NEW ORLEANS -- NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the offseason, with the analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The New Orleans Saints were the first team to make major wave when they agreed to terms with former Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr before the new league year started and free agent signings could be made official.
The move allowed the Saints to get their quarterback well ahead of the 2023 NFL draft on April 27, where they now have a first-round pick after trading the rights to former coach Sean Payton to the Denver Broncos this offseason, and they will have an elite wide receiver to pair with Carr in Michael Thomas. Thomas restructured his contract for a second time this offseason, a move that was made to keep him in New Orleans for at least one more year. The Saints also signed wide receiver Bryan Edwards, a move that reunites him with Carr from their days with the Raiders in 2020 and 2021.
While many teams are working to sign free agents the Saints have been trying to retain their own. During the first week of free agency, the Saints re-signed tight end Juwan Johnson to a two-year deal -- giving Carr a valuable option, as Johnson led the team in touchdown receptions last season. The Saints also restructured quarterback Jameis Winston's deal to keep him in New Orleans on a more cap-friendly contract as a viable backup as well as re-signing linebacker Ty Summers and defensive tackle Malcolm Roach, as well as punter Blake Gillikin.
Additionally, the Saints didn't waste any time in adding back-to-back defensive tackles Khalen Saunders and Nathan Shepard. A move they needed to make after losing defensive linemen Shy Tuttle and David Onyemata to free agency. They also added the Detroit Lions' leading rusher, running back Jamaal Williams into the mix after Mark Ingram became a free agent. The Saints have also been signing one-year deals with defensive players such as safety Ugo Amadi , cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr., defensive tackle Malcolm Roach and cornerback Isaac Yiadom.
Here is where we will have a breakdown of every 2023 NFL free agent signing by the Saints, and how each will impact the upcoming season
Derek Carr, QB
The team announced on Saturday that it had signed him to a new two-year deal.
What it means: The Saints likely become the front-runners in the NFC South. New Orleans has struggled on offense since quarterback Drew Brees retired after the 2020 season and has made several attempts to find a replacement, going after Deshaun Watson last year and playing Taysom Hill, Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston, among others. This gives the Saints their starter for several years and allows them to focus on adding offensive weapons.
Who dat ⚜️ pic.twitter.com/DIY8gBGuGu— Derek Carr (@derekcarrqb) March 6, 2023
What's the risk: The money is the big factor here. The Saints will likely need to give Carr a hefty signing bonus to spread out his cap hit over several seasons. That means significant financial fallout if the Saints cut him early into his new contract. The Saints just got Brees' salary off the books this offseason. They carried $11.1 million in dead money charges in both the 2021 and 2022 seasons after his retirement because of the remaining portion of the signing bonus given to him after his extension in 2020.
Jamaal Williams, RB
The Saints and Williams agreed to a three-year deal worth $12 million, including $8 million fully guaranteed.
What it means: This was a high priority position to fill for the Saints, with Ingram becoming a free agent and the uncertainty surrounding Alvin Kamara's playing status with a possible suspension looming. The Saints haven't had a solid duo in the backfield since Kamara was paired with Latavius Murray in 2020, so it makes sense the team would go looking for someone early instead of relying on the undrafted free agent pool.
What's the risk: $8 million guaranteed isn't a cheap investment for a team that's living on the edge with their cap space. But Williams had a huge season last year with the Lions, rushing for over 1,000 yards and leading the league with 17 rushing touchdowns. That production won't be easy to replicate, but if he gets anywhere close to that, it seems like a low-risk, high reward move for the Saints.
Juwan Johnson, TE
The Saints re-signed Johnson to a two-year deal.
What it means: The Saints have two more years to mold one of their best young players. Johnson has only been in the tight end room for two seasons after converting from wide receiver in 2021. He's grown by leaps and bounds since that year and had seven receiving touchdowns last season. With more experience, there's no telling what the ceiling is for Johnson, and given Carr's success with Raiders tight end Darren Waller, keeping Johnson could greatly benefit both players. The Saints needed to keep him to ensure some stability on their offense.
What's the risk: The Saints aren't taking any risks by keeping Johnson on what's likely a team-friendly, two-year deal. Johnson is only 26 and has shown he has a lot to offer at tight end despite his lack of experience. Johnson has played with multiple quarterbacks over the last two seasons, so getting another year to grow is only a plus for a team didn't have any major pending free agents this year.
Let's work https://t.co/9LUue6jpyG— Juwan Johnson (@juwanplease) March 16, 2023
Khalen Saunders, DT
Saunders agreed to a three-year deal.
