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Reasons for optimism for Saints fans

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Dan Parr

dparr@pfwmedia.com
Associate editor

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Posted March 01, 2012 @ 3:04 p.m. ET
By Dan Parr

Angst levels may be higher than normal for Saints fans this week.

The passionate supporters of the defending NFC South champions are frenzied with fears of free-agency Armageddon dancing in their heads. The concern is understandable considering the predicament facing New Orleans.

A recommended relaxant for these troubling times — viewing the Saints' draft history under head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and director of college scouting Rick Reiprish since Payton was hired in 2006.

We know what's at stake for the team this month with the March 13 start of free agency looming — the face of the franchise, QB Drew Brees, is due to become a free agent. He and the team have no new deal in place with only a few days to go before the March 5 deadline for using the franchise tag, and reports that the two sides remain far apart don't give anyone reason to be optimistic that a new deal is imminent. It's expected that the tag will be placed on him on the 5th if there is no agreement, but using it on Brees would mean that OG Carl Nicks and WR Marques Colston would likely hit the open market, where Nicks could have multiple teams offering to make him the highest-paid guard in league history and Colston could attract attention from several teams looking for help at receiver and willing to spend big to acquire it.

Ideally, the team would be able to sign Brees to a long-term deal before the 5th, use the tag on Nicks or Colston and still have time to hit Coop's Place on Decatur for gumbo and fried chicken before heading to Frenchmen to celebrate keeping two of their "Big Three" free agents from departing.

That would be one of their best-case scenarios, but let's say things don't work out perfectly.

It doesn't look like Brees is going to get to the open market, but what if Colston and Nicks do, and sign elsewhere?

Neither player would be easy to replace. Nicks is arguably the league's best guard and Colston, the closest thing the team has to a No. 1 receiver, has exceeded 1,000 yards in five of his six seasons, including 2011, when he made 80 catches for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns.

But the careers of Colston and Nicks, especially the very start of them, should give Saints fans a lot of hope that they can lose them and still be a contender next season and beyond.

Look where the Saints found them.

Nicks was a fifth-round pick. Colston was a seventh-rounder.

Look elsewhere on the roster. Jahri Evans, the team's other elite guard — the one they made the highest-paid guard in the league in '10 — was picked in the fourth round. OLT Jermon Bushrod, who just made his first Pro Bowl, was selected in the fourth round. One of the breakout stars of the past season, TE Jimmy Graham, came off the board in the third round. A top rusher for the team over the past few seasons, RB Pierre Thomas, wasn't even drafted.

Their draft history is far from perfect. They will miss like everyone else does at times (although less frequently than many), and do not have a first-round pick this year — it was dealt to the Patriots to be in position to draft RB Mark Ingram late in the first round last year. The Saints are not due to make a pick until selection No. 59 this year, but few, if any, clubs have done a better job of finding good-to-elite players in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft than the Saints over the past several seasons and the two positions in which the Saints are in jeopardy of losing key players — guard and wide receiver — happen to be two of the deepest areas of this year's draft.

PFW draft expert Nolan Nawrocki gave both position groups an "A" grade in the PFW 2012 Draft Guide. Defensive tackle, another place where the Saints could be looking for help this offseason, was the only other position graded so highly.

There will be a player available that can help the team right away even if they don't make a pick until No. 59, and he'll come at a much more affordable price than Colston or Nicks.

Let's not forget that the Saints have such difficult decisions to make ahead of free agency this offseason because they have done such a great job of building their roster. Teams don't envy the choices Loomis has to make, but so many of them wish they would have taken a chance on Brees and his surgically repaired shoulder before the '06 season, or gambled on Nicks, who had his share of red flags coming out of Nebraska, in '08.

The Saints' core on offense appears likely to be chipped away at this offseason as we assess the situation today, but if the Saints' brain trust of Loomis and Payton make a major personnel blunder, it would be out of character.

Overpaying to keep a good player could be more damaging to them than letting one go.

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