New Orleans Saints mock offseason 1.0: Pre-combine edition

We’re just a few days away from the NFL Scouting Combine starting at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, so it’s a good time to break out our first New Orleans Saints mock offseason.

In this exercise we’re simulating the Saints’ remaining salary cap decisions before exploring possibilities in free agency, all leading up to a seven-round mock draft — complete with a few trades.

This is the first of a couple different mock offseasons we’ll run in the weeks leading up to free agency, each time trying different scenarios to get an idea of how the Saints can make their team better. We’re endeavoring to represent what Mickey Loomis, Dennis Allen, and Saints leadership would do, not necessarily what we would do, so keep that in mind.

Let’s get to it:

Players under contract to restructure

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints don’t have many salary cap cut candidates, but there are several obvious players they’ll need to restructure to reach cap compliance. More moves will get them in the black and open up room for new free agents. Here’s who we’re looking at:

  • RG Cesar Ruiz is an easy restructure — converting his $8 million roster bonus into a signing bonus will save the team $6.58 million against the cap.

  • Another designed restructure with DE Carl Granderson will save $7.23 million by converting his $9 million roster bonus into a signing bonus and paying it out over time.

  • More restructures with S Tyrann Mathieu, as well as TE Juwan Johnson, TE Foster Moreau, DT Khalen Saunders and S J.T. Gray will save a combined $14.5 million and get the Saints within a stone’s throw of the salary cap.

At this point it’s time for tougher decisions: possible pay cuts for underperforming veterans like RT Ryan Ramczyk, DE Cameron Jordan, QB Taysom Hill, and S Marcus Maye. A couple of other players like LB Demario Davis and RB Alvin Kamara could be candidates for extensions, and that’s a path we’ll take to help ensure they both end their careers in black and gold (while lowering their 2024 cap hits). Any combination of pay cuts, extensions, or restructures with this group will get the Saints into the clear with plenty of room to spare.

Saints free agents to re-sign

Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports
Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

First order of business: re-signing WR Rashid Shaheed. As an exclusive rights free agent, his only option is to return to the Saints on a minimum salary this offseason. He isn’t eligible for a real extension until next year. The Saints should bring back both him and DT P.J. Mustipher, an ERFA they picked up late in the regular season, at minimal salary cap impact.

The team also has three restricted free agents to consider: WR Lynn Bowden Jr., FB Adam Prentice, and CB Shemar Jean-Charles. All three should return on the minimum salary, too.

Which brings us to the unrestricted free agents, which is where it gets a little dicey. Both QB Jameis Winston and WR Michael Thomas are poised to be released with post-June 1 designations for cap purposes. That can change, but it’s expected to happen, and it’s the path we’re taking in this scenario.

While OL Andrus Peat is likely to test the market when his contract voids at the start of free agency, it shouldn’t be hard to retain him — offensive linemen at his age with his production are only averaging about $3 million per year, and if the Saints can extend his contract early they can avoid the $13.6 million dead money charge that comes with letting him go. We’ll say the Saints act quickly (thanks to an unexpected surge in the 2024 salary cap) and keep Peat, putting him in competition with Trevor Penning to start at left tackle.

Now to the rest of the unrestricted free agents. In this scenario, the Saints re-sign the following players, many of them to veteran’s minimum deals as training camp bodies:

Whether they get priced out or choose to part ways, the Saints also lose the following free agents:

  • CB Isaac Yiadom: Two-thirds of the league is hoping to replace at least one starting corner this offseason, and Yiadom’s tape was too impressive to overlook. He should earn a nicer contract somewhere than what the Saints can budget for with Paulson Adebo’s extension coming up.

  • LB Zack Baun: It’s been a frustrating four years for Baun, who was limited to special teams work for much of his tenure. He wasn’t allowed to consistently rush the passer until his final five games. He needs to look for a better scheme fit that will play him to his strengths.

  • DT Malcolm Roach: Roach has been a playmaker in the rotation and he outperformed Shy Tuttle’s last year in New Orleans, which led to an $18 million free agent contract with the Carolina Panthers. Look for him to leave for more money and more snaps than the Saints can give him.

  • DE Kyle Phillips

  • RB Eno Benjamin

  • OL Trai Turner

  • LB Ryan Connelly

  • TE Jimmy Graham (retirement)

Free agents to sign on offense

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Now the fun part. We’re estimating the Saints will have about $20 million to work with in salary cap resources when it’s all said and done — and they could get more if they need to, but we’re taking advantage of the cap rising to let some deals run out on their own to limit the dead money owed later.

