As the beginning of the NFL's free agency period draws closer, teams have already begun the process of sorting through their respective rosters and started to make some of the decisions that will help shape those rosters moving forward into 2014. When dealing with to-be free agents of the unrestricted variety, most franchises have an idea of which players they would like to retain, which they will allow to walk, and which they would be willing to allow the opportunity to guage their value on the market. The New Orleans Saints are no different than any other team, with several players who played a key part in their 2013 success set to hit the open market. Earlier this week, we examined the Saints' key impending offensive free agents. Today, we will analyze the upcoming free agents on the defensive side of the ball.
Which defensive UFAs will the Saints bring back in 2014?
- Malcolm Jenkins - S - The 14th overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft, Jenkins had somewhat of a renaissance under new Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan, rebounding from a disastrous 2012 campaign and showing he still has the skills which enticed the Saints to make him their 1st round selection nearly 5 years ago. Jenkins has added value in his ability to not only roam the defensive backfield at the safety spot, but he can also play closer to the line as a slot corner. Jenkins adjusted well to Ryan's 3-4 scheme and ideally, the Saints would like to bring him back, but only at the right price. With cap room at a premium, the Saints can not afford to overpay for any of their free agents not named Jimmy Graham. Jenkins' long time Safety partner Roman Harper could be cut in an effort to create more cap space, so the prospect of losing both of their most experienced safeties is not very appealing to New Orleans. Rookie Kenny Vaccaro had a stellar campaign in his first year as a pro, and Jenkins made an effort to take the Texas alum under his wing. Retaining Jenkins and restricted free agent Rafael Bush should be near the top of the team's priorities from a defensive standpoint.
- Parys Haralson - LB - Acquired from the 49ers in an August trade, Haralson proved to be great value for the Saints before an unfortunate injury brought his 2013 season to an abrupt end during the Saints wildcard victory over the Eagles. Playing a key role as a situational run stuffer in Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense, Haralson filled a need that the team felt it was lacking as they transitioned into the new scheme. His presence was missed in the subsequent divisional round loss at Seattle, and Haralson heads to the market coming off another injury, having missed all of 2012 with a torn triceps. Now at age 30 , it's possible that the Saints can re-sign him at a team-friendly rate. Special teamer Will Herring filled in for Haralson in his absence. If Haralson is not re-signed, the team will likely pursue Junior Galette's future bookend in May's draft assuming no other tenable options surface in free agency.
- Jonathan Vilma - LB - The Captain of the Saints' Super Bowl XLIV winning defense, Vilma's career has been beset by knee injuries since his days as a New York Jet. That did not stop the Saints from trading for him during the 2008 offseason, and his impact was felt almost immediately as he stepped into the middle of former Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams' defense. Unfortunately for both Vilma and Williams, they became associated with the infamous bounty scandal that plagued the Saints organization during the 2012 season, and for Vilma, the knee issues continued to mount. Having begun the season on the PUP list, Vilma was only able to appear in one game in 2013, against his former team in November, before landing on Injured Reserve. His presence was still enormous around the team's facilities and locker room, but with his contract set to expire and the knee injuries continuing to mount against him, it's likely that Vilma is not only done as a Saint, but done with playing football for good. One of the most beloved Saints of this golden era, Vilma will always be remembered for his impact on and off the field, and is adored in the community. It is very possible that coaching could be in his future should he choose that route. Vilma has business interests outside of the game to keep him occupied as well. The chances of him suiting up as a Saint, or with any team in 2014, however, seem slim to nonexistent.
Rounding out the Saints 2014 unrestricted free agent class on the defensive side of the ball are backup Linebackers Will Herring, Ramon Humber and Keyunta Dawson. Herring and Humber have been solid special teamers for New Orleans and both have gotten reps in Ryan's defense. They could be brought back on the cheap if they can not attain a better opportunity on the market. Dawson was signed in october and also fit into the rotation well. All three players will be options the Saints can explore as they shape their roster this offseason. Veteran Defensive End Kenyon Coleman, whose season came to an end in August with a torn Pectoral muscle, is also headed for free agency. Rob Ryan was high on Coleman, who he worked with in Dallas coming into the season, but another serious injury and age are working against him. He could be brought back on a cheap deal, but it's just as likely the team will pursue younger talent in May's draft. Safety Jordan Pugh was signed ahead of the Divisional Playoff game, where he played on special teams coverage. Also headed for free agency, chances are he does not figure into the team's long term plans.
After a historically bad 2012 season, the Saints as a whole rebounded nicely, reaching the postseason for the fifth time since the Sean payton era begain in 2006. While a potent offense has been the anchor of this run, the Saints received a massive lift from their defensive unit in 2013. Rob Ryan's impact can not be praised enough. Finding ways to balance the numbers and continue to develop the personnel on the defensive side of the ball are high on General Manager Mickey Loomis and Coach Payton's list of offseason priorities. While the decisions to be made regarding impending defensive free agents may not be as arduous as the offensive side of the ball, retaining players like Jenkins and the pursuit of young talent in the draft will be crucial to this unit continuing its advance in the right direction. With Payton and Drew Brees at the controls offensively, a strong defense to match will have Saints fans dreaming of another Lombardi trophy.