For the New Orleans Saints and the other 31 teams across the NFL, the "official" start to 2018 Free Agency is now only just 8 more days away. However, negotiations can start in just 6 more days from now on March 12th; between players and any of their potential new employers.
Keeping that in mind, the Saints News Network this morning is listing 5 current NFL Free Agents who are likely to be "top targets" for New Orleans, once when the Free Agency signing period arrives next week.
And we'll start first with......
JOSH KLINE, OFFENSIVE GUARD, TENNESSEE TITANS
There should be an asterisk (*) next to Kline's name, since the possibility exists that the Saints could still re-sign versatile back-up Senio Kelemete — who himself is also a Free Agent but has said that he will give New Orleans his top priority in negotiations on a potential new deal.
However should Kelemete depart, 28-year old and now 6th-year NFL veteran Josh Kline would seem to be the perfect option as a more-than-capable "replacement". There were probably much more heralded and well-known names on the Tennessee Titans’ O-Line last season in 2017, but Kline was able to hold his own and was ranked as Pro Football Focus' #22 overall player at the guard position.
Originally going undrafted in the 2013 NFL Draft out of Kent State University (in Ohio), Kline was signed as an UDFA by the New England Patriots, where he played for the first 3 seasons of his career before signing with the Titans in 2016.
Kline isn't considered to be a road-grader that other players at his position are, but he holds up well in pass protection (he's actually a former Ohio high school state amateur wrestling champion as a super heavyweight) and has been more than reliable — having started 30 of 32 games the past two seasons for the Titans while protecting QB Marcus Mariota.
4. NIGEL BRADHAM, LINEBACKER, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
The Saints are expected this off-season to pursue a player at the linebacker position who is capable of not only stopping the run, but also with better coverage skills and range against opposing TE's and RB's — something that veterans Craig Robertson, A.J. Klein, Mantai Te'o, Nate Stupar, and Michael Mauti all struggled with at times in 2017 (rookie Alex Anzalone was lost for the remainder of the year due to a shoulder injury and spent a majority of the season on Injured Reserve, so he remains unproven as of yet).
Unfortunately for New Orleans, the linebacker position this year isn't considered to be the deepest of the 2018 class; making 28-year old Philadelphia Eagles linebacker and former Florida State University star Nigel Bradham the player that would make the most sense for the Saints, assuming of course that they don't decide instead to draft one.
The Eagles aren't expected to re-sign Bradham, meaning that he won't be returning to Philadelphia to defend the Super Bowl title that he won earlier last month. The 7th-year veteran (and former 2007 USA TODAY High School All-American) led Philadelphia's resurgent defense in the 2017 regular season with 88 tackles, along with eight passes defended and a sack, which was preceded by his 2016 season in which he led the team in tackles with 102.
Originally drafted by the Bills in the 4th Round (105th overall) of the 2012 NFL Draft, Bleacher Report writer NFL writer Steven Cook says that the Eagles have gotten everything they wanted and then some from Bradham since he arrived from Buffalo as a free agent, but it now appears he will be playing the remaining years of his career elsewhere in 2018. Within the next couple of weeks, we'll see if the Saints make NOLA his eventual destination.
3. DONTE MONCRIEF, WIDE RECEIVER, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
With both young veteran wide receivers Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman possibly not returning in 2018 should the Saints decide not to tender an offer to either player (both are restricted free agents and the team may choose not to keep either one), New Orleans will definitely be looking to upgrade the WR position this off-season via Free Agency or next month's 2018 NFL Draft.
And while there are a few talented wide receivers available in this year's class, the one player that would seem to intrigue the Saints most is Sylvarena, Mississippi native (about a 3 hour drive to the northeast of New Orleans) and former University of Mississippi (a.k.a. Ole Miss) WR Donte Moncrief.
The now 5th-year NFL veteran was drafted by the Colts after coming out of college early as a junior in the 3rd Round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and has had an "up and down" NFL career already at only age 24 (he'll turn 25 in August). As Colts.com beat writer Andrew Walker notes: in 2015, in just his 2nd year in the League, Moncrief really began to blossom, as evidenced by his 64 receptions, 733 yards and six touchdowns.
As a direct result, most observers felt that the Colts were going to feature one of the best 1-2 punches at wide receiver in the NFL, as the team’s top target — the slick, speedy T.Y. Hilton — was already a perennial Pro Bowler, while Moncrief provided the perfect blend of both speed and size at 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, to make big plays all over the field for QB Andrew Luck.
But Walker adds that Moncrief would fall victim to the injury bug the next two seasons, and after appearing in all 16 games his first two years in the league, he’d appear in just nine and 12 games, respectively, in 2016 and 2017. He battled through those issues to catch an impressive seven touchdowns in 2016, but his most recent season last year in the 2017 regular season included career lows in receptions (26) and touchdowns (two).
However, Moncrief still has PLENTY of potential but he has also has the time to improve but has to show everyone that he isn't injury-prone (as he's been labeled). Some Saints fans will remember that coming out of Ole Miss, Moncrief was projected to blossom into a NFL superstar. Could a change of scenery and playing "close to home" for the Saints, be the impetus for Moncrief to get his career back on track?