The offensive line is a priority, and one player to watch is San Francisco 49ers LG Jon Feliciano. He’s coming off maybe his best year as a pro since he was protecting Derek Carr on the Las Vegas Raiders early in his career. He played well at both guard spots and snapped the ball himself from center a couple dozen times in San Francisco this past season. He’d be a good scheme fit, though he isn’t a long-term fix at left guard after turning 32 earlier in February.

We’re pouring more resources into the offensive line by signing Raiders OT Jermaine Eluemunor, another former teammate of Carr’s who can play both tackle spots. He’ll improve depth on the outside and give the Saints a better backup plan in case Ryan Ramczyk misses more time with his knee condition. Like Feliciano, Eluemunor is an older veteran, so signing him won’t be expensive and it won’t stop us from looking to get younger in the draft.

Now another splash after some kind-of-boring investments up front: 49ers WR Jauan Jennings is a restricted free agent and we should expect San Francisco to tender him, which guarantees them compensation if they don’t match a contract offer. Using a second-round draft pick tender won’t be too expensive (costing $4.9 million against the cap) and it’ll keep teams like the Saints away. If Jennings is off the table, a similar receiver to target is Detroit Lions WR Josh Reynolds. Ignore his drops in the conference title game — he’s averaged a steady 36.7 yards per game after joining the Lions and he would bring some much-needed size and physicality to the receiving corps.

Another receiver to watch is Carr’s old teammate Hunter Renfrow, who the Saints were trying to trade for before the Raiders fired everyone who could agree to it at the NFL trade deadline last October. Renfrow’s production hasn’t matched his contract and he’s likely going to be released, at which point the Saints could sign him (likely to a minimum contract; a point of contention in talks with Las Vegas was getting the Raiders to pay most of his salary). It’s worth taking a flier on him to see if he and Carr can reestablish their strong connection whether or not we’re able to land Jennings or Reynolds.

Expect the Saints to sign a cheap veteran quarterback if Jameis Winston leaves town. Some names to watch include Drew Lock (Seattle Seahawks), Sam Darnold (San Francisco 49ers), Trevor Siemian (New York Jets), and Kellen Mond (Indianapolis Colts). They should bring in someone to compete with Jake Haener for the backup job. In this scenario we went with Mond, who worked with several members of the coaching staff on the Minnesota Vikings in 2021 as Kirk Cousins’ backup. It’ll make Dennis Allen happy to sign another Texas A&M alum, too.

Free agents to sign on defense

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Our top target on defense is Minnesota Vikings DE Danielle Hunter. He’s one of the game’s best pass rushers and unlike some other guys at his position he is not eligible to receive the franchise tag, so he’ll actually get the chance to entertain offers on the open market. But that means the Saints risk bidding against other teams flush with salary cap space like the Chicago Bears, who are rumored to covet Hunter as a longtime division rival.

If things don’t work out with Hunter and other high-priced veterans, a player to watch is Dallas Cowboys DE Dorance Armstrong, who has been highly effective in their rotation as the third or fourth pass rusher. Dallas has done a great job drafting and developing defensive ends and Armstrong may hit the market to free up snaps for Sam Williams behind Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence. Armstrong is a little lighter than the Saints like at 255 pounds, but he’s tall with long arms and has proven he can play in the NFL with 16 sacks and 17 tackles for loss in the last two years. He’s also just turning 27 this summer and could help the Saints get younger by cutting into Cameron Jordan’s snap count.

Defensive tackles Nathan Shepherd and Khalen Saunders each signed a mid-level contracts last year and Bryan Bresee is off to a good start, but the group needs a real difference-maker. Enter Colts DT Grover Stewart, one of the game’s best run-stoppers. He would bring a big upgrade to the group and free up Bresee by handling double teams, but the question is whether he even reaches the market. The Indianapolis Colts are flush with cap space and they saw how poorly their run defense performed without him during a six-game suspension last year. It might make more sense for New Orleans to look to the draft and continue to get younger along their defensive line.

We’re going to sign another Cowboy in CB Jourdan Lewis, who has developed into a solid slot corner and shouldn’t make a big impact on the salary cap. Alontae Taylor has struggled too badly in the role to not invest in a better plan, and Lewis can start in the slot if Taylor gets moved outside after a possible Marshon Lattimore trade later this summer. If nothing else Lewis maintains depth in the secondary after losing Yiadom in free agency.

