However, the Saints should absolutely still draft a receiver this year. And I think they will. Maybe even in Round 1 if the draft grades line up.
Draft analysts universally agree that this year’s rookie class is loaded with receiver talent. I’ve seen at least nine different receivers mentioned as possible first-round picks, including fast-rising Indiana prospect Cody Latimer, whom ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper paired with the Saints in his latest mock draft .
More than a dozen intriguing receiver options will be available beyond the first round.
The Saints could use a dynamic receiving threat immediately to help them stretch the field. More important, they need to start developing a future No. 1 or No. 2 guy with Colston now in his 30s.
The Saints could also add a receiver in a draft class that is stacked with talent at the position.
Meachem (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) has been a valued backup for the Saints for most of his seven-year career. They use him as a deep threat to stretch the field and also in their heavy run sets because he's a standout blocker -- his most underrated skill set.
Last year, Meachem caught just 16 passes in the regular season but he gained a total of 324 yards. His average of 20.3 yards per catch would have led the league if he had enough catches to qualify. Meachem caught another three passes for 109 yards in the playoffs.
Meachem obviously fits best in that type of role in the Saints' offense. A former first-round pick out of Tennessee in 2007, he emerged as a big-play specialist for the Saints from 2008 to 2011. But he then flamed out with the San Diego Chargers
Click here for a breakdown of where the Saints are allocating their resources this year on offense. Below is a breakdown of their defense:
Percentage of salary-cap space: 7.32%
Total cap charge: $8.74 million
NFL average: $21.82 million
Biggest cap hit: Brodrick Bunkley, $3.26 million
Biggest bargains: Everyone else
Thoughts: This is where the Saints have a huge advantage over the rest of the NFL right now. They have one of the best defensive lines in the league – and one of the cheapest.
Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan is still costing just $2.5 million against the cap in the final year of his rookie deal (though the Saints will have to pony up $6.97 million for his 2015 option by May 3 – which will still be a bargain).
Meanwhile, ends Akiem Hicks, Glenn Foster, Tyrunn Walker and Keyunta Dawson and tackle John Jenkins are all costing below $750,000 against the cap. If I had to choose one player as the biggest bargain of the group, I'd go with Hicks, because I'm expecting a big breakout year from the third-year pro in 2014.
Percentage of salary-cap space: 13.81%
Total cap charge: $16.51 million
NFL average: $15.55 million
Biggest cap hit: Curtis Lofton, $5.2 million
Biggest bargain: Junior Galette, $2.9 million
Thoughts: The Saints are right around league average here with mid-range deals for starters Lofton, Galette and David Hawthorne. They’ve also got veterans Parys Haralson and Victor Butler at affordable rates.
Lofton and Hawthorne both have big pay increases coming in 2015 (to $7 million and $4.5 million in salary and bonuses, respectively). So they’ll both have to keep playing at a high level to secure their salaries. Hawthorne, in particular, could be a pay-cut or release candidate.
Regardless, the Saints need to start developing some younger, cheaper talent for the future at this position.
Percentage of salary-cap space: 6.27%
Total cap charge: $7.49 million
NFL average: $8.33 million
Biggest cap hit: Jairus Byrd $3.5 million
Biggest bargain: Kenny Vaccaro, $2.14 million
Thoughts: The Saints also have a ton of talent here without a sizeable cap hit. But that’s mostly because of how they structured Byrd’s contract. His cap hit will soar to about $10 million per year for each of the next five years.
Vaccaro will probably become more expensive a few years from now, too, if he keeps living up to his own Pro Bowl-level potential. In the meantime, though, the Saints are expecting to get a lot of bang for their salary-cap buck at this loaded position.
Percentage of salary-cap space: 8.66%
Total cap charge: $10.35 million
NFL average: $12.16 million
Biggest cap hit: Keenan Lewis $3.35 million
Biggest bargain: Corey White, $614,125
Thoughts: Lewis is one of the Saints’ biggest salary-cap bargains right now, since his cap number also doesn’t take a significant jump until it goes above $7 million in 2016 and 2017. He played at a Pro Bowl level last year and remains the anchor of this position group.
The Saints have more question marks among the rest of their cornerbacks. They have good depth and guys with good potential. But they need veteran Champ Bailey or younger corners like White and Patrick Robinson to step up consistently after suffering through some ups and downs in recent years.