2. AARON COLVIN, SLOT CORNERBACK, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
With the expected departure of former Saints starting strong safety and slot cornerback Kenny Vacarro to Free Agency, New Orleans made a preemptive move and signed former Carolina Panthers veteran safety Kurt Coleman a few days ago to replace Vaccaro's contributions at safety. But that still leaves the Saints with a void at the slot CB position.
With that still being an issue for the Saints defensive secondary, it then makes 26-year old and now 5th-year Jacksonville Jaguars veteran CB Aaron Colvin one of the most desirable targets in this year's Free Agent class for the heroes in Black and Gold. Colvin isn't expected to return to the Jaguars due to their salary cap constraints, making him one of the top DB's after he helped the Jaguars reach the AFC Championship Game.
A former strong safety who moved to cornerback in college at the University of Oklahoma, Colvin was originally drafted by the Jaguars in the 4th Round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Canal Street Chronicles NFL Draft expert / football analyst John Sigler says that Colvin was only one of 2 CB's in the entire NFL last season who didn't yield or give up a single TD pass to an opposing WR (Saints rookie and 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore was the other).
Sigler also notes that Colvin saw the fewest passing targets (4.0) and allowed the fewest yards per game (22.3) in the NFL last season, and any deal that the Saints potentially make with him would allow them to providing much tighter (and therefore better) coverage than Vaccaro did (Colvin was flagged just three times all year, and only once for holding or pass interference. For comparison, Vaccaro was flagged eight times in twelve games, with five of them counting for holding or pass interference).
Colvin can also play the outside boundary position at CB in a base defense, and even at safety as previously mentioned; and it's that notable versatility along with his outstanding coverage skills that should make the Old Hickory, Tennessee native one of (if not THE) top "targets" for New Orleans when the signing period officially gets underway starting next week.
1. JIMMY GRAHAM, TIGHT END, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Obviously by now (unless you were completely out of the country somewhere taking a vacation on a Caribbean cruise boat), then you're probably well aware of all of the rumors regarding a possible "reunion" between Graham and the Saints, who drafted the former college basketball player for the University of Miami Hurricanes hoops program in the 4th Round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
Current Saints starting tight end Coby Fleener has essentially turned out to be a Free Agent "bust" since he signed with the team in 2016 NFL Free Agency nearly 2 years ago; and regardless of whatever happens with Fleener in the upcoming months ahead (Fleener's set to count $8 million against the salary cap in the 2018 season, and the Saints could even cut him outright), one of the Saints' biggest areas of need right now for the 2018 off-season is a tight end that can make an impact as a receiver in the passing game.
And perhaps no one player in the past several years with the possible exception of Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, has had the impact at the TE position as a receiver, than Graham has. He quickly developed into an offensive weapon for QB Drew Brees in head coach Sean Payton's offensive scheme during his 5 seasons in New Orleans, especially in the red zone where he could use his 6-foot-7, 265-pound basketball "power forward" frame to his advantage.
In his 2nd year with the Saints in their NFL record-breaking 2011 regular season, Graham set a franchise record with 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. He went on to catch 256 more passes for 3,086 yards and another 35 TD's from 2012 through 2014, before the team decided to move on from him and find another player capable of matching his production. Unfortunately for the Saints, that hasn't happened since Graham left town.
Graham was traded to the Seahawks in exchange for their 1st Round 2015 Draft pick and center Max Unger; was because he was 'allegedly' considered to be a spoiled player (or a "prima donna") that once he reached a certain level of stardom, wanted to be pampered or treated better than everyone else.
Now grant it: those stories were NEVER substantiated, but it was obvious that there was a lot more going on "behind the scenes" besides what had been widely reported. (ESPN Insider Chris Mortensen reported that after Graham had signed his new contract with the Saints in the summer of 2014, that he didn’t like to be hit or even “touched” during practice).
The original source of any friction or a "rift" between Graham and Saints management was over the terms of a new contract; in which Graham demanded that he paid the same money that WIDE RECEIVERS make in the NFL, instead of being paid as the tight end that he was (which would have been less).
As the situation grew acrimonious and Graham was threatening a potential hold-out for the 2015 season, the team simply decided to avoid making a bad situation worse, and pulled off the trade with the Seahawks. But after the reports that surfaced yesterday, it appears that Graham and the Saints organization may have since "made up", and making a reunion between the two sides almost a sure bet at this point.
Despite the circumstances of Graham's departure along with the fact that he is now another 3 years older (he'll turn age 32 in November), he still remains as one of the very best tight ends in the entire NFL, and his 10 TD receptions led ALL NFL TE's in 2017. Additionally, Graham is now a 5-time Pro Bowler, with his last 2 selections coming with Seattle in 2016 and then once again last season, despite his missing some time with an ankle injury.
And while he didn't exactly overwhelm his biggest critics during his time with the Seahawks under head coach Pete Carroll and QB Russell Wilson, he didn't really do anything to hurt himself, either. Bottom line: Graham still has some considerable amount of "gas left in the tank" after 8 productive NFL seasons.
Let's face it: the Saints WON'T re-unite with Graham for his pass-blocking credentials. They would just want him to do what he once did before: catch plenty of passes and score a lot of TD's, especially in the red zone and near the goal line, that once made him the most feared players in the League just a few short years ago.