Salary cap to be huge challenge for Saints

Thanks to some thoughtful pre-planning and crunching of numbers, the New Orleans Saints’ front office has done a good job managing the salary cap for years while consistently putting a winning product on the field.

But they’ll have to be more creative than ever when the veteran free agency signing period begins on March 12 as they attempt to bounce back quickly from a disappointing 7-9 season.

While it was recently reported that they’re going to be about $16 million over the anticipated salary cap of $121 million for 2013, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said the figure wasn’t right.

“It’s not right, but it’s not far off,” he said while declining to say how much whittling the Saints will have to do.

Regardless, it’s going to be a challenging offseason for Loomis and his staff as they continue to look for answers in the wake of this season while casting an eye toward next season.

In trying to allay the fears of fans who think the sky is falling following a losing season and news of salary cap issues, Loomis said he wouldn’t characterize it as “a mess.”

“It’s tight, though,” he said this week. “Let’s not kid ourselves … it’s tight and we’ve got some work to do. But it’s things we can navigate through.”

Loomis said they have gotten through them since coming to the Saints in 2000, serving as general manager since 2002, as they did before that when he worked for the Seattle Seahawks.

“These caps run in cycles, where you’re right up against it and then you’re not,” he said. “You’re right up against it and then you’re not, particularly when you have a good team.

“And so, we’re on the cycle where we’re up against it. We’re over it, and pretty significantly, so we’ve got some work to do.”

Fortunately for Loomis, the Saints don’t have nearly as many potential unrestricted free agents as last season to worry about.

At this time last year, their list of upper-tier free agents included quarterback Drew Brees, guard Carl Nicks, wide receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, and cornerback Tracy Porter.

They signed Brees to a five-year, $100 million contract in July after tagging him as their franchise player and got Colston back as well. But Nicks, Meachem and Porter wound up with new teams.

This year’s list is topped by left tackle Jermon Bushrod, a 2011 Pro Bowl selection and a four-year starter, and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, a first-round draft pick in 2008.

Loomis quickly pointed to Bushrod, who could draw a lot of interest from other teams, when asked about the biggest challenge for this signing season.

“That’s easy to figure out,” Loomis said. “Jermon Bushrod’s a UFA who’s a good player.

“It’s going to be subject to what his perceived market is and what we’re able to do. He’s the No. 1 tough deal.”

The next group of unrestricted free agents includes linebacker Jonathan Casillas, quarterback Chase Daniel and wide receiver Devery Henderson.

All told, the Saints could have 10 unrestricted free agents and four restricted free agents to deal with as well as three exclusive rights free agents. ERFAs may only re-sign with the Saints if they receive a contract tender.

To sign them, the Saints will likely have to restructure the deals of some players and/or release some of the 55 players under contract as of Friday.

That’s why they have a lot of work to do in the next eight weeks.

They’ll have to make hard decisions on defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who are scheduled to count for $14.5 million and $8.6 million, respectively, toward next year’s cap.

While they could be among the players targeted for outright release or restructuring, Loomis, when asked about having to cut salary, said it was much too early to tell what might happen — especially with coach Sean Payton still not back from his season-long bounty suspension.

“That’s the process we’re going through right now,” he said. “We’re going through this process of evaluating our team.

“We’ve got to go through the evaluation process, we’ve got to go through the cap management process,” Loomis added. “We’ve got to get Sean in here and get his thoughts, so we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

In addition to thinking about 2013, the Saints will also be looking two, three and even four years ahead — which has been one of their strengths in keeping the core of their team together from year-to-year since Payton arrived in 2006.

One of the players they’ll be taking a look at is tight end Jimmy Graham, who could be an unrestricted free agent when his rookie contract expires following the 2013 season.

“That’s all pre-planned,” Loomis said of keeping their top players. “We’re not just looking at 2013, we’re looking at, ‘OK, where does this put us for 2014, ’15, ’16?’

“Certainly, we want to have Jimmy Graham in a New Orleans Saints uniform for as long as we can,” he added. “Jimmy’s obviously a great player, and he’ll be rewarded at some point.”