Saints 2020 Free Agency “Report Card” / Grade


Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints on YouTube.com

The New Orleans Saints have been very active during the first week of 2020 NFL Free Agency, by re-signing a handful of their own players to brand new contracts — while also “shopping” for (and then signing) new players that potentially could be the individuals that could finally help them reach the Super Bowl, following three straight years of disappointing finishes in the NFL Playoffs.

With that in mind, here is our initial grade (or “report card” if you prefer that term) of how the Black and Gold has done thus far, with bringing in both old and new faces who hopefully could lead them to a 2nd World Championship in franchise history, early next February.

We’ll be grading the Saints front office management’s activities thus far in Free Agency by 4 specific categories: impact / “big names”, previous players on the roster that have re-signed new deals or are returning back for at least one more season, players that will primarily be “back-ups”, and former players that have since left to play with  another NFL team.

We begin first with….

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IMPACT FREE AGENTS / “BIG NAMES”

Malcom Jenkins, Free Safety

Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints, YouTube

(4 years, $32 million) Although some Saints fans are concerned about the soon-to-be 12th year veteran’s age, Jenkins (who turns age 33 in December) is still one of the premier safeties in the League and excels in pass coverage; a trait that former starting free safety Vonn Bell was deficient at.

Returning back now to the franchise that originally drafted him as a 1st team All-American DB in the 2009 NFL Draft, Jenkins will likely become the leader of the secondary and a “mentor” of sorts to the younger players at the position in Marcus Williams and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: B+

Emmanuel Sanders, Wide Receiver

Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints on YouTube.com

(2 years, $16 million) The Saints desperately needed to add another player at the position who could take the pressure off starting #1 All-Pro WR Michael Thomas, and the Black and Gold got their man in the 33-year old Sanders. Like Jenkins, some Who Dats are a bit worried about his age or that he might be too “old” to adequately be the missing piece in their offense that the Saints were lacking for the past several seasons.

But as he demonstrated last year during the San Francisco 49ers‘ run to the Super Bowl, Sanders is still playing at a high level; and his outstanding capabilities to play multiple positions (“slot” WR and flanker / “Z” receiver) and elite-caliber route-running skills, made this a “home run” signing for New Orleans.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: A-

 

SAINTS KEY PLAYERS THAT WERE RE-SIGNED / RETURNING

Drew Brees, Quarterback

Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints, YouTube

(2 years, $50 million) After seriously contemplating retirement while on vacation in Hawaii, the 41-year old future Hall of Famer and 20th year veteran decided to return for a 21st NFL season later on this year; and did the franchise a favor by taking the proverbial “hometown discount”.

While he very clearly isn’t quite the same player that he was a decade ago, Brees still remains as one of the League’s best QB’s in spite of his advanced age. It’s more than likely that should the Saints actually end up reaching the Super Bowl and then eventually win it, Brees will step away from the sport of Pro Football permanently while achieving the goal that many NFL players  dream about: which is the opportunity to “go out on top”.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: B+

David Onyemata, Defensive Tackle

(3 years, $27 million) One of the most important signings among the players who were originally drafted by the Saints that eventually became free agents over the past few seasons, the 27-year old former Canadian college football defensive MVP has matured and “blossomed” into one of the NFL’s best young interior defensive linemen.

Originally before Free Agency started, Onyemata was rumored to be willing to leave NOLA, especially since the likelihood was that he could command a new deal worth potentially as much as $15 million per season. By agreeing to a deal that instead which will pay him $9 million per season, Onyemata ultimately chose to return to the team that he considers “family” — where he can continue his rapid rise and upward trajectory to NFL stardom.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: A+

Taysom Hill, Quarterback / Wide Receiver / “Specialty” Player

Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints, YouTube

(1 year, $4.6 million) While the argument among Saints fans regarding Hill’s ability to ultimately succeed Brees as the team’s next starting  “franchise quarterback” will remain a hot topic of discussion and debate, the Saints weren’t willing to lose Hill (who was a restricted free agent) even more so because of his dynamic athleticism and the wide variety of multiple roles that he’s very-capably filled for the team in the past 3 seasons.

While Hill likely will be elevated to the #2 back-up QB role heading into next season, he undoubtedly has become a VITALLY IMPORTANT part of the Saints’ current offensive scheme; and chances are that he’ll look to “cash in” next off-season when he becomes a fully unrestricted free agent — and especially if Brees retires after the upcoming season.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: B

Marshon Lattimore, #1 Cornerback*

(*Saints exercised 5th year option) The club opted to exercise their option on the 5th year of Lattimore’s original deal that he signed as a rookie after New Orleans drafted him with their top pick in the 2017 NFL Draft 3 years ago; a smart move that will keep Lattimore wearing the Black and Gold for this coming season and next.

