Mickles: Salary cap moves, free-agency deals loom for Saints

Advocate photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham pulls in a pass between Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive backs Keith Tandy, left, and Dashon Goldson last month. Graham is a free agent and his production will command a hefty contract. Show caption
Advocate photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham pulls in a pass between Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive backs Keith Tandy, left, and Dashon Goldson last month. Graham is a free agent and his production will command a hefty contract.

Over the next two months, New Orleans Saints officials will have to make lots of important personnel decisions that will affect their team — not only for the 2014 season, but for years to come.

Making the decision-making process more difficult is the fact that they’re well over — perhaps as much as $10 million — an expected salary cap of about $126 million to begin with.

That’s not usually a problem for General Manager Mickey Loomis, who seemingly has the Midas touch when it comes to skillfully crunching numbers and securing the players Sean Payton molds into a team during the spring and summer.

Those players have helped the Saints win 60 games over the past five seasons, with four postseason appearances and a Super Bowl XLIV title to show for it.

While the numbers that show up in the win-loss column from September to December and beyond are the most important, the ones that will be added and subtracted from their ledger between now and the start of free agency March 11 are almost as big.

Two years ago, it was finding the money to sign record-shattering quarterback Drew Brees to a five-year, $100 million contract.

Last year, it was moving dollars around to fit the salary cap and still find players to put around Brees — which resulted in an 11-win regular season and a road playoff victory.

This year, the top storyline will be in massaging the bloated cap to free up megabucks for All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, who just finished his rookie contract.

His deal could average in the neighborhood of $10 million per year.

Cutting some players under contract is one way to create cap space to sign Graham, who — take a deep breath here and relax, Saints fans — will be back in black and gold one way or the other.

In addition to Graham, several key players — a list topped by free safety Malcolm Jenkins, tackle Zach Strief, center Brian de la Puente and wide receiver Robert Meachem — could become unrestricted free agents.

As for Graham, by the time training camp starts in late July, he will have a new deal in his huge pass-catching paws, or, failing that, a franchise tag to get him through the 2014 season.

Naturally, Brees’ contract is the first one everyone thinks about restructuring. It came up again Monday while he spoke with reporters.

Brees was asked if he anticipated team officials asking him for some cap relief to sign Graham, and possibly add some other pieces needed on offense and defense.

“I have no idea. ... They haven’t come to me with anything in the past or as of yet,” Brees said. “I would say every team is under cap constraints. Every team has a cap. I think every team deals with these types of things every year.

“So here we are still in mid-January,” he said. “Free agency isn’t until March 11. There’s obviously a lot of time between now and then.”

Brees noted he signed a six-year, $60 million contract in 2006 and played that one out. Then he negotiated, over several months, the deal he’s currently playing under.

That contract includes a cap figure of $18.4 million for 2014 and escalates to $26.4 million and $27.4 million for 2015 and ’16.

Whether the Saints ask him to restructure this season, or in the future, remains to be seen.

“Whatever I can do to help this team. … If they want to come to me and extend me even further, that would be great,” Brees said with a laugh.

“There are so many possibilities of what could happen here. Let’s just let this offseason start. ... (I’m for) whatever helps this team win and puts the best team on the field.”