This just in: Carl Nicks is a total badass.

And soon, very soon, he's no longer gonna be a New Orleans Saint.

Punch me in the dick if you must, but I'm afraid that despite my best efforts to remain in denial for as long as possible, I've finally come to the point where I can no longer ignore the writing on the wall. So I figure now might be a good time to go ahead and get a head start on the inevitable rationalizing. There's gotta be a silver lining somewhere, right? 

Now before you shoot off that angry email to remind me once again what an asshole I am, let me be perfectly clear. I love Carl Nicks. He's the single best guard in the damn league, he's not the least bit "overrated" and there's no denying that losing him is gonna suck something fierce.

But at the same time, he deserves the opportunity to get paid "market value" and he deserves a long-term deal, even if he's gotta leave the Saints to get it. We here at moosedenied refuse to hold that against him. 

Ideally, he'd be able to get that long-term "market-value" deal from the Saints. That's still clearly the preferred scenario, by a mile. Bird in hand and all. Teams don't get better by letting their best players leave. And as our friends at GSEZ periodically remind us, the six most important guys on this team are Drew Brees and the five guys who keep him clean.

Most of us are still holding onto the hope that Mickey Loomis is gonna pull some wizardry out of his ass and figure out a way to keep Nicks (and Colston) here. Hey, fingers crossed. But we've also been pretty sure all along that that's what it's gonna take, nothing short of wizardry. A minor miracle. And while I'm sure it's probably just barely on this side of possible to get "the Big Three" all signed, my gut is telling me that it ain't gonna happen, and I'm beginning to question whether or not the organization even intends to try very hard.

Don't take that as an indictment against Mickey Loomis though. Not only would it not necessarily be the end of the world if he can't sign all three, I'm beginning to wonder if it would be such a bad thing if he chooses not to. I'm not sure it's the no-brainer most of us have been assuming. There are potential downsides to doing it, and potential upsides to not doing it.

What Loomis absolutely, positively can't let happen is getting into a situation where he has to put the tag on Drew and let Nicks walk for nothing. That's our disaster scenario. So for the sake of our own mental stability, let's go on the assumption that there's no way in hell Loomis allows that to happen. The premise here is that Drew signs before March 5 and Nicks gets the tag.

From there, of course, one of two things has to happen to keep Nicks on the team. They're either gonna have to give him a larger contract than the 7 years, $56.7MM they gave Jahri Evans (and probably also more than the $8.5MM "average value per year" the Patriots gave Logan Mankins) or they're gonna have to make Nicks play out 2012 in tag limbo for $9.4MM. Both scenarios carry significant risk in and of themselves, of course.

Look, I obviously don't know Carl Nicks personally. I don't have any reason or desire to assail the guy's character, and it's certainly not fair to Nicks to project the sins of other players onto him. There's no reason for me to believe that Nicks would "pull a Charles Grant" and get fat & happy after becoming the highest paid guard in league history. But there was no reason to think anything like that would happen with Jahri Evans either.

And while few would assert that Evans has been coasting or anything like that, few would argue that his level of play hasn't slipped just a bit since he got that contract. He's still one of the top 2 or 3 guards in the league of course, but most observers agree that for the last 2 seasons, he hasn't exactly been "Jahri Evans Good." If it can happen to Jahri, it can happen to anybody. And it happens to lots of guys all over the league, and to a far greater degree. There's always the possibility that you're not gonna get what you thought you were paying for. And by the time that becomes apparent, it's already too late.

That's a pretty crappy reason not to sign an elite player in his prime, of course. Especially when that player's been on your roster for 4 years already and you know the guy inside and out. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!) Unless there are red flags that make you think the guy's gonna stop working as soon as he cashes in, you can't let fear dictate your course of action. All I'm saying is that the risk is real, and it's omnipresent. And when the stakes are potentially as high as 7 years/$60MM, you better be damn sure. Because if you're wrong, you're fucked.

Hey, it's pretty freakin' sweet having two top-5 guards. But it's damn near impossible to stay in the black from a bang-for-the-buck standpoint when they're both under contracts that (at the time the contracts were signed) were the richest contracts at the position in league history.

