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Saints could face choice between free agents Marques Colston and Carl Nicks

Marques Colston (left) and Carl Nicks (right)Marques Colston (left) and Carl Nicks (right)

NEW ORLEANS -- I am writing today using the premise that quarterback Drew Brees will be back with the New Orleans Saints next season armed with a new multi-year, mega-buck contract.

The same cannot be said with certainty about the team's other two marquee free agents -- Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks and perennial 1,000-yard wide receiver Marques Colston. Where they end up playing next year and for seasons to come remains to be seen.

Take your pick:

(a) Both will re-signed by the Saints.

(b) Nicks stays, Colston goes.

(c) Colston stays, Nicks goes.

(d) Both leave for greener pastures.

My educated guess is this: I don't think both will be playing for the Black and Gold next year and both could leave for greener pastures.

I also think there probably is a greater sense of urgency to keep Nicks in the fold (translated: pay him top dollar) than Colston, although team officials would love to re-sign both.

Nicks is a higher priority because he helps stand guard for Brees, who needs to remain a picture of health if the Saints hope fo fulfill their Super Bowl XVLII aspirations next year and beyond.

Look at it another way: Nicks is needed to protect owner Tom Benson's huge investment (Brees), the very reason why team officials signed right guard Jahri Evans to a seven-year, $56 million contract in 2010 that featured a $12 million signing bonus.

Can the Saints afford to pay Nicks similar money? The simple answer is yes, if they want to keep him. But I get the feeling Nicks wants the whole galaxy system, the sun, moon and stars.

Now the team can always place the one-year franchise tag on Nicks, assuming they don't use it on Brees, which is the premise of this blog. The projected one-year franchise tag for an offensive lineman is $9.4 million in 2012, according to NFL.com, the league's official website.

That likely would not sit well with Nicks, who stands to earn more security and guaranteed money on the open market.

But those are the rules under the new CBA. And, of course, the Saints and Nicks can always negotiate a multi-year deal in the coming months and shed the franchise tag.

That brings us to Colston, who acquitted himself well in his contract season and might have played himself into No. 1 receiver type money. Is he a bona fide No. 1 NFL wide receiver, that is, a big-play vertical pass catcher who can stretch the field? No, he isn't. But he is an excellent possession receiver, who can move the chains, make tough catches, play in the slot and provides a big target in the red zone for Brees.

So how much is a receiver like Colston worth to the Saints, particularly with the emergence of Jimmy Graham at tight end? Keep this is mind: Graham is scheduled to make a base salary of $490,000 in 2012. The team's highest paid wide receivers currently under contract are Devery Henderson (due a base of $2.65 million in '12) and Lance Moore (due a base of $2 million in '12).

The simple answer is Colston is worth whatever the Saints are willing to pay. That said, he probably wants more than the Saints are willing to shell out for his services.

Eight wide receivers are scheduled to make a 2012 base salary of at least $5 million -- Detroit's Calvin "Megatron'' Johnson ($14M), Carolina's Steve Smith ($7.75M), New York Jets' Santonio Holmes ($7.75M), Seattle's Sidney Rice ($7M), Houston's Andre Johnson ($6.5M), Baltimore's Anquan Boldin ($6M), Atlanta's Roddy White ($5.5M) and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald ($5.5M).

Ultimately, I believe the Saints will make a good offer to Colston but it won't be enough to keep him down on the farm. He will test the market and perhaps generate more dollars elsewhere much like free agent linebacker Scott Fujita did following the 2009 Super Bowl season.

The 2012 franchise tag for wide receivers also is $9.4 million.

My feeling is Colston is a good receiver, not a great receiver, who has flourished in a system that features offensive guru Sean Payton and a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Brees.

My advice to Colston is take the Saints' best offer (provided it's fair and equitable) and stay put. He won't find a better combination of playcaller and quarterback anywhere in the NFL. Plus, Saints officials probably feel they can re-sign free agent Robert Meachem for fewer dollars, give Adrian Arrington more reps and replace Colston in free agency and/or the draft.

My bottom line? Brees and Nicks are back with the Saints; Colston is not.


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