Ramon Humber had options, but Saints return was too good to pass up

It wasn’t long after he agreed to re-sign with the Saints that linebacker Ramon Humber received congratulatory phone calls from position coach Joe Vitt, special teams boss Greg McMahon and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Humber appreciated all of them, but Ryan’s perhaps fired him up the most.

“He told me he was excited to have me back, and he said I’m a good player on defense,” Humber said. “He said, ‘I’ve got stuff planned for the future, and you’re a part of it. Get ready for it!’”

Then, promptly, Humber went from enjoying a low-key offseason with his friends and relatives in his hometown of Minneapolis to wishing training camp ramped up immediately.

“I wanted to be back, to get this going, for training camp and the season to get here faster,” Humber said in a telephone interview conducted during the annual NFL owners meeting in Orlando, Fla. “But you’ve got to wait your turn, I guess.”

Humber, who joined the Saints in 2010, had the option to not return to the team at the beginning of the 2014 league year when he hit unrestricted free agency. Both his hometown Minnesota Vikings and the New England Patriots quickly placed phone calls to his agent, Matthew Striegel, about possibly acquiring him.

Both opportunities had their upside. The Vikings represented a chance to play where he grew up. In New England, he could’ve teamed up with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, who’ve won three Super Bowls.

But New Orleans also made time to reach out to Striegel. Even though the Saints were en route to a hectic start to free agency that included the acquisition of star safety Jairus Byrd, the trade of running back Darren Sproles to Philadelphia, a contract extension for their leading rusher (Pierre Thomas), and the re-signing of tackle Zach Strief, they indicated they unequivocally hoped to retain Humber.

Having Humber back was a logical decision. He was among the leaders in solo special-teams tackles for the Saints last season.

Slotted in under inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne on the depth chart, Humber lined up in some of the Saints’ specialty packages on defense, recording 0.5 sacks and two tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

During the worst two-game stretch of the season, in which New Orleans suffered consecutive defeats in St. Louis and Carolina in Weeks 15 and 16, Humber delivered a pair of positive moments by recovering an onside kick in each of those games.

The one in St. Louis was meant to be a ball up for grabs, and he simply outhustled the competition to the recovery, McMahon explained last season. The one in Carolina was designed specifically for him, which illustrates the confidence the special teams unit has in him.

“He was running and tackling and hitting as well as I had seen in a while,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said about Humber while meeting with the media in Orlando. “He is a good teammate (and has) very good durability and position flexibility. He can run and hit. He’ll play in (specialty) packages. He’s a guy that’s really fit with us and has done a nice job.”

For his performance, Humber drew almost 63,000 Pro Bowl fan votes, which was ninth among special teamers in the NFL. He wasn’t selected for the Pro Bowl, but the recognition certainly didn’t hamper his job prospects when free agency arrived.

“It’s a humble feeling that the league and fans recognize all you ... do,” Humber said about his haul of Pro Bowl votes.

When asked about his employment choices, Humber remarked: “To have offers and interest from other teams, that’s encouraging. ... It’s (also) definitely a rewarding feeling with your team reaching out ... early. It means you’re headed in the right direction.”

Humber said he ultimately picked returning to New Orleans because of his familiarity with the Saints’ system and the fact they’ve been in contention for the playoffs — if not a championship — for the majority of seasons Payton has coached.

The one-year re-signing deal he inked with New Orleans isn’t the most lucrative by NFL standards. It set a base salary of $730,000, and it reportedly carried a $65,000 signing bonus and a total of $300,000 in guaranteed money. That base salary was slightly higher than his $715,000 one from 2013.

Yet Humber doesn’t mind.

“I was glad to be able to come back on a one-year deal to prove myself — again,” he said.

The 26-year-old also spoke frankly about how his youth, affordability and on-field play all combined to help him prolong his tenure in New Orleans in a way that it did not for some of his ex-defensive teammates.

He referred to Will Smith, Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, Jonathan Vilma and Malcolm Jenkins, who all won Super Bowl XLIV with New Orleans against Indianapolis, for whom Humber played at the time of the championship game.

Smith, Greer and Harper (now with Carolina) were released to clear up salary cap space. Jenkins (now with Philadelphia) and Vilma (unsigned) were allowed to become free agents.

All were pricey. With the exception of Jenkins, all of them were at least 31; had missed either all, most or a significant portion of 2013; and in the cases of Smith, Harper and Vilma, their production had dropped from their best days.

“It wasn’t shocking, because I knew there was (tight) cap (space),” Humber said of the Saints’ decision to let so many Super Bowl veterans go while hanging on to other younger, less costly players. “But it was shocking” at the same time because for a moment it appeared virtually no one’s spot on the team was safe if such accomplished players could be released.

“I truly wish the best for all of them,” Humber added. “At the end, it was a business decision, and I feel the Saints just wanted to get younger.”