New Orleans Saints mailbag: Eyes on free agency and draft targets

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Nov 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Saints guard Jahri Evans (73) blocks Houston Texans outside linebacker John Simon (51) during a game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Saints guard Jahri Evans (73) blocks Houston Texans outside linebacker John Simon (51) during a game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /
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Jan 28, 2016; Mobile, AL, USA; South squad quarterback Dak Prescott of Mississippi State (15) avoids the pressure of defensive end Noah Spence of Eastern Kentucky (97) during Senior Bowl practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 28, 2016; Mobile, AL, USA; South squad quarterback Dak Prescott of Mississippi State (15) avoids the pressure of defensive end Noah Spence of Eastern Kentucky (97) during Senior Bowl practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports /

While we await more anticipated moves for the New Orleans Saints over the next couple of days, we take a look at some questions fans have around the team’s strategy for free agency, the draft, and other related questions.

Thanks in advance to all fans who sent in questions.

Tyeler Davison is someone I peg for a breakout season. I feel that he should get the bulk of the reps for the Saints defensive line. He often received double teams, but had some memorable one-on-one moments and played better down the stretch. That’s always a good sign when you see rookies develop instead of regress. I believe Davison will still split reps with John Jenkins, but the Saints desperately need an interior lineman opposite of those two that can get after the quarterback more efficiently.

As for the No. 12 overall pick, that’s where a lot of people fail to see eye to eye. Personally, I would say their greatest needs lie on defense. This draft offers plentiful options for an edge rusher, so there may not be an immediate need to address it in the first round. I do think that would be very smart, but I firmly believe a weak side linebacker is among the top needs for the 2016 draft.

Noah Spence is all over the draft board right now. He has been impressive, but reportedly bombed Senior Bowl interviews. Clemson’s Shaq Lawson could be an appetizing second round pick, but I wouldn’t dismiss the Saints going after DeForest Bucker as their top pick. Buckner has been on the team’s radar for some time, and if the team feels he’s their best option, then they’ll make sure to take him so.

Some other names to keep in mind for later and mid-round picks: Florida’s Johnathan Bullard, Oklahoma’s Emmanuel Ogbah, BYU’s Bronson Kaufusi, and Baylor’s Shawn Oakman.

Chris V. – Latest on Drew Brees contract negotiations?  Will they restructure Jairus Byrd and C.J. Spiller for more cap flexibility?

Unfortunately, there’s nothing to update on Drew Brees and his contract. He had his $10.85 million roster guarantee kick in, which was expected. Also, Jairus Byrd had his $6 million guarantee trigger. The Byrd part was a little shocking, and they just restructured his deal last year. I’m not sure what the plan of attack will be for Byrd, but carrying his salary cap figure of $10.9 million could be a real possibility in 2016. C.J. Spiller could offer some help if the Saints opt to convert his $1.55 million roster bonus to a signing bonus.

Getting back to Brees though, I don’t believe the team is in a hurry to get his extension done. However, it’s something that needs to happen sooner than later. I believe they are looking for that ‘sweet spot’ that wins for both sides involved. You have to imagine that extending him for a couple of seasons will be the right way to go, but there’s also some concern for a quarterback that just turned 37.

Saul J. – When will they cut Brandon Browner? How will they (the Saints) handle getting a Jahri Evans replacement?

The Brandon Browner move is all about timing. The Saints can’t afford to absorb any more dead money from 2015, which is what would happen with Browner if he were cut right now. Once the league’s new year starts on March 9, then you can expect to hear that he’s been released. However, it will tack on to this year’s dead money situation. It could offer some help in 2017 if the post-June 1 designation applies to him.

Replacing Jahri Evans will not be easy, but an elephant in the room for the New Orleans Saints. The team only has one guard on the roster right now, Cyril Lemon. You’re likely to see a host of NFL mock drafts turn in some guard choices to the team at No. 12 overall. I don’t see that happening, and I wouldn’t trust a rookie guard protecting Drew Brees. I’d fully expect the Saints to re-sign one (if not both) of their restricted free agents out of Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete.

That may not give the team a sense of comfort, so I wouldn’t rule out bringing in a veteran guard like Jeff Allen, Ramon Foster, or Kelechi Osemele to fill the void. 

Carolus W. – Do you think Zach Strief stays, or does Andrus Peat step into a starting job next season?

Zach Strief has been adamant about playing for the Saints or no one in 2016. I believe Strief will do what’s necessary to stick to his word. Like so many Saints players, the team can gain some salary cap savings by moving Strief’s $2.4 million roster bonus to a signing bonus. That’s assuming the team would be okay with him staying on. There could be a scenario where Strief moves to the interior, but a 6-foot-7 guard isn’t exactly desirable.

I’d feel comfortable saying that Andrus Peat starts at right tackle in 2016, and the team will find where Strief pens in from there.

John P. – When do ya think we’ll see Brees deal get done???

Without question, it will be before March 9. If not, then you’ll see the Saints not playing at all in free agency. There’s no way they roll into the new year with his $30 million salary cap figure. It just doesn’t make sense.

Del C. – Do we need a Mario Williams?

This is an interesting name to keep an eye on in free agency. Mario Williams was very quick to talk about how the Buffalo Bills defensive scheme didn’t fit him in 2015, and that he believe he’ll return to form in 2016. The Bills saved nearly $13 million in cap space by releasing Williams, and he was due a good bit of money over the last two years of his contract.

Creating salary cap room to pursue someone like Williams would always be the first problem. I don’t believe Williams will take a flyer on a cheap 1-year deal just to prove his worth to cash in for the next season. I could realistically see a 3-4 year contract in the neighborhood of $5-7 million annually. If history has shown us anything for the Saints and free agents, they aren’t afraid to give players cash upfront to favor their salary cap.

Two of the moves I mentioned before would give the Saints some aid, and converting a roster bonus to a signing bonus would help tremendously. You could spread it over the duration of the contract if needed. Someone like Cam Jordan comes to mind, who has a $6 million roster bonus due. The biggest savings will come from Drew Brees, but some subtle restructures of players like Max UngerThomas Morstead (if they don’t cut him), and Marques Colston could go a long way.

Even if the team frees up enough money to sign some free agents, they’ll still need room to sign their rookies.

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