As we near the end of the second week of NFL organized team activities, it’s time to take a look back and assess the Saints’ 2014 offseason. If anything, it will help break up the monotony in the remaining two months leading up to the preseason.
The one story line most Saints fans are likely monitoring with the most interest is what will happen with Jimmy Graham. The Saints slapped Graham with the franchise tag before the new league year began in March. Graham is currently sitting out OTAs while awaiting his grievance hearing scheduled for June 17th and 18th on whether he should be tagged as a tight end or a wide receiver.
The stakes are huge for Graham as he could earn up to $11 million in 2014 if he wins his grievance and is designated as a receiver as opposed to the approximately $6.5 million he would be owed as a tight end. He has a strong case – he lined up as a receiver on over two-thirds of the Saints offensive snaps, and the NFL collective bargaining agreement does state that is what determines the franchise tag designation.
The Saints, of course, are hoping Graham will get the tight end designation; they are up against the salary cap and will be looking to save as much money as they can in any way they can. Fans hoping for a quick resolution should side with Graham. Regardless of the outcome, Graham will end up signing a long-term deal worth over $10 million annually. If he wins the grievance, it will probably spur the Saints to get a deal done faster instead of having this ordeal drag out for another month if he does not win and holds out.
Despite their limited cap space, the Saints were very active in the early part of free agency. Their biggest haul came on the first day when they signed former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd to a 6-year contract worth $54 million ($26.3 million guaranteed). Byrd has been one of the top safeties in the league since his rookie season in 2009, when he tied for the league lead in interceptions with 9. He recorded 4 interceptions in 2013 and has 22 for his career. Pairing Byrd with Kenny Vaccaro should give the Saints a formidable safety tandem for years to come. Additionally, they Saints were able to hang onto some of their key veterans. They re-signed right tackle Zach Strief to a 5-year deal and safety Rafael Bush to a 2-year deal (giving the fans a reason to keep wearing their #25 Bush jerseys). They also brought back Jonathan Goodwin, who was the team’s starting center from 2006 to 2010. Goodwin will compete for the starting center job with second-year guard Tim Lelito. However, they were also forced to release Will Smith, Lance Moore and Jabari Greer in order the make these moves.
Finally, the Saints had a very interesting 2014 draft. They Saints scored big in the early rounds by trading up to get Brandon Cooks in round one and nabbing Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round. Cooks is sure to be an immediate impact player. He has great speed and smooth route running ability, which should allow him to get open on his own instead of having to rely on Jimmy Graham to create mismatches.
Jean-Baptiste follows the growing trend of big, physical corners. He was considered by several experts as a possibility to sneak into the first round, so it was a great value pick for the Saints to get him near the end of round two. SJB still needs more development before being thrown into the fire, so don’t expect him to make significant contributions right away unless he really impresses in training camp and the preseason.
The rest of the Saints’ draft consisted of inside linebacker Khairi Fortt, safety Vinnie Sunseri, outside linebacker Ronald Powell and offensive tackle Tavon Rooks. I wasn’t as enthused with the later rounds as I was with the first two. Fortt, Sunseri and Powell all sustained serious injuries in college and Rooks is undersized for an offensive lineman. However, they all fill positions that will be needed in the near future, so I can’t fault these picks too much.
The slowest part of the football year is behind us. Between weeks of OTAs, in which the Saints are allowed to conduct a total of 10 workouts, the veterans have a mandatory minicamp from June 10th-12th. After that, the players get a break until Thursday, July 24th, when they will report to training camp in West Virginia. On August 17th the Saints return to New Orleans, where they will finish out the duration of training camp.
Before we know it, it’ll be September 7th. We’re coming for you, Falcons.