New Orleans Saints: Darren Sproles

It sure sounds like former New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles has found a great new fit with the Philadelphia Eagles. Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks said Sproles “sounded almost giddy at the prospect of finding his all-purpose role in Philly's fast-paced, up-tempo attack.”

Likewise, the Eagles are excited about the prospects of adding such a dynamic weapon. And Banks had some strong words about how the marriage seems to be working out so far, writing: “As I survey the mid-June NFL landscape, the offseason addition that comes as close to can't-miss as any is the Eagles' savvy acquisition of running back/return man Darren Sproles.”

As I wrote when the Saints first traded Sproles to Philly, it was a head-scratcher since he is still such a dynamic player and matchup headache for opposing defenses. And I have no doubt he’ll thrive in a similarly-creative offense in Philadelphia.

But I do understand why the Saints made the move since they have so many weapons at their disposal on offense – especially after drafting dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks in the first round.

So it’s quite possible this could turn out to be one of those win-win sort of deals … well, until they meet up in the playoffs, that is.

Worth a click:
  • The Times-Picayune’s Larry Holder did an excellent job of capturing Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette’s passion and outspoken personality in this column – especially when he asked Galette about his creative use of Twitter. Galette can be over the top sometimes, but he’s refreshingly honest and unfiltered – and feverishly passionate about being a great football player.
  • The Advocate’s Ramon Antonio Vargas had a nice piece on how the Saints’ young defensive linemen John Jenkins and Glenn Foster can’t remain content after impressive rookie seasons.
  • The Times-Picayune’s Jeff Duncan pointed out what a nice gesture the Saints are creating for Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly as he battles cancer – an autographed poster print from the organization.
  • Check out for a ton of videos from interviews with players and coaches following Tuesday’s first minicamp practice.
  • What a crushing blow for the Atlanta Falcons and standout linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who suffered a major injury for the second straight year. He’s out for the season after rupturing his Achilles on Tuesday.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, former Saints guard Carl Nicks is hoping to finally start getting back on the practice field with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in training camp after his nightmare year of battling a toe injury and a debilitating MRSA infection that followed.

Saints offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the New Orleans Saints' offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Gregory Payan/AP PhotoThe New Orleans Saints are counting on first-round draft pick Brandin Cooks to help keep the passing game rolling in 2014.
Best move: It's a tie for the Saints' big, bold moves in both free agency (signing safety Jairus Byrd) and the draft (trading up for receiver Brandin Cooks). The Saints had a Super Bowl-caliber team already. But they went all in to add a dynamic playmaker on each side of the ball. Byrd should help in the one area the defense was lacking last year -- forcing turnovers. And Cooks gives the offense another young, fast weapon after New Orleans parted ways with veterans Darren Sproles and Lance Moore this offseason.

Riskiest move: The Saints decided to let starting center Brian de la Puente leave in free agency without putting up a fight -- even though they don't have a proven backup in place. They're high on the potential of second-year pro Tim Lelito, but he's raw, and his only NFL experience came at guard last year. There's also a strong chance they'll re-sign former starter Jonathan Goodwin. But it's still a new question mark on an offensive line where they'll also be counting on second-year left tackle Terron Armstead.

Most surprising move: Trading Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles was more unexpected than the Saints' other decisions to part ways with several aging veterans this offseason. It made some sense because the Saints are loaded with talent at running back and Sproles had started to slow down a bit in recent years. But Sproles was still a huge impact weapon as both a runner and a receiver -- the kind of player defenses had to devise a game plan around. Now he's playing for another high-octane offense in the NFC.

Super secondary: Over the past two years, New Orleans has undergone a radical makeover in the secondary, which now looks like the NFL's most formidable unit east of Seattle. Last year, free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro were two of the biggest reasons for the Saints' remarkable turnaround under new coordinator Rob Ryan. Then they added Byrd and future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey in free agency this offseason, followed by the addition of a big Richard Sherman clone in the second round of the draft in Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
After another flurry of activity to end this past week, now seems like a good time to rehash all of the New Orleans Saints’ comings and goings in free agency this offseason.

