Monday, March 15, 2010

The Saints' Free-Agency Doldrums

“I got all of the love in the world for Darren Sharper I just don’t have all the money in the world for Darren Sharper,” quipped New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis at his “later then usual but with good reason” season ending press conference.

The line drew plenty of laughs and attention, though the hemming and hawing over money in an uncapped year has not amused Saints fans that only want the ball-hawk back at any price south of “franchise-tag”.

Remember how protracted the negotiations were between the Saints and Sharper last off-season, with the Minnesota Vikings castaway anxious for a suitable deal to be worked out? I haven’t and figured that another round of such negotiations were going to play out regardless of the Lombardi Trophy.

But enough about Sharper, at least for the time being.

The Saints have not made much of a splash in free agency and probably won’t this year for three reasons.

1) The Saints are already the amongst the highest spenders in the league, with team having the second highest payroll in the NFL, according to an article appearing in Tuesday’s Times Picayune.
2) The infamous “Rule of Four” affecting the conference championship participants.
3) The core of the team is largely set.

Loomis has alluded to the return of the salary cap once a deal is reached between the players and the team owners. Big contracts now that might not fit under the new collective bargaining agreement could make for very difficult decisions a year later.

The Saints front office must also contend with severe restrictions put on them by their success in post-season. As of right now the Saints are permitted to sign only one UFA though this does not apply to players that have been waived.

And then the Saints are limited to paying their UFAs no more than the first year salary of the UFA they lost to another team.

The good consequence for the Saints under the uncapped free-agency environment is that players who would typically become UFA are restricted free agents, which covers a number of starters, some of whom would be heading to greener pastures if they had the opportunity.

Tethered to expensive draft compensation penalties, many teams won’t chase many of the Saints’ RFAs.

The league’s most prolific offense consists almost entirely of players under contract or restricted free agents. In other words, the Saints have already made their biggest moves prior to the draft by offering one-year contracts to their star RFAs.

The Saints’ Super Bowl MVP quarterback and his award winning offensive line will return in tact, as will his receiving corps and all of the running backs minus one.

The same goes for the special teams and most of the defense.

In fact, only two starters were not under contract: recently departed linebacker Scott Fujita and the currently on crutches Sharper.

For the Saints, their remaining UFAs signing with other teams would be a good thing to some degree as it would give the team freedom to pursue players at other positions, but most of the team’s remaining UFAs aren’t exactly prize catches (Mark Brunell and Darnell Dinkins anyone?).

And then there are their restricted free agents the Saints seem almost content to see leave.

Running back Mike Bell wasn’t tendered much of an offer (Saints get nothing if he leaves) and has already worked out with the Seattle Seahawks. One RFA I would like to see remain on the team is defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove, who visited with the Detroit Lions.

Hargrove is a success story on a several levels. Once suspended for violating the team’s substance abuse policy and a liability for his previous employers, Hargrove has turned his life and career around and proved to be an asset in the Saints’ weakest position, defensive tackle.

With the team already “light” in that spot, I am a little concerned why they would not invest more in the athletic Hargrove, who was offered third-round level compensation.

The Saints will likely test the patience and faith of the fans with their reluctance and/or inability to make a big splash in free agency while also not being more aggressive to retain fan favorites.

Expect the Saints to address their greatest needs in the draft, where a lineman and a receiver could be dealt away for picks in what is considered a deep talent pool, combined with “band-aid” short-term free agent signings of veterans who are taking their final snaps as professionals.

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