What's next for Saints and Colts
Key unrestricted free agents for the Saints are Darren Sharper and Scott Fujita
In the draft, Saints figure to address linebacker, where they need youth
Colts captain Gary Brackett could test free agency to learn his value
MIAMI -- Fresh off a vindicating Super Bowl XLIV victory that took the franchise to the NFL mountaintop for the first time in its 43-year existence, the New Orleans Saints today plunge into an offseason unlike any in recent league history.
You've heard the news by now: For the first time since 1993, there will be no salary cap this year unless a labor agreement between the owners and players miraculously unfolds before March 5 (it won't). As a result, the level of free agency activity will be vastly affected.
It's actually a very fortuitous turn of events for the newly crowned Saints. New Orleans has a laundry list of 18 restricted free agents, some of whom would have been unrestricted free agents in the system that allowed players to test the market after their fourth season in the NFL. Now that the hurdle will be six seasons of tenure, the Saints will have the right to match any offers made to starters such as All-Pro guard Jahri Evans, running back Pierre Thomas, offensive tackles Jermon Bushrod and Jammal Brown and safety Roman Harper. The same goes for key reserves such as defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, tight end David Thomas and receiver Lance Moore.
The losing Colts, whose upset at the hands of the Saints cost them the chance to join the Patriots (three) and Steelers (two) as the only multiple Super Bowl winners of the now-finished NFL decade, also benefit. Starters such as offensive tackle Charlie Johnson, safety Antoine Bethea, and reserves that include cornerback Tim Jennings, safety Aaron Francisco and linebacker Freddy Keiaho will be restricted rather than unrestricted free agents.
And don't forget, as two of the final four teams in the playoffs, the Saints and Colts (as well as the Jets and Vikings) aren't allowed to sign another team's unrestricted free agent unless they lose one of their own of equal or more value. That new rule alone should contribute to more of a status-quo offseason for the two Super Bowl-qualifying clubs than we've seen in almost two decades.
With the long NFL season finally over for all 32 teams, here's a snapshot at how the two Super Bowl teams stand as they head into the personnel acquisition phase of the league's calendar.
It was almost $128 million in 2009, but you can erase that number from your memory, because there will be no salary ceiling or floor (it was $108 million last year) in 2010. Opinions are somewhat divided on what that will mean in terms of spending this season, but it certainly should allow for the two Super Bowl teams to prioritize and keep any player they deem a must-have. And teams also have the use of an additional transition player tag at their disposal this year, allowing them to effectively lock up another potential free agent in 2010.
With so many restricted free agents hitting the market (sort of), the Saints may indeed have some decisions to make regarding offer sheets made to their third- or fourth-year veterans. But with the ability to match any deal, New Orleans will be firmly in control and can pick and choose who it cares to retain. In terms of the Saints unrestricted free agents, there really are just two key names to know: Safety Darren Sharper and linebacker Scott Fujita.
Sharper signed a one-year, bargain-basement $1.7 million deal last offseason, and then proceeded to share the NFL lead in interceptions this season with nine picks, returning three for touchdowns. He was the glue of the Saints secondary, was named All-Pro, and proved to be the perfect fit in centerfield for coordinator Gregg Williams' takeaway-hungry defense. He's 34, but the Saints absolutely have to re-sign him given the width and breadth of his impact this season. Even better for New Orleans, Sharper loved playing for Williams and would like nothing better than to stay put and chase another ring.
Fujita, 30, is another valuable veteran and consummate team player who the Saints will likely try to retain. Though they need to get a bit younger and more athletic at outside linebacker, where Scott Shanle lines up on the weak side, opposite Fujita, it's likely they'll use the draft to supplement that position. They won't break the bank for Fujita, but he's the kind of smart, solid starter that head coach Sean Payton admires and covets. He too loves playing in New Orleans, and won't be looking to merely chase the highest bidder.
Backup quarterback Mark Brunell just finished his 17th season and turns 40 in August. He doesn't seem to be making any noise about retirement, saying he still wants to play. But it's probably a long shot that he returns to New Orleans after he looked pretty feeble in his only start of the season, taking over for the resting Drew Brees in Week 17 at Carolina.
There has also been speculation regarding Reggie Bush's future in New Orleans because his salary jumps to $8 million in 2010, which is an awfully big number for a running back who has never cracked 600 yards rushing in his four NFL seasons. But I don't think there's any way the Saints release him, and a trade seems very unlikely. Bush ended the season on an upswing, and Payton likes him and has stood behind him since making him his first draft pick in New Orleans in 2006. He has two years left on his rookie contract, and the Saints could try to restructure the deal, but it's more likely the Super Bowl win will mean the marriage between Bush and New Orleans continues unchanged in 2010.
Defensive end Charles Grant is another veteran whose status could prompt a decision. He has been just an average player for the Saints the past couple of years, and they could approach him about restructuring, or release him. But while his 2011 salary jumps way up, he's at just $4 million this year, and that could mean he gets one more season as a Saint before a move must be made.
After replacing/losing both coordinators last offseason, Payton doesn't look to have any moves to make this year. Williams loved his first season in New Orleans and talked throughout Super Bowl week about not caring particularly if he ever gets another NFL coaching shot. The former Bills head coach said he has learned that who you're working with and where you're working has become paramount to him. It doesn't hurt either that his son, Blake, is a Saints coaching assistant.
Earlier this postseason, the Bears had requested permission to interview Saints tight ends coach Terry Malone. But it's assumed it was for Chicago's then-vacant offensive coordinator job, which has since been filled by Mike Martz.
The Saints have never picked last in the first round before, but I imagine they'll happily take their No. 32 slot with a sense of satisfaction. New Orleans led the NFL in scoring this season and its offense overflows with weapons, so it's logical to see defense being addressed early in the draft. They could use a pass rusher at defensive end, especially if they release Grant, and generating more pressure off the edge seems like their top priority.
If Fujita leaves, and maybe even if he doesn't, taking an outside linebacker would be a no-brainer. The Saints were torn between Brian Cushing and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins last year in the first round. They took Jenkins and were rewarded, but Cushing was the league's defensive rookie of the year and made an early and steady impact in Houston.
Whatever unfolds in free agency, a defensive front seven player makes the most sense for New Orleans, because for the first time in years, the Saints secondary is in pretty good shape.
Like the Colts, the Saints were the only team in their division that made the playoffs this season. But both divisions featured a couple teams at .500 or better, so the gap between the champions and the also-rans might not be as large as it seems. In the Saints' case, there's still never been a repeat champion in the eight-year history of the NFC South, a distinction that is not shared by any other division.
New Orleans only went 4-2 in the division, but was 12-1 in games outside it, including the playoffs. Next year's schedule for the Saints is headlined by an NFC title game rematch against Minnesota at the Superdome, but that's the only home game New Orleans faces against a 2009 playoff team.
The Saints do however have a tough road schedule, drawing four playoff teams from this year: Arizona, Dallas, Baltimore and Cincinnati. The Cardinals will be out for revenge after being knocked out of the NFC playoffs at New Orleans in the divisional round.
Overall, the Saints have five games against 2009 playoff teams, and eight games against teams that had winning records this season. They draw the tough AFC North in interconference play, but the somewhat softer NFC West in their four-game intraconference slate. And while Tampa Bay figures to still be rebuilding next season, the Bucs did beat New Orleans on the road this year, and the Saints' four games against division rivals Atlanta and Carolina are always pretty fierce battles.
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