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Saints Ink Free Agent Blake

Jeff Blake, the former Cincinnati quarterback, signed with the New Orleans Saints on Friday, the first significant free agent to switch teams this year.

Blake, 29, signed a four-year contract, reportedly worth $17.4 million, on the same day the Saints let Danny Wuerffel and Billy Joe Hobert, two of their four quarterbacks last season, become free agents.

"This is the day we've been waiting for about 10 days the start of free agency," Saints general manager Randy Mueller said.

Blake, entering his ninth NFL season, was a Pro Bowl starter in 1995 for the Bengals, who signed him in 1994 after he was released by the New York Jets. He started most of last season after rookie Akili Smith was hurt and completed 55.3 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 77.6.

But the presence of Smith, the third overall pick in last year's draft, made Blake expendable in Cincinnati.

"Every opportunity they had they benched me, but I would always make it back onto the football field," Blake said. "I think they got to the point they thought, `Why not just cut him?"'

Blake holds Bengals records for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (21), most passing attempts in a season (567) and most completions in a season (326).

Despite not playing in two games and playing a reserve role in two others, Blake had the three highest passing performances by a Bengal in 1999, as well as two of the top three pass completions in a game. He also had the four longest passes for Cincinnati in 1999: 76, 75, 58 and 52 yards, all for touchdowns.

He also had a streak of 52 consecutive starts, which ended following a 367-yard passing performance in Pittsburgh in 1997. Doctors later discovered Blake had played most of the game with a chipped bone in his right (passing hand) wrist.

"I see this as a fresh start and a great opportunity," Blake said. "I'm very happy to be in a position where I don't have to look over my shoulder all the time. I can just relax and play here. My confidence is very high."

Wuerffel and Hobert became free agents Friday as the new administration of coach Jim Haslett and Mueller began trying to turn around a perennial loser.

"I think over the next week to 10 days we should be able to help the team," said Mueller, who joined the Saints from Seattle.

New Orleans finished 3-13 last season, its seventh straight year without a winning record. Coach Mike Ditka and general manager Bill Kuharich were fired Jan. 5, leaving Muelleand Haslett a team short on talent and draft picks.

New Orleans' first-round pick this spring is the No. 2 pick overall, but the Saints won't be making it. That pick, as well as the No. 3 and all six of the 1999 choices, went to the Washington Redskins for running back Ricky Williams.

That, plus the availability of $6 million to $7 million under the salary cap, possibly up to $4 million more if the team makes other roster moves, is expected to make the Saints one of the major players in the free agency market.

New Orleans needs help at wide receiver, defensive line, linebacker, safety and tight end. With so many needs, the Saints might pass up stars in favor of solid performers who can develop.

"You don't want to spend a lot of money on one guy when you've got needs in several areas," Mueller said. "You may see us sign some players you've never heard of, but they're good quality NFL and we need quality and quantity."

The Saints did not place a franchise designation on free-agent cornerback Ashley Ambrose, which would have guaranteed Ambrose a salary equal to the average of the top five highest-paid cornerbacks.

Ambrose became a free agent after the team declined to pick up the option year of a two-year contract, which would have paid a $5 million base salary and bonuses.

But the Saints still hope to have him back.

"We've had some pretty good discussions with Ashley over the last couple of days," Mueller said. "I just think we're pretty far apart right now, as to what his market value is. And I don't know that we'll ever be able to close that until he goes out and actually finds his market value."

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