I (want to) believe

Is Ben Watson’s departure cause for concern for the Saints?

            After becoming a team captain, a pillar of the community, a finalist for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year and enjoying career highs last season at age 34, it appeared Benjamin Watson would be entrenched as a Saint for the rest of his career. So when news spread Tuesday that the 6-foot-3, 255-pound tight end would sign a free agent contract with the Baltimore Ravens, it was as jarring as a blindside hit from an unblocked defender.

            For the second year in a row, the Saints will have to replace the production lost when their top tight end, and one of quarterback Drew Brees’ favorite targets, left town. A year ago, in an attempt to shore up a leaky offensive line, the Saints shipped Jimmy Graham to Seattle in exchange for center Max Unger. Watson, who was expected to backup Josh Hill, stepped in with 74 receptions, 825 yards and six touchdowns in 2015, up from 20 catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns a year before. While their record didn’t improve year-over-year, Watson and Unger’s additions where ultimately seen as positives.

            But where Graham, who was trailed by accusations of being a bad teammate once he left New Orleans, was shipped out of town, Watson, a leader in a locker room void of positive peer pressure over the past few seasons, chose to leave on his own.

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            That’s troubling.

            There’s no doubt that the two-year, $8 million deal the Ravens gave Graham had influence. Maybe the Saints couldn’t or wouldn’t match that offer. But is there more to Watson’s decision to leave New Orleans? Do the Ravens give him a better opportunity to go to and win a Super Bowl in the next year or two than the Saints? Is leaving a team and city where he is entrenched as a fan favorite, uprooting his family and relocating almost half way across the country worth it?

            I don’t know. Only he can answer that; and being the gracious man he appears to be, he won’t. But for the Saints fan, it’s as hard to understand his leaving, as it is to take.

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            Unlike the situation with the Denver Broncos and quarterback Brock Osweiler, who left the reigning Super Bowl champions this week to sign a four-year, $72 million deal with the Houston Texans after feeling slighted for being benched during the playoffs for a returning-from-injury Peyton Manning, there didn’t appear to be any fractures, much less fault lines, in this relationship.

            The Saints re-signed tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui, 27, (11 receptions for 76 yards and 3 TDs in 2015) to a three-year, $5.2 million contract and Josh Hill , 25, (16 receptions for 120 yards and 2 TDs last season) to an estimated one-year, $1.67 million deal.

            The team also added former Indianapolis Colts’ tight end Coby Fleener, 27. The 6-foot-6, 251-pounder had 54 receptions for 491 yards and three touchdowns last year after seeing the previous season with 51 catches for 774 yards and eight TDs, both career highs. He became expendable when the Colts signed TE Dwayne Allen to a four-year, $29.4 million deal.

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            With the loss of Watson and Marques Colston, the Saints’ all-time leading receiver, this offseason, much will be asked of the team’s receiving corps this season. The Saints do not currently have an established threat to work the middle of the field and open defenses to running and passing threats. They are hoping Fleener can develop into the threat Graham and Watson have been previously, and will likely look to add a receiver, maybe more, at draft time.

            Unfortunately, the Saints have more time than money when it comes to adding players through free agency and the draft.

            The NFL increased the salary cap to $155.27 million per team for the 2016 league year, up $11.99 million from last year. New Orleans entered the week with an estimated $121.5 million in active cap spending, according to overthecap.com, a website dedicated to tracking NFL salary cap figures. Unfortunately, they had nearly $25 million in dead money, salary to players no longer on the team, going against the cap.

            The Saints’ allotment in dead money increased on Thursday, however, when the team released oft-penalized cornerback Brandon Browner with a post-June 1 designation. That adds an estimated $4.05 million to the dead money total this year and $1.3 million in 2017. Without the designation, Browner would have cost the Saints $6.3 million against the cap this year.

            With Browner included, the Saints have nearly $29 million in dead money, which lowers the max amount they can spend on this year’s team from $155.27 million to nearly $126 million. Without additional roster moves, that leaves the team with an estimated $4.5 million to finalize the roster for the coming season.

            There are whispers that the Saints will restructure Drew Brees’ contract to free up some of the $30 million the quarterback is due this year. That will help the team offer more money to more players with, hopefully, more talent. But the team’s budget will once again be tight.

            I want to believe, but think this will likely be another frustrating year to be a Saints fan. Salary cap woes will likely keep the team mediocre, if not worse. “Bless You, Boys” may take on the same connotations as “Bless your heart” in the local lexicon.

            There is, however, reason to keep the faith. The Saints have $91 million in deals set for 2017 – and only Browner’s $1.3 million will be in dead money. HALLELUJAH! With only 32 players signed for next year, we’ll see plenty of new faces. But with an available $65 million minimum, the Saints will finally be able to afford a major talent upgrade without mortgaging the team’s future.

 

A decade of NFL salary cap growth

    2016        $155.27 million

    2015        $143.28 million

    2014        $133 million

    2013        $123 million

    2012        $120.6 million

    2011        $120 million

    2010        Uncapped

    2009        $123 million

    2008        $116 million

    2007        $109 million

 

 

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