After what has been a crazy week and a half's worth of 2018 NFL Free Agency thus far, the New Orleans Saints have been more active than perhaps some thought they would be.
The Saints have been very aggressive in addressing several team "needs" on their roster; beginning first with the linebacker position.
Perhaps their biggest move thus far was signing the NFL's leading solo tackler last season (96) and the #1 ranked linebacker in 2018 NFL Free Agency (according to analytic site Pro Football Focus), in former New York Jets inside / outside linebacker DeMario Davis.
Considered to be one of the NFL's outstanding gap blitzers in pass-rushing situations, Davis is arguably coming off of the best season of his now 8-year NFL career; in which he finished 6th overall in the NFL in total tackles with (135) and also had 3 passes defended, 5 sacks., 13 TFL's (tackles for loss), 15 QB hits, and 1 fumble recovery.
Next the Saints decided to directly address the 'slot' CB position; which in today's NFL has essentially evolved into a starting role on defense for a large majority of the League's 32 teams.
Last season, veterans P.J. Williams and Kenny Vaccaro shared the duties of the slot for the Saints; but for the most part both struggled down field in coverage. It was considered an off-season priority for New Orleans, and they immediately addressed the slot position by signing Philadelphia Eagles CB (and original Saints 2010 NFL Draft 1st Round pick) Patrick Robinson.
Robinson is coming off the best year of his career and a Super Bowl ring. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), they had Robinson as their 6th-rated corner with an 89.9 overall grade. Last season Robinson tallied 4 interceptions, 47 tackles and a "pick-six" in the NFC Championship Game to help lift the Eagles past the Vikings and advance to Super Bowl LII.
The next priority for New Orleans was addressing the back-up / #2 QB position behind starting QB Drew Brees, whom the team re-signed to a 2-year, $50 million deal on the day before the signing period officially began.
Last season's #2 QB Chase Daniel left the team as expected and signed with the Chicago Bears; but the Saints quickly filled the vacancy by signing Houston Texans back-up QB Tom Savage.
Savage and #3 QB Taysom Hill will compete for the backup role in 2018; which is assuming of course that the Saints don't use an early round pick on a quarterback with their top pick at #27 overall in next month's Draft — possibly on a young QB such as Lamar Jackson out of the University of Louisville.
However, the Saints most unfortunately did end up losing versatile offensive lineman Senio Kelemete, who signed a 3-year, $12 million deal with the Texans. Kelemete was cherished by the Saints coaching staff for his ability to play every position on the offensive line and is good enough to be a starter on most NFL teams, which is exactly the reason why he left for that very opportunity in Houston.
The Saints quickly acted to counter the loss of Kelemete by setting up "a reunion with an old friend" — when they signed Miami Dolphins O-Lineman Jermon Bushrod, an original 2007 Saints draft pick (Round 4) and a member of the 2009 Super Bowl Champion team who can play both the offensive guard and tackle positions.
Bushrod's "return" to New Orleans allows the Saints to keep the same versatility that they enjoyed with Kelemete, as well as additionally providing a more-than-capable back-up for depth purposes in case of injuries.
Now that we've reviewed the Saints' moves thus far in the first week and a half of 2018 NFL Free Agency, what is next on their remaining "to-do list"?
This morning on behalf of the Saints News Network, I take a closer look at a few more priorities the Black and Gold still needs to address; beginning with........
EITHER SIGN OR MOVE ON FROM NDAMUKONG SUH
Ndamukong Suh has visited the Saints, Titans and Rams in the past week, and has also drawn interest previously from the Seahawks, Raiders, and (allegedly) the Cowboys; but then just a few days ago it was the Jets (of all teams) who offered him a large contract and called themselves "serious contenders" for his services.
After all the visits, Suh had said that he would fly back home to Portland, Oregon to ponder his decision with his family, which he is still presumably doing. Jordan Schultz from Yahoo! Sports has said previously that the Saints, Rams, Titans and Jets are all the serious contenders for Suh.
This whole process has dragged on for a long time and could be preventing the Saints sign other free agents, not knowing how much room will be left of their current cap space of $8,468,239 according to Over The Cap. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis is a master of negotiating contracts to find more cap space, but signing Suh would change their outlook on the rest of the off-season.
If the Saints were to land Suh, that would improve there much needed run defense. The Saints’ defense ranked 8th in total defense last season, and a potential Suh addition would put Saints into the conversation of having one of the best defenses in the entire League.
Is it worth waiting for Ndamukong Suh? Or — should the Saints just simply "move on"?
