METAIRIE — Seven months after departing New Orleans for a blockbuster deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two-time Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks can only wonder what if Saints officials had stepped to the plate sooner with a similar offer.
An offer befitting one of the NFL’s elite offensive lineman.
“Who knows?’’ Nicks told reporters in New Orleans via conference call this week. “I don’t want to sound conceited like it was just about the money, but who knows?
“Everybody thinks it was just about the money but it really wasn’t. It was a combination of things. It was opportunity, it was situation and it was a new challenge. And the challenge here (in Tampa) is to be something that the Saints didn’t look at me as — a premier player that could be a leader.’’
On Sunday, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., Nicks will face the Saints for the first time since signing a five-year, $47.5 million contract with the Buccaneers in mid-March.
It is the richest contract given to a guard in NFL history in terms of average pay out ($9.5 million) and guaranteed money ($31 million), topping the six-year deal ($51 million/$30 million guaranteed) the New England Patriots gave guard Logan Mankins in 2011.
Nicks’ deal has guaranteed base salaries of $6.5 million in 2012 and $12.5 million in 2013, making him a rich man.
Far richer than Nicks’ replacement in New Orleans, guard Ben Grubbs formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, who inked a five-year, $36 million contract that includes a $10 million signing bonus and another $5.9 million in guaranteed base salaries (2012: $700,000; 2013: $5.2 million).
Just as clothes don’t make the man, so the saying goes, the contract doesn’t necessarily make the player. Yes, the Saints are struggling as a team (1-4) but their offense continues to rack up points (28.2 per game) and yards (402.0 ppg) at an alarming clip.
With Grubbs at left guard.
“It’s like with anybody; what do we miss about Robert Meachem?’’ Saints right tackle Zach Strief said, referring to the ex-Saints wide receiver who signed as a free agent with the San Diego Chargers. “I don’t know. We got a guy in Joe (Morgan) that we’re grooming to take his spot.
“It’s the same way with Ben. We went out and found an awfully good football player, a Pro Bowl player, a guy who fits in differently because he’s a different player. But, I think he’s been just as good a performer for us as Carl.’’
Interim coach Aaron Kromer acknowledged that the Saints lost an elite player in Nicks. But Kromer said the Saints replaced Nicks with an elite player in his own right.
“I think we had the two best guards in football last year, and now I think we again have the best tandem,’’ said Kromer, alluding to Grubbs and Saints All-Pro right guard Jahri Evans. “Grubbs (6-3, 310) is one of the top guards in the league. He’s not quite as big as Carl Nicks (6-5, 350), but Ben Grubbs is a powerful, strong, quick athlete that I consider one of the top three in the league. Carl Nicks is overpowering. He is a match-up win on almost everyone. That’s what makes him different.”
It came as no surprise that Nicks left for greener pastures in March because of the financial pressure facing Saints officials to create enough salary cap room to re-sign quarterback Drew Brees, who ultimately became the NFL’s highest paid player in terms of average pay out ($20 million annually) and guaranteed money ($61 million).
In the end, Saints officials could not satisfy both marquee players, though Nicks said Saints officials offered a deal on the eve of free agency that was, in his words, “a little higher than what they paid Jahri two years prior.’’
Evans signed a seven-year, $56.7 million contract in May 2010, which, at the time, made him the highest paid guard in the NFL.
What Nicks said he couldn’t understand is why Saints officials didn’t make an attempt to re-sign him before the start of free agency in March.
“If nobody was going to talk to me about being an elite player, then it really wasn’t respectful,’’ Nicks said. “I figured if you didn’t want to talk to me during my fourth and final year, it wasn’t going to happen in the offseason. So, I figured I better bail out because I need to put my résumé out there.’’
In stepped the Buccaneers, who were flush with money at the start of free agency.
Said Nicks: “I really don’t like it here, I love it here. I think I made the perfect decision.’’
Kromer said the coaching staff will get together and decide if they want to activate MLB Jonathan Vilma from the physically-unable-to-perform list. Vilma, who’s coming back from multiple surgeries on his knee, practiced Wednesday for the first time since January and has looked good, Kromer said. When asked if Vilma has a legitimate chance of playing on Sunday, Kromer said, “He looked good. He looked physically good.” … TE Jimmy Graham, who was limited in practice on Thursday and Friday because of a sprained right ankle, will be questionable for Sunday. … Kromer said WLB David Hawthorne (hamstring) won’t play, while CB Jabari Greer (groin) and G Jahri Evans (toe) are among seven players who are probable. Greer and Evans were limited in practice Wednesday. … For the Bucs, G Carl Nicks (toe) had full participation Friday and is probable along with WR Vincent Jackson (calf), who was limited in practice the past two days.