Now please don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying it's a bad idea to hold onto the best players on your team, especially when they're also the best in the league. That would be a pretty stupid position to take. It's also stupid to put too much importance on "lack of upside" when the guy is already the best in the league. Status quo is just fine in that case, thank you very much.

But at the same time, one of our favorite rules of thumb here at moosedenied is that smart teams don't pay players for what they've done, they pay players for what they're going to do. And when the best case scenario is paying 10 times as much for more of the same (nice as more of the same would be) and the downside is paying a fuckload more for somewhat less, the odds aren't exactly on your side.

The other scenario is to just tag him and ride it out for 2012, but that carries significant risk as well. As fans, it's easy for us to say "Tough shit, Carl. Them's the rules. Go cry on DeMaurice Smith's shoulder if that $9.4MM just ain't doing it for ya." But here in the real world, it doesn't work that way. Here in the real world, having a disgruntled employee is a real live bona fide problem. You can tell him to shut the fuck up and "quit crying" and "suck it up" all you want, but that doesn't mean he's gonna. You can call him an asshole for holding out and DEMAND(!!!) that he get his ass in camp, but that doesn't mean he's gonna. You can talk about how Loomis is well within his rights to tag him, and this is what Nicks signed up for, and "don't hate the playah, hate the game" and all that shit until the cows come home, but none of that is gonna convince Nicks that he's not getting screwed. (Mainly because he's right, he is getting screwed.)

And at that point, it really doesn't matter a whole lot who's "in the right" and who's "in the wrong." Once it gets ugly, it's ugly. And that's not good for anybody. 

A couple weeks ago, somebody at CSC (I'm sorry that I can't remember who it was) made what I thought was a damn good point. The Saints are already as in the black as they're ever gonna be with Nicks (and Colston, for that matter.) They've already reaped The Big Reward for having "found" Nicks, in that they've had one of the best guards in the league on the cheap for 4 seasons. That's nothing short of winning the fuckin' lottery. Same goes for having fallen ass-backwards into found Colston in the 7th round and having him on the cheap for six seasons.

No matter what happens from here on, nobody's ever gonna get more for less out of either of those guys than the Saints already have. Nicks could go on to be The Next Larry Allen in Dallas, and I'm sure they'd be thrilled with that, but they'd also be paying north of $9MM a year for the privilege. And as much as I'd love for Nicks to become The Next Larry Allen while wearing black & gold, having to pay him "market value" for the next six years can only diminish the overall profit margin of the whole exercise.

Buy low, sell high, right?

Sucks having to part with an asset you're particularly fond of, but there comes a point when the smart play is to collect your profit and let someone else assume the expense of maintaining the asset.

"BUT WANG, HOW IN THE FUCK ARE THE SAINTS GONNA REPLACE THE BEST GUARD IN THE LEAGUE?!?!?"

Well, that's the rub, isn't it? They won't. It'd be damn near impossible. Replacing Nicks with any other guard is almost certain to be a downgrade, you'll get no argument from me on that.

But as awesome as Carl Nicks is, it's not like the whole thing is gonna come crashing down without him. Drew Brees got along just fine for two years with Jamar Nesbit at left guard, for crying out loud.

Sure, at the time, Nesbit was lining up between Jammal Brown and Jeff Faine as opposed to Jermon Bushrod and Brian de la Puente. And if your position is that Nicks is the load-bearing beam that's keeping the whole left side of the line from being a complete trainwreck at this point, I suppose I don't have much more to offer in the way of a retort than "Fair enough. You might be right."

But heads were exploding when the Saints let Jeff Faine go in favor of Jonathan Goodwin. Then again when they let Jammal Brown go in favor of Jermon Bushrod. Then again when they let Jonathan Goodwin go in favor of (as it would eventually turn out to be) Brian de la Puente. And the Saints ended up getting along just fine in each of those situations. They weren't without their challenges, of course. But they weren't exactly disasters either (Olin Kreutz notwithstanding.)

Similar deal with Colston. Much as I love the guy, and as much ass as he's kicked for the Saints over the last six seasons, the fact remains that back in 2008 when Colston missed a huge chunk of the season, Lance Moore went all 79 for 928 with it, and scored 10 touchdowns. And the Saints were still #1 in the league in total offense, scoring offense, passing offense and passing touchdowns.

