The New Orleans Saints have been one of the busiest teams in free agency thus far – signing some big name players and releasing some proven veterans.
The impact of these moves is yet to be seen, but we will examine what the franchise has done to date and grade based on the impact each players addition or release will have on the team.
Released: Defensive Coordinator, Gary Gibbs – Gibbs was brought to New Orleans by Payton in 2006 to head the defensive staff. Although his first season as the defensive coordinator was not a disappointment, ranking as the 11th best defensive in the league, his next two seasons were an atrocity. Gibbs unit finished 28th in total defense in 2007 and 23rd in 2008. It was apparent that Gibbs “bend but don’t break” approach to defense had failed as the Saints defense gave up 343.8 yards a game on average during the 07 and 08 seasons.
Grade: A+ – Plain and simple Gibbs defensive scheme failed. It was time for him to go after his unit had barely made any improvement over the last two seasons.
Released: Runningback, Deuce McAllister – A fan favorite in New Orleans McAllister’s release has sparked wide spread debate amongst Saint fans and NFL analysts alike. Deuce has been a standout player for the Saints since they drafted him in the first round of 2001 draft and is the Saints franchise leader in rushing yards (6,096) and touchdowns (54). He has battled back from knee injuries in 2006 and 2007 only to be used sparingly in Payton’s offense during the 08 season. A cap casualty release, McAllister still has some tread left for the NFL.
Grade: D – Deuce is a standout player on and off the field. He is not the player he once was but as he showed last season he still has the vision and push to move the pile. One can only hope he re-signs with the Saints at a reduced salary before catching on elsewhere.
Released: Wide Receiver, David Patten – With a roster full of much younger, talented receivers Patten’s time seemed limited. At 34 years old he is no spring chicken and after being used sparingly last season he was destined for the cut. In the NFL its all about the “what have you done for me” mentality, unfortunately for Patten he has not done enough for the Saints liking.
Grade: A – Patten has never been a standout player – more a steady contributor. His release will allow some of the younger receiver’s an opportunity to rise on the depth chart.
Released: Fullback, Mike Karney – Karney has been a popular player since being drafted by the Saints in 2004. Karney is widely know as a solid run blocker but lacks the pass catching ability Payton covets. Last season Karney had issues converting short yardage situations as well as periodically missing blocking assignments. Rumors swirled about he and running back Reggie Bush’s relationship after he supposedly commented on Bushs’ lack of work ethic and awkward running style.
Grade: C – Karney’s upside far outweighs his downside and given a little more time in Coach Payton’s system he could of developed into a solid weapon. Overall his loss will not have a major impact on the teams offense.
Released: Cornerback, Mike McKenzie – McKenzie has been a solid starter since being acquired form the Packers in 2004. During his tenure as a Saint he has been one of the lone bright spots in a struggling secondary recording 186 tackles, 41 pass deflections, and 12 interceptions. McKenzie has battled injury in consecutive seasons tearing an ACL in the last game of the 07 season and essentially breaking his knee cap in a November game against the Falcons in 08. A cap casualty as well, the team cleared nearly 4 million of cap space with his release.
Grade: B- – Mike’s age, 32, and health issues are a real concern for the Saints who are currently in a re-building stage with their defense. The team would like to get younger at corner and due to McKenzie’s high cap hit it was a natural choice for them. Don’t be surprised if McKenzie re-signs with the Saints at a reduced price as the team has made their interest in re-signing him known – that’s if he doesn’t catch onto a team elsewhere.
Signed: Defensive Coordinator, Gregg Williams – Enough good things cannot be said about Gregg Williams. Simply put – Williams is one of the most respected defensive coordinators in the NFL today. After spending last season with the Jaguars, where his unit finished 17th in total defense, New Orleans zeroed in on Williams this off-season as Gibbs successor. Coach Payton even gave a portion of his own salary to Williams in an effort to get him signed. Williams has built superb defenses while coordinator with Tennessee from 1997-2000, as head coach of the Bills from 2001-2003, and again as defensive coordinator with the Redskins from 2004-2007. During that span Williams has spawned top ten defenses in five-of-the-past nine seasons including three top three’s with three different teams in the past six years.
