New Orleans Saints' 2018 free agency: Return of TE Benjamin Watson helps on, off field

Saints planning for future with Brees deal (1:38)

Adam Schefter explains how Drew Brees' two-year deal gives the Saints more time to groom his potential successor. (1:38)

A breakdown of the New Orleans Saints' 2018 free-agent signings.

Benjamin Watson, TE

The Saints continued an offseason filled with reunions Wednesday, agreeing to a one-year deal with Watson after he spent the past two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. Here’s a closer look at the signing:

Grade: B-plus. Watson is bound to drop off at some point now that he’s 37 years old. But he was still more productive than all of the Saints’ tight ends combined last season, with 61 catches for 522 yards and four touchdowns, while coming back from a torn Achilles. And the “plus” part of this grade is what a tremendous fit he is in the locker room as a former team captain and annual NFL Man of the Year candidate.

What it means: This won’t prevent the Saints from drafting a tight end as early as Round 1. But now they won’t feel forced to do so if the grades don’t match up. Tight end has been a disappointment for the Saints ever since they let Watson go to Baltimore in 2016 and tried to upgrade by signing Coby Fleener to a big-money deal. It will be interesting now to see if Fleener remains with the team or if the Saints consider releasing him to save $3 million in salary. Watson isn’t a dynamic offensive weapon, but he is a solid pass-catcher and blocker -- and he had his career-best season in New Orleans in 2015, with 74 catches for 825 yards and six TDs after the Saints traded away Jimmy Graham. Coach Sean Payton called the tight end position a “must” for this offseason, and the Saints actually flirted with bringing back Graham earlier this month before the price tag got too high.

What’s the risk: The risks are pretty obvious with a 37-year-old who tore his Achilles just two years ago, particularly considering that Watson has never been a Pro Bowl-caliber offensive weapon at any stage of his career. But this will be a minimal deal, so there’s no financial risk associated with it. And Watson is about as low-risk as it gets when it comes to a player’s versatility on the field and leadership abilities off it.

Alex Okafor, DE

The Saints brought back one of their best free-agent signings from 2017, agreeing to a two-year deal with defensive end Alex Okafor, per a source. Here’s a closer look at the signing:

Grade: A-minus. Okafor is coming back from a torn Achilles, which makes him something of a question mark. But that was factored into his price tag, which is "up to $10 million" over two years, per a source -- presumably including some incentives. If Okafor plays anywhere near his 2017 level, that will be a great bargain. I had DE listed as the Saints’ No. 1 need this offseason, and they kept Okafor away from a division rival after he visited with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

What it means: Okafor is expected to be fully healthy in time for training camp. If he can return to form, he should once again be the Saints’ No. 2 starting end opposite from first-team All-Pro Cameron Jordan -- with the ability to move inside in certain packages. Okafor played roughly 80 percent of the Saints’ snaps on defense last year while starting all 10 games he played. The Saints could still look to add a dynamic edge rusher to the rotation, perhaps in the draft. But they now have solid depth that also includes second-year pro Trey Hendrickson and veteran George Johnson. And they are a considering a major upgrade to their interior defensive line as they visit with free agent Ndamukong Suh on Friday.

What’s the risk: Obviously there is a health risk, since a torn Achilles is a major injury. But the Saints clearly felt comfortable enough with his progress to bring him back. Also, 2017 was something of a career breakout for the 27-year-old veteran after he battled injuries and played more of a part-time role during his first four years with the Arizona Cardinals. Clearly, the fit with the Saints was a great one for both sides, though. His re-signing felt like a no-brainer.

Jermon Bushrod, OL

The Saints are bringing back another blast from the past -- versatile veteran offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod -- to replace versatile backup Senio Kelemete. Here’s a closer look at the signing:

Grade: B. The Saints know Bushrod well after he spent his first six years in New Orleans from 2007 to 2012, winning a Super Bowl and going to two Pro Bowls as their starting left tackle. More importantly, the 33-year-old has spent the past two years as the Miami Dolphins’ starting right guard, which gives him the versatility to be the kind of “super-utility” backup that Kelemete was.

