Re-signing Jimmy Graham is Saints’ top priority

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD --  New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) warms up before game against the Dolphins Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) warms up before game against the Dolphins Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

This early in the offseason, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis is sure about only two things.

New Orleans wants to keep Jimmy Graham. Jimmy Graham wants to stay.

But it’s far too soon at this point to say for certain whether the sides can strike an agreement to make that happen, Loomis told WWL Radio host Angela Hill on Thursday afternoon during a rare media appearance. The same goes for another topic that’s had Saints fans buzzing recently: whether the team will need to request that superstar quarterback Drew Brees restructure his contract to get under the salary cap for next season.

“I know that Jimmy would like to be back with the New Orleans Saints; I know that we would like to have him back,” Loomis said on Hill’s “The Open Mind” show. “Whether or not we can agree to financial terms, that remains to be seen.”

Asked about Brees’ contract and whether restructuring it might help the team cope with its well-publicized salary cap issues for 2014, Loomis remarked: “Man, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle with no pictures on it. You have all these pieces, and you’re trying to put it together, and it doesn’t seem like it’d be complicated but it is. We’re just in the early stages of that, and we can’t even answer that.”

The Saints’ twofold effort to get below the salary cap while re-signing Graham to a multi-year contract will be the dominant storyline of New Orleans’ offseason.

New Orleans may reportedly be $12 million or more over the salary cap, forcing the Saints to seek ways to trim while also signing a new contract with their All-Pro tight end, who just completed his rookie deal from 2010. Most think Graham — who led the NFL with 16 touchdown grabs and the Saints with 1,215 yards receiving this regular season — is worthy of at least $10 million a year.

There are a number of ways the Saints can and most likely will create the cap space required to re-sign Graham. For example, they can cut some players under contract, or they can get some to rearrange their deals so they don’t count as much against the salary cap.

The five-year, $100 million contract Brees signed in 2012 is one of the first people invoke whenever the topic of restructuring surfaces, but it may not even come to that, even with the Graham negotiations ongoing, Loomis said.

“There’s so many variables involved with it,” he said about the different ways the Saints can satisfy the salary cap. “It’s not a simple math problem of one number minus another. It’s pretty intricate, depending upon which contracts and which players are involved.”

Graham will become a free agent in March if the Saints don’t sign him to another contract or slap the franchise tag on him, which would enable New Orleans to retain him through the 2014 season. It’s essentially a foregone conclusion that the Saints would use the franchise tag on Graham before letting him hit free agency.

Brees named Pro Bowl captain

Meanwhile, Brees is among four active players who will serve as team captain during the Pro Bowl this year. The others are Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn and Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles, the NFL said.

Like Brees, Watt, Quinn and Charles were among the top two leading Pro Bowl vote-getters who did not advance to their respective conference championship games.

The four captains will help Pro Football Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders pick their teams in a schoolyard-style draft.

Rice and Sanders will have final say over all picks. Brees and Quinn will be on the same side, and Watt and Charles will be a duo.

The Pro Bowl is Jan. 26.

Evans’ technique honored

USA Football selected Saints guard Jahri Evans as one of 26 NFL players who exhibit exemplary football techniques that youth players should emulate.

Evans’ selection to the honorary “All-Fundamentals Team” means he is to receive a $1,500 equipment grant from USA Football, which he is to donate to the youth or high school football program of his choice. Fans have until Jan. 29 to vote for him to become a captain of the team at facebook.com/usafootball. USA Football will award a $3,000 equipment grant to captains.

In his eighth season with the Saints this year, Evans earned a fifth-straight invitation to the Pro Bowl as well as Second-Team All-Pro recognition. He landed First-Team All Pro laurels from 2009 to 2012.