NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2020 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from Bill Barnwell. The new league year begins 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, which means free-agent signings can be made official after that. The first round of the 2020 NFL draft begins April 23.
Drew Brees, quarterback
Brees has agreed to a two-year deal with the Saints that is worth approximately $50 million, sources told ESPN on Tuesday.
What it means: We already knew Brees was coming back for a 20th season. But this is even better news for the Saints since he'll be doing it at such a discounted rate. Brees' new deal is the same as his old one (two years, $50 million, per source -- likely with only one year of guaranteed salary). And this time, he's even more of a bargain considering the inflation of QB salaries around the league. As of now, Brees ranks 12th among NFL quarterbacks in average salary -- with more guys likely to pass him up soon. That's huge for a Saints team that is slammed tight against the salary cap and has some hefty contract extensions looming for Alvin Kamara, Ryan Ramczyk and Marshon Lattimore. The Saints have one of the NFL's most talented rosters, with a total of 14 players who were named to either the Pro Bowl or Associated Press All-Pro team last year. This will help them keep that roster intact as much as possible.
What's the risk: Well, Brees is 41 years old. So there is some obvious inherent risk in that. And by investing in him, the Saints will almost certainly have to let go of 27-year-old backup Teddy Bridgewater, who would've been a nice succession plan if they were able to hang on to him indefinitely. But the decision to keep Brees is a no-brainer -- especially at this price tag. He has actually been playing some of the best football of his career over the past two seasons, with the two best passer ratings (116.3 in 2019, 115.7 in 2018). He was the NFC's Offensive Player of the Month last December with 15 touchdown passes and no interceptions. And while he no longer throws the deep ball as often or as well as he did in the past, he has made up for that with higher completion percentages and lower interception totals.
The Saints will have to get creative with their salary-cap bookkeeping to squeeze in his new deal. Brees was already scheduled to count $15.9 million against the 2020 cap because of "dead money" from his old deal. They will likely push back a similar amount into future years. But they will eventually be able to pay off the credit card bills whenever Brees does retire -- and they should have even more room to catch up once the NFL's new CBA and TV deals kick in.
Andrus Peat, guard
The Saints have agreed to re-sign Peat to a five-year contract, the team announced Friday. The deal is worth $57.5 million, with $33 million guaranteed, a source told ESPN, confirming a report by NFL Network.
What it means: I thought this was an area where the Saints might look to save some money with their limited salary-cap space, since they have so much invested elsewhere across the offensive line and since Peat had a down year in 2019. Instead, they appear to be paying full price for him with a five-year, $57.5 million deal that includes $33 million guaranteed, per source. Now it makes me wonder if they will continue to invest in both right guard Larry Warford and veteran backup Nick Easton, both of whom have high cap figures. The Saints are going to need to create some more cap space somewhere if they plan to add anymore top free agents -- especially if they’re saving room to re-sign running back Alvin Kamara to a lucrative extension later this offseason.
What's the risk: The financial risk is obvious, but the Saints are clearly banking on the Peat that played his best football from 2016-18 instead of the one who battled inconsistency in 2019 and struggled in their playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The former first-round draft pick has become one of the most polarizing players on the Saints’ roster as a result. But at his best, he helped the Saints finish in the top two in the NFL in 2017 in both yards per rush and yards per pass attempt, while running backs Mark Ingram and Kamara both gained 1,500 yards from scrimmage. The Saints also value Peat’s ability to slide over and play left tackle when needed -- which has been huge for them because of left tackle Terron Armstead’s past injury issues. Peat has also battled a handful of his own injuries in the past two years, but none should be a risk of a recurring issue. He missed six games last year because of a broken forearm.
David Onyemata, defensive tackle
The Saints have made their first big move of free agency, agreeing to a deal that will keep Onyemata in New Orleans, a source confirmed to ESPN.
What it means: Keeping Onyemata is key for the Saints since he has been such an underrated part of their resurgent defensive line in recent years. New Orleans actually led the NFL in run defense over a two-year span from 2018 to 2019 -- and teammates and coaches often point to the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder as a big reason why. Onyemata started all 16 games he played last season, including the playoffs -- even after former first-round draft pick Sheldon Rankins returned from a torn Achilles. And he has played nearly 60% of the Saints’ defensive snaps since they “discovered” him as an unpolished gem from the University of Manitoba in Canada in the fourth round of the 2016 draft.
