The New Orleans Saints exceeded expectations in 2017, winning the NFC South division title and then reaching the playoffs for the first time in four years. Although their season ended in heartbreaking fashion in the Divisional Round, the Saints organization appears to be trending upward thanks to a young and talented core of players.
A productive off-season was a big reason for the Saints success last season. Most of their draft picks became starters or major contributors, and they found starters such as left guard Larry Warford and linebackers A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o in free agency without breaking the bank.
New Orleans needs another productive off-season in order to build on last year’s success.But first, they face some tough decisions on players with expiring contracts.
Notable New Orleans Saints Free Agents That May Not Return
Wide receiver Willie Snead signed with New Orleans as an undrafted free agent in 2015, and immediately became a valuable contributor with 141 catches for 1,879 yards in his first two seasons. However, Snead saw a major drop-off in playing time and production in 2017, finishing the season with just eight receptions for 92 yards.
There were a couple of factors involved in Snead’s decline. He was suspended for the first three games of the season following a June 2017 DWI arrest, then a hamstring injury prevented him from returning to action until week six. It’s unclear whether the arrest or the injury was a bigger factor in Snead’s lack of involvement the rest of the season, and it’s even less clear if the Saints still value him.
Snead is set to become a restricted free agent on March 14th, and if New Orleans wants to keep him, they’ll likely use a low-level tender that won’t require draft pick compensation from another suitor. Despite his disappointing 2017 season, Snead’s early career success could prompt another team could make him an offer. Then the Saints would be forced to match a higher, and potentially multi-year offer to keep Snead around.
New Orleans has invested a lot of time in Snead and should at least offer him a tender, but it seems unlikely that they would match a multi-year offer after minimizing his role so dramatically in 2017.
Brandon Coleman is another restricted free agent at the wide receiver position. At 6’6″ and 225 pounds, Coleman’s biggest asset has always been his size. He’s a physical mismatch for nearly every NFL cornerback, but Coleman’s development has progressed at a snail’s pace and he hasn’t found a clear role in the Saints offense.
Early last season, Coleman appeared to be growing as a red zone threat with three touchdown receptions in the Saints first six games, but he failed to score in the final 10 regular season games or the postseason. He did, however, prove to be an effective run blocker as the Saints ground game took off in 2017.
Coleman’s chances of returning could depend on whether or not Snead is tendered. Adding another receiving threat should be a priority for New Orleans this offseason, so they may choose to tender only one of them. If it does come down to an either/or situation, Coleman may lose out to Snead’s versatility and proven success in the Saints offense.
Unlike Snead, it’s hard to imagine another team making Coleman a competing offer because of his inconsistency to this point, so a low-level tender should be enough to keep Coleman around.
Restricted free agent cornerback Delvin Breaux excelled in 2015, providing some hope for the Saints league-worst scoring defense in his first NFL season. Breaux finished that season with three interceptions and 19 passes defended in 15 starts, but he’s barely seen the field since then because of injuries.
Breaux broke his fibula in the first game of 2016 and struggled to return to full-time action before a shoulder injury in week 14 put him on injured reserve. Just before the 2017 season, New Orleans put Breaux on the trade block after a leg injury was misdiagnosed as a bone bruise. The injury turned out to be another broken fibula that kept Breaux out of action for the first half of the season, then he suffered a setback in his recovery and finished the season without playing a single snap.
Breaux may have some hard feelings towards the organization after being shopped in the preseason, but New Orleans should still try to bring him back. They could use the depth behind top cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley, who both missed time in 2017. Their third cornerback, P.J. Williams missed all but two games in his first two seasons because of injury, so the Saints need as much talent as possible at the position.
If Breaux can return to his 2015 form, he could even compete with Crawley for the second cornerback spot. Defensive backs are as valuable as ever in today’s NFL, and Breaux’s potential is easily worth a one-year investment if he and the organization are willing to put the past behind them.
A competing offer from another team isn’t out of the question because of Breaux’s 6’1″ stature and past success, but his injury history will likely scare away any potential suitors.
Since 2014, offensive lineman Senio Kelemete has been a valuable backup for New Orleans. He’s been thrust into the starting lineup in 22 games with the Saints, playing at every position on the line except for center, although he’s spent time playing that position in preseason action as well.
Kelemete was more valuable than ever in 2017, as starters Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Larry Warford, and Zach Strief all missed time. Kelemete helped keep the Saints dominant rushing attack up to par despite these injuries. In the seven games where Kelemete played 96 percent or more of offensive snaps, New Orleans averaged 130.4 rushing yards per game, just above the Saints season average of 129.4 yards per game.
There’s little doubt that the Saints would love to have Kelemete back, but he deserves starting job in the NFL at this point, and New Orleans has thus far been unwilling to give him one. This is also Kelemete’s best chance to get a big contract, and the Saints will likely choose to save their money for other positions and let another team give him the playing time and pay he deserves.
The Saints also seem to feel good about backup linemen Cameron Tom and John Fullington, who were both activated from the practice squad late in the season after other teams tried to claim them. The organization also has a full off-season to find other backup offensive linemen so Kelemete appears to be expendable, though his shoes won’t be easy to fill.
Despite being a mainstay at strong safety and a team leader since he was drafted 15th overall in 2013, Kenny Vaccaro seems like the least likely player on this list to return. He has a huge upside but suffers from a handful of debilitating flaws, and like Kelemete, this off-season is Vaccaro’s best chance to get paid.
Vaccaro is a strong, physical safety who excels when playing close to the line of scrimmage. New Orleans often uses three-safety defensive formations, where Vaccaro essentially functions like an extra linebacker that can blitz, as well as cover tight ends and slot receivers. On the other hand, though, Vaccaro lacks speed, draws a lot of penalties, and has consistently failed to make plays in deep coverage.
Vaccaro also struggles to match up against elite talent. The most recent example was a 2017 assignment on New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in week two. Vaccaro was benched early in the game after a hot start by the All-Pro tight end. This wasn’t the first time Vaccaro was benched following a poor performance, and trade rumors swirled following the loss to New England.
Based on the Saints recent draft history, it appears that New Orleans has been planning on a future without Vaccaro for some time. In 2016, they drafted strong safety Vonn Bell in the second round, and free safety Marcus Williams in the same round last year. Vaccaro was placed on injured reserve late in the season, and Bell proved to be an adequate replacement, while Williams has excelled as the Saints deep cover safety.
Even though Vaccaro isn’t likely to return, it’ll still be difficult for the Saints to let him go. His leadership will be missed, and his absence will make a secondary group packed with second and third-year players even younger. However, veteran safety Rafael Bush is also a free agent, and New Orleans can bring him back for a lower price than Vaccaro, or find another option in the offseason.
None of these decisions will be easy for the Saints, but the good news is that the team should be in good shape next year regardless of whether or not these five players are re-signed.
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