Saints study in-house options as free agency looms

After terminating the contracts of four respected veterans — five if you count running back Darren Sproles — the New Orleans Saints began the process of restocking their roster Saturday.

Well, as much as they could.

With the start of the NFL’s free agency signing period looming, a three-day window opened Saturday for teams to talk with agents of players set to become unrestricted free agents at the start of the new league year, which arrives at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

To what degree the Saints had discussions with agents wasn’t known. But considering they’re short on salary cap space to begin with, they might be more intent on trying to retain a few of their 11 UFAs when their old contracts expire Tuesday.

The Saints have already parted ways with several of their old stalwarts — cutting linebacker Will Smith, strong safety Roman Harper and cornerback Jabari Greer on Feb. 12 — just to safely get under the salary cap that turned out to be $133 million.

The release of receiver Lance Moore on Friday and the anticipated release of Sproles will provide the Saints with about $6.2 million in cap breathing room, but they’re not out of the woods yet.

Obviously, they would like to sign All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, to whom they’ve already committed $7.035 million for a one-year deal under the franchise tag, to a long-term deal.

But the Saints could be on the hook for more if Graham files a grievance claiming he should be paid as a wide receiver because he lined up at that position more than at tight end last season. That would cost the Saints an extra $5 million.

Then they were pondering their options after reportedly shopping Moore, Sproles and running back Pierre Thomas around the league Thursday.

While Moore was the only player released Friday, Sproles indicated via Twitter that he’s on his way out of town.

“Thank you New Orleans for your support over the past 3 years! I will always be forever grateful. #WhoDat,” he posted.

After setting an NFL single-season record with 2,696 all-purpose yards in 2011, his first year with the Saints, Sproles’ production began to drop off last season.

Still, the speedy rushing and receiving threat has 1,067 rushing yards and 1,981 receiving yards along with 21 touchdowns in his three-year stint with the Saints.

Saints fans also are waiting to see what is going to happen with Thomas, another versatile weapon in the backfield. With Thomas reportedly on the trade block, his agent, Lamont Smith, tweeted Saturday that his client was still with the Saints.

“Status quo on PT at the present time,” wrote Smith, who has not returned messages seeking comment.

Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins, one of the Saints’ 11 UFAs, complicated things Saturday when he tweeted about Thomas, Moore, Harper and Sproles.

“(They) are all going to make another team very happy! Can’t ask for better teammates!” he wrote.

Later, Jenkins corrected himself: “I misspoke about @Pierre_Thomas earlier. I am not at all sure of what his situation is. Sorry for the panic attack Who Dat Nation!”

Because of their tight salary cap situation, the Saints have done more cutting than signing this offseason.

They re-signed two potential UFAs — linebacker Keyunta Dawson and kicker Shayne Graham — to minimum one-year deals and also signed tackle Bryce Harris and cornerback Trevin Wade, their two exclusive rights free agents.

In addition to franchising Jimmy Graham, they tendered restricted free agent safety Rafael Bush. Bush can accept an offer sheet from another team, but the Saints can match it if they choose.

In addition to Jenkins, right tackle Zach Strief, center Brian de la Puente and receiver Robert Meachem are the Saints’ top UFAs.

Ralph Cindrich, the agent for Strief, said Friday that his client will hit the open market Tuesday. Cindrich said Strief wants to stay in New Orleans and the team wants him back but said the club was “not in a position to make an offer at this time.”