It also now will guarantee that Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and company won’t have to worry about negotiating a new contract with Lattimore until the 2022 off-season; which will give them more than enough time to figure out if they want to negotiate a much longer deal before that time, or otherwise allow him to walk if the former Ohio State University All-American CB’s “asking price” becomes too steep to their liking or willingness to pay him.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: A

Janoris Jenkins, #2 Cornerback


(3 years, $27 million) Jenkins joined the Saints late last season after he was released by the New York Giants, and was slated to earn $11.25 million in the final year of his contract that New Orleans absorbed after signing him. But yesterday the 31-year old cornerback who is expected to become the #2 starting CB opposite of Lattimore now with the departure of Eli Apple to the Las Vegas Raiders, agreed to a new contract extension with team management that now will pay him $27 million overall with $10.2 of it guaranteed — all in 2020.


Jenkins filled in admirably as the #2 CB after Apple got hurt near the end of last season; and even now in his early 30’s age-wise, is still a solid defender on the outside boundary. As a tandem, he and Lattimore should provide the Saints with the comfort of having top-notch coverage against some of the NFL’s best WR’s; while also buying them some additional time to re-shape the CB position this off-season and the next one if they choose to.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: B-

Ryan Ramczyk, Offensive Right Tackle*

(*Saints exercised 5th year option) As with Lattimore, the Saints also picked up the 5th year option on Ramczyk’s original rookie deal that he was given after the team selected him with the 2nd of their two 1st Round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft out of the University of Wisconsin.

Unlike Lattimore however, Ramczyk doesn’t figure to be nearly as difficult for Saints team brass (Loomis, head coach Sean Payton, and team financial expert / “money man” Khai Harley) to negotiate a potential new contract with; although as one of the NFL’s very best offensive linemen, Ramcxyk should be the beneficiary of a big ‘payday’ in due time.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: A+

Andrus Peat, Offensive Left Guard

Photo courtesy of Tammy Anthony Baker

(5 years, $57.5 million) Out of all of the players listed in this article, Saints fans were “up in arms” about this deal more so than any other that they’ve made in Free Agency thus far. The Saints reportedly looked at the possibility of signing another guard and letting Peat leave to seek a deal with a new team, but ultimately in the end valued Peat’s versatility to play multiple positions along with his experience of the Saints’ complex blocking schemes.

Peat has endured heavy criticism for his propensity to get beaten in pass protection along with an unfortunate knack of being somewhat injury-prone at times; and despite the fact that he has some good and even great performances in certain games, the 2-time Pro Bowl selection is still likely a prime candidate to be released or traded in one of the upcoming seasons ahead.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: C-

Justin Hardee, Cornerback / Safety


(1 year, contract details not yet released) The Saints at first weren’t planning on tendering an offer to Hardee (who like Taysom Hill was a restricted free agent), but then suddenly changed their minds and ultimately were able to keep him at a reduced price, though details of the revised contract haven’t been revealed as of yet.

Bringing back the former Ohio State star and special teams stand-out also gives New Orleans depth at a thin position, and it goes without saying that his “nose” for the football is a trait that the Black and Gold wasn’t quite willing to part with.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: B

Patrick Robinson, Cornerback

(2 years, contract details not yet released) While there had been rumors that the Saints were considering releasing P-Rob after they signed him to a 4-year, $20 million deal in 2018 NFL Free Agency two years ago, New Orleans decided to bring him back but a reduced price after the veteran agreed to re-work the original deal. Prior to that, he had been scheduled to earn $4.9 million this season and $5 million in 2021.

Bringing back the now 32-year old P-Rob was a move they made undoubtedly to provide (and keep) added depth at the “slot” CB position, but given his notable struggles in pass coverage along with some recurring injury issues, the 32-year old and former Saints top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft might just be on “thin ice” moving forward.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: C

Kiko Alonso, Linebacker


(1 year, $1.7 million) Alonso, who unfortunately tore the ACL in his right knee during the Saints’ playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings in January, was originally slated to earn $7.85 million in the final year of his contract in 2020. But after agreeing to take a reduced deal to remain in NOLA, the 29-year old Alonso now will receive a $1.45 million roster bonus and a $1.7 million base salary, with $4.7 million of that money due to be converted over to additional clauses / incentives that he can still make based on playing time.

