Saints preparing for start of free agency

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNISSaints linebackers Jonathan Casillas (52) and Curtis Lofton bring down Eagles tight end Brent Celek last season. Casillas is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on Tuesday. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNISSaints linebackers Jonathan Casillas (52) and Curtis Lofton bring down Eagles tight end Brent Celek last season. Casillas is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on Tuesday.

While they can’t sign anyone until the new league year begins Tuesday afternoon, NFL teams began the free-agency process at 11 p.m. Friday with the commencement of a three-day negotiating window.

After years of accusations and speculation about teams getting a jump on free agency, the NFL for the first time allowed certified agents to negotiate contracts with potential suitors in advance of the start of the new league year at 3 p.m. CDT Tuesday.

Players who are expected to become free agents with the expiration of their 2012 contracts can’t visit with or even talk to team officials or representatives except their current clubs before the official start of free agency on Tuesday.

But the three-day negotiating period should make for a hectic period as teams and agents burn up the phone lines jockeying for position for when players can finally put pen to paper Tuesday afternoon.

As of Friday, the New Orleans Saints were still trying to get under the salary cap of $123 million to have some money to perhaps go after a couple of free agents that could strengthen their team — especially on a defense that set an NFL single-season record in allowing 7,042 yards last season.

They were believed to be about $3 million over the cap after restructuring the contracts of six players — wide receiver Marques Colston, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley.

The Saints also reportedly have asked defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma to take reduced deals in order to return.

Those two, along with strong safety Roman Harper, could provide substantial cap relief for the Saints as they combine for about $30.2 million for this season — taking up almost one-fourth of the money available to the team.

Smith carries a cap figure of $14.5 million, while Vilma and Harper have cap hits of $8.6 million and $7.1 million, respectively.

The Saints need the cap space to sign players from other teams as well as some of their own 11 unrestricted free agents — a group led by two-time Pro Bowl tackle Jermon Bushrod — and tender offers to their four restricted free agents before the Tuesday deadline.

The Saints’ other UFAs are linebackers Jonathan Casillas, Scott Shanle and Ramon Humber; quarterback Chase Daniel; defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis; wide receivers Devery Henderson and Courtney Roby; defensive end Turk McBride; cornerback Elbert Mack and tackle William Robinson.

Their restricted free agents are center Brian de la Puente, defensive end Junior Galette, running back Chris Ivory and long snapper Justin Drescher.