Saints steadily reaching offseason player goals
By By Richard Dark / EMG staff writer
March 7, 2004
METAIRIE, La. When the New Orleans Saints management relayed to the media early last week that they planned to approach this year's free agency period in a somewhat non-aggressive fashion, their fans no doubt got riled up because of a thirst to see big name stars land in the Crescent City. That's what happens when a team goes 24-24 in the three seasons that have passed since New Orleans' last playoff appearance.
But the fact is, nearly one week into the league wide shopping spree, the Saints are methodically checking off their offseason goals list and in doing so, are spending wisely, most notably by addressing two key needs: cornerback and backup running back. The former came in Fred Thomas, a Bruce native and former Ole Miss standout and perhaps the Saints best cover corner, who is back in the fold. Thomas, an unrestricted free agent, visited Philadelphia before inking a four-year, $14 million contract that included a $5 million signing bonus.
"His coverage skills give the entire unit confidence," said Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis after Thomas signed. "We have put a priority on re-signing the people who have been our top contributors," Loomis said. "Fred certainly qualifies as one of our best players and he is a cog in our defense."
That may be an understatement. Since joining the team in 2000, Thomas has continued to soar each year. Last year, he had a team-high four interceptions and posted a career-best 99 total tackles.
In addition to that, he defended 21 passes and added a sack, a pair of forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. The team also inked reserve CB Fahkir Brown earlier in the week. This is an area the team will likely go through the draft to further shore up. The other incumbent, Dale Carter, likely will be released on June 2 if he doesn't agree to a significant pay cut.
Lena's Deuce McAllister will have a significantly lighter load to bear this fall as well. After shuffling several would-be reserves through the ranks in 2003, Loomis and the Saints think they have found the answer at backup runningback with former Tampa Bay rusher Aaron Stecker.
Stecker, who signed for $4.4 million for four years, is also a solid contributor on special teams. "He is a proven player who we can depend upon to take over at running back if needed," Loomis said. "Or just to give Deuce a rest during a game." Stecker rushed for 402 yards and a touchdown on 101 carries in Tampa and caught 33 passes for 233 yards and two scores.
But the arrival of Stecker could possibly spell the end of a career for one local Saint: Fred McAfee.
McAfee will be 36 by the time training camp rolls around has played in 163 games, but has said he wants to play, "until I'm dead." And his coach Jim Haslett has said publicly that as long as McAfee wants to play, that there will always be a roster spot for him on his team. Last year, McAfee missed two games due to injury and in his Pro Bowl season of 2002, he missed the better part of seven. A complete veteran presence in the locker room, McAfee represents something the Saints are in dire need of, leadership. If he is offered a new one-year deal by the team for the veteran minimum, it likely won't happen until the team has reached some more of their other offseason objectives.
On the defensive line, the situation remains the same for defensive tackle Kenny Smith. Smith is still in negotiations with the Saints regarding the one-year base deal of $628,000, while awaiting other suitors. But the only way Smith will leave town is if a team is willing to provide the Saints with a draft pick compensation because they chose not to match any deal Smith might receive from a new team.
The Saints have been extremely up front in their stance that the run defense was one of the most disappointing areas. They emphasized a need to upgrade along the line and have brought in several free agent tackles this week, but had signed none as of Saturday evening.
Reportedly, St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Brian Young visited Metairie last Thursday but left without a contract because Young's agent demand too high of a dollar value at around four million. Jaguars defensive end Tony Brackens also flew in to visit on Thursday.
Seattle Seahawk tackle Cedric Woodard came to town on Friday and San Francisco 49er Travis Kirschke is due in today.