12 NFL free agents to watch as Saints seek upgrades

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Free agent cornerback A.J. Bouye

Free agent cornerback A.J. Bouye may be just what the Saints need to solidify the secondary.

Now that Super Bowl LI is in the rear view mirror, the 2016 NFL season is completed. It’s time to move onto the first phase of the ’17 season – free agency.

There will be an assortment of options on the market. Some players are nearing the ends of their careers, and a few with a little left in their tank but need the right fit. Others are young and ready to take in their big payday.

There is always a bargain or two to be inked if you look in the right spots. The New Orleans Saints hope to do just that, perhaps with another signing like last season’s savvy acquisition of linebacker Craig Robertson.

The Saints have just under $30 million in their free agency checking account with only $9,116,656 in dead money after several seasons of much more holding them back.

Let’s take a peek at a dozen players (both high-priced and potential bargains) the Black and Gold may have on their radar as possibilities to bring in during the process.

Depending what the team decides to do with Jahri Evans – or what he may decide about continuing his career – offensive guard could be a primary focus either in free agency or in the April draft.

Kevin Zeitzer of the Cincinnati Bengals is someone to consider. The 6-foot-4, 315 pounder will be 27 years old in March coming off his rookie contract. The former Wisconsin Badgers standout was a good choice in the first round in 2012 by the Bengals. Zeitzer is a power run blocker and the highest graded player on the Bengals O-line. He doesn’t give up sacks very often, and that gets you paid in today’s NFL.

Someone that is familiar to the area is Baton Rouge native Ronald Leary (6-3, 317), who played collegiatley at Memphis where he lined up at both tackle spots. Undrafted in 2012, he joined the Cowboys as a free agent where he had 45 starts as a guard.

Now 27 years old, Leary had a one year deal with the Cowboys in ’16 for $2,553,000. Dallas doesn’t look to re-sign him. The only red flag is his degenerative knee issue which would have to be checked out.

Green Bay’s T.J. Lang has played through foot and hip injuries. He is a solid pass protector who will be 30 years old in September. He just completed a 4-year, $20.8 million contract. Lang would be the type of signing who would help bridge the gap to a potential draft pick’s path to the starting lineup.

Cornerback is a sore spot for New Orleans due to injury question marks, and 26 year old A.J. Bouye could fill the bill to lock down a starting spot. The 2013 undrafted free agent out of UCF of the Houston Texans has been a great find by the franchise.

Bouye (6-0, 191) was a great special teamer who ascended at the right time. He has had just 15 career starts for the Texans and just completed a $1.6 million contract for one season to become a high-profile free agent. He has 62 career tackles and 15 pass breakups as a cover man who tends to stick tight in coverage.

Bearing a slight resemblance to Jabari Greer, who was a solid pick up for New Orleans in 2009 free agency, Bouye is reportedly seeking a $25-$28 million guarantee.

Cornerback Stephen Gilmore (6-1, 190) is an athletic and physical cover man. The 26 year old, a sprinter in college at South Carolina, runs a 4.38 forty with a 36″ vertical. He demonstrated a dominating presence at times in ’16. During the final half of the season against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Oakland, he pilfered three passes.

Named to the 2017 Pro Bowl, Gilmore will get paid this offseason. Whomever wants him may have to outbid the Bills. He is hoping to land a contract in the $15 million per year range but $11-$12 million per maybe more in line with what he’ll get.

Truman Johnson (6-2, 208), 27 years old, was the Rams third round pick in 2012 out of Montana. He has ideal length and size for an NFL corner. With 263 tackles with 16 career interceptions to his credit, Johnson is a complete player. HE made 57 of those stops and 11 PBUs this past season. He is a good cover man who is hoping to receive a contract worth $16 million per year.

Linebacker, another area of need, can also be addressed on the open market. How about Melvin Ingram (6-2, 247) of the Los Angeles Chargers (weird to type, yes)? The former South Carolina Gamecock has recorded 18.5 sacks the past two seasons. Now 27 years old, he’s a leader and game changer. He tore his ACL in 2013, forcing him the miss the season, but Ingram has been solid since then. He is a super edge rusher, if the Saints see him as versatile enough to play in their 4-3 alignment. Joey Bosa’s emergence for the Chargers may make him expendable. Ingram is coming off of his rookie deal as a former first rounder.

Perhaps a better fit is Dont’a Hightower, twice a Pro Bowl selection for New England. The former Alabama All-American was grabbed by the Patriots in the first round in 2012, and the 26-year old would be an upgrade for the Black and Gold. He’s tallied 372 stops and 17 sacks during his career. His high water mark came in 2013 when he had 97 tackles, but Hightower (6-3, 265) is entering his prime. If New England tags him, it will be worth $15 million for 2017. He is looking for a longer deal worth $10 million per season.

Linebacker Courtney Upshaw (6-2, 271) was the Ravens second rounder in 2012, but he spent 2016 with the Falcons. He has 204 tackles and 6 sacks on his NFL resume’ as a strongside run-stuffing linebacker. Upshaw played for $1.25 million in 2016.

Defensive line is another area the Saints may target, particularly defensive end and perhaps a nose tackle.

Defensive end Nick Perry (6-3, 271) has been slowed by injuries throughout his career since he landed with Green Bay’s first round choice in 2012. Now 27 years old, he has 23.5 career sacks. Super athletic, he signed a one year deal in ’16 worth $5 million and had 52 tackles and 11 sacks.

Denver’s nose tackle, Sylvester Williams (6-3, 313), was the Broncos’ first round pick in 2013. Now 28 years old, he is looking for a $6 million per year deal. The going rate for a big run stuffer is just under that at $5 million annually.

Another nose tackle, Brandon Williams (6-1, 340), could command top dollar. The thid round pick of Baltimore in 2013 is now 28 years old. He has 156 career tackles.

A former LSU All-American, Bennie Logan (6-2, 309), was the Eagles third round pick in 2013. The Coushatta, La. native can line up at end or tackle on the defensive line. Logans has 163 career stops and 5.5 sacks. He plays in the shadow of Eagles standout Fletcher Cox but draws praise as a solid every-down player. Logan played for $1,661,000 in 2016 but is seeking in the $8-$10 million per year range.

Offensive tackle is another spot which may not be a high priority but could be a shopping point for depth by the Saints, who may also look to move on from the aging but still solid Zach Streif. Riley Reiff (6-6, 319) has made 55 starts all with the Detroit Lions who made him their first round choice in 2012 out of Iowa. He has played left tackle but most likely will sign as a right tackle. At 28 years old, he just completed an $8 million, 4-year rookie deal.

To all of the NFL front offices and head coaches…happy hunting!

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Rene Nadeau

Rene Nadeau

Fox Sports/ESPN/WHNO/WFAN

Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Rene Nadeau has been involved in sports ever since his earliest memories. Rene played basketball, wrestled, ran track, and was an All-District running back in football at John F. Kennedy High School. He went on to be a member of the LSU football program, developing a passion for the game in even greater fashion while in Baton Rouge. Nadeau played semi-pro football for two seasons with the New Orleans Blue Knights. He has been a prominent sports figure in the New Orleans area for 29 years. Nadeau currently serves as a color…

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