The Saints have added four new players, with safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey as the headliners.

They re-signed seven of their own free agents, including starting right tackle Zach Strief and part-time starting linebacker Parys Haralson. They also placed the franchise tag on tight end Jimmy Graham.

And they’ve parted ways with at least 12 players -- a list that includes offensive starters running back Darren Sproles, receiver Lance Moore and now center Brian de la Puente, who agreed to a deal with the Chicago Bears on Sunday. That list will grow to 13 if the Saints don’t match the offer sheet that restricted free agent safety Rafael Bush signed last week with the Atlanta Falcons.

All told, it’s hard to say whether the Saints were “winners” or “losers” in free agency this year. But it’s clear that they had an aggressive plan to release some longtime veterans and invest in other areas. Everyone they’ve lost so far has been by choice.

New Orleans’ surging defense got even better, and the Byrd signing should have the biggest impact of any move the Saints made this offseason.

However, if the offense didn’t get worse, it’s at least now loaded with question marks.

The Saints will need a number of new players to step up in key roles. The loss of Sproles will probably hurt the most --though the Saints’ depth at running back obviously made them feel comfortable enough to trade him to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Here’s the full list of moves:

S Jairus Byrd (formerly with Buffalo Bills)
CB Champ Bailey (Denver Broncos)
FB Erik Lorig (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
S Marcus Ball (CFL’s Toronto Argonauts)

RT Zach Strief
LB Parys Haralson
LB Ramon Humber
OLB Keyunta Dawson
QB Luke McCown
WR Joe Morgan
K Shayne Graham

RB Darren Sproles (traded to Philadelphia Eagles)
S Malcolm Jenkins (signed with Philadelphia Eagles)
C Brian de la Puente (Chicago Bears)
WR Lance Moore (Pittsburgh Steelers)
S Roman Harper (Carolina Panthers)
FB Jed Collins (Detroit Lions)
OT Charles Brown (New York Giants)
DE Tom Johnson (Minnesota Vikings)

Still in limbo:
TE Jimmy Graham (unsigned franchise tag)
S Rafael Bush (Saints have until Tuesday to match offer sheet by Falcons)

Still unsigned:
DE Will Smith (released by Saints)
CB Jabari Greer (released by Saints)
LB Jonathan Vilma (Saints announced they won’t re-sign)
DE Kenyon Coleman (plans to retire)
WR Robert Meachem
LB Will Herring
S Jordan Pugh
Sean Payton said the decisions to trade running back Darren Sproles and re-sign running back Pierre Thomas should not be viewed as signs that the New Orleans Saints plan to become more run-oriented.

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Payton said while addressing the media Wednesday morning at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla.

Payton said it had more to do with the Saints’ stockpile of youth at the position with young backups Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet.

[+] EnlargeTravaris Cadet
AP Photo/Steven SenneSaints coach Sean Payton says running back Travaris Cadet, 39, will get more opportunities following the trade of Darren Sproles.
“Really it came down to a vision as to where we were at, and us feeling like we were younger at some positions,” Payton said, adding that, “Signing Pierre was important. We didn’t think we were gonna be able to handle all the running backs, both Pierre and Darren, and they’re uniquely different.”

Payton still spoke highly of Sproles, though.

“He is someone we’ve graded high,” Payton said. “No. 1, he’s very intelligent. You know, I can’t think of many, if any, times where he does something on the field that you’re not expecting him to do, and that’s a good trait. He’s very competitive, he’s a great teammate. ...

“And then the discussion of a trade came up, and there was more than two teams interested. And all of a sudden what you were hoping for was a seven becomes a six, and then all of sudden you’re discussing a fifth-round pick. And in this year’s draft, that’s pretty considerable. And I think he’s going to a good place. ... But he’s a special guy.”

As for replacing Sproles in the Saints’ offense, Payton said third-year pro Cadet is certainly in line for more opportunities, and could be used in some of the same ways that Sproles was used.

