One of several teams projected to be over the league's $126.6 million cap this offseason, the Saints will once again be faced with some difficult decisions in regards to the shape of their roster. With the free agency period and draft looming, many of these decisions will be made and sorted out as we get closer to March.
The first major decision is a no-brainer. Impending unrestricted free agent Jimmy Graham will be back, barring an unforseen change of events. Whether he is signed to a long term contract or given the franchise tag, Graham will get paid this offseason. The Saints have already stated that Graham will be tagged if a long term deal cannot be agreed upon during the free agency period. General Manager Mickey Loomis revealed that if the Franchise tag is the route which is taken, Graham will be tagged as a Tight End, not a Wide Reciever.
Graham has voiced his concern and displeasure at the thought of not only being tagged, but being tagged as a Tight End. Entering the 2013 season, the difference in the amount of money earned by a franchise tagged wideout compared to a Tight End was over $4 million. Assuming this is the route taken, the Saints believe this is the correct option as Graham is indeed after all, a Tight End. Graham's camp would hope for him to be tagged as a Receiver due to the extra money he would make, but in the end a long term deal would be best for all parties assuming the numbers can be crunched and fit under the cap. Graham is clearly the best available impending free agent Tight End in the NFL and the Saints won't let him go.
Regardless of what choice the Saints make in regards to how to proceed with Graham's situation, additional roster moves and decisions will need to be made. The most likely cut will be long time Defensive End Will Smith. Smith, coming off a torn ACL which forced him to miss all of 2013, does not fit in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's 3-4 scheme. Approaching 33 years of age, releasing Smith would create nearly $11.5 million of cap space. As far as cuts go, releasing Smith is as close to a no-brainer as there is.
Wide Receiver Lance Moore could be another possible candidate for release. With re-signing Graham the top priority, the emergence of Kenny Stills along with the presence of younger receivers such as Nick Toon and restricted free agent Joe Morgan, the Saints could opt to cut Moore, which would save $2.5 million. With Drew Brees able to spread the ball around at will, Moore could be a cap casualty as the team looks to bring forward some of those emerging talents such as Stills, who showed flashes of promise during 2013.Pierre Thomas
The next potential cap casualty could be Running Back Pierre Thomas. A fan favorite and long time cog in Sean Payton's potent offense, cutting Thomas could save the Saints nearly $3 million in cap space. With Mark Ingram starting to show flashes of why the Saints traded up to draft him, and the emergence of young Khiry Robinson, Thomas, who missed the Saints playoff games with a chest injury, may already be in the process of getting phased out of the system, similar to what former Saints hero Deuce McAllister saw happen to himself after a couple of knee injuries and the developments of Thomas and Reggie Bush. Thomas is one of the more underrated, well rounded backs in football, but that $3 million may be too tempting for the Saints to keep him on board.
Another of Thomas' backfield mates could see his own roster spot in jeopardy. That player is the dynamic Darren Sproles. Cutting Sproles could save up to $3.5 million in cap room. Sproles battled injuries in 2013 and saw a dip in his production as a result. Because of his unique skill set, Sproles could have a chance to remain on the roster, but if the Saints want to maximize their cap room, he could easily find himself on the outside looking in heading into the 2014 season.
On the other side of the ball, Safety Roman Harper, seemingly an ever present in the Saints' defensive backfield since his rookie season in 2006, could be another player on the outs. Harper missed several games in 2013 and spent most of his time rotating with the likes of Malcolm Jenkins, Rafael Bush and impressive rookie Kenny Vacarro at the Safety spots. Harper is the wrong side of thirty and had did not have his best season as a pro in 2013. The team would save over $2 million by releasing him. Harper would certainly latch on with another team with a chance to start but his days as a Saint could be nearing the end of the line with cap space so precious this offseason.
Defensive Tackle Brodrick Bunkley is another Saint who could find himself in the crosshairs of a potential slary cap cut, given his $6 cap number and the fact that he was at times outplayed by rookie John Jenkins. Bunkley could however stick with the team if he is willing to restructure.
Other restructure candidates could include the most important Saint, Drew Brees and his $10.75 million base salary, as well as Guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans. Cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson could find themselves on the street coming off knee injuries assuming an agreement to restructure or re-do their contracts cannot be reached. Simply put, the Saints have plenty of decisions to make regarding the present and future makeup of their roster. Then again, this time of year, who doesn't?
Time will tell how things unfold. As long as number 9 is under center with Sean Payton at the helm, this will be a formidable team. Rob Ryan worked wonders with a beleaguered defensive unit that was historically bad in 2012. The Saints have had just as many misses as they have hits in the draft, but focusing on their current roster will be Loomis and the front office's main priority heading into March.