And this time, Kiper went with a player he dubbed as the fastest-rising player on his board for the Saints at No. 27 overall.
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"Yeah, definitely," Byrd said with a laugh. "Look, he has some stuff in his head that he's gonna get out one way or the other."
Byrd said he's been at the Saints' facility almost every day since he arrived in town last week, working out and talking with coaches and some new teammates like fellow defensive backs Kenny Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis. Before that, he said he talked and texted with Ryan, as well.
Byrd said he didn't want to get into any specifics about how the Saints plan to use him. But clearly both sides are excited about the possibilities of adding someone with his ability to create turnovers to a young Saints defense that was already on the rise last year.
"To have that ability with an offense that's gonna put up points and a stingy defense like that and exotic in the way Coach Ryan calls things, it's unorthodox, it's gonna keep people guessing," Byrd said when asked what attracted him to New Orleans in free agency. "That combination right there was enough."
Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills, is also getting familiar with his new community. He met with the media while visiting Harahan Elementary School on Wednesday to talk to kids about the importance of reading and education.
Byrd said he's already noticed signs of the passion of the Saints' fan base around town. And he's also heard of the reputation of the Who Dat Nation from Lewis, a New Orleans-area native.
"I hear it's really like a family atmosphere," Byrd said. "How he talks about it, and just being out a little bit, I've seen ... the love the city has for the team."
The New Orleans Saints are obviously among the teams following the league-wide trend, having added free agent corners Keenan Lewis and Champ Bailey over the past two years. And as I wrote earlier this week, I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see New Orleans keep adding to that depth in the draft.
ESPN's Denver Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold took an in-depth look at how big cornerbacks are in high demand but short supply these days.
ESPN analyst and former NFL coach and defensive back Herm Edwards listed his top five cornerback prospects, plus two sleepers, in this piece that requires Insider access.
ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay broke down both the defensive back and linebacker positions in this in-depth analysis that also requires Insider access.
And ESPN/Scouts Inc. draft analyst Kevin Weidl listed the best big cornerback option for each day of the draft in this Insider piece.
Two things stood out to me -- especially when it comes to the Saints.
First, both Edwards and Weidl are high on Lindenwood cornerback Pierre Desir, an under-the-radar prospect who visited with the Saints earlier this week. The 6-foot-1, 198-pounder had 13 interceptions in college. And he raised his stock at both the East-West Shrine game and Senior Bowl.
Also, Kiper listed Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby as his biggest risk among all the cornerbacks and linebackers in this year's draft. Roby is definitely a prospect who could land in the Saints' range with the No. 27 pick in the draft. Roby (5-11, 194) is a sensational athlete with a ton of potential, but his production was inconsistent in college. Kiper still says he's worth a first-round pick -- but he needs developing. Could be good value for the Saints there.
On a related note, stay tuned for Kiper's latest mock draft, version 4.0, later this morning.
Rice back to Seattle:
Receiver Sidney Rice opted to re-sign with the Seattle Seahawks on Wednesday. The Saints showed interest in Rice and are thin on experienced receivers. But they could always re-sign their own veteran free agent Robert Meachem if they want some experienced depth. And there's an excellent chance they'll end up with one or more new receivers from a stacked draft class this year.
Worth a click:
- There were two in-depth pieces this week on the stunning turn that former Saints safety Darren Sharper's life has taken with a series of arrests and allegations of rape and sexual assault charges across the country. Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman offered a detailed account of the accusations. And the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Tyler Dunne talked to ex-Green Bay Packers teammates and coaches who are stunned by the news.
- ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando talked with analysts Bill Polian and Matt Williamson to determine which current NFL quarterbacks would be worthy of a No. 1 overall draft pick. The Saints' Drew Brees was an easy yes.
- Former Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, gave some candid scouting reports on his new NFC East opponents.
- The next Jimmy Graham? Another University of Miami basketball player, Erik Swoope, announced his intention to enter the NFL draft.
- Congratulations to Saints punter Thomas Morstead and his wife Lauren, who just gave birth to their first baby boy on Wednesday.
- The Saints offered up a collection of the top 100 photos from the 2013 season on the team's web site.
There doesn’t appear to be a contract offer in place yet. But Goodwin, 35, would obviously make a lot of sense for New Orleans as a veteran option to compete with second-year pro Tim Lelito.
