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John DeShazier: New Orleans Saints add big pieces to 2017 roster puzzle

Saints keep Fairley, add three more players

Photos of new Saints guard Larry Warford.

The New Orleans Saints aggressively plunged into free agency on the opening day Thursday, agreeing to terms with four players including defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who started all 16 games and produced a career-high 6.5 sacks for the Saints last season.

The name of Fairley, who also produced career high numbers in games played and tackles (43) was the most recognizable among the team's signings. The former first-rounder (No. 13 overall in 2011, by Detroit) resurrected his career in New Orleans. He was second on the team in sacks behind defensive end Cam Jordan (7.5) and is a valuable, productive member of the defensive tackle rotation.

But the Saints also came away with three other critical agreements as well Thursday: former Carolina receiver/returner Ted Ginn Jr. and Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein, and former Lions right guard Larry Warford.

Ginn, a 31-year-old who recently completed his 10th season, posted career highs in receptions (54), receiving yards (752), carries (14) and rushing yards (98) last season for the Panthers. In his career, Ginn, one of the league's best deep threats, has 309 catches for 4,285 yards and 25 touchdowns. His career-long touchdown reception, 88 yards, was made last season.

But Ginn, a former first-round pick (No. 9 overall) by Miami in 2007, also gives the Saints an upper-echelon returner. Last season, he returned 18 kickoffs for 391 yards (four Saints combined to return 28 kickoffs for 462 yards) and in his career, Ginn has 300 kick returns for 6,842 yards (22.8-yard average) and three touchdowns. As a punt returner, Ginn had 29 returns for 202 yards last season – five Saints combined for 221 yards on 23 returns. In Ginn's career, he has returned 238 punts for 2,497 yards (10.5 yards per return) and four touchdowns.

Photos of new Saints linebacker A.J. Klein.

Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and Coach Sean Payton confirmed last week at the NFL Combine that the franchise has been listening to offers for receiver Brandin Cooks, the team's deep-threat play-maker who has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons. If Cooks ultimately is dealt – and Loomis and Payton emphasized that it would take a substantial offer for the team to consider moving Cooks – then Ginn possibly could fill much of the role that Cooks filled on offense, as well as become the Saints' primary returner.

Klein, a fifth-round pick by the Panthers in '13, started seven games last season, mainly in relief of Luke Kuechly at middle linebacker. He finished with 31 tackles, two forced fumbles and a pass defended and started six straight games to finish out the year, while Kuechly continued his recovery from a concussion he suffered against the Saints on Nov. 17.

Klein (6 feet 1, 240 pounds) has career totals of 146 tackles, four sacks, four forced fumbles, an interception and two passes defended and 60 games, with 23 starts. The Saints' primary middle linebacker last season was Craig Robertson, who had a career-high 115 tackles, four passes defended and an interception after being signed as a free agent last year primarily to play special teams.

The acquisition of Warford – a 6-3, 333-pound right guard who was Detroit's third-round pick in '13 – may signify that the Saints again will part ways with Jahri Evans, the most decorated interior offensive lineman in franchise history who has manned the position since '06.

New Orleans released Evans after the 2015 season, but resigned him on the eve of the '16 campaign and immediately installed the five-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler as the starter at right guard, after attempting to transition Andrus Peat from college left tackle to NFL right guard.

Peat was shifted to left guard (he started at left guard and left tackle last season, in relief of injured Terron Armstead) and Evans started all 16 games for the ninth time in his 11-year career.

Warford started all 57 regular-season games he played for Detroit (out of a possible 64).

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