What it means: Saunders is a massive replacement, who at 6-foot and 324 pounds will be the biggest body on the defensive line. He had 3.5 sacks last season for the Kansas City Chiefs and moves well for his size. He'll immediately slide in as part of the interior rotation and help the run defense. But the Saints will likely continue to explore options for their interior part of their line.
What's the risk: The Saints are banking on Saunders' production in his final year with the Chiefs to show that he's continuing to improve as a player. Saunders had the best stats of his career (48 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 16 games), but typically he only plays about 30 to 40% of the snaps with no starts since 2020. The Saints are clearly hoping he is a player on the rise. While Saunders brings the experience of playing in two Super Bowls, he will have to endure the Saints' growing pains as they replace long-time starters like Onyemata.
Nathan Shepherd, DT
The details of the deal haven't been disclosed at this time.
What it means: Adding Shepherd is part of their effort to overhaul a depleted defensive line. Expect to continue seeing additions through free agency and into the draft as the Saints try to fix the hole in the middle of the line. They'll like be looking for pass rushers too after the departure of Marcus Davenport. If the Saints fix this position in free agency, they might be free to take the best player available when the draft comes around.
What's the risk: It's dependent on the amount of the deal. The Saints need more players to rotate on their defensive line, and Shepherd has been part of the New York Jets' rotation for five seasons. He played 17 games in 2021 and 2022 with four combined starts. Shepherd played for a minimum deal with the Jets in 2022, taking less money to stay, according to ESPN's Rich Cimini. If the price is high, then the Saints will expect him to play a significant role, but if not, he can be a rotational piece with little risk.
Ty Summers, LB
The Saints and Summers have agreed to re-sign to a one-year deal.
What it means: The Saints signed Summers off the Jaguars practice squad on Dec. 20 and he played 55 snaps on special teams last season. The 27-year-old was a 7th round pick for the Packers in the 2019 draft and spent three seasons there as a core special teams player. He was claimed off waivers by the Jaguars after the Packers' 2022 training camp. While this isn't a big move for the defensive side of the ball, the Saints will need help on special teams if they don't re-sign some players like Andrew Dowell and Dwayne Washington.
What's the risk: None. Summers will have to prove himself again during the offseason and training camp, but if he can stick around and make a roster, it'll probably be as a special teams player. A one-year deal provides little risk and these types of contracts are likely how the Saints will continue to fill the roster after their flurry of free agency moves on March 15. Summers' chance to make the roster will likely follow the Dowell path of playing well on special teams.
Blake Gillikin, P
The terms of Gillikin's deal have not been disclosed yet.
What it means: The Saints re-signed their punter one day after they chose not to put a restricted free agent tender on him. Gillikin had to give up his old No. 4 to Carr, but will be back wearing No. 5 this year. The third-year punter is only 25 and likely has a long career ahead of him, so it makes sense for the Saints to keep him in the fold for stability.
What's the risk: Gillikin had a few rough punts last season, and some of his numbers were slightly lower than in his rookie season, but there's a reason the Saints liked him enough to part ways with long-time punter Thomas Morstead. Gillikin has a big leg, and if he has a more consistent season in 2023, this could end up being a key re-signing for New Orleans.
Storm Norton, OT
The Saints signed Norton to a one-year deal.
What it means: Norton got his break with the XFL in 2020 after bouncing around practice squads. He spent three seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers and was their starting right tackle for one year. The 28-year-old is a depth signing at this point with several tackles ahead of him on both sides.
What's the risk: Norton started 15 games at right tackle in 2021 and allowed 13 sacks for the Chargers, according to TruMedia. He was re-signed in 2022 as an exclusive rights free agent but lost his starting job, filling in only briefly at both tackle positions. This seems like the typical low-risk signing that the Saints will be making throughout the offseason as they try to fill their roster and see who can stand out at OTAs.
Ugo Amadi, S
The Saints signed Amadi to a one-year deal.
What it means: The 25-year-old spent the first three seasons of his career with the Seattle Seahawks, where he played defense and special teams. Amadi was selected by the Seahawks with the 132nd pick of the 2019 NFL draft, which was originally a Saints pick sent to the New York Giants in exchange for cornerback Eli Apple. Now he'll get a chance to compete on special teams in New Orleans and potentially a spot in the defensive backs room to add depth at safety.
What's the risk: Low. Amadi signed a 1-year, veteran minimum deal that counts only $940,000 against the cap, meaning the Saints could release him with no dead money. It's been a while since Amadi had extensive playing time, as he was most recently with the Chiefs on their practice squad. He has 50 games of experience, one interception and one forced fumble in his career. At minimum he could end up finding a roster spot on special teams for no risk.