But Payton stressed that no one player will specifically “replace” a unique playmaker like Sproles.

"Over the years, offensively we've had a number of key contributors to what's been a pretty good offense. There's been times where we've done it without Marques Colston. There was an offense prior to Jimmy Graham, prior to Darren Sproles. And one of the key components is an overall understanding philosophically of where guys need to be,” Payton said. “I don't think you ever replace a skill set like Darren's. It's unique, and it's different really than our league has seen in a while with a player of his stature. But with regards to his touches, with regards to opportunities, Travaris is a guy that has played and is now going into his third year. ...

"(Cadet has) got very good ball skills. He's a guy that can run the routes in that tree, when you talk about a choice route, you talk about an option. He can play from in the backfield, but he can play from extend positions. That doesn't mean necessarily he's a wide receiver. It just means he's a running back in space.”

Payton said Cadet will remain in the mix for the Saints’ lead kickoff returner job. But he said the punt returner job (which used to be manned by Sproles and receiver Lance Moore) remains open.

“We’ll have to see how that competition plays out,” Payton said. “It’s something we’ll pay close attention to.”
New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis shared his thoughts Monday on the flurry of additions and subtractions the Saints have made over the past two weeks.

Loomis, who spoke to The Times-Picayune's Larry Holder at the NFL meetings in Orlando, said he is pleased overall with the way the offseason has gone so far. However, he admitted that the team had to make some tough choices -- including the decision to trade running back Darren Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Among the highlights from Loomis' conversation:
  • Regarding Sproles, Loomis said: "Anytime you're in a good place and you've had success, which he's had with us, it's definitely painful to have the team say, 'We don't want you anymore.' But I'm not in the business of consulting players on the moves we make in management. … But look, I'm sensitive to how personal these things are to players. I get that. I respect Darren. A lot. He's done a lot for us. When we had the opportunity to trade him, I spoke with his representation a number of times. I wanted to put him in a place where he felt good about going, and yet I've got to consider the team's best interest first."
  • Loomis also spoke highly of former Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, who signed with the Eagles as a free agent. But Loomis said the Saints planned to let Jenkins go and try to upgrade with top free-agent safety Jairus Byrd, mainly because they want to create more turnovers. Loomis said Byrd's ball skills made him worth taking their “biggest shot” in free agency.
  • Loomis said the team was glad things worked out with re-signing right tackle Zach Strief, whom he believes played as well in 2013 as ever.
  • Loomis offered no updates on franchised tight end Jimmy Graham or unsigned center Brian De La Puente.
Moore surprised but understood: Another one of those tough choices for the Saints -- receiver Lance Moore -- said he was surprised when he found out the Saints were looking to trade or release him during a recent interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio. Moore said he actually found out first from ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter's report.

But Moore said he understood why the cap-strapped Saints were making the move to get younger and cheaper. Here's a breakdown of his interview from The Advocate.
Drew Brees understands the business side of the NFL better than most. And he's gotten used to the concept of a revolving roster. But Brees admitted that the New Orleans Saints' decision to trade running back Darren Sproles last week was one of the tougher departures he's ever had to deal with.

Brees also said he's "very confident" that the team's contract talks with tight end Jimmy Graham will eventually work out.

Brees spoke at length for the first time this offseason to FOX Sports' Mike Garafolo and USA Today's Tom Pelissero while at the NFL Players Association meetings in Orlando.

"I think a Darren Sproles only comes around once in your lifetime, in my career and in everybody's career," said Brees, who said he felt even more personally connected to Sproles because he helped recruit him to the Saints while they were working out together in San Diego in 2011.

"There may be another one 15, 20 years from now. But there's not many guys like Darren Sproles. He's a special player, he's a special person, he's a special teammate. ...

"I feel like that was my guy, that was my pick and I wanted that to last forever. But unfortunately it didn't last forever."

Brees said it was also tough to see the Saints part ways with longtime teammates such as receiver Lance Moore and defensive players Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins.

He stressed that he does expect Graham back, though, having been through a similar drawn-out contract negotiation himself two years ago.

