With Seattle's thrashing of Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII officially bringing an end to the 2013 NFL season, it is time for fans and franchises alike to start looking ahead to 2014. As teams ramp up their scouting resources ahead of May's NFL Draft, the first order of day to day business back at team facilities is to begin sorting out their current rosters in advance of the free agency period, beginning Tuesday March 11. Today we will take a closer look at the New Orleans Saints' impending free agents from the offensive side of the ball and examine the likelihood of them returning in 2014.
- Jimmy Graham - TE - The cream of the crop of not only New Orleans' key free agents but of the league's as a whole, Graham is coming off yet another stellar campaign, hauling in 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns. A giant part and focal point of the Saints' gameplans from week to week, Graham will either be signed to a long term deal or be designated with the franchise tag. If Graham is tagged, he would prefer to be tagged as a receiver rather than a Tight End, since he would likely earn more than $4 million extra than if he were tagged at his actual position. General Manager Mickey Loomis recently stated that if indeed the tag is applied, Graham will be tagged as a Tight End. The Saints have very little cap flexibility, so tagging Graham as a Tight End would obviously make the most sense assuming the sides can not agree to a long term contract. One thing is certain, Graham will be wearing Black and Gold in 2014. The only variable will be the length and terms of his deal.
- Zach Strief - RT- One of the best pass protectors in football, Strief enters the market coming off one of his best seasons as a pro. Although he would ideally love to re-sign with the Saints, Strief has publicly acknowledged that at age 30, this is most likely his ultimate chance at signing a lucrative multi-year deal. Due to their tight cap constraints, the Saints won't be able to bring back all of their key free agents, and Strief may be a player who they simply can not afford to re-sign at his market value. While they would love to bring him back, chances are the Saints will look to find another Strief in this year's draft or look to develop one of their younger tackles already on the roster. It appears likely that Strief moves on.
- Brian De La Puente - C - No team wants to face the prospect of losing two key cogs int heir offensive line in one offseason, but similarly to Strief, it is likely that De La Puente may be unaffordable to the Saints, as much as they would like to have him return to the team. Unless he is willing to accept a short term, team friendly deal, De La Puente looks increasingly likely to walk and earn a more suitable and secure deal on the open market. If he does leave in free agency, the Saints could look to develop Tom lelito, who got his feet wet while getting snaps at Guard during the 2013 season. De La Puente turned in a solid campaign in 2013 and though he has expressed his desire to remain in New Orleans, it may be in his best interests to at the very least test his market value in March.
- Charles Brown - LT- A few months, even weeks ago, retaining Brown would seem like a shoo-in for the Saints' offseason plans. But oh, how things have changed over a short period of time. Brown's play deteriorated throughout the season, bottoming out in St. Louis during the Saints embarrassing week 15 loss to the Rams. Coach Sean payton benched Brown in favor of Rookie Terron Armstead and the team didn't look back. Armstead made his first career start the following week at Carolina and while he struggled at times, he showed enough to remain as Drew Brees' blindside protector in week 17 and the Saints' two playoff games. It goes without saying that the athletic Armstead is the team's future left tackle, meaning Brown is highly unlikely to return. Still just 26, Brown could likely land a chance to compete for a starting job on the open market. If he can't find one, it's likely he could return to the Saints as backup on a cheap deal, though that is probably a worst case scenario for Brown.
How many veterans will the Saints be able to retain?
Rounding out the Saints' offensive free agents are Receiver Robert Meachem and backup Quarterback Luke McCown. Meachem was originally drafted by the Saints in 2007 before signing with the San Diego Chargers as a free agent in 2012. Cut by the Chargers in August, meachem returned to the Saints and showed he can still contribute as a vertical threat in a passing scheme. With younger receivers such as Kenny Stills and Joe Morgan on the books, it is likely the Saints let Meachem walk and at the very least, test the open market.
As for McCown, the 10 year veteran has expressed his desire to return as Drew Brees' backup in 2014. In an attempt to keep teams from poaching him on their practice squad, the saints elevated QB Ryan Griffin to the active roster during the season. Griffin would once again be McCown's main competition for the backup job. It is likely that McCown will be back and provide that competition in training camp with Griffin and any other signal caller the Saints may add between now and then.
The Saints have plenty of decisions to make between now and the draft. The bread and butter of this organization in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era has always been offense and these free agents will either continue to be pieces of the puzzle or find their ways into another organization's plans. Check back later as we take a look at the team's impending defensive unrestricted free agents.