Monday, May 3, 2010

Sharper IS Back

The SharperWatch is over and the Black and Gold faithful shouted “Amen!”

Free safety Darren Sharper, arguably the most popular player on the New Orleans Saints roster after quarterback Drew Brees, signed a one-year deal to stay with the team.

Sharper had visited with the Jacksonville Jaguars though the future Hall of Fame inductee opted to stay in the Crescent City, something number 42 said he wanted to do all along.

While Who Dats were ecstatic to hear the news, tight end Jeremy Shockey, who has been very vocal about his desire to see the veteran defensive back return, tweeted that it made his year.

Despite being an “old” 34, the free safety must have sipped whatever Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was drinking in the off-season. Sharper had the best season of his 13-year tenure in the league with nine interceptions (tying his career best in 2000 and 2005), retuning three for touchdowns (a career best) and 15 pass deflections (another career best).

In terms of pro football posterity, Sharper is currently tied with Ronnie Lott for 6th all-time with 63 interceptions and is 18 picks shy of Paul Krause’s record. Sharper’s 11 interceptions returned for touchdowns ranks him second on the all-time list behind Ron Woodson’s 12.

Sharper is also close to matching/exceeding Woodson’s other record of note, all-time interception return yards, 71 yards below Woodson’s 1,483 career INT return yards. Bear in mind that Sharper racked up 376 last season including two 90+ interception return yardage games.

Sharper’s decision to stay with the team affects several team angles.

First and foremost, the Saints secondary isn’t going to be as much of a question mark going into the 2010 season.

Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins might not be shifted over to free safety, which seemed a certainty after the Saints’ selected Florida State cornerback Patrick Robinson in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

On the other hand, the Saints lost their best UFA wiggle room. Had Sharper signed with another team, likely at a premium, the Saints could have inked another mid-level unrestricted free agent. I don’t expect too much wailing and gnashing of teeth over this opportunity cost.

Under the NFL’s “rule of four”, the four teams that played in the conference championship games cannot sign an unrestricted free agent until they have lost one and then the first year contract cannot exceed that of the departed player’s agreement with the new team.

The Saints filled their lone unrestricted free agent opening when they signed Tampa Bay Buccaneer defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson.

But the most interesting angle has to do with the Saints’ secondary.

Not including undrafted free-agents and other “camp bodies”, the Saints have a number of defensive backs on the roster, including free safeties Usama Young, Pierson Prioleau and Sharper; strong safeties Chris Reis, Chip Vaughn and Roman Harper; and cornerbacks Jabari Greer, Randall Gay, Tracy Porter, Leigh Torrence, Jenkins and Robinson.

Vaughn had spent the entire last season on the injured reserve list after tearing meniscus in his left knee.

Short of the team “optioning” Robinson to injured reserve (not uncommon for the Saints with young players), the team is going to part ways with at least one of their veteran defensive backs and maybe two, since the return of Vaughn and the selection of Robinson in the draft means that there’s less space available in the area that was the team’s defensive strength in 2009.

It’s obvious to see why Young “tweeted” his relative displeasure with the selection of Robinson since the draftee might have cost the converted cornerback his spot on the roster.

One other angle is Sharper’s durability.

Times Picayune sports reporter Jeff Duncan tweeted that Sharper underwent microfracture knee surgery this year, which drove down the market for his services and undermined his ability to demand a long-term contract and/or a deal with big guaranteed money.

That said, Sharper was a virtual bargain when considering his 2009 productivity as a whole. The leadership and ball-hawk skills sparked a Saints secondary that compensated for a relatively weak front-seven defense against the run by finishing off opponents in the regular season, post-season and Super Bowl.

Even if Sharper has a far less successful 2010 than he did 2009, the one-year contract (no terms have been released yet) is at worst a reward for the valuable service he rendered in shaping the greatest season in the franchise’s history.

It’s also a reward for the fans that have seen a number of favorites let go over the past year.

Welcome back Sharp.

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