"Listen, I know Jimmy will be ready to play, whether that means he's coming in tomorrow, April 21 or Aug. 21," Brees said.

Brees also intimated that he likely plans to give up his seat on the NFLPA executive committee.

President Watson? Speaking of the NFLPA meetings, Saints tight end Benjamin Watson has emerged as a leading candidate to become the union's next president, according to both Pelissero and the NFL Network's Albert Breer.

Vitt speaks: Reporter Mike Nabors also caught up with Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt during Florida's pro day for a CoxSports TV interview. Vitt also said that the player releases are never easy and that coach Sean Payton "agonized over it." And he said he has followed new Saints safety Jairus Byrd since high school in St. Louis, where Vitt used to work with Byrd's father Gill with the Rams, among other topics.

Harper speaks: Former Saints safety Roman Harper spoke with the media in Carolina after signing his new deal with the division rival Panthers. Harper said it's "mind blowing" to think of the Panthers without receiver Steve Smith after they've had such a competitive battle over the years.

Harper also said, "When I'm healthy I play at an extremely high level and I know I can compete and play at a high level in this league," according to the Charlotte Observer. "I just want to continue to do that until it's time for me to go. And it's not time for me to go, yet."

Gleason's birthday: Happy 37th birthday to No. 37 -- former Saints safety Steve Gleason, who wore that jersey number while earning his place as a fan favorite in New Orleans. Gleason's charitable foundation @TeamGleason is holding a contest, asking for fans to take a video or photo replicating Gleason's famous blocked punt in the Superdome in 2006. Click here for more details.

Longer odds? As The Times-Picayune's Larry Holder pointed out, the Saints' odds to win the Super Bowl have worsened over the past two months, according to @BovadaLV. They were 18-1 on Feb. 3, and now they're 22-1. The Eagles and Colts both jumped ahead of New Orleans.

Free-agency review: Saints

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
Most significant signing: This one is obvious. The New Orleans Saints landed one of the top free agents on the market when they signed former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract. The Saints defense was already outstanding last year, but Byrd is a three-time Pro Bowler who specializes in creating turnovers from the center field position. That's the one element the Saints were really missing on defense last year. Their secondary has become one of the strongest units in the league -- following the blueprint of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.

Most significant loss: New Orleans parted ways with several longtime veterans in a calculated effort to invest in younger players. But the decision to trade Darren Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles was the most unexpected. Sproles has been a huge part of the Saints offense as a dynamic runner and receiver out of the backfield. However, it wasn't a complete shock since the Saints backfield is still very deep. And Sproles, 30, has seen his production start to dip a bit the past two years. The Saints received a fifth-round draft pick and cleared $3.5 million in cap space.

Biggest surprise: Byrd and Sproles were both a bit unexpected. But in general, the biggest surprise is that the Saints spent money so aggressively despite being slammed against the cap. They signed Byrd, re-signed right tackle Zach Strief (five years, $20.5 million) and kept running back Pierre Thomas with a two-year extension. All of those deals were cap-friendly in 2014, as the Saints continue with their win-now approach.

What's next? The Saints still have some holes to fill at center, receiver and cornerback. They may consider bringing back center Brian De La Puente or receiver Robert Meachem or finding a bargain-priced veteran at those spots in free agency. Or they could try to add depth through the draft. If they add any more free agents, they will need to carve out more cap space through restructured deals or player releases. The biggest issue this offseason will be working out a long-term contract for tight end Jimmy Graham, who is currently locked up by the franchise tag. That debate could linger well into the summer. But the Saints are already being charged more than $7 million against the cap for Graham's tag, so cap space won't be an issue.
METAIRIE, La. – Thanks for all of your New Orleans Saints questions on Twitter this week. Send ‘em my way anytime @MikeTriplett:


Morning report: Unsigned Saints

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
So far, only two of the New Orleans Saints' free agents have signed with other teams. Safety Malcolm Jenkins agreed to a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles right out of the gate Tuesday. Then linebacker Will Herring agreed to a deal with the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday.

