As OTA's and minicamps loom on the horizon, the New Orleans Saints look to continue the positive uptrend that has sprung from bringing in a strong free agent class and an equally impressive haul from last week's NFL draft. The Saints assembled a group of undrafted free agents in the draft's aftermath, and now seemingly have most of the pieces in place with the crux of the offseason schedule set to kick off in earnest at the end of this month.
What to look for as the Saints head towards summer.
There could still be some additions and subtractions in terms of the makeup of the team's roster heading into OTAs, which are set to begin May 27th. There are also some intriguing position battles and potential obstacles that the franchise will have to face up to in the ultimate build-up to training camp in late July. Here are three things to monitor between now and then.
1. Jimmy Graham's Grievance Hearing
Following the NFLPA's motion to file a grievance on behalf of franchise-tagged Jimmy Graham, an arbitration hearing has been scheduled for June 17-18 where both Graham and the Saints will state their cases as to why either side feels their stance on the tag should be taken. The Saints contend that Graham is a Tight End, the position they drafted him to play. Graham, meanwhile, believes he should be tagged and compensated next season as a receiver, since he played nearly 70% of his snaps in the slot or out wide. If the Saints' decision to tag Graham as a Tight End is upheld, the former Miami Hurricane stands to lose nearly $5 million next season, as receivers are due to earn over $12 million in contrast to the scheduled $7 million that Tight Ends would be paid if tagged. The hopeful result would be for the team and its dynamic weapon to come to an agreement on a long-term deal before mid-June, which would eliminate the need for such a hearing. However, this is more likely to drag on through June and into July, similar to the Drew Brees situation of the 2012 offseason. Brees ultimately signed a new deal on the eve of training camp. Graham has until July 15 to do the same or else he will only be able to operate on a one-year deal in 2014. It will be interesting to see which side the independent arbitrator takes, and no matter the ruling, the hope is that this helps expedite the process of getting Graham signed long-term, regardless of how he is tagged.
2. Center Stage
The Saints ended up not selecting a Center in last week's draft, and though the team likes 2nd year pro Tim Lelito as a potential starting option, they could look to another alternative in the form of ex-Saint Jonathan Goodwin. The team brought in Goodwin for a visit recently, and the former Jet and 49er, who helped New Orleans win Super Bowl XLIV and played in another with the 'niners, could come cheap and play the part of a serviceable stop-gap option while the team evaluates Lelito's progress. Lelito may be best suited to play Guard, his natural position, and could be groomed as a potential replacement for a high earner like Ben Grubbs as the Saints could be faced with more tough cap decisions next offseason. Goodwin knows the Saints and vice-versa, and his rapport with Drew Brees and other former teammates would ease his transition back into Black and Gold. Last season's starter. Brian de la Puente, signed with the Chicago Bears in free agency.
3. Depth Chart Shakedowns
The Saints have some intriguing position battles on tap for this offseason, mainly at receiver, corner and Running Back. There will be intense battles for roster spots and roles at all three positions, and the Saints will be keeping a close eye on how these competitions shake out. Outside of Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and the team's first round draft pick Brandin Cooks, the battle to fill out the receiver depth chart will be one to watch. The Saints carried only 4 active wideouts on most game days last season, and the likes of Robert Meachem, Joe Morgan, Nick Toon and Andy Tanner will likely be competing for a pair of spots. Add in undrafted prospect Brandon Coleman, who could prosper into a potential future Marques Colston type, and this could be the battle to watch in camp. Meachem has experience and blocking attributes working towards his advantage, whereas the likes of Morgan, Toon and Coleman offer more upside as younger prospects. Coleman will hope to turn heads in camp with big plays to complement his freakish measurables.
The Saints will look to use Brandin Cooks in a multitude of ways.
As for the Cornerback position, Keenan Lewis and Champ Bailey, who was signed as a free agent following his release from Denver, figure to have a hold on the starting spots outside in Rob Ryan's defense. The Saints used their 2nd round pick on Nebraska corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste, a player with towering size and skills to boot, and the former 'Husker figures to see action as a rookie in subpackages. He could develop into a potential long-term compliment to Lewis as a starter. Corey White should continue to serve as a rotational player in nickel and dime packages, while Patrick Robinson hopes to rebound from a knee injury that cost him the 2013 season. Players like Rod Sweeting and Trevin Wade could challenge Robinson for a role and possibly a roster spot, though the former Seminole figures to keep his spot after the team opted not to release him during their slew of cap casualties earlier in the offseason. Look for those players to get plenty of reps in preseason games, as the Saints look to settle on their top 5 corners by the end of August.
Running Back is another spot that should intrigue Saints fans this summer. Pierre Thomas figures to continue as the team's main option, while Khiry Robinson is an early favorite to handle most of the "big back" duties. Mark Ingram should spell Thomas often, but his long-term future could be cloudy after the team decided against exercising his 5th year option for 2015. Darren Sproles was traded to the Eagles in March, and while the team likes Travaris Cadet as a potential plug-and-play for that role, it is also possible that Brandin Cooks could see some action there in a satellite-type role. Cooks' long-term role projects out wide in his usual position, or as an immediate threat from the slot, but his elusiveness and playmaking ability could lure Sean Payton into getting him into some Sproles-type packages where he can get the ball in his hands on designed plays set up to take advantage of his skills in open space. Former Sam Houston State back Tim Flanders was one of the headliners of the team's UDFA class, and the Southland Conference's all-time rushing leader will look to follow in the footsteps of Thomas, Robinson and Cadet by making the team as an on the heels of a strong summere despite going undrafted. He will get opportunities in preseason, and could directly battle Cadet for a place on the final roster, though the Saints are very high on Cadet as a player who can help ease the loss of a player like Sproles. This will be an important year for Ingram in regards to his future, so expect the former Heisman winner to leave it all on the field, following his strong finish to the 2013 season.
The Saints have plenty to watch as we head towards the meat of the offseason schedule. First up, OTAs. Let the fun begin.