Based on the NFL rules for restricted free agents, the Saints will need to make a qualifying offer to each player by March 11 to secure the right to match any other offers the players may sign elsewhere. And if the Saints' qualifying offer is high enough, then other teams will also be required to give up draft picks as compensation to sign the players away.
A league source has already indicated the Saints don't plan to re-sign Johnson. But they will have to make a decision on how much to offer the other three.
Since all four of the Saints’ restricted free agents went undrafted out of college, the Saints will essentially have four choices to make with each of them:
Offer a one-year deal worth a projected $2.2 million (which comes with a second-round draft pick compensation if they sign elsewhere).
Offer a one-year deal worth a projected $1.4 million (which comes with no draft pick compensation).
Actually sign the player to a new contract -- which could be for less money or for more (like what the Saints did last year when they signed RFA Junior Galette to a long-term extension).
Don’t make any offers, allowing the player to become an unrestricted free agent.
Here's a breakdown of the players:
FB Jed Collins: Age 27. Height/weight: 6-1, 255.
I definitely expect the Saints to keep Collins -- either by offering the second-round tender or by working out a long-term extension that works for both sides. Although the Saints only used Collins on about 40 percent of their offensive snaps last year, they value him in that role. He has played at a high level for New Orleans for the past three years -- as both a lead blocker and occasional pass catcher. He was especially good as a blocker during the second half of last season.
Collins has a total of 39 receptions for 174 yards and four touchdowns over the past three years. Last year, he also ran the ball a career-high 15 times for 45 yards and a touchdown. Before that, he had just four career carries (though two of them went for touchdowns).
Collins found a home in New Orleans after bouncing around with a whopping seven different teams from 2008-2010 as an undrafted free agent out of Washington State, mostly on practice squads.
S Rafael Bush: Age 26. Height/weight: 5-11, 200.
I expect the same thing with Bush -- either the second-round tender or a new long-term extension. The Saints valued him quite a bit last year as a backup safety and a special teams standout. And he could push for an even bigger role this year with Malcolm Jenkins' future uncertain.
Bush played about two-thirds of the Saints' defensive snaps when he was healthy last year, since they featured so many three-safety packages. Bush was primarily used as a deep safety. He had a career-high 42 tackles last season. He had an interception and a forced fumble in 2012.
The Saints picked up Bush off waivers during the first week of the 2012 season after he was released by the Denver Broncos.
WR Joe Morgan: Age 25. Height/weight: 6-1, 184.
I also think the Saints will try to keep Morgan -- but they may go with the lower tender or try to work out a more affordable contract. Morgan seemed poised for a big year last season as the Saints' No. 3/deep threat receiver. But he missed the entire season after tearing his ACL early in training camp.
The speedy Morgan showed signs of a breakout in a limited role in 2012 with 10 catches for 379 yards and three touchdowns. The Saints could certainly use that kind of dynamic playmaking ability to stretch the field if Morgan proves he can bounce back from his injury this summer. But the Saints may also consider drafting a fast receiver.
DL Tom Johnson: Age 29. Height/weight: 6-3, 288.
The Saints have apparently decided to move on from Johnson because of their young depth at the defensive line (including backups John Jenkins, Glenn Foster and Tyrunn Walker). But Johnson was a solid backup for them over the past three years as both a 4-3 tackle and a 3-4 end. He should definitely get an opportunity elsewhere.
Johnson, whom the Saints plucked from the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders, had 55 tackles, five sacks and a forced fumble in his three years with New Orleans.