What it means: Bushrod won’t be a projected starter, with the Saints already loaded at both tackle spots (Terron Armstead, Ryan Ramczyk) and both guard spots (Larry Warford, Andrus Peat). But they were suddenly starving for proven depth and insurance after longtime veteran Zach Strief announced his retirement and Kelemete was signed away by the Houston Texans. Bushrod battled foot and wrist injuries in a bit of a down year with the Dolphins in 2017. But assuming he gets back to full health, he should be a reliable option to fill in at all four spots when needed. And that’s hugely important -- as the Saints showed last year when projected backups Ramczyk and Kelemete wound up starting a total of 27 games, including the playoffs.

What’s the risk: I’m assuming this will be a minimal deal (the financials haven’t been reported yet), so there’s really no risk. But obviously Bushrod is a little bit of an unknown at this late stage of his career. So the Saints would still be wise to target some young depth across the offensive line. But his combination of experience and familiarity with the Saints should serve him well.

Tom Savage, QB

The Saints swapped out veteran backup quarterbacks Wednesday, agreeing to a deal with former Houston Texans signal-caller Tom Savage after they lost Chase Daniel to the Chicago Bears. Here’s a closer look at the signing:

Grade: B-plus. Assuming Savage doesn’t cost very much (the financials aren’t available yet), what’s not to like? The Saints needed a backup option after the Bears paid Daniel a lot of money. And Savage has a good combination of starting experience and potential at 27 years old.

What it means: Savage might not even win the backup job, since Sean Payton is so high on second-year pro Taysom Hill (an athletic dual-threat QB who spent last summer with the Green Bay Packers after going undrafted out of BYU). In fact, Payton has gushed so much over Hill you would almost label Savage as the “dark horse” in the competition. Plus, there is always the possibility the Saints could draft a quarterback early, though it seems unlikely this year, since they don’t pick until 27th in Round 1 and don’t have a second-round pick. But all that said, Savage seems like the perfect kind of low-risk veteran to take a flier on. The 2014 fourth-round draft pick went into last season as Houston’s starter before rookie sensation Deshaun Watson replaced him at halftime of the opener. The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder has started a total of nine games over the past two seasons with a 2-7 record. He has a career completion percentage of 57.5 with five touchdowns and seven interceptions.

What’s the risk: Obviously it’s a huge risk if Drew Brees gets injured and the Saints don’t have a proven backup. But they have never spent much on their backup QB during the Payton-Brees era. And if they don’t like what they see from Savage or Hill this summer, maybe they can sweet-talk Luke McCown back to New Orleans for more security. Other than that, I like the idea of giving a quarterback guru like Payton as many talented prospects as possible to audition.

Demario Davis, LB

The Saints are signing veteran linebacker Davis away from the New York Jets with a three-year, $24 million contract, sources told ESPN's Dianna Russini. Here's a closer look at the signing:

Grade: C-minus. I like the player, but I have questions about the fit and the value at $8 million per year. Davis, 29, is an inside linebacker and veteran leader who just had his career-best season with 135 tackles and five sacks while playing every snap for the Jets. But he sounds an awful lot like current Saints inside linebackers A.J. Klein, Manti Te'o and Craig Robertson. Davis is not an athletic outside linebacker who excels in pass coverage, which is what the Saints really need.

What it means: I'll be curious to find out. I'm not sure how the Saints can fit Davis, Klein, Te'o and Robertson all on the roster -- especially considering they so often use two linebackers on passing downs. Davis (6-foot-2, 248 pounds) and Klein both have the ability to be every-down players at Mike and Sam. So perhaps Te'o will be the odd man out, even though he was solid as a part-time starter and injury replacement for Klein at a cheap price last season. Davis was outstanding for the Jets after he helped to facilitate a trade back to New York by taking a pay cut (he began his career with the Jets in 2012 before spending one season with the Cleveland Browns in 2016). Davis also reportedly dedicated himself to a better diet and workout program. Pro Football Focus rated him as the best free-agent linebacker in the NFL this year, though ESPN had him ranked No. 62 overall among all free agents heading into Wednesday. Davis battled some inconsistency early in his career, but he has never missed a game and has had at least 90 tackles in each of the past five seasons.

