This NFL offseason promises to be one of the more interesting ones — and I’m not even thinking about any instant replay rule changes or referee firings to make up for the notorious no-call with the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game.
On that subject, which is still raw for Saints fans, the NFL has not moved on any replay changes and probably won’t. And none of the three blind refs have been fired or reprimanded as far as we know.
To do the no call game any justice, the league would have to hire Robert Mueller to get to the bottom of it. But he’s a bit tied up right now with more important issues.
This offseason in particular will be noteworthy with the number of star players who will be headlining free agent moves, forced trades and possible side deals before or during the April NFL Draft.
The Saints have a hefty list of either restricted or unrestricted free agents whom they will have to focus on once the NFL’s official 2019 season begins on March 13 and the cash registers are unlocked.
There are hundreds of free agent players coming onto the open market as the business end of the NFL takes center stage.
Topping the list is disgruntled Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and whatever team he may sign with. Philadelphia and Baltimore are in the sweepstakes for L-Bell. Another sourpuss Steeler who wants out of Pittsburgh and is demanding a trade, but whom so far only a few teams have shown an interest in, is super-diva Antonio Brown.
That doesn’t mean there is limited action surrounding A.B. Teams never want to show their hands too openly when it comes to free agency or trades — especially before the draft.
2018 Super Bowl MVP-winning quarterback Nick Foles has been given a hall pass by the Eagles to find a new team. Philly GM Howie Roseman said Foles deserves the chance to lead his own team again. That’s a rare and unusual move in the cutthroat business that is the NFL.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is just where he wants to be this time of year — and that’s in the spotlight, with the full glare and grandeur of the national media.
It started soon after the Super Bowl ended, with questions and speculation over just how much money Jones will pony up for a new contract for starting QB Dak Prescott. And just recently, former Cowboys tight end Jason Witten announced his desire and fire to play had again been rekindled after only one year in the ESPN Monday Night Football broadcast booth.
The 37-year-old Witten made headlines coming out of retirement to sign a one-year, $5-million dollar deal with Dallas, which had a huge void at tight end last season.
Witten is making a habit of not giving employers much notice. If you recall, he woke up one morning and retired from the Cowboys back in 2017, leaving his only NFL team in a lurch.
Jones and the Cowboys have two other critical free agents they hope to resign — namely defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and slot receiver Cole Beasley.
No doubt, Jones won’t be ignoring any interview requests over the coming weeks, while Patriots owner Robert Kraft intends to steer clear of cameras and microphones at any cost.
Saints head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis were buzzing around the NFL combine as were the other 31 NFL head coaches and GMs. I have to commend both of them for learning the fine art of talking during interviews but not saying anything concrete or with substance. Payton won’t admit, it but he might have learned a thing or two about that craft from commissioner Roger Goodell.
Payton and Loomis really can’t say anything meaningful between now and the draft because they can’t tip their hands or hats when it comes to dealing with their own free agents or whom they might have an interest in drafting.
It’s a league-wide game of cat and mouse, and teams prefer to wheel and deal behind closed doors.
I can’t think of a recent year when the Saints had this many valuable and critical free agents who could stay or go.
The year Drew Brees was an official free agent doesn’t count because everyone knew Brees wasn’t going anywhere, and he was destined to resign with the Saints no matter how long the offseason talks took.
Running back Mark Ingram tops this year’s free agent list, and no doubt the former Heisman Trophy winner will seek his one big payday contract with guaranteed money to set him up for life. And you can’t blame him. At 28, this will be Ingram’s last opportunity for mega-millions.
Ingram teamed up with running mate Alvin Kamara to lead the league with 23 rushing touchdowns. The unique pair are great friends despite having to share one football and playing time. Their dual postgame interviews make great entertainment, and no doubt they’re both exceptional locker room leaders.
Ingram gets my thumbs up to resign.
Free agent quarterback Teddy Bridgewater cost the Saints a third round pick to the Jets last season for only one year under contract. I expect in a quarterback-hungry league, the 25-year-old Bridgewater will garner interest. Loomis is quoted as saying the team is keeping its options open when it comes to him.
Bridgewater played scant snaps last year, so we didn’t really see what he can do. He has an All Pro season on his resume, and he’s a natural leader and locker room presence. With Brees now 40 years old, the Saints’ most important position just might be back-up quarterback.
With a year in Payton’s system, Bridgewater should know the full playbook and could still be considered a possible heir to the position. But Taysom Hill is just such an intriguing talent with so many valuable tangibles.
I think Hill can be a more than capable back-up if he proves to throw with the required accuracy of Payton’s routes. But is the 29-year-old Hill a legitimate starting NFL quarterback? Maybe, just maybe, with more real snaps, he could lead an offense.
I say Hill is a keeper because of all the things he can do and offer the team on offense and special teams.