What's the risk: The Saints didn’t get too much of a “hometown discount” on Onyemata, who agreed to a three-year deal worth $27 million, with $18 million guaranteed, per a source. And every dollar spent on any free agent could technically be considered a risk for the Saints, who entered this week with less than $10 million in salary-cap space. They now have significant investments in three defensive tackles this year, including Rankins and nose tackle Malcom Brown. But they have to feel good about this investment in a homegrown talent like Onyemata. I predicted he would be the one defensive free agent most likely to stay in New Orleans — both because of his value to the team and the fact that the secret might not be out on him throughout the league. The Nigerian native is still relatively new to the sport since he had never played North American football until college. So he still has room to keep rising.
Malcolm Jenkins, safety
Malcolm Jenkins returns to his former team on a four-year deal.
What it means: Jenkins will almost certainly replace free agent Vonn Bell as the most veteran safety in New Orleans, where he can now mentor and play alongside promising young safeties Marcus Williams and C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Technically, Jenkins and Williams are both listed as free safeties. But the 6-foot, 204-pound Jenkins has always been known for his versatility, and he should spend most of his time playing inside in nickel and dime packages. More than anything, the Saints are trying to right one of their greatest wrongs. Sean Payton has never made any secret about how much he regrets the Saints letting Jenkins go in 2014 (when they unsuccessfully tried to upgrade to Jairus Byrd).
What's the risk: The Saints obviously aren't getting Jenkins in his prime, since he turned 32 in December. And they invested a decent amount to get him (four years, $32 million with $16.25 million guaranteed). So it’s a risk to choose him over Bell, who may have the brighter long-term future. Plus, Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen will need to prove that they can get the most out of Jenkins this time around -- something they failed to do in their first stint with him. The 14th overall pick in the 2009 draft, Jenkins never fully realized his potential in New Orleans. Then he went to Philly and made three Pro Bowls in his first five seasons there. But the Saints have always valued Jenkins for his leadership, savvy and instincts as much as his on-field performance. He was twice elected as a captain by his teammates at a young age. And for years, Payton talked about the specific chess match he played against Jenkins when matching up against the Eagles. The Saints know how valuable all of those things are when taken as a whole (and how much they missed them when they were gone).
Zach Wood, long-snapper
The Saints are finalizing a deal with Wood that is expected to be worth $4.78 million over four years, with $1.3 million guaranteed, according to a source. ESPN's Field Yates first reported the deal was in the works.
What it means: This will probably be the easiest transaction of the week for New Orleans -- a four-year deal worth $4.78 million with $1.3 million guaranteed once it’s finalized, according to a source. Wood, 27, has proved to be a good fit in the role over the past three years after he began his career as a defensive end and long-snapper with the Cowboys in 2016. The Saints have found great stability in their kicking operation with longtime punter Thomas Morstead, fifth-year kicker Wil Lutz and Wood after experiencing some turbulence at all three spots earlier in coach Sean Payton’s tenure. Lutz just made his first Pro Bowl last season.
What's the risk: Very little, since Wood is such a known commodity at this point and that trio has gotten so comfortable together. Wood also has established himself enough that he should avoid getting another league-low rating on EA Sports’ Madden video game like he did last summer -- which led to plenty of ribbing from teammates.
Michael Burton, fullback
The Saints agreed to Burton on a one-year deal.
What it means: Burton has played mostly on special teams during his five-year career with the Bears, Lions and Redskins. But he should get a chance to compete for the Saints’ fullback job now that veteran Zach Line has retired. The 6-foot, 240-pounder spent last offseason with the Saints before being cut in August. He then went on to play 10 games with the Redskins with six special-teams tackles and 64 offensive snaps.
What's the risk: None, since this will likely be a minimal deal. Fullback is a part-time role in New Orleans’ offense. So it’s possible Burton could win the job if they don’t make a more significant investment at the position. And his special-teams experience will help his case. Burton has a total of eight carries for 11 yards, with nine catches for 53 yards and a touchdown in his career.
Justin Hardee, cornerback
The Saints agreed to Hardee on a one-year deal.
What it means: Hardee seems like a good bet to secure a roster spot this year, even though the Saints didn’t tender him as a restricted free agent. He has been a core special-teams player ever since they scooped him up as an undrafted rookie when he was cut by the Houston Texans in 2017. He led the Saints with nine special-teams tackles in 2017 and 10 special-teams tackles in 2018 before tying for second with five of them last year. He also blocked a punt as a rookie and has been a big asset when it comes to downing punts inside the 10-yard line, among other contributions. He has also filled in at cornerback when needed, with a total of one interception, two pass defensed and 39 tackles in three seasons.