What's the risk: Just like with their earlier signing on Wednesday (cornerback Patrick Robinson), the Saints are paying a premium for an "older" player who is coming off a career-best season. ESPN's Rich Cimini reported earlier this offseason that the Jets were interested in bringing Davis back -- but that they saw him in the $3 million to $4 million range. Other than that, Davis would hardly be labeled as "risky" considering his history of durability and the intangible leadership qualities he brings.

Patrick Robinson, CB

The Saints reunited with Robinson, their first-round pick in 2010 who spent the past three years with the Chargers, Colts and Eagles. Here's a closer look at the signing:

Grade: B-minus. I'm a little torn here, since Robinson struggled during most of his five years in New Orleans before a change of scenery served him well. (He had his best season yet as a slot cornerback in Philadelphia last year.) But if the Saints are getting the older and improved version, then Robinson, 30, will fill one of their biggest needs. And I like the value at four years and $20 million, per a source.

What it means: The Saints' secondary was vastly improved last year, thanks to the breakouts of NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore and second-year pro Ken Crawley at cornerback and rookie Marcus Williams at free safety. But they made the nickel/slot cornerback position a top priority in free agency -- especially since they decided to let safety Kenny Vaccaro go after he often manned the slot in the past. Robinson was one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL last year in Philly, with four interceptions and a whopping 18 passes defensed in the regular season, plus another huge interception that he returned for a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game. The Saints also signed free-agent safety Kurt Coleman as a smart veteran to lead a young secondary that also includes versatile third-year pro Vonn Bell. So the secondary feels pretty stacked now.

What's the risk: The Saints are paying premium value for a guy who has battled highs and lows throughout his career -- especially during his time in New Orleans. (Philly, by contrast, got Robinson on a one-year veteran minimum deal last year after he battled injuries and inconsistent play in Indianapolis.) But Robinson and the rest of the NFL have had plenty of time now to figure out where he fits best, which he showed while playing part time in the slot in both New Orleans and San Diego. Robinson has admitted that he wasn't mentally strong enough to handle the roller coaster early in his career (which included a rough year in his one season as a full-time starter in 2012, followed by a major knee injury in 2013). But the Saints kept showing faith in him, and he showed some glimpses of improvement in 2014 before having success in San Diego and Philadelphia. The Saints have clearly never lost that faith in him.

Drew Brees, QB

The Saints signed Brees to a two-year, $50 million extension. Here's a closer look at the signing:

Grade: A. The Saints got a discount on this deal, which only included $27 million guaranteed (nearly $60 million less than deals for Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo and Matthew Stafford). A source said that at least one other team was willing to offer two years and $60 million guaranteed for the future Hall of Famer.

What it means: Eventually the Saints will move on from Brees if his production starts to decline or if they're ever in position to draft an elite replacement. But neither of those things is true this year. Brees, 39, still played at a Pro Bowl level last year while setting the NFL record for completion percentage (72.0) and helping the Saints return to the playoffs for the first time in four years. And because he is now flanked by a loaded offensive line, dynamic run game and rising young defense, the Saints don’t need him to be Superman (he threw for his fewest yards and touchdowns in his 12 years with the team last season). The Saints nearly drafted Patrick Mahomes II with the 11th pick in 2017. But it seems unlikely they’ll get a chance at a top prospect this year, since they don’t pick until No. 27 in Round 1 and don’t have a second-round pick.

What’s the risk: Well, Brees turns 40 next year. So eventually he’s bound to start declining. But that’s why the Saints have been so intent on paying him just one year at a time -- and they’re lucky he has been willing to play ball. There’s also a risk with paying any player $25 million (roughly one-seventh of the salary cap). No team has won a Super Bowl with a QB costing more than $20 million against the cap yet, partly due to Tom Brady’s history of hometown discounts in New England. But that’s the going rate for elite quarterbacks, so you’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t.