Lonnie Johnson Jr., CB
The Saints agreed to a one-year deal with the former Tennessee Titans center.
What it means: Johnson confirmed on Twitter that he has signed a one-year deal with the Saints after playing 12 games for the Titans last year. Although he only played 165 snaps, the 27-year-old has four seasons of experience and has played multiple positions with the Houston Texans and the Titans. This signing, along with the recent addition Amadi, adds depth to a safety room beyond starters Marcus Maye (who could be facing a potential suspension) and Tyrann Mathieu.
What's the risk: Johnson can play both cornerback and safety and had one of his best seasons in 2021, starting seven games and intercepting three passes. The Saints love "positionless players," especially in their defensive back room -- with the departed P.J. Williams a good example of that. The Saints could certainly find a way to use him like they've used Williams and others in the past. Signing him to a one-year deal seems like a good investment for a team that can always use more defensive backs.
Johnathan Abram, S
The Saints are planning to sign Abram to a one-year deal.
What it means: Abram was a 2019 first-round pick for the Raiders, who didn't pick up his fifth-year option for the 2023 season. Abram was a starter for two years in Las Vegas, but bounced around a few teams in 2022. He also plays special teams and appears to be part of a large contingency of DBs the Saints are signing to get a look at in the offseason.
What's the risk: The Saints have given multiple defensive backs low-risk deals in this free agency period, so Abram is going to have to compete for a spot in that room. Las Vegas didn't work out for Abrams, but the Saints clearly spot some potential and like his experience. This seems to be a trial run to see if landing in the right spot could resurrect his career.
Malcolm Roach, DT
The Saints are re-signing roach to a one-year deal.
What it means: This move provides some continuity to a defensive line room that had several losses. While Roach wasn't a full-time starter, he has played a significant number of snaps in the past three season with the Saints. Roach will be one of the few holdovers from 2022 for a unit that features a new defensive line coach and a lot of familiar faces gone.
What's the risk: The Saints chose not to place a tender on the 2020 undrafted free agent, allowing him to test free agency. While they signed Saunders and Shepherd to replace Tuttle and Onyemata, this is a great opportunity for Roach to, at minimum, be part of the rotation. He played 37% of the snaps last year, and while his roster spot won't be guaranteed on a one-year, low-risk deal, he'll certainly have a leg up with his familiarity with the team.
Isaac Yiadom, CB
Yiadom agreed to a one-year deal with the Saints.
What it means: The Saints signed Yiadom to their practice squad last November after he was cut by the Houston Texans, and he was elevated to the active roster in December. Yiadom appeared in six games, playing 111 snaps on special teams. While Yiadom's return comes after a run of recent defensive back signings, this appears to be more of a special teams move than a move for the defensive back's room.
What's the risk: None. Yiadom hasn't really taken any snaps on defense since he was with the Green Bay Packers in 2021. But the 2018 third-round pick is a veteran with extensive specials teams experience. This is always a good route to try to make the roster, and it's likely this is a deal where he would compete for a roster spot versus any extensive guarantees.
Bryan Edwards, WR
The terms of the deal weren't released.
What it means: Edwards reunites with Carr after they were together on the Raiders for the first two seasons of his career. Edwards said he didn't need to reach out to Carr about whether New Orleans was a fit because he already knew what kind of person and player the team had in Carr. However, he did take more notice of the Saints as a potential landing spot once Carr chose to sign there earlier in the offseason. This move could be a way to build back up depth with Marquez Callaway signing with the Denver Broncos.
What's the risk: The Saints should try out as many receivers as possible after struggling on offense the last few years, and it makes sense to bring in someone Carr is familiar with. Edwards said he is "a willing competitor, someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to make the roster and contribute." Although he had only three catches for the Atlanta Falcons last year, he had 45 catches for four touchdowns and 764 yards in Atlanta, showing he might be able to make some contributions if the fit is right.
Andrew Dowell, LB
Dowell has agreed to a one-year deal.
What it means: Dowell made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2020 after being a consistent standout in training camp, thanks to his high energy and knack for forcing turnovers. While Dowell hasn't been a big part of the defense, he's grown into one of the key players on special teams, taking 85% of the snaps on that unit in 2022. The 26-year-old is a home-grown player that the Saints unsurprisingly elected to bring back.
What's the risk: None. Dowell is a depth signing that could end up being one of the backbones of the special teams unit over the next few years if he continues to re-sign. Signing him to a low cost deal makes sense even if he ends up being a career special teams player instead of a reserve on defense. Ideally Dowell could grow as a defensive player as well with a few more years behind Demario Davis.