Goodwin started for the Saints from 2008-2010, making the Pro Bowl and helping them win the Super Bowl in 2009. The 6-foot-3, 318-pounder then left for a more lucrative offer with the San Francisco 49ers in 2011 and started every game over the past three years.
But now Goodwin is available again since the 49ers have decided to move on to younger options.
Goodwin has been on the Saints’ radar as an option throughout this offseason. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why they felt comfortable letting their own veteran starter, Brian de la Puente, get away in free agency. The Saints surprisingly didn't put up a fight to keep de la Puente, who signed just a one-year deal worth $795,000 with the Chicago Bears.
The Saints are high on Lelito’s potential, as both coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have mentioned multiple times this offseason. But Lelito is still a raw talent, who was undrafted last year out of Grand Valley State, and his only NFL experience has been at guard so far.
Goodwin would give the Saints a more proven option. And he would obviously fit seamlessly into both the offense and the locker room. His experience over the past three years with one of the best and most sophisticated rushing offenses in the NFL won’t hurt his case, either.
PHOENIX -- Former NFL All-Pro safety Darren Sharper's DNA was found in an examination of one of two women who accuse him of drugging and sexually assaulting them at a Tempe apartment, a detective said Wednesday.
Tempe police Detective Kevin Mace said at a bail hearing in Phoenix that Sharper's DNA was recovered from one of the women's clothing, but none of his DNA was found during an exam of the other woman.
The detective's testimony came at a hearing in which Sharper's lawyers are challenging the evidence used to keep him in jail without bail. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Warren Granville hasn't yet ruled on the issue and will continue the hearing Thursday afternoon.
The hearing marks the latest development in several ongoing sexual assault investigations involving Sharper in Louisiana, California, Florida, Arizona and Nevada.
Bail in Sharper's California rape case was set at $1 million, but he was indicted in Arizona last month on charges of sexual assault and administering dangerous drugs and was denied bail. Authorities in California have kept him jailed, and he didn't attend Wednesday's hearing.
The indictment alleges Sharper gave the sedative zolpidem to three women and then had "sexual intercourse or oral sexual contact" with two of them without their consent on Nov. 21 after a night of drinking at the apartment and at bars in nearby Scottsdale. One of the women told police she hadn't had any alcohol that night until Sharper insisted she drink a shot. Another young woman said she had been drugged, then went to bed, locked her door and wasn't attacked.
Sharper has not yet entered a plea in the Arizona case, although one of his attorneys said Sharper will deny those allegations. He has pleaded not guilty in the California case.
Here is a breakdown of where the Saints are allocating their resources this year on offense:
Percentage of salary-cap space: 16.34
Total cap charge: $19.53 million
NFL average: $11.67 million
Biggest cap hit: Drew Brees, $18.4 million
Biggest bargain: Ryan Griffin, $495,000
The Saints obviously aren’t investing heavily in their backups. They’re intrigued by Griffin’s potential -- (possibly the next Chase Daniel?) It’s still too early to invest heavily in a future replacement for Brees since he should remain at a high level for at least three or four more years.
Percentage of salary-cap space: 9.43
Total cap charge: $11.27 million
NFL average: $13.56 million
Biggest cap hit: Marques Colston, $8.3 million
Biggest bargain: Kenny Stills, $543,613
Chances are, the Saints will draft another receiver in the early rounds this year as they continue to reload their depth at the position.
Percentage of salary-cap space: 7.71
Total cap charge: $9.22 million
NFL average: $6.12 million
Biggest cap hit: Jimmy Graham, $7.035 million
Biggest bargain: Josh Hill, $496,666
The Saints like Hill’s potential after he played a minor role as an undrafted rookie last season. If he shows significant growth, he could compete for a No. 2 role in the future -- a job currently manned by affordable veteran Benjamin Watson.
Percentage of salary-cap space: 5.06
Total cap charge: $6.05 million
NFL average: $7.75 million
Biggest cap hit: Mark Ingram, $2.36 million
Biggest bargain: Khiry Robinson, $495,333
I didn’t love the Sproles move because I think he’s such a unique talent. But there is no doubting the amount of talent still on the roster, and it’s understandable why the Saints didn’t want to spend too heavily on this position group.
Ingram will have to prove he can build on last year’s strong finish as he’s due to become an unrestricted free agent after this season. Thomas signed a three-year deal this offseason (that included a slight pay cut for this year) after he arguably had his best season to date in 2013. But he’ll also be evaluated on a year-by-year basis since he turns 30 in December.