There hasn't been much activity reported with anyone else so far -- including tight end Jimmy Graham, it's worth noting. Remember, Graham is now free to negotiate with other teams, but they'd have to be willing to give up two first-round draft picks to sign him.

It's certainly still possible that a team will decide to make a run at Graham. But it would appear to bode well for the Saints' chances of keeping him that there hasn't been an immediate recruiting battle.

Meanwhile, it remains possible that the Saints could wind up re-signing players like offensive tackle Zach Strief, center Brian de la Puente, receivers Robert Meachem and Joe Morgan, fullback Jed Collins, quarterback Luke McCown and linebackers Parys Haralson and Ramon Humber. So far there has been only one reported visit scheduled among that group -- Morgan with the Kansas City Chiefs, as first reported by the Detroit Free Press. Multiple reports have the Miami Dolphins showing interest in Strief, though a visit had not been lined up yet as of Thursday.

Former Saints safety Roman Harper visited with the division-rival Carolina Panthers on Wednesday, according to the Charlotte Observer. There have been no reported visits yet for the other veterans the Saints have released (Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Jabari Greer).

Saints didn't pursue Jenkins: In case you missed it, Jenkins told The Times-Picayune on Tuesday that the Saints never made an offer to re-sign him, while the Eagles aggressively pursued him. Jenkins said it was tough to leave the place where he began his NFL career, met his wife and started his family. But the choice was ultimately an easy one.

Jenkins also told the Philadelphia media that he was excited by the leadership role the Eagles were offering -- and admitted he needs to improve his tackling.

Worth repeating:
  • I loved WDSU television reporter Fletcher Mackel's reference to a term he stole from the Netflix series “House of Cards” when he referred to the Saints' moves this offseason as “ruthless pragmatism.”
  • reporter John Deshazier also had a great line on the Saints' surprising pickup of safety Jairus Byrd on Tuesday, calling it a “game-changing pick six.”
  • FOX 8 reporter Sean Fazende pointed out that the Saints have now signed players to contracts that were the richest in NFL history at the time for a safety (Byrd), a quarterback (Drew Brees in 2012) and a guard (Jahri Evans in 2010). And they'll almost certainly sign the richest tight end deal in league history with Graham at some point.
Worth a click:
  • Deshazier also caught up with Saints running back Pierre Thomas, who said it “means a whole lot to me” that the Saints signed him to a two-year extension.
  • The Saints' site posted a video tribute to running back Darren Sproles after he was traded to the Eagles.
  •'s Kevin Seifert broke down why Sproles is a perfect fit for the Eagles' offense.
  • Sports Illustrated analyst Andy Benoit had a detailed breakdown on why he thinks the Saints will be fine without all of their departed veterans.
I'm still not in love with the New Orleans Saints' decision to part ways with running back Darren Sproles. And if they're hoping to avoid regret, then the Philadelphia Eagles probably weren't the ideal trade partners.

Not only are the Eagles among the Saints' chief rivals for NFC supremacy, but Philly coach Chip Kelly's dynamic offense will probably be a great fit for Sproles, who can thrive in a limited role there as LeSean McCoy's sidekick.

However, at least the Eagles aren't in the NFC South, and at least the Saints made them give up something in return (a fifth-round pick). If the Saints had released Sproles, they would have had no say in where he wound up and gotten nothing in return (see: Darrelle Revis, DeMarcus Ware and several other recent examples).

Since the Saints had already made it clear last week that they were intending to let Sproles go, it's something of a boon for them to land a fifth-round pick. That's not exactly a "throwaway" pick. And perhaps the Saints can use it as ammo to trade up -- like what they did with the fourth-round pick they got for running back Chris Ivory last year.

Just as importantly, the Saints cleared out $3.5 million in salary-cap space this year by letting Sproles go (he'll count just $750,000 in "dead money" against their cap). And they're obviously following an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new playbook this offseason, having released several veterans while investing heavily in new safety Jairus Byrd.