Grade: A+ – Williams addition was badly needed to help spark an anemic defense. His impact will be felt immediately and don’t be surprised if the Saints defense, under his tutelage, improves dramatically in it’s first year. His blitz oriented variable 4-3 defensive scheme is a welcome change of pace for Saints fans – New Orleans is now considered a Superbowl contender with his signing.
Signed: Cornerback, Jabari Greer – Greer has spent the last five seasons with the Bills since joining the team as an unrestricted free agent. He has started 26 games for the Bills recording 114 tackles, 27 pass deflections, and 4 interceptions. An athletic corner with blazing speed, evident from his 2 interceptions run for a touchdown during the 2008 season.
Grade: B+ – A relative unknown commodity, Greer has allot to prove. His athleticism and speed are unquestioned and a welcome addition to the Saints secondary. He is an upgrade without a doubt – pencil him in as a starter alongside Porter and Gay.
Signed: Fullback, Heath Evans – Evans is a 9 year veteran of the league spending the last 4 seasons with the Patriots. Evans is a versatile player who can catch out of the backfield well, run block, and get the short yards when needed – a sore spot for the Saints last season.
Grade: B – Evans is only a slight upgrade over Karney but he does bring with him an added dimension to the Saints offense which only improves the unit more. It’s said he is a better run blocker than Karney – opening up bigger holes for Bush and Thomas to get through is a definite plus.
Signed: Safety, Darren Sharper – Possibly the biggest signing besides Williams, Sharper is a 4 time pro-bowler and the league leader in interceptions among active players with 54. He spent the last four season with the Vikings snagging 18 interceptions while there, a definite upgrade for the Saints. At 33 years old many feel he has lost a step, although the Saints feel otherwise.
Grade: A – Sharper is one of the NFL elites at Safety. He has filled one of the Saints biggest needs and is a huge upgrade over every other Safety on the roster. The Saints plan to use him at Free Safety alongside Strong Safety Roman Harper – which is a more natural fit for his abilities. Expect at least 5 interceptions next season.
Signed: Defensive Lineman, Paul Spicer – Spicer is a solid veteran that seems to only get better as times goes on. Considered a tweener defensive end/tackle he provides solid depth at both positions and displays a knack at getting to the quarterback.
Grade: B – Spicer is a solid player and great insurance if starting ends Smith and Grant ever have to fulfill their suspensions. He also played under Williams at Jacksonville, which is a plus.
Signed: Center, Nick Leckey – Leckey is a relative unknown spending the last two seasons withRams. He started in 12 games before being sidelined with a foot injury late last season. He was drafted by the Cardinals in 2004 starting 20 games during his tenure at Arizona.
Grade: C – Leckey is considered a Jeff Faine type center, relying on leverage rather than brute strength to throw off defenders. He will compete in training camp against starter Johnathan Goodwin for the starting role. It’s unclear what his presence will bring other than depth on the offensive line.
There are several players here, and since I consider them all valuable assets to the team I am blanketing them all with an A grade.
Re-Instated: Linebacker, Dan Morgan.
The Saints worked quickly to secure Vilma, and rightfully so. Vilma lead the team in tackles last season and has become the anchor in the middle of the defense. Williams will rely on Vilma heavily this next season to co-captain the defense along with newly acquired safety Darren Sharper.
Devery is one of the best deep threats in the game, one defenses must respect. Stinchcomb re-signing has helped the Saints keep one of the best offensive lines intact and maintain continuity on the line, which as we all know is more important than some may think.
Courtney Roby flashed signs of brilliance in the return game last season, a much needed spark to special teams play. Don’t be surprised when he runs two or three kickoffs back for a touchdown this next season.
Dan Morgan was once hailed as the best linebacker in football. He plays with reckless abandon which has contributed to his injury plagued past. After a year off he is again ready to suit up and play – he will be competing for the starting role alongside Vilma this offseason. If he plays to his old form – expect huge things from him in Williams defense.
Overall Grade: B+ – The Saints have done an excellent job this offseason re-building the defense and addressing some dire needs in the secondary. Free agency has not closed yet and there may be more signings or releases to come. Expect the Saints to continue the re-build in the draft targeting linebackers, defensive backs, and defensive lineman.