Brian Allee-Walsh

Saints (still) need to follow 10-step plan in off-season to challenge for Super Bowl LIII

New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) will have to serve a four-game suspension this season for violating the NFL's drug policy.
New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) will have to serve a four-game suspension this season for violating the NFL's drug policy. AP

Back in mid-February, I compiled a 10-step off-season plan to upgrade the Super Bowl-minded New Orleans Saints, beginning with kicking General Manager Mickey Loomis upstairs and turning the football operations over to draft clairvoyant Jeff Ireland.

Well, I'm oh-for-1.

Against my strong recommendation, Loomis remains in control.

I resurrect my 10-step plan at the conclusion of the team's Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and as their off-season program winds down with this week's mandatory mini-camp Tuesday through Thursday.

Incidentally, veteran running back Mark Ingram is expected to participate in the mini-camp after choosing to train in Florida and bypassing the voluntary 10 OTAs. He reportedly wants a new deal after posting his second consecutive 1,000-yard season, even though he must serve a season-opening four-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy.

Step 2: A no-brainer. They re-signed 39-year-old quarterback Drew Brees at a hometown "discount,'' agreeing to a two-year, $50 million deal, well below what he could have gotten if he had played hardball with Loomis. They also addressed this position in free agency, signing veteran Tom Savage to replace FA departure Chase Daniel and rookie free agent J.T. Barrett.

Step 3: They did not aggressively pursue UFA tight end Jimmy Graham, who signed a three-year, $30 million contract with Green Bay that included an $11 million signing bonus. But the Saints did bring back popular veteran Benjamin Watson, who remains a formidable tight end at age 37 and a terrific role model inside the locker room and out in the community.

Step 4: Cut overpaid tight end Coby Fleener after two unproductive seasons. He's a gone pecan, though he leaves behind $5 million in dead money, a cap savings of $3 million in 2018.

Step 5: Say adios to UFA safety Kenny Vaccaro. He remains unsigned after becoming expendable in New Orleans following the emergence of Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell and the acquisition of veteran UFA Kurt Coleman.

Step 6: Re-sign versatile OL Senio Kelemete. He signed a sweetheart deal in Houston, agreeing to a three-year, $12 million contract that features $5 million in guarantees. The Saints offset Kelemete's exit with the signing of former draft pick T/G Jermon Bushrod (D4, '07) to a one year, $1.105 million contract.

Step 7: Re-sign restricted free agent CB Delvin Breaux. The oft-injured New Orleans native with a feel-good story wore out his welcome in his hometown. Team officials filled the void by wooing former draft pick CB Patrick Robinson (D1-'10) away from Super Bowl LII champion Philadelphia with a four-year, $20 million contract that included a $10 million signing bonus.

Step 8: Re-sign veteran UFA DE Alex Okafor. Even though Okafor missed the team's stretch run after tearing his Achilles, he showed enough (4.5 sacks, 43 tackles) in 10 games to warrant a two-year, $6.788 million contract. A healthy Okafor will help in the D-line rotation.

Step 9: Sign a second-tier pass rusher in free agency to complement All-Pro DE Cam Jordan. Saints officials used the draft to address this need, trading up 13 spots in the first round to select Texas-San Antonio DE Marcus Davenport at No. 14. Davenport signed a four-year, $13.742 million contract that includes $13.75 million in guarantees.

Step 10: Draft WR, pass rusher, LB, O-line depth and TE. Team officials addressed most of these needs, selecting Davenport (Round 1), WR Tre'Quan Smith (Round 3), T Rick Leonard (Round 4) and C Will Clapp (Round 7). They also addressed these positions of need in free agency with veterans LB Demario Davis, WR Cameron Meredith, Bushrod, Watson and Okafor.

One last thing. If veteran New England tight end Rob Gronkowski would become available in a trade later on this summer, Saints officials should do everything in their power to acquire him. The two teams have a good working relationship.

That's a big "IF'' on several fronts.

But stranger things have happened.

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.
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