Sports on Earth's NFL writers Mike Tanier, Dan Pompei, Russ Lande and Robert Weintraub will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most pressing problems facing each one and proposing the best solutions. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
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By Robert Weintraub
The New Orleans Saints are among the more cash-strapped teams in the league. While the new cap allocation will help, the team is still likely to be over or right at the cap, especially now that superstar tight end Jimmy Graham has been franchised. Exactly how he is tagged is of some importance, then, which is why an arbitrator will be needed to determine if Graham is to paid as a tight end or a wideout (there is more than a $5 million difference, $7.053 million versus $12.132 million).
Either way, stalwarts of yesteryear like Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer will be wearing other colors in 2014, while linemen like Zach Strief and Brian de la Puenta will require some creative accounting to get them back in black and gold.
But it all revolves around Graham, who promises to be the rare player whose emotions are of the slightest import to the front office.
Problem: Jimmy Graham won't be happy.
Solution: Compromise is the essence of negotiation.
The Saints desire for leverage is perfectly understandable, but in the long term continuing to fight over position semantics will only serve to alienate Graham from the franchise. The Saints don't want Graham playing anywhere else, and it stands to reason Jimmy G. would prefer to have Drew Brees throwing him passes for the remainder of his career. So why not do the right thing? The Saints should sign Graham to a long-term deal that pays him in the $10 million range, a touch under top wideout money but far above the tight end franchise range.
That signals the Saints are serious about their desire to keep Graham's focus squarely on the field, while setting themselves above the petty squabbling. Graham is clearly New Orleans' second-best player, after Brees. The team slouched toward hardball with the diminutive quarterback's contract before coming through with a big deal for him. They should learn from history and do the same with his best weapon.
Problem: The linebackers are fine going forward. Backward, not so much.
Solution: Expand the range.
The 3-4 hybrid-playing Saints are good at inside linebacker with Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, and the pass-rushing end/linebackers, led by Junior Galette, are fine too. What the roster cries out for is a sideline-to-sideline force a la Lavonte David, someone who can play the pass and stuff the run while further freeing the likes of Galette to concentrate on pass rush.
Mostly, the unit needs speed. Jonathan Vilma is creaky, and Parys Haralson is also coming off a severe injury (pectoral tear). Both are free agents, and both could be let go (the team has said it won't re-sign Vilma). There won't be much cash to go after free agents, though a potentially cheap and intriguing option would be O'Brien Schofield, who is lost in the shuffle in Seattle.
A good draftable fit is Telvin Smith of Florida State. He is rangy and fluid, with good, somewhat deceptive speed. A less heralded candidate is Montana's Jordan Tripp, who isn't especially powerful but is instinctive and always around the ball. He is reminiscent of Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith in his smarts, range and feel for the game.
Problem: Lack of depth and quality at corner.
Solution: Add another playmaker.
Keenan Lewis came home to the Big Easy a year ago, and it proved to be a masterstroke of a free agent signing. The ex-Steeler was the best coverage player the Saints had in 2013. Unfortunately, the rest of the group isn't at his level. Greer is old and injured, Patrick Robinson was awful in 2012 and missed all of last season with an injury, and Corey White and Rod Sweeting are nickel corner options at best.
Unfortunately, splashing out for a top corner, like the Lewis signing last year, isn't really an option, even with the extra cap dollars available. The Saints are too strapped and need the money elsewhere. So guys like Alterraun Verner are out, but a lesser option, like Carolina's Captain Munnerlyn, could be a good fit. Munnerlyn is an aggressive hitter who should do well in Rob Ryan's system, and his sometimes poor instincts would be covered up by the range of safety Kenny Vaccaro.
If the Saints can't land a free-agent corner, one will be targeted in the draft. At No. 27 the Saints could select TCU's small but combative Jason Verrett or the larger Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech or Bradley Roby of Ohio State. Certainly the team will use a high choice on a corner -- if they wait until round two or three they could go for the big corners likely still around, Keith McGill of Utah or Stanley Jean-Baptiste of Nebraska.
Problem: The wideouts' birthday cakes are getting crowded.
Solution: A youth infusion.
Kenny Stills turned out to be a tremendous rookie addition a year ago, but the fact remains that Marques Colston and Lance Moore are over thirty, and Robert Meachem will turn the magic number in late-September. Moore is likely to require a pay cut to stay connected with Brees, while Meachem found out the hard way that the grass isn't greener elsewhere, even though the Superdome's carpet sure ain't grass.
The depth at wideout in this year's draft fits the Saints need perfectly. They won't be reaching, regardless of what round Mickey Loomis decides to tap a receiver. The monstrous Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State projects to be another Colston, assuming he learns to box out defenders and use his 6-foot-5 frame to max capacity. If the Saints wait until the second round, another enormous receiver like Clemson's Martavis Bryant would be a good fit. Should the Saints decide to go for a Moore clone instead, Oregon's Josh Huff or South Carolina's Bruce Ellington would make intriguing picks on Day Three.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for The New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.