Guards flooding the free-agent market, but will Saints be buyers?

At age 33, guard Jahri Evans is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Sean Payton admitted that the New Orleans Saints never would have released guard Jahri Evans last February if they knew he would have the kind of season he did.

Evans, 33, stayed healthy and started all 16 games after re-signing with the Saints in September -- a big reason why New Orleans once again led the NFL in yards per game.

But now the Saints have to make another decision with Evans, who is an unrestricted free agent. Do they stick with the six-time Pro Bowler for another year and try to groom a younger replacement? Or do they dip into the rich -- but expensive -- talent pool in free agency that is scheduled to include standout guards like the Cincinnati Bengals' Kevin Zeitler, Green Bay Packers' T.J. Lang, Dallas Cowboys' Ronald Leary and Detroit Lions' Larry Warford?

That question is why the guards/centers come in at No. 4 in my position-by-position rankings of the Saints' offseason needs.

Current depth chart:

C Max Unger. Age 30, signed through 2019. 2017 salary and bonuses: $5.65 million. 2017 salary-cap number: $7.4 million.

G Jahri Evans. Age 33, unrestricted free agent.

G/T Andrus Peat. Age 23, signed through 2018 (*-Saints control option for 2019). 2017 salary and bonuses: $1.47 million. 2017 salary-cap number: $3.11 million.

G/C Tim Lelito. Age 27, unrestricted free agent.

G/C Senio Kelemete. Age 26, signed through 2017. 2017 salary and bonuses: $1.4 million. 2017 salary-cap number: $1.75 million.

G Landon Turner. Age 23, scheduled to be restricted free agent in 2019. 2017 salary and bonuses: $540,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $541,666.

C Jack Allen. Age 24, scheduled to be exclusive rights free agent in 2018. 2017 salary and bonuses: $540,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $540,000.

G/T John Fullington. Age 25, scheduled to be exclusive rights free agent in 2019. 2017 salary and bonuses: $465,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $465,000.


The Saints value guards and centers more than most NFL teams -- largely because guys like Evans, Unger and former guard Carl Nicks have thrived for their top-ranked offenses during the Payton-Drew Brees era. So I can't rule out the idea of New Orleans investing in a star guard in his prime like Zeitler or Lang. However, I still think that kind of money would be better spent on a defense that needs an injection of impact players more urgently.

I would have no problem with the Saints bringing back Evans for at least one more year -- assuming he still wants to play -- while they draft and develop a future replacement. Evans is no longer a Pro Bowler, but he was still well above average last year after shedding 15-20 pounds to help him stay healthy. The Saints tied for sixth in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed and tied for 12th in rushing yards per attempt.

The Saints are set at center after signing Unger to an extension last fall. He has quickly emerged as one of their best players and most valuable team leaders after arriving in the blockbuster Jimmy Graham trade with the Seattle Seahawks two years ago.

And Peat seems to have settled in as a solid starter with some upside at left guard after his disappointing rookie year in 2015. Peat's natural position is left tackle -- where he filled in admirably at times last year while starter Terron Armstead battled injuries. But if Armstead can stay healthy, Peat can be a mainstay at left guard.

The Saints do need to make depth a priority, though, since veteran backup Tim Lelito is also an unrestricted free agent. That's all the more reason why they should try and land a guard in the early to middle rounds of the draft.

Previous rankings:

No. 12 Specialists

No. 11 Wide receivers

No. 10 Tight ends

No. 9 Quarterbacks

No. 8 Running backs

No. 7 Offensive tackles

No. 6 Safeties

No. 5 Defensive tackles