When healthy, the former University of Oregon star gives the Black and Gold LB corps some much-needed depth at the position; and if he can return back to full health (or at least as close to it as possible), the 6-foot-3, 239-pound Alonso will once again provide the Saints defense with a player whose undeniable passion makes him and those around him, inspired to play and perform at the highest level possible.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: B

J.T. Gray, Cornerback / Special Teams “Ace” (Kick Return Gunner)


(1 year, $750,000) Much like Taysom Hill and Justin Hardee, the 24-year old Gray (a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi) has made his mark primarily on special teams; and last season even made the Pro Bowl and was selected to the Associated Press All-Pro team.

Gray’s specialty is providing stellar coverage for the Saints punt and kickoff coverage units, most specifically as a “gunner” running down to make the initial contact / tackle on opposing return men. And team management’s decision to keep him around. might just go down as their most underrated move of them all this off-season.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: A

Zach Wood, Long Snapper

(4 years, $4.78 million) Much like the “gunner” on special teams that Gray is, the position of long snapper is also a vitally important role that the Saints place a high priority on, to ensure that there aren’t any mistakes made on punts or field goal attempts for kicker Wil Lutz.

For that reason, team brass rewarded Wood with a new deal and now ensures that the Saints will keep all of those players (Wood, Lutz, and punter Thomas Morstead) through the 2022.NFL Season two years from now. Wood might even be THE very best player at his position League-wide — a fact that would mean that the Black and Gold made a sound investment by opting to bring him back

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: A

Michael Burton, Fullback

(1 year, contract details not yet released) Burton spent last off-season in 2019 with New Orleans and had already been very familiar with the offensive system implemented by Sean Payton, which was the main factor in him being brought back for a 2nd stint with the franchise.

With reserve FB Ricky Ortiz being the only other player at the position currently on the roster, Burton should be the overwhelming favorite to land the starting FB role in Training Camp, especially given the expected departure of former starter Zach Line.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: B-

 

 LOWER-TIER FREE AGENTS / BACK-UP ROLE PLAYERS

Noah Spence, Defensive End / “Edge” Rusher


(1 year, $910,000) Once upon a time, Spence was one of college football’s most FEARED “edge” pass rushers, but his professional career in his first 4 seasons hasn’t turned out (only just 2 sacks in 25 games since his rookie season) as some had initially hoped. Originally a 2nd-round pick by the NFC South Division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016, the 26-year old phenom signed with the Black and Gold this past December; after he had previously been with the Washington Redskins for the first 7 games of the 2019 NFL Season.

The former Ohio State All-American and Eastern Kentucky University graduate didn’t actually get to play in any games for the Black and Gold, but signed a 1-year deal that will pay him just slightly less than $1 million — and will be seeking to revive his once-promising career in the upcoming season ahead — albeit very likely in a reserve role. That said however, he’ll very likely (and assuredly) face some stiff competition for one of those back-up spots, from fellow reserve pass-rushers Trey Hendrickson and Carl Granderson.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: C+

D.J. Swearinger, Free Safety

(1 year, $1.1 million) Originally a 2nd Round pick by the Houston Texans in the 2013 NFL Draft seven years ago, the 28-year old Swearinger has bounced around quite a bit; although he was a former starting safety for a brief time with the Redskins. He was released by the Raiders last December, and as with both Jenkins and Spence, the Saints signed and added him to the roster for their Playoff run; which sadly ended before it ever really got started

Since he has valuable NFL experience (7 seasons), Swearinger will undoubtedly give New Orleans even further depth at the position, especially with the expected departure of Vonn Bell.However, he’s also earned a reputation among some League observers as a “dirty player”because of  his aggressiveness — and will need to be “reined in” to avoid the Saints defense from accumulating unwanted penalties in critical Game Day situations.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: C-

Deatrick Nichols, Cornerback


(1 year, contract details not yet released) The very first former player from the XFL (Extreme Football League, owned and operated by WWE Pro Wrestling promoter Vince McMahon, Jr.) to be signed by the Saints, the 25-year old Nichols played for the Houston Roughnecks; where he led that league in interceptions (3 picks in 5 games played) for their 2020 season that was ended early due to the COVID-19 health crisis.

