 964 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Ingram’s 226 carries were by far the most he has received in any of his four NFL seasons, and he excelled in the increased role. Ingram may not be a lock to play in all 16 games, but with Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, and Pierre Thomas no longer in New Orleans, he finally got his chance to carry the load for the Saints, and I expect him to get plenty of work again in 2015 after getting $6.1MM in guaranteed money to return.
Joining him as a change of pace in the backfield is former Bill C.J. Spiller, an intriguing addition who should be able to do some of the things that Sproles and Bush used to do in New Orleans. Like Ingram, Spiller has had injury issues and probably shouldn’t be counted on for 16 full games, but he can still be an explosive player when he sees the field. From 2011 to 2013, Spiller averaged an impressive 5.3 yards per carry and racked up 115 total receptions. His contract, which is very similar to Ingram’s, suggests the Saints envision a time-share between the two players, and Spiller could excel if he’s not being relied on to be the primary playmaker on offense.
Outside of the two running backs, the Saints didn’t spend much in free agency, which can be at least partly attributed to their lack of cap flexibility. Most of the club’s other veteran free agent additions came on the defensive side of the ball, where Brandon Browner, Kevin Williams, and Anthony Spencer are among the newest Saints.
Of the three, Browner figures to have the biggest impact, and his contract reflects that — no free agent got more guaranteed money from the Saints this offseason than the $7.75MM Browner received. Considering New Orleans’ top two corners in 2014 – Keenan Lewis and Corey White – both ranked near the bottom of Pro Football Focus’ grades for the season, the investment makes sense. Browner should help fortify a Saints secondary that will get Jairus Byrd, last season’s top signee, back, but he’ll have to cut down on the penalties. Per PFF, he was called for 15 last season, the second-highest mark among cornerbacks, despite playing less than 600 snaps.
While Browner will see the field more often and play a more significant role for the Saints, Spencer is another free agent addition worth keeping an eye on. He’s on a minimum-salary deal, so there’s little downside from New Orleans’ perspective, and Spencer isn’t far removed from an 11-sack season in 2012. Of course, he has undergone microfracture surgery since then, and probably will never be the same player, but he’s another year removed from that procedure, and reuniting with former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan could help him.
- Marcus Ball, S: Waived
- Brodrick Bunkley, DT: Released
- Travaris Cadet, RB
- Brandon Deaderick, DT
- Moise Fokou, LB
- Junior Galette, OLB: Released
- Jonathan Goodwin, C
- Shayne Graham, K: Released
- Curtis Lofton, LB: Released
- Robert Meachem, WR
- Patrick Robinson, CB
- Pierre Thomas, RB: Released
- Tyrunn Walker, DT
- Corey White, CB: Waived
On reason the Saints have found themselves up against the cap so often in recent years is a frequent inability to determine when it’s time to move on from a player. Often, the team finds itself releasing a player not long after signing him to an extension, which was the case with Thomas. The longtime Saints running back signed an extension in 2014 that locked him up for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, then was cut by New Orleans before he was able to play a single down on that new deal. In the short term, Thomas’ extension allowed the Saints to reduce his ’14 cap charge, but in the long term, it leaves unnecessary dead money on the club’s cap.
A more extreme example of this lack of foresight was the case of Junior Galette. After Galette’s breakout 2013 campaign, in which he posted 12 sacks and recovered a pair of fumbles, the Saints rewarded him at the start of the 2014 season with a four-year, $41.5MM extension, featuring a huge chunk of guaranteed money. Several months later, the Saints were already trying to trade him, and ultimately decided to simply part ways with the standout pass rusher after multiple off-field incidents. If the Saints had waited a little longer to extend the 27-year-old, who was kicked off Temple’s football team in college, they wouldn’t be stuck with more than $17.5MM in dead money on their cap for Galette over the next two seasons.
New Orleans’ cap situation also played a role in the loss of promising defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker, who was eligible for restricted free agency. The cap-strapped Saints opted to non-tender Walker, and before he signed with the Lions, the amount of interest the ex-Saint received from smart personnel people around the league was “staggering,” according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (via Twitter).
