METAIRIE, La. -- The odds of both quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Mark Ingram staying with the New Orleans Saints increased on Monday, when neither was wooed away during the first day of the NFL’s “legal tampering” period.
It would be quite a coup for the Saints to keep both marquee free agents at discounted rates. But it still begs the question: Can they afford everything they want in free agency this year?
The past decade has told us yes. Under general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton, the Saints have treated the salary cap more like a speed bump than a stop sign. They have never been shy about restructuring old contracts or backloading the salary-cap costs on new deals to push the cap hits into future years. And they have never really paid the price for it, since the NFL’s salary cap keeps skyrocketing each year.
But it will still be fascinating to see how much New Orleans spends this week. Not only are the Saints handcuffed with a limited amount of cap space (somewhere between $3 million and $10 million), but they have to plan ahead for some monster free agents coming up in the near future (QB Drew Brees, WR Michael Thomas, C Max Unger and G Andrus Peat in 2020; DE Cameron Jordan, RB Alvin Kamara and others in 2021).
Keep in mind, the Saints won't get much help in the draft this year, since they don’t have any picks in Rounds 1, 3 or 4.
Here’s a review of New Orleans' biggest decisions as we head to the official opening of free agency at 4 p.m. ET, Wednesday:
Top free agents
Bridgewater: Tough timing for the 26-year-old. The former first-round draft pick proved in 2018 that he is healthy enough for another starting gig after recovering from a major 2016 knee injury. But there aren’t many teams in the market for a veteran starter right now.
Keeping Bridgewater as a backup would be an expensive luxury for the Saints -- especially if his salary approaches $10 million or more. But he might accept less if he feels like New Orleans is the perfect long-term fit. And it would be a dream scenario for the Saints to have Bridgewater waiting as an eventual successor for the 40-year-old Brees.
Ingram: A similar “luxury” concept here, since Ingram has become the No. 2 RB in New Orleans alongside Kamara. But the Saints have proved they can use both of them effectively -- and struggled to replace Ingram during his four-game suspension last year.
If another team offers Ingram a No. 1 role and $5 million-plus per year, he deserves it. If not, the Saints are an obvious fit for the 29-year-old.
Okafor: The 28-year-old isn't expendable just because New Orleans traded up to acquire DE Marcus Davenport in the first round of the draft last year. Okafor still started all 18 regular-season and postseason games the Saints played last season, while playing about 65 percent of their defensive snaps. He is a solid pass-rusher and run defender.
Like the other guys on this list, Okafor might get away if another team offers him a bigger role and paycheck. But if the Saints do lose him, they’ll have to replace him with another rotational edge rusher.
Lutz (restricted): This is a no-brainer after Lutz has finally brought security to the Saints’ kicker position over the past three years. The only question is what level of tender he’ll receive. The guess here is the one that costs around $3 million and comes with second-round draft-pick compensation -- unless the Saints work out a long-term extension instead.
Others: The Saints already re-signed core special-teams players Craig Robertson and Chris Banjo. No one else should break the bank, but the Saints will likely want to re-sign or replace starting nose tackle Tyeler Davison, backup cornerback P.J. Williams and backup offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod, among others. It will also be interesting to see if they consider inviting receiver Dez Bryant back to training camp after he recovers from his torn Achilles.
Pass-catcher: I’m blending the Saints’ top two needs into one here -- tight end and slot receiver. They desperately need another reliable pass-catcher at one spot or the other. And I think if they’re going to spend big on a newcomer, this would be the best area to target. Slot receivers Adam Humphries and Jamison Crowder were already plucked on Day 1. But there are still top options available, including receivers Golden Tate, Randall Cobb and Cole Beasley and tight ends Jared Cook and Tyler Eifert.
Edge rusher: One option that stands out if they don't keep Okafor is longtime Miami Dolphins star Cameron Wake, who might have been Saints assistant general manager Jeff Ireland’s best acquisition when he was the GM in Miami. Wake is 37 years old, but New Orleans would need him to fill just a part-time role. And he has still been bringing the heat as an edge rusher, with 28 sacks over the past three seasons.
Defensive tackle: The Saints could be thin here to start the season, with starter Sheldon Rankins recovering from a torn Achilles, Davidson a free agent and backup David Onyemata potentially facing league discipline for an offseason marijuana possession charge. They don’t need to overreact to solve a short-term depth issue. But they could always make room for more talent in the rotation.
Safety: The Saints have two good starters in Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell, and they have nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson coming back from injury this year. But it gets thin beyond those guys, and Bell is a free agent next year.
Offensive line: New Orleans’ starting five is as good as it gets in the NFL. But this should be a top draft priority for depth and to develop future starters.