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NFL teams received some extra wiggle room this week when the 2009 salary cap was adjusted from $123 million to $127 million per team.

That should come in especially handy for the Saints, who entered the free-agent signing period at 11:01 p.m. Thursday under more cap pressure then they've felt in several years.

Depending on any deals they may have restructured with veteran players behind the scenes, the Saints should be somewhere in the range of $5 million to $10 million under the salary cap, with only a few glaring holes that need filling.

Their top priority will be to re-sign middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who promised to give New Orleans the first crack in free agency, despite the fact that several teams will be interested in the former Pro Bowler.

After that, the Saints will look at re-signing starting offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb and receiver Devery Henderson, among others, if the price is reasonable. And they will try to add a few complementary pieces to the roster, with a heavy emphasis on defense.

The Saints already made their biggest free-agent splash by hiring defensive coordinator Gregg Williams last month. Now they just need to find a few pieces that fit his aggressive, attacking nature.

Here is a breakdown of the top unrestricted free agents available, starting with the defensive side of the ball. We left off restricted free agents and players who received the franchise tag from their respective teams, since they're unlikely to switch teams:

Free safety


-- Brian Dawkins, 35, Philadelphia

-- James Sanders, 25, New England

-- Gerald Sensabaugh, 25, Jacksonville

-- Darren Sharper, 33, Minnesota

-- Mike Brown, 31, Chicago

BREAKDOWN: This is the most glaring need on the Saints' roster. They need an athletic playmaker who can cover receivers. Young up-and-comers like Sanders and Sensabaugh make a lot of sense, especially since Sensabaugh, who has had several brushes with the law in the past few years, had his best season under Williams in Jacksonville last year. But the Saints might prefer a veteran leader like Sharper. They won't likely pay a premium for Dawkins, who is no longer in his prime.

Strong safety


-- Jermaine Phillips, 29, Tampa Bay

-- Sean Jones, 26, Cleveland

-- Jim Leonhard, 26, Baltimore

-- Lawyer Milloy, 35, Atlanta

-- Rodney Harrison, 36, New England

BREAKDOWN: The safety position is somewhat interchangeable, so the Saints might target one of these guys, even though they already have strong safety Roman Harper in the fold. Phillips and Jones have shown a lot of potential.



-- Bryant McFadden, 27, Pittsburgh

-- Jabari Greer, 27, Buffalo

-- Phillip Buchanon, 28, Tampa Bay

-- Leigh Bodden, 27, Detroit

-- Chris McAlister, 31, Baltimore

BREAKDOWN: The Saints finally have some depth at corner, but it wouldn't hurt to add an upgrade, especially with veteran Mike McKenzie's health in question. There are plenty of options to choose from in this year's free-agent market from young starters like McFadden, Greer, Buchanon, Bodden, Ron Bartell and Domonique Foxworth to veterans like McAlister, Dr? Bly and DeAngelo Hall.

Inside linebacker


-- Ray Lewis, 33, Baltimore

-- Jonathan Vilma, 26, Saints

-- Bart Scott, 28, Baltimore

-- Mike Peterson, 32, Jacksonville

-- Keith Brooking, 33, Atlanta

BREAKDOWN: Re-signing Vilma is the Saints' top priority. He's a proven fit in the middle of their defense, and he's the kind of active playmaker they need more of, not less. If they're unable to keep him, they might look at a cheaper veteran like Peterson or Brooking. Lewis is too expensive, and Scott is a better fit in a 3-4 defense.

Outside linebacker


-- Michael Boley, 26, Atlanta

-- Derrick Brooks, 35, TampaBay

-- Angelo Crowell, 27, Buffalo

-- Cato June, 29, Tampa Bay

-- Marcus Washington, 31, Washington

BREAKDOWN: This position might get left out because of greater needs at middle linebacker and in the secondary. But the Saints are looking for dynamic playmakers, so don't be surprised if they target a young guy like Boley, Crowell, June or Scott, who can play outside in a 4-3. More likely, they'll consider this spot in the draft.

Defensive end


-- Antonio Smith, 27, Arizona

-- Chris Canty, 26, Dallas

-- Igor Olshansky, 26, San Diego

-- Chauncey Davis, 26, Atlanta

-- Bertrand Berry, 33, Arizona

BREAKDOWN: The Saints already have a hefty investment in ends Will Smith, Charles Grant and Bobby McCray, so they won't spend big here. But with Smith and Grant facing possible four-game suspensions, some reinforcement wouldn't hurt. Canty and Olshansky are better suited for 3-4 defenses.