Of course, not all of the Saints’ cap casualties will be as difficult to replace as players like Galette and Walker. White and linebacker Curtis Lofton were among the team’s defenders who ranked near the bottom of Pro Football Focus’ rankings at their respective positions. Lofton’s tackles totals during his three years in New Orleans were lofty, and he was extremely durable, never missing a game for the team, but moving on from him in favor of younger, cheaper players was the right call.
- Acquired C Max Unger and a 2015 first-round pick from the Seahawks in exchange for TE Jimmy Graham and a 2015 fourth-round pick.
- Acquired a 2015 fifth-round pick from the Chiefs in exchange for G Ben Grubbs.
- Acquired LB Dannell Ellerbe and a 2015 third-round pick from the Dolphins in exchange for WR Kenny Stills.
- Acquired a 2015 fifth-round pick (No. 167; CB Damian Swann) from Washington in exchange for a 2015 sixth-round pick (No. 187; WR Evan Spencer) and a 2016 sixth-round pick.
The list of notable losses above featured a handful of key contributors for the 2014 Saints, but the list of players traded away by the team over the last several months is arguably even more star-studded. Topping this list is Jimmy Graham, Brees’ favorite target for the last few seasons.
Graham was another player whom the Saints probably extended too soon, considering he was traded away less than a year after he signed a long-term extension with the club, and will count for $9MM in dead money against New Orleans’ cap in 2015. Still, the structure of Graham’s contract allowed the Seahawks to add him to their books at a much lesser rate than they would’ve paid in free agency, which is why Seattle was willing to part with a first-round pick for him, so the extension didn’t totally backfire for the Saints.
The team’s other big trade of the offseason involved sending Kenny Stills to the Dolphins for veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round pick, a deal that looked similar to the Graham trade. Both swaps allowed the Saints to add a veteran contributor at an area of weakness – center Max Unger in the trade with Seattle and Ellerbe in the Miami deal – as well as adding an early draft pick.
Considering how cheap rookie contracts are these days, it made sense for the Saints to stockpile draft picks in an effort to add talented, inexpensive players to help balance out the presence of their aging, overpriced veterans, and the glut of dead money on their cap. No team had more picks in the first three rounds of the draft than the Saints’ five selections, and the Graham and Stills deals were a key reason why. Landing a fifth-round pick from the Chiefs for veteran guard Ben Grubbs was a bonus, though it left New Orleans with a hole to fill on its offensive line.
Extensions and restructures:
- Jahri Evans, G: Extended through 2017. Received $5.4MM signing bonus and $9.5MM in total guarantees. 2015 base salary reduced from $6.8MM to $1.003MM. Created $4MM in cap space.
- Cameron Jordan, DE: Extended through 2020. Five years, $55MM. $22.969MM guaranteed. $1.25MM in incentives available annually from 2017-2020.
- Jairus Byrd, S: Restructured contract to create $4.8MM in cap space for 2015, converting a $6MM roster bonus into a signing bonus.
- Marques Colston, WR: Accepted pay cut. Base salary reduced from $6.9MM to $1.445MM in 2015 and from $7.7MM to $2.65MM in 2016.
- Dannell Ellerbe, LB: Accepted pay cut before trade from Miami. Reduced base salary in ’15 from $8.5MM to $1.1MM, in ’16 from $6.45MM to $4.1MM, and in ’17 from $6MM to $4.1MM. Includes guarantee of 2015 base salary, $1.5MM signing bonus, $2.1MM 2015 roster bonus, $1MM roster bonus in 2016 and 2017, and $100K annually in workout bonuses.
- Junior Galette, LB: Restructured contract to create $10MM in cap space for 2015, converting a $12.5MM roster bonus into a signing bonus.
- David Hawthorne, LB: Accepted pay cut. Base salary reduced from $2MM to $1.19MM in 2015 and from $4MM to $1.75MM in 2016.
It’s fair to wonder how many of the players who restructured their contracts and/or accepted pay cuts would still be Saints if they had been unwilling to do so. I imagine when the offseason began, the team approached nearly all its high-priced veterans about reworking their deals, and the players who were open to the idea – such as Jahri Evans, Marques Colston, and David Hawthorne – remained on the roster. Others, like Lofton and Grubbs, may have been less thrilled about the idea, prompting the Saints to cut or trade them.
