Free agency is an exciting time for any football fan. It’s an opportunity for your team, in the blink of an eye, to become a contender. For some organizations and fan bases it’s the most exciting time of the year. Most of those teams never win anything worth winning. For the next three months, prognosticators, myself included, will opine on who “won” free agency. I’m excited to see the rings the players get for that one. For the good organizations, free agency is about finding the right fits, at the right prices. So the better question to ask ourselves, is did they get the right pieces, at the right prices.
The Saints opened free agency by resigning some home-grown talent in David Onyemata. Going into the offseason, Onyemata was my No. 1 must resign outside Drew Brees. When you have ascending talent, that is durable and dependable, you don’t let them walk out the door unless the money isn’t close. In this case, I think the Saints got a high-level defensive tackle at a fair free agency price. I think Onyemata has the potential for a breakout season this year. He combines elite strength with tremendous athleticism for the position. Under the tutelage of Ryan Neilson, growth has been consistent. Couple all of that with the injury woes of Sheldon Rankins, and you have a player you need to keep, or immediately replace. The Saints couldn’t let the breakout happen in another uniform.
The expected resigning of Drew Brees came with a happy surprise for Saints fans. Another year at $25 million, substantially under his market value gives the Saints some money in a tight cap year to work with. If you feel like he’s still overpaid, you will never feel differently. Brees will make $4.5 million less this year… than Ryan Tannehill. This was the most important resigning, and one that came without much drama.
There has also been some surprising signings, this year, by the Saints. The return of Malcolm Jenkins comes as a surprise here, considering he wasn’t expected to be available and the Saints had a safety of their own to resign in Vonn Bell. The big question mark following him this year: can he keep a high level of play into his 30’s. I like the signing. I think Malcom has a couple years left in him, but more importantly he is returning to a defense that can use his skill set effectively. I think he will excel in Dennis Allen’s defense. He will understand what's going on, and maybe, most importantly, he will contribute greatly to the development of Marcus Williams and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
Another signing that has caused pause in the Saints community was the five-year, $57.5 million contract signed by Andrus Peat. So many times in free agency fans get caught up in the eye opening dollar amounts attached to contracts. Often times it is the situations surrounding some of those numbers that should be analyzed closer. I think there were two standout guards in the free agency marget this year. Joe Thuney and Brandon Scherff. Both were franchised at an amount of $14.781 million. The way the franchise tags work, combining all offensive lineman into one pool, pushed the guard market even higher this season. Both of those players now tied for the highest paid guards in football. Andrus was very solid for the Saints in both 17’ and 18’, showing improvement in each and earning pro bowl nods. His contract making him the 6th best paid guard makes sense considering the increases in the salary cap since other deals have been signed. Offensive lineman can often times get bad reputations for losses in big moments. I think Andrus is in that camp. However, he has been a very solid and at times impressive player for a team that highly values it’s offensive line.
Nearly every fans biggest wish in any free agency season is a shiny new offensive weapon. The Saints faithful have been calling for a receiver for a couple years and finally got their wish… and he’s a good one. Emmanuel Sanders comes over to the Saints one year after devastating their secondary during his time with the 49ers. The fit is nearly seamless. A veteran, savvy route runner who has been incredibly sure handed, finishing 2019 with the 3rd lowest drop rate in the NFL (Mike Thomas was 8th). Giving Drew Brees, and whoever follows him a secondary receiver beyond Mike will pay huge dividends for this team. To top that off, already, he has shown a willingness to play any role the Saints see for him. Whether that is the slot role once played by Lance Moore, or a true No. 2 outside receiver, Sanders will have a big impact on this team in 2020.
Rounding out free agency so far, we have seen the Saints resign Justin Hardee who has been phenomenal as a coverage guy in the Saints special teams core since his arrival in 2017. I love that signing. Michael Burton was signed after spending camp with the Saints last year, after the Saints lost Zach Line to retirement. Zach Wood, who has been nearly flawless at his long snapper position was rewarding with a contract as well, keeping one of the top specialist groups in football intact in New Orleans. D.J. Swearinger will return to try and fit in to a crowded secondary and Noah Spence (who I found very promising in my two games against while in Tampa) returns to the defensive line room to try and bring a pure speed rusher to the Saints room.
To me, this offseason has very much fit the mold of the Saints good free agencies of the last few years. They have brought back their key homegrown talent. Found veterans with experience, but also intangibles that will benefit this teams young core. They have been aggressive without being reckless and have found guys at reasonable numbers that will play big roles this season. Most importantly they are free to go and fine the best young players available in this draft to build for the future. The Saints have brought in some leadership and Super Bowl experience to the secondary, shored up their defensive line and completed the build of what I believe is the scariest offense a Sean Payton led Saints team has every put on the field. The sky is truly the limit for this group offensively. This is going to be another extremely difficult team to make in the summer, so don’t be surprised to see the Saints again go aggressive in the draft and make fewer, but higher quality selections who may have a chance to actually make this roster. The future remains bright in New Orleans.