Jimmy Graham deal is key for other Saints targets

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins breaks up a pass intended for San Francisco 49ers tight end Vance McDonald during the season. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins breaks up a pass intended for San Francisco 49ers tight end Vance McDonald during the season.

Tight end Jimmy Graham wants to return. Free safety Malcolm Jenkins, too. Ditto for right tackle Zach Strief.

At this early stage of the New Orleans Saints’ offseason, just one week removed from their divisional playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, it’s impossible to tell what might transpire in the weeks to come as far as free agency is concerned.

About the only thing that’s known, after a week of season-ending evaluations by the coaching staff, is they want Graham back for a fifth season — and beyond. That decision was a no-brainer, just like quarterback Drew Brees two seasons ago when he was scheduled to become a free agent.

Graham, an All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowl pick, will be back with the Saints — either on a one-year franchise tag or with a long-term contract in the neighborhood of $9 million or $10 million a year.

What no one knows at this point is how, once Graham is taken care of, their other potential unrestricted free agents fit into the complicated puzzle that is the NFL’s salary cap.

The Saints could be as much as $12 million over the estimated salary cap of $126.3 million, which means they have to slash a lot of payroll before they even begin to think about Graham and other top free agents like Jenkins, Strief, center Brian de la Puente and wide receiver Robert Meachem.

The good news is of their 15 potential unrestricted free agents, only five were starters at the end of the regular season.

Graham wasn’t in the locker room when media were allowed in for the final time Monday, but he spoke after the game about his desire to not go anywhere.

In addition, Graham has said on more than one occasion he doesn’t want to catch passes from anyone other than Brees as long as he’s an NFL player.

After watching the turnover in the Saints locker room during his five-year stay with the team, Jenkins knows that anything can happen by the time free agency begins March 11.

Jenkins was one of only 10 players on the 53-man active roster at the end of the season to have played on the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning team in 2009 — just four seasons ago.

“(Player movement) is part of the business. … It’s some of the stuff we don’t have any control over,” he said.

Jenkins likes what the Saints have, especially after their defensive resurrection this season, and where they can go.

Since he was selected in the first round in 2009, the Saints have won 60 games, with four double-digit win seasons in five years.

“With the key ingredients we have … obviously, we have a great coach in Sean (Payton), we have a quarterback we can pretty much hang our hats on, and we have got good leadership,” Jenkins said. “When you have those qualities, any year can be your year.”

Strief, like Jenkins, was voted a team captain this season. He has even more time in New Orleans, coming to the Saints as a seventh-round pick in Payton’s first draft class.

“Obviously, this organization has been a big part of my life, and I feel like I’ve been a big part of the success here,” he said. “I don’t want to leave that.

“Yet it’s probably my last opportunity to sign a contract in this league. They understand that, and I understand that. You hope at some point everybody comes to an agreement to where you can stay. That’s how I feel, and I think that’s how they feel, too.”

Yet he’s seen offensive line mates like Jonathan Goodwin, Jermon Bushrod and Carl Nicks leave in the past three seasons because the Saints couldn’t match the free-agency dollars thrown at them.

“You prepare for that,” Strief said. “It’s not necessarily what you want, but it’s a reality. Sometimes, the numbers just don’t work out.

“Unfortunately, it’s what happens when you have a good team for a long time. … You have good players, and good players cost ‘X’ amount of dollars.”