The second wave of the NFL free agency season opens up on June 1. After June 1, teams can release veteran players and split their salary cap cost over this season and the next.
When an NFL team releases a player, the remaining unpaid signing bonus must be paid up. The signing bonus is the only guaranteed money in NFL contracts, and is regarded in contract negotiation as just as important, if not more important, than the player's base salary.
June 1 fell on a Saturday this year, meaning that most cap-related personnel moves would be made after the weekend. The Saints waited until June 4, a Monday, last year to officially announce the release of WR Keith Poole.
The Saints have already told one veteran, OLB Keith Mitchell, that he would be released after June 1. His release from the Saints is expected to be made official on Tuesday, June 4. Mitchell has started at strongside linebacker for the Saints for four years, but his production tailed of badly in 2001. The Texas A&M product was declared inactive for the Saints' final game of the 2002 season. Mitchell hasn't been participating in any practices with the Saints, including the first minicamp.
Mitchell was signed to a five-year extension in the middle of the 1999 season with a $2 million signing bonus.
Mitchell's release will also open up a roster spot, which the Saints could fill as early as tomorrow. Last year at this time, the Saints picked up a host of street free agents, including veteran TE Johnny Mitchell.
There is a possibility that the Saints could release other veterans. CB Kevin Mathis is coming off of a series of neck injuries and also carries a base salary of $1.65 million this season. Mathis signed a five-year contract with a $2 million signing bonus in March of 2001, and has played more than well enough to match his pay. But the neck injuries, despite being medically cleared, are worrysome.
Mathis is healthy and as reported earlier on this site has been given the official OK to continue his football career. Mathis has started 29 regular season games and two postseason games for the Saints, including all 18 games of the 2000 season. Although not especially fast or sizable he is generally regarded as one of the best run-support cornerbacks in the league.
There is also a possibility that the Saints would release veteran P Toby Gowin, because of the number of young punters on the roster now. That decision would hinge on the Saints' attitude about young punters Dan Hadenfeldt, Dirk Johnson (NFL Europe), and rookie Javier Beorlegui. Beorlegui handled both kicking and punting duties for Central Florida last season. Gowin hasn't had the best punting average but is valuable to the team because he is a surprisingly efficient tackler and also handles kickoff duties.
However, the Saints will likely carry both Kevin Mathis and Toby Gowin into training camp. Mathis will compete with veteran Ken Irvin and youngsters Michael Hawthorne and Keyou Craver for spots on the Saints' cornerback depth chart behind Fred Thomas and Dale Carter. Gowin will compete for his job as well.
NOPF and WWL's Kenny Wilkerson reported last week that the Saints may wait until training camp to sign a backup runningback. The Saints would like to see two of their undrafted free agent runningbacks, Jonathan Adams and Ricky Williams, in pads to evaluate them. It is possible that the Saints could enter the season with the two as the primary backups to Deuce McAllister, although the acquisition of a veteran runningback is expected.
Adams is a beefy but raw power back from Arkansas State, and Ricky Williams is an elusive and versatile but diminutive scat back from Texas Tech. The Saints also have Jeff Chaney, out of football last season, and James Fenderson, who was with the Saints last season on the practice squad but is recovering from a knee injury. Veteran Fred McAfee is officially a runningback but plays only on special teams.
Behind McAllister they have no runningbacks who have started an NFL game, so adding experience is an obvious target for the team. However, GM Mickey Loomis has said that there are no players available or expected to be released that the Saints are eager to sign.
In previous years, the Saints have waited until training camp to sign some key veterans. LB Darrin Smith in 2000 and K John Carney in 2001 were two veterans the Saints signed in the middle of training camp.
Former Saints OL Daryl Terrell was a quick beneficiary of the June 1 player cuts. After releasing big-ticket players WR Keenan McCardell and LB Hardy Nickerson, the Jaguars used their newly-found cap room to sign Terrell to a two-year contract.
Of the players released so far, the big ticket positions have been offensive line and wide receiver. San Francisco G Ray Brown, Buffalo T John Fina, Green Bay WR Antonio Freeman, Kansas City WR Derrick Alexander, McCardell and Nickerson were among the top names. Also let go were Detroit QB Charlie Batch, Atlanta RB Jamal Anderson, and Washington DE Marco Coleman.