Again, I'm not saying I don't want Colston back, because I do. But the Saints have already cashed in on Colston to a far greater degree than could reasonably have been expected, and anything from here is just gravy. Gravy that's made of duck liver, sturgeon roe, white truffles and a shitload of saffron. Which might be delicious, but I'd just as soon take our friend compensaTed's word for it rather than taking a second mortgage out on the house to find out for myself.

Meantime, the other Big Downer of this particular offseason is the grim reality that the Best Case Scenario is little more than just signing The Big Three and doing 2011 all over again while crossing our fingers for better results in the playoffs.

And there's nothing wrong with that necessarily, especially when you went 13-3 and won a playoff game last season, and probably "shoulda" won the Super Bowl if not for nine separate misfortunes in San Francisco. If there's ever a good time to just stand pat and roll with what you've already got, now's as good a time as any. Which is why most of us are fully on board with doing just that.

But on the other hand, "In this league, if you're not going forward, you're going backward." Am I right, Message Board Guy? High five!

And we've all long since resigned ourselves to the fact that if the Saints sign The Big Three, that's pretty much gonna be it. There's just not gonna be any money left over for any significant changes where we really need 'em, on defense. And giving huge raises to Brees, Nicks and Colston isn't gonna make them kick any more ass than they already do.

Throwing whatever crumbs that might be left over at a couple of relatively crappy free agent defenders (again) isn't likely to be of much help either.

So if the Saints want to get significantly better this offseason, they're gonna have to roll the dice. They're gonna have to borrow from Peter to pay Paul. It's the only shot they've got.

And therein lies the opportunity.

Bet you didn't know that the Chinese use the same word for "crisis" and "opportunity" did ya? Oh, it's true. Crisitunity.

Pop quiz, hot shot: What do Jermon Bushrod, Carl Nicks, Brian de la Puente, Jahri Evans and Zach Strief all have in common? None of them were drafted higher than the 4th round. Four of them were drafted by the Saints and the fifth was signed off the street after having been cut by about 17 other teams.

Extra credit: What do Marques Colston and Lance Moore have in common? Aside from being the Saints' two best wideouts for the last several years, that is.

If you don't have a whole lot of choice but to borrow from Peter to pay Paul, who better to play the role of Peter than an offensive lineman and/or a wideout? Over the last six years, the Saints have repeatedly demonstrated one hell of a knack for plucking guys from relative obscurity at those positions, plugging them right in and not skipping a beat.

Around this time last year, everybody was insisting that was the case at the tailback position. People were ready to roll with Chris Ivory and Lynell Hamilton (along with that dude who used to wear #25.) Some even went so far as to suggest that the Saints ought to let Pierre Thomas walk. And most scoffed at the very notion of taking a tailback in the first round (or even the second or third or fourth) because of some mostly-mythical perceived ability to pluck a Pro Bowler or three from some big bin of undrafted tailbacks. But unlike at tailback, the Saints' ability to find wideouts and offensive linemen isn't a load of bullshit. It's been well-established over and over again.

Look, I understand that it's not exactly wise to bank on continuing to win the lottery on a semi-regular basis. Nor is it usually wise to "create holes" on your roster during free agency. It's the same reason most of us are resistant to the idea of releasing some subset of Will Smith, Sedrick Ellis and Jonathan Vilma, despite the potential for huge cap savings and despite legitimate questions about what we can expect from them going forward. It's the same reason most of us didn't want to let Reggie Bush go.

It's even more counterintuitive with guys like Nicks and Colston, because they're far better players than any of those other guys, and they carry no such concerns about whether they're declining. If money were no object, of course you'd give Nicks and Colston whatever it took to keep them.

But remember the premise. We're trying to make lemonade here. We're trying to find a silver lining in the aftermath of what most of us currently consider a worst case scenario actually having come to pass. (A scenario that's beginning to seem more and more likely by the week.)

And the silver lining is that it buys you flexibility. A hell of a lot more flexibility than the zero most of us have been assuming there would be this offseason.

Jonesing for that 2012 first round pick right about now, aren't ya? Don't lie, you know you are. You've been jonesing for it ever since Mark Ingram put that Saints cap on his head last April. Well, how'd you like it back? No? Okay, how about a higher one than you'd have had in the first place?

Dallas currently holds the #14 overall. Dallas's guards currently blow. Dallas is run by a half-crazy person who shits thousand dollar bills and frequently makes decisions based on his "gut" and with stars in his eyes. He has a flair for the flashy, bold and dramatic. Back in Jerrah's glory days, Dallas had a guard who went to 10 Pro Bowls, including 7 straight, and will soon be a Hall of Famer. Cowboys fans are leaving puddles of drool on the ground over the idea of signing The Next Larry Allen, and I'd wager that Jerrah is too.

Still rather keep Nicks? Yeah, me too. But it's one hell of a consolation prize, no? How about if we throw a 3rd or 4th in for lagniappe? You gonna put it past Jerrah? Or Loomis?

Buy low, sell high.

Saints fans like to think this regime is "The New New England" or in other words the smartest guys in the room. Drafting a guy in the 5th round, riding him on the cheap for half a decade and then selling him off at a premium is precisely the kind of thing New England does that gives other teams' fans the envy boner.

It ain't "rebuilding." It's "reloading." You wanna be The New New England, you're gonna have to get used to that kind of thing.

"BUT WANG, THEN YOU'D JUST HAVE TO TURN RIGHT AROUND AND USE THAT FIRST TO REPLACE NICKS!"

Ya think? Because I don't. Nicks himself was drafted in the 5th. Jahri Evans, 4th. Jermon Bushrod, 4th. Zach Strief, 7th. Brian de la Puente, street free agent. I'd also like to remind you once again that the Saints had the best offensive line in the league last season.

Both Evans and Nicks started as rookies in 2006 and 2008 respectively.

And I know that just about everybody has jumped off the Matt Tennant bandwagon at this point, which is reasonable considering his inability to win the center job last season prompted the Saints to dig up the rotting corpse of Olin Kreutz and then turn to a street free agent backup guard when the rotting corpse SHOCKED THE WORLD and continued to rot.

But the guy is only going into his third year. He was the consensus second best center in the 2010 draft  Until last season, de la Puente was a guard. Slide him back to guard and insert Tennant at center. Draft another offensive lineman in the middle rounds for depth and wait for the lady on the tee vee to read your numbers on the ping pong balls again.

As far as that first rounder goes, how's Michael Brockers sound? Or Courtney Upshaw? Or Devon Still? Or Fletcher Cox? Insert your own personal defensive lineman or linebacker with the most fluid hips and/or strength at the point of attack here. Take your pick.

Meantime, not having to pay Nicks makes it a shitload easier for you to sign Colston if that's what you want to do. Or you could choose not to pay either guy. And don't even get me started on releasing one or more of Will Smith, Sedrick Ellis and Jonathan Vilma. All of a sudden the Saints are practically swimming in cap space. Mario Williams, Manny Lawson, insert your favorite "We can't afford 'em" free agent (or two) here. Take your pick.

In an offseason when the presumed best case scenario was little more than maintaining the status quo, suddenly the possibilities are endless.

I know that a lot of this probably comes off as "fixing it when it ain't broke" at least as it pertains to the offense. I get that. I guess there's always the risk that the absence of Nicks (and/or Colston) could "break" the offense. I just think that all indications are that that's not very likely.

Meantime, all indications are that the defense, if not completely "broke" at least could use one hell of a more extensive tune-up than would be possible without some shuffling of the deck. Without shifting some assets around. Without taking a few calculated risks. Risks that most of us fans usually don't have the stomach for.

Hey, I want Carl Nicks and Marques Colston to remain on this here team just as much as the next guy. All I'm saying is that if by this time next month they're not, don't be scared of it. Not only won't it be the end of the world, it'll open up all kinds of other avenues for Mickey and crew to do their magic in ways we've yet to even contemplate.

High five?

I mean, you've gotta look at the big picture here. How in the hell is Adrian Arrington supposed to get to Canton if Colston keeps holding him down?

And don't even get me started on that other dude on the Saints' offense whose contract situation isn't on very many fans' radar yet, but who has been kicking so much ass, he's gonna be due for one hell of a payday far sooner than most of us have prepared ourselves for.

 

 

 

I'm of course referring to… JED COLLINS, BITCHES!

Juuuuust sayin'.

 

 

Edited to add: Go read this. Then bookmark the home page.

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