Nichols has actually played in the NFL once before, when he previously spent the entire 2018 NFL Season with the Arizona Cardinals on their active 53-man roster and Practice Squad. He will likely wage a tough battle to earn a back-up role with the team, although it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the Saints ultimately try to keep him around on the Practice Squad which will now have 4 more additional spots available beginning in the upcoming 2020 NFL Season.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER GRADE: C

 

PLAYERS LOST (LEFT TO PLAY FOR ANOTHER NFL TEAM)

Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback (Signed with Carolina)

Photo Credit: Nick Boulet, JRNOLA

(3 years, $60 million) Although a sizable portion of Saints fans were hoping somehow that the team could retain the his services after his magnificent performance (a 5-0 win-loss record) while Drew Brees was out injured during the first half of last season, the 26-year old Bridgewater did what most players would have done in his situation: which is get paid to take over another team as their starting QB.

That team is the Saints’ NFC South Division rivals the Carolina Panthers, where he will play for at least the next 3 NFL seasons while facing the Saints twice a year now. The loss of Bridgewater leaves Taysom Hill as the current #2 QB behind Brees, although the Saints still could possibly seek to add depth at the position with one of the remaining unrestricted free agent QB’s or one in next month’s 2020 NFL Draft.

A.J. Klein, Linebacker (Signed with Buffalo)

(3 years, $18 million) After spending 3 somewhat uneventful but still-solid seasons with the Saints, Klein opted to leave NOLA to play for his old position coach (current Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott), who he originally played for after he was drafted by Carolina several years ago.

Ultimately in the end, it’s believed that the Saints moved on from Klein because his asking price ($6 million per season) was more than they were willing to pay, which more than likely means that the Saints will now seek to upgrade the LB position in next month’s Draft.

Eli Apple, Cornerback (Signed with Las Vegas)

Photo Credit: Chris Taylor and Phillip Petty III. JRNOLA

(1 year, $6 million) With the exception of Peat, no other Saints player had engendered as much negative response this off-season among Saints fans than Apple did, and so it honestly comes as no surprise that Apple is gone; since he stood to benefit from a needed “change of scenery”, and also because quite frankly: the Saints didn’t feel he was WORTH $6 million per season

Apple is headed to Las Vegas to play for the Raiders, in what will be that team’s 1st year playing in their new city after leaving Oakland (again); and in a place where he potentially should have an opportunity to compete for a starting role. Apple can be outstanding at times. but his inconsistency and a knack for surrendering “big plays” to opposing wide receivers. is ultimately what wore out his welcome among the team’s most loyally devoted supporters.

Keith Kirkwood, Wide Receiver (Signed with Carolina)

(1 year, contract details not yet released) Essentially serving in what’s normally the “possession” receiver role in your typically-modern day NFL offense, Kirkwood played mainly in four and five-wide sets for New Orleans; but was relegated mostly to back-up status. That likely won’t change or be any different for his future in Charlotte, but he wanted to go there to play once again for his old head coach back in college: new Panthers head coach Matt Rhule.

Kirkwood also will now get to play under new Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who he is also familiar with after both were together with the Saints. Nevertheless, Kirkwood’s old spot in the Saints WR corps can be easily replaced, which they likely will do next month in the upcoming Draft.

FINAL GRADE:

Photo Credit: Barry Hirstius, Big Easy Magazine

The New Orleans Saints franchise is currently facing a temporary crisis of sorts at the moment: which is having to prepare for the team’s future (and keeping the team’s young core intact) after Drew Brees retires — but while also simultaneously trying to make a complete and total “all-out” effort to win a Super Bowl with him — before he eventually does leave the NFL for good.

That’s been evident by the moves made by Saints front office management up to this point; and while they haven’t necessarily made any “earth-shattering” moves or spent a huge amount of money on some of Free Agency’s top available players, they’ve rather quietly put together a solid signing class.

Some Saints fans have been a bit critical of their biggest signings (Drew Brees, Malcom Jenkins, Emmanuel Sanders, and Janoris Jenkins ), because each one of them are already in their early 30’s age-wise (age 41 in Brees’ case). However, they all individually appear to still have a few good seasons remaining of performing at a high-enough level, to make a significant impact — and once again it’s indicative of their concerted effort to “win now” instead of later. That said, bringing back the younger players such as Onyemata are a clear-cut commitment towards their future as well.

While this year’s 2020 NFL Free Agency signing class at least “on paper” looks to be a good one for the Black and Gold, we won’t truly know just how good it is (or isn’t) until the final regular season game at the end of December. Nevertheless, until then we’re all left waiting around to see if these particular moves will eventually be ones that were actually good enough, to finally get them any closer to achieving their ultimate goal….

FINAL GRADE: B – (MINUS)


Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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