2024 NFL draft, first round

Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports
Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

No. 14 overall: J.C. Latham, RT, Alabama

We’re going into the draft having improved our pass rush and offensive line while adding some more weapons for Carr and Kubiak to work with, which sets up the draft nicely. With just two picks in the first four rounds, it’s important we get this right.

And we’re starting out with Alabama RT J.C. Latham, after considering a couple of pass rushers. We need a long-term fix at right tackle and Latham provides that. He has the right combination of athleticism and college success to develop faster than other linemen the Saints have drafted. It isn’t an exciting pick, but it could make a huge difference for this team.

Other players we’re looking at closely: UCLA DE Laiatu Latu (who was wildly productive but brings medical concerns), Clemson CB Nate Wiggins (a playmaker and ideal replacement for Marshon Lattimore, if needed), and Texas DT Byron Murphy (who can make a splash on both running and passing downs). In this scenario, we go with the “safe” pick at the greatest position of need with Latham.

2024 NFL draft, second and third rounds

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Second round, No. 45 overall: Cedric Gray, LB, North Carolina

Third round, No. 66 overall (from Cardinals): Audric Estime, RB, Notre Dame

Gray has the lateral agility to match NFL running backs and tight ends in stride and the ball skills to make plays when quarterbacks try him — he’s intercepted 5 passes in his three years starting for the Tar Heels. He tracks the ball well and should be a great pro for a long time. Pete Werner’s development has stalled out and Demario Davis won’t be here forever. The Saints need a plan for the future at linebacker, and Gray could help them out. There’s room for him to play right away if Zack Baun leaves in free agency.

We traded the Saints’ second-round pick in 2025 along with one of our sixth rounders (No. 201, from the Philadelphia Eagles) to buy a third rounder and get another playmaker at running back. We can’t count on Jamaal Williams suddenly improving at his age and Miller’s lengthy time missed to injuries is a real concern, as is Kamara’s age and decline.

Even if Kamara signs an extension, Williams could be released this summer and Miller is far from a sure thing. Estime has the size the Saints have valued at running back as of late along with impressive production and big-play ability. He’s had 68 runs of 10-plus yards the last two years at Notre Dame. Every Saints running back to touch the football has 51 of them, combined, during that same span.

2024 NFL draft, final four rounds

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Another trade! This time we packaged two of our compensatory fifth rounders (at Nos. 169 and 174) to acquire a fourth-round pick from the Minnesota Vikings at No. 130, which was spent on Alabama WR Jermaine Burton. He’s an incredibly athletic wideout with NFL size and hands but with real character concerns after he was seen on video punching a female fan rushing the field following Alabama’s upset loss to Tennessee in 2022. Mistakes like this are going to hurt his draft stock with some teams. Dennis Allen and the Saints have shown a high tolerance for that kind of behavior.

Remember, we also traded our sixth-round pick at No. 201 (from the Eagles) to move up earlier for Audric Estime, and our seventh rounder at No. 230 (from the Broncos) was traded to the 49ers as compensation for signing Jauan Jennings. The Saints previously traded their fourth-round pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars last year so they could move up and pick Jake Haener.

How we addressed our needs

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Defensive end: Signed defensive end Dorance Armstrong

  2. Left guard: Re-signed Andrus Peat, signed free agent Jon Feliciano, drafted rookie Brandon Coleman

  3. Offensive tackle: Re-signed Andrus Peat, signed free agent Jermaine Eluemunor, drafted rookie J.C. Latham

  4. Defensive tackle: Signed free agent Grover Stewart

  5. Slot defensive back: Signed free agent Jordan Lewis

  6. Wide receiver: Signed free agents Jauan Jennings and Hunter Renfrow, drafted rookie Jermaine Burton

  7. Running back: Drafted rookie Audric Estime

  8. Linebacker: Drafted rookie Cedric Gray

  9. Safety: Drafted rookie Mark Perry

  10. Quarterback: Signed free agent Kellen Mond

We went into greater detail here on which positions need the most improvement this offseason, so check it out. Looking back at this mock offseason now, it’s clear more work would need to be done after the draft. Adding another linebacker who could compete for snaps (like Jaylon Smith last summer) would make sense. Making safety more of a priority earlier in the draft could pay off, too, with both Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye entering the last year of their contracts. And we’d like to see more depth at defensive tackle.

It’s hard to put out so many fires with so few early-round draft picks, which is why we’ll make the case for trading back next time.

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire