METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints should enter free agency with more than $20 million in salary-cap space -- a huge change from previous years.
Technically, the Saints haven’t escaped salary-cap “jail” -- a term many analysts have used to describe their situation in recent years.
But they created a little freedom by pushing back $18 million of quarterback Drew Brees' cap costs into 2018, even though his contract will expire at the end of the 2017 season.
I don’t think that means New Orleans will go on a lavish spending spree like the one that led the New York Giants to the playoffs this year. But I do expect a somewhat aggressive approach to help fortify a roster that the front office, coaches and players believe is ready to make a playoff push.
As I wrote last month, it feels like “2017 or bust” for this team after three straight 7-9 seasons -- especially since Brees is 38 years old and heading into the final year of his contract.
The Saints have already made some major coaching staff changes this offseason. Here is a breakdown of New Orleans' biggest roster priorities:
1. Decide future at QB. I debated whether to rank this lower, since it’s possible the Saints could go the entire offseason without adding a new quarterback or signing Brees to a contract extension. But let’s face it, the QB position is so important that it’s going to rank No. 1 every year until the Saints find Brees’ heir (if they ever do).
I still don’t think the Saints have reached the point where they must draft a QB in the early rounds unless they fall in love with a specific prospect. Brees is still playing great, and he proved during last year’s contract talks that he wants to keep playing in New Orleans as long as the Saints will have him.
However, for the third straight year, the Saints will thoroughly research all of the top QB prospects heading into the draft. And if they do find one they love, it wouldn’t even be shocking to see them trade up from the No. 11 spot to go and get him.
2. Add a pass-rusher. This is a more immediate need -- a dynamic edge rusher to flank two-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan. The Saints could potentially wait until the draft, which most analysts agree is well-stocked with edge rushers. But they prefer to keep their options open on draft day, so they always try to fill their most glaring needs in free agency.
That means they could consider some of the big-splash options in free agency such as the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul or the Arizona Cardinals' Chandler Jones -- but they will cost mega-millions. Perhaps someone like the New England Patriots' Jabaal Sheard or the rival Carolina Panthers' Mario Addison would be more realistic, but they won’t come cheap, either.
3. Re-sign DT Nick Fairley? Both the Saints and Fairley were happy with the results of the one-year “prove it” deal he signed last March. Fairley had a career-high 6.5 sacks and earned praise from coaches for his attitude and work ethic -- which used to be question marks when he battled injuries, inconsistency and weight issues early in his career.
The question is how much it will cost to keep Fairley now that he has revived his career. But I like the Saints’ chances of keeping him since other NFL teams have been hesitant to offer Fairley a long-term deal in the past two years; plus, he seemed so comfortable playing just two hours down the road from his hometown of Mobile, Alabama.
The good news for New Orleans is that it doesn’t have many free agents who will break the bank this year. Other pending free agents include guard Jahri Evans, safety Roman Harper, running back Tim Hightower, cornerback Sterling Moore, and DEs Paul Kruger and Darryl Tapp.
4. Keep Jairus Byrd? Byrd, on the other hand, will break the bank if the Saints keep him at his scheduled total of $7.5 million in salary and bonuses. But Byrd finally started to play his best football in New Orleans during the second half of the season after battling a major knee injury in previous years. So there is a good chance the Saints will try to work out a significant pay cut to keep Byrd as part of the three-safety alignment with veteran Kenny Vaccaro and 2016 rookie Vonn Bell.
The Saints don’t have any other glaring candidates to become salary-cap casualties, but I suppose they could consider asking for pay cuts from RT Zach Strief (due $4 million in salary and bonuses), P Thomas Morstead ($3.75 million) or LB Dannell Ellerbe ($2.5 million).
TE Coby Fleener and LB Stephone Anthony both have fully-guaranteed base salaries in 2017, so they won’t be options for financial savings -- though Anthony could be in jeopardy for performance reasons.
5. More help at cornerback. The Saints’ secondary will look a lot better once everyone gets healthy following a ridiculous rash of injuries. But remember, even when the Saints expected to have Delvin Breaux, Keenan Lewis, P.J. Williams and Damian Swann healthy last offseason, they still went all-in to try to land free-agent prize Josh Norman. Then, they kicked the tires on veteran Joe Haden before the trade deadline. In other words, this team sees great value in upgrading the position and adding more depth.
6. Possible O-line replacements. Evans and Strief both played surprisingly well in their 11th NFL seasons, so they could be penciled in as the starters again in 2017 if they want to keep playing. But the Saints know the end is coming soon for both, so they should start investing in future replacements in the draft. And it’s not crazy to consider spending big in free agency with so many top-tier guards on the market (Ronald Leary, Kevin Zeitler, T.J. Lang among them).
7. Improve at linebacker. Veteran Craig Robertson turned out to be a great under-the-radar find for the Saints in 2016, so he should remain in the starting lineup either at middle linebacker or on the weak side. And veteran Ellerbe has been very good when healthy. But there is still plenty of room to upgrade here -- especially since the Saints don’t know if 2015 first-rounder Anthony will pan out.
Linebacker especially should be a priority in the draft. But this is another spot where it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Saints try to upgrade right away in free agency. New England’s Dont’a Hightower is the ultimate prize. Zach Brown will cost a lot more than he did one year ago before he broke out with the Bills. And Kevin Minter is a more affordable possibility from the Cardinals and nearby LSU.