The New Orleans Saints are a few days into the 2019 NFL Free Agency signing period and passionate fans across the “Who Dat Nation” appear split down the middle as to how they view the team’s overall success thus far.
Depending on one’s point of view, Saints fans either believe the team is being smart by remaining frugal and not spending money that they don’t have; or they think the team isn’t being nearly aggressive enough to improve the team’s roster by signing “big name” superstars.
Yesterday’s news that former starting #1 RB and long-time Saints veteran Mark Ingram had accepted a three-year offer worth $15 million to play for the Baltimore Ravens was the source of anger and disappointment for many devoted supporters of the team. Many fans were under the false impression that Saints team management had allowed Ingram to leave over a difference of only $500,000.
— NFL (@NFL) March 13, 2019
But not long after Ingram’s signing announcement, reports arose that it was Ingram’s agent who had put the word out that the Saints’ star RB was seeking to be paid as much as $7 to $8 million per season to drive up the market for his client’s services. That backfired on him when the Saints opted to sign Vikings RB Latavius Murray (more on him in a moment) for considerably less money ($4.6 million per season).
Initially, it seemed that Ingram and his agent essentially “played their hand” and were forced to settle for $5 million per season with Baltimore, which many thought was the highest offer that he had received. However, as it was reported later by FOX 8 TV New Orleans sports anchor Sean Fazende: Ingram ultimately made his decision to leave the Saints because Baltimore offered more guaranteed money up front (although the exact details are not yet available).
The key in the Ingram to Baltimore deal was guaranteed $.
Saints had a 4 yr/$17M offer but only $5M guaranteed, source says
— Sean FazendeFOX8 (@SeanFazendeFOX8) March 13, 2019
Ingram is also expected to have a much bigger role as the lead #1 RB in Baltimore, and won’t be forced to share carries any longer with former teammate Alvin Kamara; a big factor which weighed heavily in his final decision.
As if Saints fans weren’t experiencing enough trepidation with Ingram leaving, the team toyed with their emotions even further when reports surfaced that back-up #2 QB Teddy Bridgewater was going to visit the Miami Dolphins last night. A day earlier, Bridgewater was said to be close to signing a new contract to remain in New Orleans and potentially become the team’s next starting QB after Drew Brees retires.
The Saints reportedly have offered Bridgewater $7 million per season, but Miami has more than enough money to outbid the Saints for Bridgewater’s services, as well as the fact that they are his hometown NFL team. As of this writing, there was no word on what the results of that visit might have been.
New Orleans did get some good news, though, when reports revealed that Oakland Raiders tight end Jared Cook (the #1 TE in this year’s Free 2019 Agency class) would be visiting the Saints facility later on today, as well as Detroit Lions veteran defensive end and pass rush specialist Ezekiel Ansah.
— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) March 13, 2019
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 13, 2019
Now besides the Saints’ few moves in Free Agency within the past few days, the team had already given 1-year tenders to several undrafted players including DB Justin Hardee, LB Vince Biegel, O-Lineman Cameron Tom, long snapper Zach Wood, and yesterday gave a right-of-first-refusal tender to CB Ken Crawley.
Now that you’re caught up on the happenings of the past 72 hours, this morning Big Easy Magazine is giving our grade on the team’s moves so far, with the 1st “wave” of 2019 NFL Free Agency upon us.
Chris Banjo, Safety (Re-Signed)
🗣 RUN. IT. BACK
— Chris Banjo (@Chris1Banjo) March 11, 2019
Banjo has been with New Orleans since November of 2016 after Green Bay released him, and in that time has slowly but surely emerged as a vital member of the roster. It’s not far-fetched to say that he is a considered a team leader in the locker room because of his notable abilities that have allowed him to become one of the top special teams players in the entire NFL.
However, Banjo is no “one-trick” pony. He’s also shown the capability, as well as the notable versatility, to be a capable member of the defensive secondary as a back-up at both the free and strong safety positions, having made three interceptions over the course of that time.
The Saints rewarded Banjo with a one-year deal that’s worth a maximum overall value of $9 million after incentives, which should serve as a clear indication that the Saints are content with going with Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams as a permanent tandem, with Banjo serving as the primary back-up for both. It’s a solid-if-not-spectacular move, which is the basic approach showing they’ve taken Free Agency much more responsibly (except for last season’s signing of former safety Kurt Coleman) in the past few seasons.
Craig Robertson, Inside Linebacker (Re-Signed)
— NFLTradeRumors.co (@nfltrade_rumors) March 11, 2019
The 31-year old Robertson — a former undrafted “small school” defensive superstar out of North Texas University who signed with Cleveland following the 2011 NFL Draft — spent his first NFL season on the Browns practice squad before getting a chance to become a situational backup and special teamer in 2012.
Robertson would leave Cleveland in 2016 Free Agency for the chance to start with the Saints. He started 27 games at linebacker in his first two seasons with the Black and Gold, recording both a team and career-high 114 tackles in 2016 before he eventually was regulated to a back-up role in 2017.
However, like Banjo, the soon-to-be 9th-year veteran has gone on to make his mark in New Orleans mostly as a special teams standout, tying for the team lead last season with 343 snaps. Robertson is not flashy by any means, but his presence as a mentor and a passionate team leader is well-respected within the team’s locker room. Which is not all that surprising for a player whose “motor” is running on full-blast for 60 minutes every NFL Sunday.
