NEW ORLEANS -- If you blinked (or if you were at Jazz Fest), you might have missed it. But the New Orleans Saints almost made two major splashes Friday night, which would have turned next week’s NFL draft into an afterthought.
First, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter revealed that the Saints were one of two teams left in the running for All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, less than an hour before he opted to sign with the Washington Redskins for $15 million per year.
Then, Schefter and ESPN’s Ed Werder reported that the Saints likely would have reworked quarterback Drew Brees’ contract to get the deal done. Werder said Brees “personally wanted” Norman on the team:
Signing Norman and locking up Brees to a long-term extension would have been like hitting the daily double -- and it would have created some legitimate playoff buzz around this team.
Here were my top four thoughts after the dust settled:
Norman’s worth: Would Norman have been worth $15 million per year? I’m not sure. I barely had time to wrap my brain around the idea, since it was such an unexpected move from a Saints team that currently has just $3.5 million in salary-cap space.
The Saints’ last two expensive free agents on defense haven’t panned out yet (safety Jairus Byrd at $9 million per year and cornerback Brandon Browner at $5 million per year). So I won’t be foolish enough to suggest that a player who cost more than those two combined would have been a sure thing.
However, I do know that Norman is one of the best defensive players in the game today. And he absolutely would have helped a defense that suffered through some historically bad struggles last year (setting NFL records for touchdown passes allowed and opponents’ passer rating).
Suddenly the Saints’ secondary would have looked downright awesome, with Byrd now fully healthy, cornerback Keenan Lewis returning from injury and cornerback Delvin Breaux and safety Kenny Vaccaro both coming off strong seasons.
I was critical of the Saints when they spent big on tight end Coby Fleener in free agency instead of devoting most of their resources to the defense.
This would have been the extreme opposite. And I certainly can’t blame them for trying.
Brees a big deal, too: Getting Brees’ extension done -- especially if it came at any sort of team-friendly discount -- would have been almost as important.
Brees’ extension seemed inevitable earlier this offseason, since he has just one year left on his contract with a whopping salary-cap figure of $30 million. But it has started to feel less inevitable as the months have dragged on. And then came news that New Orleans has been taking a long look at top QB prospects Jared Goff, Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook.
Surely the Saints wouldn’t consider moving on from Brees after this season, right? Not while he’s still playing at an elite level at age 37. Not while other QB-desperate teams are paying $18 million per year for guys like Brock Osweiler ... right?
An extension would have erased any doubts.
The good news is that it sounds like the Saints and Brees were both willing to get a deal done when an unexpected deadline suddenly sprang up. Maybe their most recent talks will finally spur some action on the Brees contract front.
Where’s the cap space? Everybody’s immediate reaction was some form of, “How in the world can the Saints afford Josh Norman?!” They have only $3.5 million in cap space and have generally been described as living in “salary-cap hell” for most of the past few years. But if any team has proved it can work around cap constraints, it’s the Saints.
First, they could have carved out $10 million-plus in 2016 cap space with a Brees extension. They also could have backloaded the cap costs on Norman’s deal so he counted less than $10 million against the cap this year.
Yes, that would just be kicking the can down the road, as the Saints have been doing for the past four or five years. But believe it or not, the Saints are already on pace to catch up by next year since the NFL's cap has continued to soar each year. New Orleans has less than $110 million in salary-cap costs on the books for 2017, with 38 players under contract. That doesn’t include pending free agents Brees, Terron Armstead and Max Unger, but the overall cap should exceed $160 million per team.
Cornerback in Round 1? The Norman flirtation doesn't automatically signal that cornerback will be New Orleans’ top priority in the draft. I think this was mostly about the specific player himself.
Cornerback is still a possibility as early as Round 1 if the right player is on the board at No. 12 (Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves III? Houston’s William Jackson III?) But I have it ranked fifth among the Saints’ needs, behind defensive end, defensive tackle, guard and outside linebacker.
The Saints have decent depth at cornerback with Breaux, Lewis and promising second-year pros Damian Swann and P.J. Williams, among others. But Lewis, Swann and Williams all come with injury question marks after landing on injured reserve last year.