I say Bridgewater is a keeper as well, because a talented backup quarterback who can come in and win games for this very elite Saints team is worth a third-round pick and a new contract.
Linebackers Craig Robertson and Manti Te’o are eligible for a free agency move. If the Saints were to sign one of them, it should be Robertson. He played nearly 75 percent of defensive snaps in 2017 and nearly 60 percent last year. The Saints are deep at linebacker with or without Robertson, but better with him.
Te’o has a lingering knee injury and is strictly a run stopper. Thumbs up on Robertson and down on signing Te’o.
New Orleans lost veteran tight end Ben Watson to retirement at the end of the season, leaving them with Josh Hill and Dan Arnold. I like both in spots. But this offense needs more production from the position.
Hill is the free agent, and will probably not re-sign with the team. I would be OK with that. It would mean Loomis would then shop for a free agent pickup or draft the position. New blood is needed at the tight end spot.
Four defensive backs have opportunities to go elsewhere: veterans Ken Crawley, P.J. Williams, Justin Hardee and Chris Banjo. That’s a lot of cornerbacks to replace if all are not re-signed.
Something tells me Payton will keep Hardee and Banjo because they will come cheap and are good special teamers. Crawley and Williams have top-heavy contracts and are just not consistent enough in coverage.
Cornerback Eli Apple cost the Saints a fourth and seventh round draft pick to acquire from the Giants last season. He improved as the year went on. He needs to continue that improvement this season to make the deal noteworthy.
Keep Banjo and Hardee, and sign two more free agents to fill the ranks at cornerback.
New Orleans still has dibs on veteran receivers Dez Bryant (injured one day after signing last season as a free agent) and Brandon Marshall (signed but never activated). They were insurance policies for late season situational football. But their roster spots and dollars are too valuable. Look for both to become free agents again.
I believe the Saints had one of the league’s better defensive lines, and their No. 1 ranking against the run proved that. This is a unit I would keep together a few more years.
Cam Jordan is an All Pro and an elite pass rusher at only 29. Sheldon Rankins, who will have to return from injury, is 24; he collected eight sacks and 15 QB hits. David Onyemata is a young 26 with 4 1/4 sacks as a nonstarter. Last year’s top draft pick Marcus Davenport played sparingly, but came on near the end.
Defensive end Alex Okafor and tackle Tyeler Davison are both free agents. As starters, both were critical pieces to the rush defense and in getting to the opposing quarterbacks. Both are young, and any new contracts would afford the Saints the flexibility to shop for depth by means of a free agent or the draft.
Thumbs up to signing both of them and keeping this D Line intact and playing together again in 2019.
I saved the Saints’ most important must-have free agent signing for last. Place kicker Will Lutz.
Yes I said it. Kicker Will Lutz is the Saints’ most valuable free agent.
It’s always befuddled me that football coaches stress the importance of special teams in the overall mix of winning games, but don’t seem to realize the importance of either recruiting, drafting or acquiring a top-rated leg.
Punters change field position but place kickers change the scoreboard.
Think about how many more national championships Bobby Bowden or Nick Saban would have won if they only had a good, consistent field goal kicker?
The Buffalo Bills could have won if that wide right field goal attempt had stayed straight against the Giants in Super Bowl 25. I know. I was there on the sideline as Scott Norwood bowed his head in defeat.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots would surely have lost at least two of their six Super Bowls had it not been for the sure-footed Adam Vinatieri and his last second kicks.
Before Payton and Loomis focus on Ingram, Bridgewater or Okafor, I strongly urge they get Lutz re-signed and under contract.
The 24-year-old Lutz converted 28 of 30 field goals for a 93 percent margin and 52 of 53 extra points, which are no easy gimmes any longer. He was five for five between 20 and 29 yards, nine for nine inside 39 yards, 11 of 12 between 40 and 49 and missed only once in three kicks over 50 yards.
Think of how many NFL games are settled in the final 2 minutes of play and tell me you don’t need a sure legged field goal kicker.
The upcoming draft and the reduced number of picks may play a role in how the Saints approach free agency in coming weeks.
Remember, New Orleans traded their 2019 first-round selection to move up to take defensive end Marcus Davenport last spring. They sent this year’s third round pick to the Jets for Bridgewater. The Saints won’t have a fourth round or seventh round pick in 2020 courtesy of the Eli Apple deal with the Giants.
Right now, Payton and Loomis have draft picks in the second, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. But that could change, as Payton recently said, “we will find a way to get a draft pick back … that’s easy to do.”
What isn’t so easy is deciding who to re-sign and who to let go as the wheeling and dealing gets underway.
This team and this roster finished 13-3 in the regular season and was one blown referee non-call away from playing in the Super Bowl.
There are areas in need of help, like the defensive secondary and offensive line depth. But I would not have a problem if the Saints brought 95 percent of this roster back for another run in 2019.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm broadcast on channel 4 on Suddenlink.