Percentage of salary-cap space: 21.13
Total cap charge: $25.26 million
NFL average: $21.45 million
Biggest cap hit: Jahri Evans, $11 million
Biggest bargain: Terron Armstead, $679,359
The Saints also re-signed veteran right tackle Zach Strief through 2018. But it will be essential for them to develop future replacements across the board -- starting with second-year left tackle Armstead and second-year center/guard Tim Lelito.
I think the Saints can field a solid starting five with that core this year -- and maybe even the exact same starting five next year. But there is a little more uncertainty surrounding this group than usual.
The Saints spent a total of $116.4 million, which came to an average of $2.196 million per player, based on a 53-man roster. The four teams who spent more were the Minnesota Vikings ($122.7 million), Seattle Seahawks ($122.1), Chicago Bears ($118.5) and Denver Broncos ($117.3).
Those figures aren’t the same as salary-cap figures, because they account for actual money spent in 2013 -- including signing bonuses.
That’s why Saints quarterback Drew Brees didn’t rank among the top-10 highest-paid NFL players in 2013. Although Brees averages $20 million per year, he only made $10 million in salary and bonuses in 2013. He made $40 million in 2012, including a $37 million signing bonus.
Fellow NFL players who signed new deals or extensions last year ranked higher on the list (Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Tony Romo, for example).
It’s interesting to note how low all NFL teams rank on the overall list among all sports teams around the world. No NFL teams rank in the top 100 on a per-player basis (in part because their rosters are so much larger than basketball, soccer and baseball teams).
But even when it comes to total spending, no NFL teams ranked in the top 20, which was completely made up of major league baseball and international soccer teams. The top three spending teams in all sports last year were the Los Angeles Dodgers ($241.1 million), New York Yankees ($208.8) and Manchester City ($202.7).
But don't think for a second that the Saints will ignore those positions in the draft -- especially if they get a crack at a top prospect such as Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert or Louisville safety Calvin Pryor.
Both of those top draft prospects are visiting New Orleans this week. Pryor was in town Monday, according to multiple reports. And Gilbert flew to New Orleans on Monday night, according to his own Twitter feed.
(UPDATE: A league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan that four other cornerback prospects were also visiting New Orleans on Tuesday, along with Gilbert: Ohio State’s Bradley Roby, Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir, Oklahoma’s Aaron Colvin and Baylor’s Demetri Goodson.)
Cornerback seems like a bigger need for the Saints right now. A rookie such as Gilbert could battle Bailey and others for a starting job immediately. The Saints are more loaded at safety with Byrd and Vaccaro locked up long-term and Rafael Bush recently re-signing a two-year deal.
But the Saints have always proven in the past that they firmly believe in the best-available-player principle in the draft (aside from a handful of positions they really don't need). They demonstrated that again last year, when safety didn't appear to be one of their most glaring needs before they took Vaccaro.
And if anyone can figure out how to plug in a great athlete somewhere, it's creative defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
The bigger problem with both Gilbert and Pryor is that virtually zero analysts believe there's a chance they could fall to the Saints at No. 27. New Orleans would probably have to trade up to snag one of them.
Gilbert (6-foot, 202 pounds) is especially enticing. He's a sensational athlete who posted the fastest 40-yard dash time of any cornerback at the NFL scouting combine (4.37 seconds) and also served as a standout kickoff returner in college. He returned a total of six kickoffs for touchdowns in college.
Gilbert intercepted seven passes last year for Oklahoma State and returned two of those for touchdowns, as well. However, opinions are a bit mixed on just how high he might go. Some have projected him as a possible top-10 pick, though ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay is admittedly lower on him than most, ranking him 24th overall.
McShay cites Gilbert's inconsistent production and focus. He had a breakout year as a sophomore in 2011 with five interceptions, then had zero as a junior before his terrific senior season.
Perhaps his inconsistency makes Gilbert a risky investment as a top-10 pick. But he sure seems like he'd be a home run for the Saints if he slips into their reach.
Pryor, meanwhile, also seems to be a home run prospect. He's certainly a power hitter.
The 5-11, 207-pounder is known as a big hitter and standout run supporter as an in-the-box safety. He's also athletic enough to hold his own in coverage.
