Burning Saints offseason questions: Who should be brought back ahead of free agency?

John Hendrix

Free agency, which coincides with the new league year starting, is set for March 18 at 3:00 p.m. CT. For the New Orleans Saints, it probably can't come soon enough. There will be a short window starting on that Monday (March 16) where clubs are permitted to contact and enter into contract negotiations with the certified agents of players who will become unrestricted free agents. The Saints have plenty of their own, but the reality is that they will not be able to keep them all.

There's a good bit of key starters and role players that will hit the open market, but some players should be an emphasis over others to come back. We'll take a look at some of the big names (aside Drew Brees), and make a case for each player with a final verdict.

Vonn Bell

Improved secondary play was hard to notice without mentioning Vonn Bell. In his contract year, Bell finished out as Pro Football Focus' top safety against the run in 2019. Unfortunately, no Saints players graded out among their Top 50 best free agents. The Ohio State product finished out averaging out just shy of 87 tackles each season throughout his first four NFL seasons, which included a career-best 63 solo tackles. He was a natural around the ball, recovering five fumbles and forcing two to go with an interception and defensive touchdown. The only criticism in Bell's season would be that he didn't play in all 16 games like he had in his first three seasons.

Verdict: The Saints saw a glimpse of the future with rookie Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and could roll the dice there if Bell becomes too pricey on the open market. Also, P.J. Williams (a potentially cheap and easy re-sign) proved to be an asset playing safety down the road when Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell were out. Looking at the salary cap hits among all strong safeties, it feels like Bell should be among the Top 15 highest paid at his position for 2020. While it shouldn't be his biggest contract to cash in on, re-signing him between $5-8 million annually would be a good starting point for New Orleans. Outside of that, he'll get paid elsewhere.

David Onyemata

Not so long ago, the Saints had a conundrum on their hands. Sheldon Rankins was going to be facing a long road to recovery from a torn Achilles, Tyeler Davison was scooped up by the Falcons, and Malcom Brown was added in free agency to end up being a Day 1 starter. David Onyemata was facing a problem of his own, beginning the year suspended for the first game due to violating the league's substance abuse policy. He ended up playing in all 15 games for the Saints, regularly starting alongside Brown.

Verdict: Onyemata had a personal best 11 quarterback hits in 2019, with his sack, tackle, and tackle for loss production finishing on par with the previous two seasons. Whether you view him as a role player or starter, Onyemata appeared in 565 snaps for the Saints defense in 2019 (53.3 percent). Sheldon Rankins is expected to be ready for the new season, and the emergence of Shy Tuttle was a great reminder of how good the Saints scouting department is. Onyemata should be one that returns, as a two or three-year deal sounds right for the former University of Manitoba player.

Eli Apple

Yes, the Saints do have Janoris Jenkins under contract for the new season. However, his salary cap hit is one of the highest on the team. Eli Apple catches a lot of grief from fans, but the bottom line is that he and Marshon Lattimore have been the best pairing the Saints defense has had since Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. Put it this way, would you rather go back to the days of Brandon Browner? While that's certainly not the case for the Saints here, Apple stepped up big for the team when Marshon Lattimore was out in Week 11 and 12. After coming over from the Giants, Apple has provided a bit of everything for Dennis Allen's defense.

Verdict: Apple's film is far from perfect, especially when you look at the final stretch of games from 2019. The Saints could easily bring him back, but it would seemingly be on their terms with a firm dollar amount set in their head. Anywhere from $5-7 million annually sounds about right for Apple, but there's 20 players set to be a $10 million cap hit or higher in 2020. Put it this way, Patrick Robinson comes in as a $6.15 million hit for the team this season. That is money better spent on someone like Apple. A team to watch who could be in line for Apple's services would be the Dallas Cowboys.

A.J. Klein

It's an eerie feeling not knowing what the future of the linebacker spot holds for the Saints. We know how valuable Demario Davis is to the team, as he's arguably the best free agent pickup the Saints have had since Drew Brees. However, the departure of Mike Nolan to Dallas coupled with players like Klein, Manti Te'o, and Stephone Anthony set to hit the market leave New Orleans with a few things to consider.

The team will get back Alex Anzalone and Kaden Elliss from injured reserve for the new season, but that's about where it stops for the Saints. There's already a big decision needing to be made on Kiko Alonso's $6.3 million salary cap hit, and Craig Robertson will be entering the final year of his contract in 2020. Needless to say, the right moves have to be made here. Overall, Klein has had a pretty good three-year run in New Orleans.

Verdict: What to keep an eye on here is if Klein wants to return to the Panthers now that Luke Kuechly is out of the mix. Originally, Klein left Carolina for an opportunity to start, and he got his wish. The former third-round pick could likely test the market for his services, and the Saints may have their hands tied with other financial commitments to Davis and Alonso.

Quick Thoughts

  • Andrus Peat: Durability has been a real concern for Peat, and it feels like the Saints could turn elsewhere. Nick Easton, Will Clapp, and Cameron Tom (if re-signed as a RFA) could all provide the void left by Peat. However, the guard position is an area of need this offseason.
  • P.J. Williams: He showed some real versatility down the stretch, but likely won't find a ton of suitors based on his limited role. His best bet is to re-sign with the Saints on a deal similar to last April. Of course, any team that considers bringing him on has to remember him violating the league's personal-conduct policy that eventually suspended him for two games in October. 
  • Ted Ginn Jr.: On the surface, it appears that the Saints feel good about their wide receiver group. At least that's what Mickey Loomis is saying. Perhaps it's one giant smokescreen at this point, because it's widely viewed as the top need for New Orleans this offseason. Ginn Jr. will turn 35 in April, and it feels like the Saints offense could do better here.
  • Teddy Bridgewater: The more information that leaks regarding the Saints and their quarterback decisions for 2020, the more it sounds like Bridgewater isn't in their plans. The simple belief is that he'll get starting money by a team that is trying to improve their situation. It's not impossible for the Saints to re-sign him, but the price tag would have to be in line with last year.
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