What's the risk: Virtually zero, assuming they got Hardee even cheaper than it would have cost them to place the cheapest level of RFA tender on him (which would have been $2.133 million). Hardee has proved to be a great asset on special teams, a solid emergency option on defense and a good fit in the locker room. If they find someone even better to fill those roles this offseason, that’s a great problem to have.
Emmanuel Sanders, wide receiver
What it means: You never want to over-embellish how much a team “wins” in March, but it sure feels like the Saints are filling their most glaring need with the perfect fit in Sanders. And the value is great, too (two years, $16 million, up to $19 million in incentives, per ESPN's Adam Schefter). The Saints have desperately needed a No. 2 WR for the past two years, and that void showed up in both of their playoff losses. All-Pro Michael Thomas had 119 more catches than any other Saints WR last season (yes, you read that right). Better yet, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Sanders is known as an outstanding route runner, and he spends much of his time operating out of the slot, which is ideal for Drew Brees.
What's the risk: Well, Sanders turned 33 this week. And he suffered a torn Achilles 15 months ago (though he recovered in tremendous fashion last year, playing a full 20-game season with the Broncos and 49ers, including the playoffs). One risk that must be mentioned with every Saints move in free agency is that they have barely any salary-cap space to work with, so they can't afford to miss on any of them. But one added benefit to this deal is that the Saints won’t have to force themselves to choose a WR with the 24th pick in this year’s draft.
D.J. Swearinger, safety
What it means: Swearinger is no lock to make the 53-man roster on a one-year, veteran-minimum deal. But he has a good chance since he could provide depth and experience in both the secondary and on special teams. The 28-year-old has started 73 games in his career, including seven last year for the Cardinals and Raiders before he joined New Orleans in late December. The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder was active for only one game with the Saints -- in Week 17 -- in his limited time with them.
What's the risk: There’s no risk in the contract itself. Swearinger will count the same against the cap as a two-year veteran would because of the veteran minimum-salary benefit. Swearinger has bounced around the league for most of his career (six teams in seven years, including two separate stops in Arizona). But the Saints obviously liked the fit enough to bring him back.
Noah Spence, defensive end
What's the risk: Not much, assuming this is a veteran-minimum type of deal. The 6-foot-2, 251-pounder’s career has plateaued after a promising start as a second-round draft pick with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016. (He had 5.5 sacks that year and only two since.) But he is still just 26 years old with the potential to develop into part of New Orleans’ pass-rush rotation. And they could use some depth there behind Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport and Trey Hendrickson.
What it means: Spence will fight for a backup job on the 53-man roster this summer after agreeing to come back to New Orleans. The fifth-year veteran joined the Saints last December after being released by the Washington Redskins. But he was a healthy inactive for all four games with the team, including the playoffs.
Deatrick Nichols, cornerback
The Saints agreed to a one-year contract with cornerback Deatrick Nichols.
What it means: The Saints became the second team to dip into the XFL's talent pool once players became eligible to sign on Monday. Nichols (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) led the league with three interceptions for the 5-0 Houston Roughnecks and was named to the midseason all-XFL team before the league was shut down because of coronavirus precautions. Before that, Nichols spent the 2018 season and 2019 offseason with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted rookie out of South Florida. He bounced on and off the Cardinals roster and practice squad in 2018, appearing in two games on special teams. He likely will fight for a similar backup/special teams role in New Orleans.
What's the risk: Virtually zero. The best-case scenario would be a repeat of the success the Saints had with former CFL cornerback Delvin Breaux, who became a standout starter for them in 2015. Obviously that's unlikely. But, hey, sometimes NFL teams miss on talent the first time around -- and sometimes players are late bloomers. And the XFL offered teams a second look at Nichols' potential.
P.J. Williams, cornerback
Williams is returning to the Saints on a one-year deal.
What it means: The Saints now have a ton of experienced depth in their secondary, with Williams, safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and veteran cornerback Patrick Robinson all available to play in nickel and dime packages behind starters Marshon Lattimore, Janoris Jenkins, Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams. P.J. Williams struggled earlier in his career as an outside cornerback, but he has really become valuable as a slot corner over the past two years, playing about 80 percent of New Orleans’ defensive snaps when healthy. He even moved to safety late last season when needed because of injuries. The Saints could certainly look for a future upgrade in the draft, but this was a pretty obvious move on a one-year basis.
What's the risk: Very little -- assuming this deal won’t break the bank. Williams has battled some inconsistency throughout his five-year career. But he has really found his niche in the past two years (two years in which the overall secondary has improved quite a bit, by the way). And Williams’ versatility has become invaluable. Not only could he play safety if needed, but he could also switch to the outside whenever needed during games if anything happens to Lattimore or Janoris Jenkins.