Defensive tackle


-- Albert Haynesworth, 27, Tennessee

-- Jovan Haye, 26, Tampa Bay

-- Rocky Bernard, 29, Seattle

-- Shaun Cody, 26, Detroit

-- La'Roi Glover, 34, St. Louis

BREAKDOWN: Tackle is not the Saints' main concern, but there is some impressive young talent in this group. They obviously won't get in on the Haynesworth sweepstakes, but they might wind up facing him if he lands in Tampa Bay.

Running back


-- Derrick Ward, 28, NY Giants

-- Fred Taylor, 33, Jacksonville

-- Maurice Morris, 29, Seattle

-- Cedric Benson, 26, Cincinnati

-- Deuce McAllister, 30, Saints

BREAKDOWN: The Saints would like to add a short-yardage specialist, but they won't target one of the top names. They're happy with Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas as their featured backs, and they like the potential of young backups Mike Bell and Lynell Hamilton. . . . McAllister isn't 100-percent healthy, so he's not likely to catch on with anyone right away.



-- T.J. Houshmandzadeh, 31, Cincinnati

-- Laveranues Coles, 31, N.Y. Jets

-- Marvin Harrison, 36, Indianapolis

-- Nate Washington, 25, Pittsburgh

-- Reggie Williams, 25, Jacksonville

BREAKDOWN: Assuming they don't let restricted free agent Lance Moore get away, the Saints have plenty of depth. They'll try to re-sign Henderson, but they won't get into a bidding war. If he leaves, they might re-sign veteran David Patten or a similar low-priced option.



-- Kurt Warner, 37, Arizona

-- Kerry Collins, 36, Tennessee

-- Byron Leftwich, 29, Pittsburgh

-- Jeff Garcia, 39, Tampa Bay

-- J.P. Losman, 27, Buffalo

BREAKDOWN: The Saints are happy with veteran Mark Brunell as their backup, and they want to re-sign free-agent understudy Joey Harrington, so they're pretty set here. Warner and Collins are likely to re-sign with their current teams, leaving the market thin.

Offensive tackle


-- Stacy Andrews, 27, Cincinnati

-- Jon Stinchcomb, 29, Saints

-- Tra Thomas, 34, Philadelphia

-- Marvel Smith, 30, Pittsburgh

-- Mark Tauscher, 31, Green Bay

BREAKDOWN: The Saints want Stinchcomb back, but another team might be able to outbid them like Tampa Bay did with center Jeff Faine last year. If Stinchcomb gets away, the Saints would likely turn to young backup Zach Strief rather than pay for a veteran replacement.



-- Derrick Dockery, 28, Buffalo

-- Mike Goff, 33, San Diego

-- Chris Kemoeatu, 26, Pittsburgh

-- Cooper Carlisle, 31, Oakland

-- Pete Kendall, 35, Washington

BREAKDOWN: The Saints made it clear that they won't let restricted free agent guard Jahri Evans get away, so they're set here, unless they decide to replace veteran backup Jamar Nesbit.



-- Jason Brown, 25, Baltimore

-- Matt Birk, 32, Minnesota

BREAKDOWN: The Saints are content with starter Jonathan Goodwin. They need to either re-sign backup Matt Lehr or replace him.

Tight end


-- L.J. Smith, 28, Philadephia

-- Jim Kleinsasser, 32, Minnesota

-- Chris Baker, 29, N.Y. Jets

-- Jerramy Stevens, 29, Tampa Bay

-- Justin Peelle, 29, Atlanta

BREAKDOWN: After signing veteran backup Dan Campbell last week, the Saints are set, meaning they're unlikely to re-sign veteran Mark Campbell.


BREAKDOWN: Although the Saints aren't likely to sign a veteran fullback, there are some decent options out there, including former Saints Lorenzo Neal and Terrelle Smith. . . . The team finally seem content at kicker and punter, though they have clearly shown a willingness to upgrade both spots. Former Saints kicker John Carney is back on the market after a Pro Bowl season in New York, along with veteran kickers Matt Stover, Mike Nugent and Jay Feely. Many of the top free-agent punters are former Saints rejects (Mitch Berger, Chris Hanson, Ben Graham).

. . . . . . .

Mike Triplett can be reached at mtriplett@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3405.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: February 27, 2009

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