Vargas: Wild week not born from panic

For many people, and Saints fans are no exception, change is stressful and uncomfortable. But for many people, change can also be quite exhilarating — and the first few frenzied days of NFL free agency showed Saints fans are no exception to this.

When the league’s free-agency signing period opened Tuesday, many suspected the Saints would not be among the teams scooping up the marquee players on the open market. The Black and Gold began the day with fewer than $3 million in spending money, thought to be too little for them to get in on the first-day action.

That sentiment seemed to be validated when, in the first hour of free agency, safety Malcolm Jenkins — who had been with the Saints his entire five-season career — agreed to depart to the Philadelphia Eagles for a three-year contract reportedly worth more than $16 million.

My, how wrong we were.

About four hours after Jenkins had plotted his future, the Saints shocked both casual and hardcore followers by announcing they’d agreed to terms on a massive deal with free agent Jairus Byrd, who has intercepted the most passes among safeties since he entered the NFL in 2009.

The Saints defense improved to fourth overall in the NFL in 2013 but was fourth to last in takeaways. The responsibility to improve in that category rests largely on Byrd’s shoulders.

Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and his staff barely allowed everyone an opportunity to ponder just how they’d make the terms with Byrd work: At six years, $54 million, and $26.3 million in guarantees, it was the richest deal for a safety in NFL history.

That’s because, at a furious pace over the next few days, the Saints kept hashing out brainy moves, ensuring they’d hang on to a fan favorite some figured they couldn’t afford to keep around; trading another for a piece of compensation they’ve made the most of in the past; and re-signing a backup who excels at covering kicks on special teams.

First up was Wednesday’s two-year contract extension for Pierre Thomas, who was the team’s leading rusher from last year, topped NFL running backs in passes caught and helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV. The extension undoubtedly lowered the number of spending dollars the Saints were going to use on Thomas and silenced talk that he might meet the same fate of other well-liked but pricey veterans who were released earlier in the offseason.

Then came the trade of running back Darren Sproles to Philadelphia, an affair that temporarily veered into the realm of the absurd.

Sproles set an NFL record for all-purpose yards in his first year with the Saints in 2011, but his numbers in that category had declined significantly in each of the next two seasons. Freeing themselves of his contract would bag the Saints some $3.5 million in spending money.

Problems likely started with an NFL Network report from March 7 that bluntly stated Sproles would be released. Almost immediately, there were competing reports that Sproles would be released if he couldn’t be traded, and the player bid farewell to New Orleans via Twitter, apparently expecting to be become a free agent after being cut.

Sproles’ termination never came through; and to an ESPN reporter, he voiced both his opposition to a trade and his preference for a release so he could determine where he signed next. The drama hit its lowest point Wednesday when Sproles’ wife, Michel, logged onto the Instagram social media network and accused the Saints’ front office of mistreating her husband by denying him the chance of picking his next employer.

The profanity-laced message also said God would “get” the Saints back.

Thankfully, the happy ending arrived early Thursday — the Saints swapped Sproles to the Eagles for a fifth-round draft pick.

While Sproles didn’t get to choose the team with which he’d continue his career, he won’t object to joining an Eagles running game that was No. 1 in 2013, counts on the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Year (LeSean McCoy) and is complemented by the quarterback who had the NFL’s best passer rating last season (Nick Foles).

As for the draft pick they received, here are some players the Saints have recently gotten in the fifth round: guard Carl Nicks (2008, two-time All-Pro); punter Thomas Morstead (2009, one-time Pro Bowler); cornerback Corey White (2012, started eight games last year, including the playoffs); and wideout Kenny Stills (2013, led the league at 20.0 yards per catch).

Yet maybe the most gratifying revelation surrounding the Eagles trade was that the amount of spending money Byrd would command in 2014 perfectly matched the dollars the Saints saved by parting ways with Sproles.

Certainly, the amount of spending money tied up in Byrd will shoot up in coming seasons. But for the moment, people preferred to marvel at how Loomis and his assistants were able to shuffle dollars around to accommodate an unprecedented contract despite having minimal flexibility to do so.

The Saints concluded the typical work week Friday morning by agreeing to re-sign Ramon Humber, who was among New Orleans’ leaders in special-teams tackles. He also recovered onside kicks in consecutive weeks last season, and he can fill in at inside linebacker in a pinch.

Suddenly, those questioning just what in the world the Saints had been thinking when they began making some unpopular cuts in February turned the volume way down — if not off.

They’d gotten the message that releasing defensive veterans Will Smith, Jabari Greer, Roman Harper (who agreed to sign with Carolina on Saturday) as well as wideout Lance Moore and opting to not re-sign free-agent-to-be Jonathan Vilma weren’t moves made in a desperate attempt to ameliorate their spending situation.

All of those players had helped the Saints win the Super Bowl and were top-notch mentors for their younger teammates, but they were all either coming off major injuries or had not been as productive as they once were.

Their places had been taken (or soon will be) by players who were either already on the books or have recently been added — among them Stills, linebackers Curtis Lofton and Junior Galette, and safeties Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro.

Sure, some of the $19 million in freed-up spending money went to pay for the $7 million franchise tag applied to All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, who would’ve been the most coveted free agent if he had hit the open market.

But the Saints this week showed there’s a well-crafted plan at play here, and they’re firmly in control of it.

So, what’s next now? Free agency goes on, and the draft begins May 8. Except for perhaps the positions of quarterback, guard, punter, safety, tight end and inside linebacker, the Saints could either upgrade or at least improve the depth at pretty much every other position.

Whether it’s through a high draft pick or the rest of free agency, no one should be surprised when they manage to do that, even if the amount of spending money they have doesn’t rival that of other teams.