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Saints make splash on Day 1, even without trading Brandin Cooks

METAIRIE, La. – Were the New Orleans Saints winners on Day 1 of free agency? Obviously we won’t know the answer to that question for another year or two. But it’s fair to say they just won the toss.

New Orleans got off to a fast start with four big signings on Thursday – none of which included the much-anticipated trade of receiver Brandin Cooks, which could still be on the horizon.

Instead, New Orleans added guard Larry Warford (ranked No. 21 on ESPN’s list of the top 150 free agents), linebacker A.J. Klein and a potential Cooks replacement in speedy receiver Ted Ginn Jr. They re-signed their own top free agent – defensive tackle Nick Fairley – at a reasonable rate. And they didn’t lose any of their own free agents.

It’s hard to say whether the Saints got great value until we get a look at the total numbers on each deal. And it’s impossible to predict how much bang the Saints will get for all those bucks they spent until we see them on the field. You may have noticed that spending doesn’t automatically mean winning (see: Jairus Byrd, Brandon Browner, C.J. Spiller, etc.)

However, the good news is that by my count, the Saints have already tackled three of their top five offseason needs (No. 3 linebacker, No. 4 guard and No. 5 defensive tackle).

That still leaves two glaring needs – edge rusher and cornerback, both of which Sean Payton described as “musts” for this offseason. But the Saints still have plenty of time and ammo left.

They entered free agency with roughly $30 million in salary cap space, not to mention the No. 11 pick in the draft. And they still have that massive chip to play in Cooks, who is reportedly still drawing interest from the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans, among other suitors.

ESPN’s Dianna Russini reported Thursday morning that the Patriots were considering a deal to swap their young star cornerback Malcolm Butler for Cooks – a blockbuster deal that would absolutely address one of New Orleans’ biggest needs.

I’m a little torn on whether that would be an even swap because of their contracts. Butler is a restricted free agent, so the Saints likely would need to agree to a long-term deal with him worth at least $14 million per year to consummate the deal. That’s a lot of money to be giving up for a guy in addition to swapping Cooks.

Then again, one of the main reasons the Saints are considering a Cooks trade is because they probably don’t plan on investing that same level of money in Cooks when he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2019.

Money aside, when you compare the two players, Cooks and Butler really mirror one another: Two proven young fourth-year players who rank among the best at their position and are just entering their prime.

So if the idea is to trade Cooks to improve the defense, this is one that makes a lot of sense – especially when you consider that there are no other elite cornerbacks or pass-rushers left on the open market.

Either way, the Saints already have backed up their talk that they plan to aggressively work their way out of their slump of three straight 7-9 seasons. No, spending does not automatically equal winning. But it’s hard not to think the Saints made themselves better on Thursday.

In case you missed any of the breakdowns, here’s how I graded each move:

Fairley A-

Warford B+

Ginn B

Klein C+