In a normal season, New Orleans Saints’ coaches and players would be ready to hit the practice field this week with three months of conditioning, weightlifting, classroom work and organized team activities behind them.
But as we all know, this isn’t a normal season.
So there is much work to be done whenever the players ratify the new Collective Bargaining Agreement presented to them Thursday night and everyone finally gets back to business.
It’ll certainly be an extremely busy week for Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and director of football administration Khai Harley, the team’s main contract negotiators, who will have to get dozens of players signed and to camp as quickly as possible.
The good news is the Saints have likely gone through lots and lots of personnel scenarios in the last 4‰ months, much as they do before the draft, so they should be ready for just about anything that comes their way.
There is one potential problem: the Saints have 29 free agents who’ll be able to negotiate with any club, including their own, which could affect the chemistry of a team that has won 24 regular-season games and a Super Bowl the past two years.
It’s difficult to tell if having a tight window to re-sign many of those players will help or hinder them, but there’s little doubt the Saints can least afford to lose many players at five critical positions:
Safety: The Saints have only one under contract for the 2011 season and that’s starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins. Starting strong safety Roman Harper, who has made the Pro Bowl the last two seasons, and veteran free safety Darren Sharper, an integral part of their success in 2009, should be priorities along with, perhaps, reserves Usama Young and Chris Reis.
Offensive line: Three starters and a top backup will be free agents, so re-signing them should be high on the to-do list. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod and Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks could be targeted by other teams even though Nicks is a restricted free agent. Starting center Jonathan Goodwin and backup tackle Zach Strief could also draw interest from other teams.
Defensive line: The key free agents are tackle Remi Ayodele, a two-year starter, and end Jeff Charleston and tackle Anthony Hargrove. But the Saints covered themselves here with the addition of tackle Shaun Rogers before the lockout and end Cameron Jordan, one of their two first-round draft picks.
Wide receiver: Lance Moore, a clutch receiver, has been a valuable part of Sean Payton’s offensive arsenal as a second or third option in the passing game and the Saints would help themselves tremendously by making sure he doesn’t get away.
Tight end: The release of Jeremy Shockey made the return of backup David Thomas a priority despite the rapid ascent last season of former University of Miami basketball player Jimmy Graham, who should be Drew Brees’ primary target at this position.