Free Agency Primer: NFC South
New Orleans Saints
• Key free agents: OT Charles Brown, C Brian de la Puente, TE Jimmy Graham, K Shayne Graham, LB Parys Haralson, S Malcolm Jenkins, WR Robert Meachem, OT Zach Strief; S Rafael Bush (RFA), WR Joseph Morgan (RFA)
• Players New Orleans needs back: Bush, de la Puente, J. Graham, Jenkins, Morgan, Strief.
The reality is that New Orleans likely will not bring all of these guys back — even after cutting several players Wednesday, they’re still barely under the projected cap and need millions upon millions to re-sign Graham. Bush and Morgan, as productive young players under that “restricted” umbrella, should join Graham back on the roster.
Beyond that, what happens is anyone’s guess. Strief and de la Puente are huge parts of the offensive line; losing the former would put a team already light on tackle talent in a bind, with little money to spend on the market. Centers, as a general rule, are easier to replace (at least financially) than tackles, but de la Puente is a three-year starter in front of Drew Brees.
Can the Saints squeeze Jenkins into their limited budget? It’ll be tight if they can, part of why he might join longtime teammates like Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma in searching for a new team.
• Players New Orleans should let walk: Brown, Meachem.
Not including Haralson here, because he was a worthy part of the linebacking corps before suffering an injury in the playoffs. If he’s healthy for next season, New Orleans should float him an offer.
Meachem simply fell out of favor in the Saints’ passing attack. With youngsters like Nick Toon, Kenny Stills and Morgan around, there’s no reason to re-sign him. Brown could be a fallback option if Strief walks, but he shouldn’t be.
• Outlook: Pretty much everything the Saints do from here out in the offseason is tied to Graham. His contract could be a record-setting one, and it will not leave very much cash left to address the rest of the roster. Plain and simple, New Orleans has to be judicious with how it spends before the 2014 season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
• Key free agents: LB Jonathan Casillas, FB Erik Lorig, LB Adam Hayward, RB Brian Leonard, K Rian Lindell, DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, WR Tiquan Underwood, LB Dekoda Watson
• Players Tampa Bay needs back: Lorig, Watson.
“Needs” is a strong term here. The Bucs have just shy of 20 players set to hit unrestricted free agency, and you could argue that they would not really miss any of them.
Transitioning Lorig — once a defensive end — to fullback was a wise move, as he thrived there. Meanwhile, Watson is just 25 and has seen decent minutes over his first four seasons in Tampa Bay’s linebacking corps. Both are valued contributors and neither should cost all that much.
• Players Tampa Bay should let walk: Leonard, Te’o-Nesheim, Underwood.
Leonard and Underwood were bit players on the offense, with Leonard being especially extraneous on the current roster thanks to the surprising performances of Mike James and Bobby Rainey at running back. Underwood, who had 24 catches and four touchdowns, still has some potential. Retaining him would not be much in error, assuming it’s at a reasonable price.
Multiple coaching staffs have tried to uncover Te’o-Nesheim’s talent up front to little avail. He had just 1.0 sack and was fairly invisible despite 13 starts last season. It’s time to move in a different direction.
• Outlook: Things definitely could be a lot worse. Once you figure in the Bucs’ carryover cash saved in 2012, they should have upwards of $15 million to spend, with most of their starting lineup back for the 2014 season. They’ll be able to pick and choose where they attack the offseason. And they might be able to justify a huge splash somewhere.