Aside from locking up TE Jimmy Graham, squad has other free agent decisions ahead
The members of the 2013 Saints most likely never will all be in the same room again.
Coaches and management began thoroughly evaluating the 12-6 team almost immediately after it was eliminated in the NFC divisional playoffs Jan. 11 in Seattle, and the organization will try to preserve strengths and patch up any weaknesses it identifies.
The Saints will strike multi-year contracts with any players they consider indispensable and who are due to become unrestricted free agents March 11.
All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham tops that list. Integral starters such as tackle Zach Strief, safety Malcolm Jenkins and center Brian de la Puente are close behind. Several others are affordable role players.
They’ll also mine the draft in May and consider free agents from other teams for players who can arrive and make an immediate impact or replenish the ranks for the future.
That means the Saints won’t head into next season exactly as they finished this last one. They’ll need to trim a significant amount of money to get under a 2014 salary cap they’re reportedly $12 million or more over — and that will require tough, cold business decisions.
Some players under contract who have meant a lot to the organization in the past will be asked to take pay cuts. Others won’t be approached about doing that, but they may be asked to restructure their contracts so they don’t count as much against the salary cap this season.
Others will be released.
In a rare media appearance last week, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis went on WWL Radio and told listeners that the team’s situation is a byproduct of having a personnel core that has been to the playoffs four of the past five years and was crowned champion at the end of the 2009 season.
“That’s a consequence of having a good team for a pretty good length of time in here,” Loomis said. “When you have a good team, and you have good players, and you want to keep them ... together, it gets expensive, and that’s where we’re at.”
But knowing that doesn’t make the transactions that loom any easier, coach Sean Payton said to those same radio listeners. At this stage, Loomis and Payton said, the Saints aren’t precisely sure what moves they’ll be prompted to make.
Fifteen Saints could become unrestricted free agents unless they’re re-signed by March 11. Most of them are role players who appear to be affordable.
The massive exception is superstar Jimmy Graham, whom the Saints undoubtedly will prevent from hitting free agency. Other exceptions are de la Puente, Jenkins and Strief.
Of those three, it’s possible that none will attract the big-money deals landed by lucrative Saints free agents of the recent past, like tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Carl Nicks.
Payton described this time of year in the NFL as one of the least enjoyable parts of his job.
“Releasing players, especially the ones you have a long history with — that never gets any different year to year,” he said. “It’s the same pain, the same hurt, if you will. That’s the hardest thing.”