In some cases, the Saints had deliberately structured contracts to accommodate restructures — there was no way that the huge roster bonuses due to players like Byrd and Galette wouldn’t be converted to signing bonuses, for instance. That’s okay for now, but as we saw with Galette, that bonus money will still hit the cap at some point, and if the Saints have to move on from a player earlier than expected, that money will land on their cap sooner rather than later.
As the Saints worked to reduce big salaries, push those big numbers back to later years, or get rid of those salaries entirely, one exception was defensive end Cameron Jordan, who figures to be relied on more significantly with Galette out of the picture. $11MM per year may seem like a steep price for a defensive lineman who has only recorded double-digit sacks once in his NFL career, but Jordan is also stout against the run, and the cost around the league of extensions for players like Corey Liuget and Cameron Heyward showed that the Saints weren’t paying higher than market value.
- 1-13: Andrus Peat, T (Stanford): Signed
- 1-31: Stephone Anthony, LB (Clemson): Signed
- 2-44: Hau’oli Kikaha, OLB (Washington): Signed
- 3-75: Garrett Grayson, QB (Colorado State): Signed
- 3-78: P.J. Williams, CB (Florida State): Signed
- 5-148: Davis Tull, OLB (Chattanooga): Signed
- 5-154: Tyeler Davison, DT (Fresno State): Signed
- 5-167: Damian Swann, CB (Georgia): Signed
- 7-230: Marcus Murphy, RB (Missouri): Signed
Loaded with extra draft picks in the first three rounds, the Saints predictably used most of those selections on defensive players, adding inside linebacker Stephone Anthony, outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, and cornerback P.J. Williams.
Williams was considered a potential first-round pick based on talent, but was arrested on a DUI charge just a few weeks before the draft, raising concerns about his NFL future. Those charges were ultimately dismissed, and with an extra third-rounder, the Saints could afford to roll the dice on Williams. The team could have a steal if Williams stays out of trouble going forward, though after what they went through with Galette, Sean Payton and his coaching staff figure to keep a close eye on the former Florida State corner, just in case.
The Saints’ other two top picks were a little less predictable, as the club snagged offensive tackle Andrus Peat in the first round, and quarterback Garrett Grayson in the third. An NFL team can never have too many offensive linemen, but the Saints have solid starters on each side of their line, with Terron Armstead penciled in on the left side and Zach Strief expected to play on the right side, so it’s not clear whether Peat will get a chance to start in his rookie season.
Grayson, meanwhile, certainly won’t be starting in his rookie year, barring an injury to Brees. While the former Super Bowl MVP is entering the final year of his contract, he’s expected to stick with the Saints for at least a couple more seasons. Bringing a developmental quarterback on board at this point doesn’t necessarily suggests New Orleans views Grayson as its QB of the future, but it’s an interesting use of a pick that could have been used on adding more defensive help or an offensive playmaker to help Brees win in the short term.
- Hired former Raiders HC Dennis Allen as senior defensive assistant.
- Signed, and then released K Shayne Graham; Saints will carry $10K in dead money.
- Signed 13 undrafted rookie free agents following the draft.
Top 10 cap hits for 2015:
- Drew Brees, QB: $26,400,000
- Jimmy Graham, TE: $9,000,000 (dead money)
- Jahri Evans, G: $7,000,000
- Marques Colston, WR: $6,500,000
- Ben Grubbs, G: $6,000,000 (dead money)
- Jairus Byrd, S: $5,500,000
- Junior Galette, OLB: $5,450,000 (dead money)
- Curtis Lofton, LB: $5,000,000 (dead money)
- Keenan Lewis, CB: $4,500,000
- Max Unger, C: $4,500,000
NFL fans and observers spent most of the 2014 season waiting for the Saints to step up and take control of a weak NFC South division that didn’t feature a single .500 team. When that didn’t happen, New Orleans GM Mickey Loomis and the front office decided a retooling was in order, and created a little breathing room under the cap by jettisoning a number of veteran contributors.
Heading into the 2015 season, there are a number of question marks surrounding the Saints: Will the offensive backfield stay healthy? Will Brees have enough receiving talent around him to continue to be productive? Will the new additions on defense help turn around a unit that allowed the second-most yards in the NFL in 2014? If things break right, the club could contend for the division title again this season, but there may be some growing pains for the new-look squad.