Sean Payton's contract extension has been a huge relief and added some future stability to a team that had anything but that during this 7-9 season. But just how stable are the Saints as we enter this offseason? The fact that Payton is coming back is big not only huge because this season proved how desperately the Saints need him but also because the team may be going through it's most significant makeover since he took over in 2006. Gutting a significant part of the franchise without Payton would have made it near impossible to maintain the franchise's recent winning ways. So why is there a decent shot this team gets at least semi blown up? There's high priced starters that are no longer living up to their contracts, the team is between $15-$20 million over the cap before the offseason even starts, and a large amount of uncertainty surrounds prominent members of the coaching staff.
Consider the following:
News just leaked that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, according to an anonymous player that spoke with Larry Holder, is viewed as a bad coach and despised by the players. The player goes further in affirming he should be fired immediately.
Pete Carmichael Jr.'s contract is up, making him a free agent, and he's already been interviewed for at least one head coaching position. I personally feel his loss would be devastating. Carmichael, with Payton's direction and influence, called most of the plays in the record setting 2011 season. While he had a sophomore slump without Payton this season, he still did well, and his absence would force Payton to once again focus exclusively on play calling in game. As I discussed with Ralph on the podcast, there is no way Payton is even partially trusting anyone else with that responsbility. Payton has said he enjoyed the luxury of looking at the game from different angles thanks to the trust he had in Carmichael. With Carmichael gone, Payton's attention would be honed in more singularly on play calling.
Aaron Kromer, who was the Saints' head coach for 6 games this season and is largely viewed as an outstanding offensive line coach, is a free agent as his contract is also up. I think he is very likely to return in the same role given that he largely flopped in his head coaching stint, but we can't ignore that he's currently wide open and available to anyone that would want him.
Jermon Bushrod is a free agent and will command a decent salary on the open market (if not a big one), Sedrick Ellis is a free agent and almost assuredly not coming back, ditto Devery Henderson and Scott Shanle.
Then there's the cap issue which threatens the tenure of Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Roman Harper most significantly.
Based on all of this, there is a very real scenario in which, worst case, the Saints lose 3 prominent coaches from their staff and five starters from their defense. While I hear most of you saying "good!" and I agree some change in necessary, it's also going to hard to replace some of those holes when you are strapped with cap problems. The 15th pick overall will be nice, but Mickey Loomis is going to have to do some serious massaging yet again. Cutting Will Herring, Smith, Vilma and Harper should put them back to about even with the cap, but they still have to sign rookies, hopefully retain their Pro Bowl left tackle and land free agents to revamp the roster. After all, if you're losing five starters you need to replace them with someone, and replacing them with the backups we had this season is not the answer. So more work will need to be done.
That said, if you were to ask me what the Saints "core" is, I'd say it's the following in this order: Drew Brees, Sean Payton, Jahri Evans, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Lance Moore, Curtis Lofton, Thomas Morstead, Cam Jordan, Ben Grubbs. Those 11 are solidly in place for 2013 and in my opinion can't really be replaced. As long as they are coming back you feel like the Saints can fill moving parts around them and still stay at least competitive. So that's the good news, the core part of the roster aren''t in jeopardy this offseason (like Colston, Brees and Nicks were last year) and it should make for a less stressful few months. Jermon Bushrod isn't far off that list, though, so retaining him would be nice.
All that being said, don't be surprised if the 2013 Saints look very different with a lot of fresh faces because the time to restock and reload seems to be upon us. Unfortunately, the aging top flight defensive starters in Smith, Vilma, Ellis and Harper come with high dollar signs and they haven't lived up to their contracts this season. The coaching staff also proved to have some limitations without Sean Payton. As mentioned previously, this offseason could prove to be the biggest overhaul since 2006.