How Nicks' departure would hurt Saints

Carl Nicks repeatedly has said he’d like to stay with the New Orleans Saints.

But, as we count down the hours until Tuesday’s start of free agency, Nicks said he still hasn’t received an offer from the only team he has ever played for. He also said he believes the Saints can’t afford him and don’t want to “disrespect’’ him by making him an offer that won’t make him the league’s highest-paid guard (more than $8.5 million per season).

Barring a last-minute surge in salary-cap room, the Saints probably will let Nicks hit the open market. As I’ve written before, NFC South rivals Atlanta and Tampa Bay could be in the market for Nicks. So could a lot of other teams around the league. That’s because Nicks is the league’s best guard and he’s only 26.

If the Saints lose Nicks, they’re losing a lot. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Nicks and teammate Jermon Bushrod led all offensive players in snaps played in 2011 with 1,177. In other words, Nicks and Bushrod played in every one of New Orleans’ offensive snaps. New England quarterback Tom Brady (1,149 snaps) and Atlanta Justin Blalock (1,147) and tackle Tyson Clabo (1,147) rounded out the top five.

In addition to being a dominant pass blocker, Nicks also has been stellar in the running game. The Saints averaged 6.6 yards when running to the left last season. That average ranked No. 2 in the NFL.

Nicks and Jahri Evans have formed the best guard tandem in the league in recent years. Their play probably has helped center Brian De La Puente, Bushrod and right tackle Zach Strief.

If Nicks leaves, the Saints still have an elite guard in Evans. But they’ll no longer have an elite player on both sides of the offensive line.