ADDRESS THE SLOT RECEIVER POSTION
Willie Snead was the Saints slot receiver last season and struggled with numerous distractions. With the slot receiver and the tight end positions in 2017 not living up to expectations, one can argue why the Saints struggled on 3rd downs the entire year.
Wide receiver Allen Hurns, who was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars this past week, commented that the Saints had interest in him. However, Hurns later signed a two year contract with the Dallas Cowboys. Nevertheless, there are plenty of potential receivers still on the open market that could fill the slot need.
Buffalo Bills WR Jordan Matthews is a possibility. Last season with the Bills, Matthews struggled with a series of nagging injuries; and only caught 25 passes before the same injuries ended his season.
But prior to his arrival in Buffalo last Pre-Season via a trade with the Eagles (who drafted the former Vanderbilt University All-American in the 2nd Round of the 2014 NFL Draft), Matthews had a stellar 2016 season in Philadelphia with 73 catches for 804 yards and three touchdowns. Matthews' down year with Buffalo has lowered his interest level, but he’s still a very athletic, capable receiver and only 25 years of age.
Titans free agent WR Eric Decker is another potential Saints target, and he had 54 catches for 563 yards and a touchdown last season in Nashville But he also is only two years removed from a 1000-plus yards, 12 touchdown season with the Jets in 2016. At age 31, Decker could become a veteran leader along the same lines as current Saints #2 WR Ted Ginn Jr.
And last but not least, there's Jeremy Maclin; who was last with the Baltimore Ravens this past season. Maclin had a very successful five year run in Philadelphia, totaling 4,771 yards. He also spent two years in Kansas City with the Chiefs, where he surpassed a 1,000 yards in his first season.
But during the past 2 seasons, Maclin has struggled; totaling 536 and 440 yards respectively. Perhaps the 29-year old’s career could get "rejuvenated", in a high-powered Saints offense. Regardless, you can bet that the Saints will also look to the draft next month to fill the slot position need, whether that be a WR or TE.
ADD DEPTH AT EDGE RUSHER
The Saints recently brought back veteran defensive end Alex Okafor on a brand new two-year deal, following a season which he had 4.5 sacks and 43 tackles in 10 games before his season was ended by an Achilles tear against the Redskins.
Okafor's signing gives the Saints a complementary strongside defensive end / EDGE rusher to pair with All-Pro Cam Jordan, but the uncertainty of his recovery from the Achilles tear leaves New Orleans with capable but not exactly overwhelming depth at the position (with Trey Hendrickson, Haouli Kikaha, the raw and talented but unproven Al-Quadin Muhammad and veteran George Johnson.
Even with these capable reserve players, the Saints are still looking for an EDGE rush threat and they recently expressed interest in former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Robert Ayers. During the past two seasons with the Bucs, Ayers put up 6.5 sacks and 2 sacks respectively. The year prior in 2015 with the New York Giants, he had 9 sacks. As of right now: the Saints, Panthers and Falcons have reported interest in the 32-year old pass rusher.
Another defensive name still on the market is defensive end Kony Ealy, who had a down year with the Jets (only having 1 sack in 15 games). Before his time in New York, Ealy had spent three years with the Panthers (who originally drafted him back in 2014); where he had 14 sacks in that span.
Ealy is still just 26 years old, and that may be enough to start drawing interest from a few teams as Week #2 of 2018 NFL Free Agency gets underway.
But you can be guaranteed that the Saints will again look in the draft for pass rush help, and to that point: they are scheduled to have a private meeting with LSU edge rusher Arden Key in the upcoming days ahead.
DON’T SIGN A TIGHT END (AND WAIT UNTIL NEXT MONTH'S DRAFT)
The last remaining item on the Saints' remaining "to-do list" in Free Agency is the tight end position, although at this point it seems more and more likely that New Orleans will address it directly in next month's 2018 NFL Draft.
After the Saints missed out on Jimmy Graham (who of course chose to sign with the Green Bay Packers), there were few options left on the free agent market. Eric Ebron and Tyler Efiert were guys you could take a chance on with one-year deals, but they signed with other teams.
The "hottest" name was Trey Burton of the Eagles, but he inked a wealthy deal with the Bears. Besides Ebron and Eifert, the only other remaining players at the TE position are 38-year-old Antonio Gates and 30 year old Julius Thomas, neither would be an upgrade to current Saints starting TE Coby Fleener.
Their best option is to hold onto Fleener and target a TE in the draft. Some top names are Penn State's Mike Gesicki, South Dakota State's Dallas Goedert, Oklahoma's Mark Andrews, South Carolina's Hayden Hurst and Wisconsin TE Troy Fumagalli.