This offseason hasn’t been quite as turbulent for the New Orleans Saints' roster as last offseason.
Although they released two of their all-time greats in Marques Colston and Jahri Evans in February, they have not gone through the same type of dramatic roster shake-up as last year -- when they spent the first week of free agency trading away Jimmy Graham, Ben Grubbs and Kenny Stills to acquire draft picks.
The Saints released several veterans last year, too, while attempting to both rebuild the foundation and repair the character and culture in the locker room. This offseason feels more like Stage 2 of the renovation, with everyone from Mickey Loomis to Sean Payton to Drew Brees insisting they’re pointed back in the right direction.
With that in mind, here is my ranking of New Orleans’ most indispensable players going forward:
1. QB Drew Brees. Sure, he’s 37 and costs $30 million against the salary cap, but he remains the Saints’ best and most irreplaceable player and their best chance to win on a weekly basis -- even if that requires seven touchdowns in a 52-49 thriller against the New York Giants. The Saints will sign Brees to an extension at some point this offseason, no matter what it costs.
2. LT Terron Armstead. The fourth-year pro has started to emerge as one of the best young tackles in the NFL. Armstead spent much of the 2015 season fighting through a painful knee injury, but his grit made him all the more impressive. Payton said late last year that he wouldn’t trade Armstead for any other left tackle in the league. He’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after this season. The Saints can’t let him get away.
3. DE Cameron Jordan. The Saints made sure Jordan didn’t get away last year, inking their former first-round pick to a five-year, $55-million extension. Jordan lived up to the deal, recording 10 sacks and making his second Pro Bowl as an alternate. Now if the Saints could just find six more like him in their front seven ...
4. WR Brandin Cooks. I’m hesitant to rank a receiver this high since the Saints have proven time and again that their passing offense can thrive without elite playmakers. But the Saints’ skill positions have grown thin in recent years and Cooks, a first-round pick in 2014, has quickly emerged as the one guy defenses have to gameplan against.
5. C Max Unger. The 29-year-old didn’t make a third trip to the Pro Bowl last year after the Saints acquired him from Seattle in the Graham deal but played close to that level. More importantly, he is the only proven veteran left in the interior of the offensive line. Unger also needs to be signed long-term since he’s heading the final year of his contract.
6. CB Delvin Breaux. Is this too high for a one-year NFL veteran who just migrated from the Canadian Football League? Perhaps, but Breaux quickly established himself as a bona fide No. 1 cornerback -- at a position where the Saints desperately needed someone to emerge. He’s also cheap labor, due just $1.14 million combined over the next two years.
RB Mark Ingram. Ingram is held in the same high esteem as the rest of the guys on the list as a runner, receiver, pass protector and leader. I just can’t list a running back as indispensable, though -- especially in New Orleans’ pass-heavy offense. Plus, the Saints keep finding hidden gems at this position.
CB Keenan Lewis and S Jairus Byrd. These guys should be on the list; I had them ranked as top-four players on the roster last summer. But then both were plagued by injuries. Their health could help make or break the Saints' season. Byrd, in particular, needs to deliver in a huge way to live up to his monster contract.
S Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro is right on the cusp. So far, he has just lacked the consistency but had a strong bounce-back season in 2015. The Saints will need to decide soon whether to pick up his fifth-year option for 2017 (likely between $5.5 and 6 million) or risk losing him on the open market.
TE Coby Fleener. The Saints’ new free-agent acquisition had better be indispensable at $7.2 million per year, and I expect him to do well in New Orleans’ offense. The reason I’ve been somewhat critical of the Fleener signing is that he doesn't feel indispensable based on his good-but-not-great production and the Saints’ ability to get by with lesser talent at the position.
WR Willie Snead. Snead had a breakout year with nearly 1,000 yards last season after going undrafted in 2014 and being cut by two other teams. There’s no reason to doubt he’ll do it again, and he comes cheap for two or three more years. Snead is the ultimate example of how the Saints always find replacements to step up in their offense.
2015 rookie class. Linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha showed a lot of promise, offensive tackle Andrus Peat still has the potential to develop into a great player, and the Saints should have high expectations for all of them. We just haven't seen enough yet to call them indispensable. That deep rookie class includes several others with potential, including CBs Damian Swann and P.J. Williams, DT Tyeler Davison, DE Bobby Richardson, OLB Davis Tull, RB Marcus Murphy and QB Garrett Grayson.