Latavius Murray, Running Back, Minnesota Vikings
— NFLTradeRumors.co (@nfltrade_rumors) March 12, 2019
With Saints team brass going with the assumption that Ingram had received an offer that they wouldn’t be able to match, they made a preemptive move by pursuing and signing 5th year NFL veteran and former Minnesota Vikings RB Latavius Murray. Taken originally by the Oakland Raiders in Round #6 of the 2013 NFL Draft out of the University of Central Florida with the 181st overall selection, Murray averaged over 100 rushing yards as a senior in 2012. After missing his rookie season on injured reserve, Murray ended up appearing in 45 total games for the Raiders (with 31 starts), carrying the ball 543 times for 2,278 yards and 20 TDs.
Murray then left Oakland and signed with the Vikings in 2017 NFL Free Agency, where he spent the past two seasons battling both inconsistencies as well as a few nagging injuries before ultimately losing the starting RB role to Vikings 2017 NFL Draft 1st Round pick RB Dalvin Cook. In a reserve role last year, the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder carried the ball 140 times for 578 yards and six touchdowns. In his six NFL seasons altogether, Murray carried the ball 899 times for 3,698 yards and 34 TDs.
To be completely (and rather bluntly) honest: this was a downgrade at the RB position for New Orleans; not because Murray isn’t a capable player in his own right, but because Ingram was a vitally important part of the team’s culture and one of the more beloved players in the franchise’s 52-year history. Ingram’s departure will eventually have a profound effect on the team, both on the field and off.
For Murray, it will mean sharing RB duties with Kamara in the same manner as Ingram, although most expect that Kamara could take on more of an expanded role next season. He should turn out to be an adequate replacement (somewhat) for Ingram production-wise, but Murray’s plodding-running style and quiet demeanor will be a very notable departure from Ingram’s hard-charging power running style, as well as the love and passion that Ingram brought to the both the New Orleans community and the fanbase.
Wil Lutz, Kicker (Re-Signed)
— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) March 13, 2019
The 24-year old Lutz has very quietly become one of the NFL’s best young kickers, and Saints brass decided to make sure he remained in New Orleans by giving the restricted free agent a brand new five-year deal believed to be worth $4 to $5 million per season, which reportedly is the biggest contract ever for an NFL kicker.
I cannot express enough gratitude towards Mrs. Benson, Mr. Loomis, and Coach Payton for the opportunity to represent this amazing organization, and city. This journey has been incredible and it’s only beginning. 5 more years, New Orleans! ⚜️ pic.twitter.com/JP9sSBoBao
— Wil Lutz (@wil_lutz5) March 13, 2019
The former special teams star at Georgia State University originally was signed to the Baltimore Practice Squad back in 2016 but was released right after the preseason that year. A few days later, Lutz but was given a tryout by Saints team officials; who were looking for a new kicker following the combined struggles of free agent kickers Kai Forbath and Connor Barth. The Saints signed Lutz a few days later, and as they say: the rest is history. As a rookie in 2016, Lutz shook off a few early misses and eventually made 28 of 34 field goals (82.4 %) and 49 out of his 50 extra point attempts. Then in 2017, making 31 of 36 field goals (86.1 percent) and 47 of 50 extra points.
However, it was last season that Lutz put himself into the conversation among the League’s very best kickers, converting 28 of 30 field goals (93.3 percent) and 52 of 53 extra points. Additionally, he made 26 consecutive field goals, breaking living Saints Hall of Fame legend Morten Andersen’s previous franchise record of 25 in a row. Given the Saints’ long and well-documented struggles at the kicker position, it’s obvious kickers like Lutz don’t come around often. It’s safe to say that the Black and Gold now have the 2nd elite-caliber kicker in their team history, and this move — even though Lutz is only “just a kicker” — was one of their very best (and smartest) in Free Agency up to this point.
Which brings us to:
SAINTS 2019 FREE AGENCY OVERALL GRADE (SO FAR):
— NOLA.com Saints News (@SaintsNOW) January 23, 2019
Undoubtedly, the Saints have done a great job at retaining most of their key players, with the obvious and very notable exception of Ingram. Although one could argue that they did all that they could do to give Ingram a fair offer of what they felt he was worth, it’s debatable as to which side called who’s “bluff”; the bottom line is the team has lost one of its essential players responsible for part of their success in recent seasons.
No, Ingram wasn’t going to remind anyone of Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, or any other legendary NFL RB of the past several decades, but he was as sound as they come. His enthusiasm, passion, and hard-nosed running style fit perfectly within the culture of not just the team, but it made him beloved by a majority of the fanbase. His raw emotion and energy will be missed greatly. While it’s no knock on Latavius Murray, there’s no guarantee that the Saints running attack will be nearly as good without Ingram. That’s not to mention what he meant to the locker room as one of the more well-respected and outspoken players on the entire roster.
While the re-signings thus far of players like Banjo, Robertson, and Lutz were logical moves to make, one has to wonder if the trade-off of Ingram for Murray will indeed end up hurting them in the end, or actually end up benefiting them by giving additional touches (and opportunities for “big plays”) through an expanded role for Kamara.
In any event, the Black and Gold have been frugal and perhaps even a bit cautious with their approach to Free Agency this year within these first few days — and it’s yielded somewhat of a mixed bag of results thus far…
OVERALL GRADE (SO FAR): C+
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist who has worked as both a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.