George Johnson, DE

The New Orleans Saints re-signed veteran defensive end George Johnson to a one-year deal, according to ESPN’s Field Yates. Here’s a closer look at the signing:

Grade: B-plus. This move feels like a no-brainer after Johnson signed with the Saints last December and played so well down the stretch. The 30-year-old is not the game-changer they need at the position, but he proved he can provide valuable depth.

What it means: I still have defensive end ranked as the Saints’ No. 1 need. They need an impact player on the opposite end from first-team All-Pro Cameron Jordan. And it’s unclear if Alex Okafor can be that guy again, since Okafor is coming off of a torn Achilles and remains unsigned as a free agent. But Johnson is obviously a good fit for the rotation. The former Buccaneers, Vikings and Lions journeyman came in last December and racked up 2.5 sacks in his first two games. Then he started both of New Orleans’ playoff games.

What’s the risk: Not much, since I assume this is a veteran-minimum deal -- and since the Saints won’t be counting on Johnson to be their full-time starter. The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder started just five games with six sacks in his eight-year career before joining the Saints. And strangely, all six of those sacks came in 2014 with Detroit.

Kurt Coleman, S

The New Orleans Saints got a jump start on free agency Friday night, agreeing to a three-year contract with veteran safety Kurt Coleman after he was released by the rival Carolina Panthers. Here’s a closer look at the signing:

Grade: B. It’s not quite a blockbuster, since Coleman has never made a Pro Bowl during a very good eight-year career. But the 29-year-old fills a big need for a Saints team that is planning to let longtime starter Kenny Vaccaro leave in free agency. Coleman is a versatile free safety/strong safety and a respected leader who was voted as a captain in Carolina last year. He should be just as valuable off the field as on it.

What it means: This move reminds me a lot of the one New Orleans made last year when it poached veteran linebacker A.J. Klein from the Panthers in free agency. The Saints need a steady veteran leader for their young secondary, where their top four players all have two years of experience or fewer (CBs Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley; safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell). And Coleman is a smart player who was praised for being that type of leader for a young Panthers secondary in the past three years. The Saints clearly know the Panthers’ personnel as well as anybody, and they also had success when they signed veteran receiver Ted Ginn Jr. away from Carolina last year.

Coleman (5-foot-11, 208 pounds) will battle Bell for the starting strong safety job, but both of them should play a lot because New Orleans features so many three-safety packages. Coleman’s best season came as a free safety in 2015, when he had seven interceptions in the regular season and two more in the playoffs to help lead Carolina to a Super Bowl. But he has also played a lot of strong safety, and the Saints will like that flexibility. A seventh-round pick in 2010, Coleman has 74 career regular-season starts, five playoff starts and 23 career interceptions (including the playoffs) with the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and Panthers.

Lastly, as a nice bonus that really doesn’t guarantee anything, Coleman is from Ohio State -- which has become a gold mine for New Orleans in recent years (Lattimore, Ginn, Bell and receiver Michael Thomas).

What’s the risk: The full details of the contract haven’t been released yet, but the NFL Network reported it’s worth up to $18 million, with $6.5 million in Year 1. That’s a pretty significant investment, so Coleman needs to prove that he still has some good years left after his 30th birthday this summer. The Panthers obviously deemed him expendable after he went from seven interceptions in 2015 to four in 2016 and zero last year. I’m obviously being optimistic when I compare the move to the Klein deal. It could also be compared to the Saints’ 2016 signing of veteran linebacker James Laurinaitis, which didn’t work out as well.

The Saints burned Coleman in his last game when they got him to bite on a Thomas route before throwing an 80-yard TD pass to Ginn in the playoffs. But Coleman has snagged two interceptions and forced two fumbles against the Saints in the past three years, too. And the Saints obviously developed a healthy respect for him, aggressively moving to sign him during the NFL scouting combine, where he reportedly also drew interest from the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Giants, among others.