Unprecedented circumstances failed to prevent a pleasantly unexpected result.
The New Orleans Saints may not have entered free agency believing that they would be able to re-sign defensive tackle David Onyemata and left guard Andrus Peat. But within the first week, they had both: Onyemata, a 27-year-old who has improved each of his previous four seasons, signed a three-year deal and Peat, a 26-year-old who has started 52 of the last 53 regular-season games he has played, agreed to terms on a five-year deal.
"I would say going into this, I don't know that I expected to be able to get David and Andrus re-signed," Saints Executive Vice President/General Manager Mickey Loomis said Friday. "So I'm really happy that that happened."
The free agency process was obviously different in the NFL this year, with teams adhering to governmental safety regulations as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. Phone conversations have been the new normal, rather than in-person contact.
Still, the Saints not only have been able to lock up Onyemata and Peat, but also they brought back quarterback Drew Brees (agreed to terms on a two-year deal), and secured safety Malcolm Jenkins (a former Saint who agreed to terms on a four-year deal) and receiver Emmanuel Sanders (agreed to terms on a two-year deal), among other moves.
"Most of the work was fortunately already done before free agency began," Loomis said. "And then it's just a matter of making calls, working deals and the only real logistical issue at the beginning of free agency was just that you couldn't have face-to-face meetings, or you couldn't bring in players for physicals.
"And a lot of times, after that initial rush, guys are looking for the right circumstance and situation and the teams are looking for guys that fit their building. And so a lot of times, those are face-to-face meetings where you bring someone in, you interview them, you talk with them, you discuss the vision that you have for them and if it's a good fit – that really hasn't been able to have happened. But we've adapted and the only real issue is the physical part. We've had a couple of deals that have fallen apart because of that."
Brees' commitment was the major puzzle piece, allowing New Orleans to know what it would be working with from a financial perspective.
"We needed to know what Drew is going to count on our cap this year, what resources are we using," Loomis said. "Because that gives us the ability to do some other things.
"Look, to Drew's credit, his No. 1 goal was to make sure that we had an opportunity to keep our roster together, improve our roster and be as competitive as we can be. I'm certainly appreciative of how he's handled that contract the last couple of times, because the most important thing to him is that we have a competitive team."
Loomis gave a synopsis on the signing of the aforementioned unrestricted free agents.
Of Jenkins, he said: "Obviously we're very familiar with Malcolm. (Coach) Sean (Payton) has discussed – I think we've all discussed – that looking back, we wished that we hadn't let him out of the building some years ago. He's really, really still a good player on the field, a great player on the field. But the things that he brings to the table in terms of leadership and intelligence, competitiveness, that's hard to replace when you lose it. And certainly it's a win for us in terms of those attributes coming into the building. I'm looking forward to having Malcolm back on our team."
Of Sanders, Loomis offered: "He's been a really productive player. He's been a winner a lot of places that he's been. He's a veteran, he'll provide some leadership in that room, along with Michael Thomas and some of the other players that we have. He's a veteran presence and just another weapon that I know that Drew will take advantage of, and I know that he's excited about. One of the best things is that I think Emmanuel is really excited to be with the Saints. I think he mentioned that his grandmother's a fan of the Saints and was excited to hear that he's coming to play here. That's always a positive when you have someone that comes in that wants to be with you and would be one of his top choices."
Regarding Peat: "One of his great attributes is his versatility. He's been able to kick out to tackle, we've had to use him in that area. He's been in the Pro Bowl a few times at guard. We're excited to have him back, excited that it was a deal that we could manage under our cap. And he's still a young player. There's still room for improvement and growth on his part."
And on Onyemata: "He's one of these guys that lets his play do his talking for him. But David is a guy we drafted, a guy that's developed and improved every year. He's very serious about his craft. He's a super guy to have in the locker room, a super teammate and another young player that's got room for improvement. He's gotten better every year and very productive. We're really excited that we were able to get him re-signed for the foreseeable future."
Loomis also spoke about quarterback Taysom Hill. Hill is a restricted free agent, whom the Saints tendered at a first-round designation.
"I think Sean's been very clear that Taysom has been a valuable player to us offensively, he plans to use him again in similar roles that we've done in the past, and yet also has a vision for him being our quarterback of the future. That all speaks to why we tendered him at the level we did. Taysom's another guy that I know wants to be back here, back with the Saints. So hopefully we can make that happen on a more permanent basis."