Pryor had seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles in his three-year college career, and he ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds. He is battling Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to become the first safety drafted.
Rice still in play: The Saints are still among the teams in play for free-agent receiver Sidney Rice, according to a league source. The Saints showed interest in Rice earlier this offseason. And he is now cleared to resume football activities after recovering from a torn ACL, according to Pro Football Talk. PFT, which said Rice might sign somewhere soon, also listed the Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants and Carolina Panthers among teams interested in Rice.
Rice, 27, was a dynamic receiver early in his career with the Minnesota Vikings, with a Pro Bowl season in 2009 (1,312 yards, eight touchdowns). But he has battled a series of injuries during the past four years with both the Seahawks (2011-2013) and Vikings (2007-2010).
The 6-foot-4, 202-pounder suffered the torn ACL midway through last season and finished with just 15 catches for 231 yards and three touchdowns in eight games played. In 2012, Rice had 50 catches for 748 yards and seven touchdowns in a full season with the Seahawks.
Herron's draft diary: Another player who made a pre-draft visit to New Orleans recently was Wyoming receiver Robert Herron, a projected mid-round pick. Herron shared a few details from the trip, plus his thoughts on how excited he'd be to join the Saints in a draft diary he's writing for USA Today.
Jordan’s extension is expected to cost $6.969 million for 2015 and Ingram’s $5.211 million, according to ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton, who wrote about the looming fifth-year extensions around the league.
Therefore, several teams are expected to retain their players -- which will put a dent in the talent available in next year’s free agency class around the league.
Extending Jordan is a no-brainer for the Saints. He was a first-time Pro Bowler last year in a breakout season with 12.5 sacks. He is arguably the Saints’ top defensive player as he heads into his fourth NFL season. And he doesn’t turn 25 until July.
Ingram is less likely to be extended at that price – even though the Saints remain high on his future and could consider re-signing him to a more affordable extension.
Ingram, 24, finished strong last season with an impressive performance in the playoffs. And his role in the Saints’ backfield could increase slightly this year now that the Saints have traded away veteran Darren Sproles. However, Ingram will still be in a timeshare with fellow running backs Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson.
Too early to draft Brees’ successor: Also in Clayton’s mailbag, he said it’s still too early for the Saints to draft a successor for quarterback Drew Brees. I completely agree -- as I’ve written several times this offseason. I expect Brees to keep playing at a high level for at least three or four more years.
The Saints have been full of surprises, from the big-name acquisitions of Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey to the big-name departures of Darren Sproles and others.
But none of these moves have been made on the fly.
General manager Mickey Loomis insisted last week that just about every move the Saints made was part of a calculated plan.
“It’s not a process where all of a sudden there’s somebody [available] and you decide, ‘Hey, let’s go do this,’” Loomis said while speaking with reporters at LSU’s pro day.
“We have a short-term plan and a long-term plan,” Loomis continued. “And we come into each offseason with 19 or 20 or 25 different things that we want to get accomplished. And you just kind of go down the checklist. And obviously things come up that are unexpected, and you have to react to those. But for the most part, it’s a plan and an execution of the plan.
“So I would say it was kind of business as usual.”
Asked how many of those items the Saints have hit, Loomis said, “We’ve hit a lot of them. We always do. We don’t hit every item, but we hit almost all of them.”
(Click here for a recap of all the Saints' moves as of the beginning of last week.)
The Saints are actually in great shape with the salary cap after agreeing to a pay cut with defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley last week. They’re now $3.6 million under the cap, and they probably don’t have too many more expensive purchases left in their shopping cart.
New Orleans still has some noteworthy tasks left to complete. The biggest is signing tight end Jimmy Graham to a long-term contract extension, but Loomis insisted that there is no immediate pressure to get that done. Graham's franchise tag figure is already counting $7.035 million against the Saints' salary cap, so they don't need to clear out any new cap space for him.
The Saints also need to find a new starting center after letting Brian de la Puente get away in free agency, though they like second-year pro Tim Lelito’s potential as a candidate for that role.
And there are a few other positions where New Orleans needs to get younger, including receiver, but most of those needs can be filled through the draft.
As Loomis suggested, we won’t know until the fall whether the Saints’ plan worked out. But so far, at least, everything is going as planned.
“I feel like we’ve executed our plan well,” Loomis said. “Whether that’s a good plan or not remains to be seen. But we feel like it is.”