Letting Sproles go does make some sense for a number of reasons I've outlined previously. The Saints are still well-stocked at the running back position with Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. And Sproles is 30 years old and has shown signs of declining production in recent years.

I still believe Sproles can be a dangerous weapon in a limited role. And I'm sure he will be in Philly.

But he probably wouldn't have come close to replicating his remarkable 2011 season in either city -- which is the biggest shame of all.
And now for some more good news for New Orleans Saints fans: One day after signing one of the biggest names on the free-agent market in safety Jairus Byrd, the Saints announced that they are re-committing to one of their most popular veterans -- running back Pierre Thomas.

The Saints ultimately chose to keep Thomas over fellow veteran Darren Sproles – agreeing to a two-year contract extension with Thomas on Wednesday.

Although the Saints were shopping both players as possible trade bait last week, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, it makes sense that the Saints only wanted to let one of them go.

Thomas, 29, now remains as the Saints’ best receiver and best pass protector in a still-deep backfield that also includes promising young runners Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.

I was admittedly more keen on the idea of keeping Sproles, since he’s such a unique weapon. But I’ve always been high on Thomas’ abilities as a do-everything back, and I’ve written often about him being one of the most underrated backs in the NFL.

Plus, Thomas is a year younger than Sproles, has put a little less tread on his tires over the years, and should come at a cheaper price tag.

And Thomas is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career. He ran for 549 yards last season and caught a career-high 77 passes for 513 yards and five touchdowns. He appeared in every regular-season game, playing exactly 50 percent of the Saints’ offensive snaps, before suffering a chest injury that sidelined him for the playoffs.

Thomas was due $2.9 million in the final year of his contract this season. The details of his new deal haven’t been released yet, but it’s likely that the Saints structured it in a way that will slightly lower his 2014 cap number.

Trading Sproles and reworking Thomas’ deal should give the Saints enough space to fit Byrd under the salary cap (assuming the Saints back-loaded Byrd's monster six-year, $54 million contract). But New Orleans will still need to carve out some more space to sign other players.

The Saints could manage that by restructuring current contracts or possibly releasing one or two more players.

This has been a tough offseason for the Saints’ fans and the organization alike, with the team parting ways with several longtime veterans. But these two latest moves should put a little extra spring in everyone’s step around New Orleans.
The New Orleans Saints still have not officially released running back Darren Sproles. Apparently they're still waiting to see if they can trade him before releasing him. Technically, the Saints don't have to make a move before the start of the new league year Tuesday afternoon since they're already under the salary cap. So I'm not sure what their unofficial deadline is for making a final decision.

The Saints are an estimated $2.6 million under the salary cap, according to ESPN's latest figures. Releasing or trading Sproles would put them more than $6 million under the cap.

No tenders for Collins, Morgan: The Saints won’t make qualifying tenders to restricted free agent fullback Jed Collins and receiver Joe Morgan, according to The Times-Picayune, which cited a source. But the Saints are still interested in re-signing both players at more affordable rates.

I’m surprised on Collins, since I think the Saints value him highly as a blocking back and occasional receiver in their offense. But the fullback position is a part-time role in the Saints’ offense, so they don’t want to invest too much in that area. And perhaps they think they can retain Collins at something like $1 million per year. (The lowest RFA tender would have been around $1.4 million).

The Saints also like Morgan’s potential after he showed so much promise as a deep threat in 2012. But they probably want to minimize any investment on him after he missed all of last season with a torn ACL.

Here was my recent breakdown of the Saints’ restricted free agents.

Interest in Strief, de la Puente: The Saints have not given up on the idea of re-signing free agent offensive linemen Zach Strief and Brian de la Puente. But they will hit the open market today, and there has been some interest in both of them.

Strief's agent Ralph Cindrich said there have been discussions with teams, but nothing finalized yet. Both ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton and the Miami Herald have speculated the Miami Dolphins might have interest in Strief. The Advocate's Ramon Antonio Vargas said the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have shown interest in de la Puente.
Mickey LoomisDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMickey Loomis hasn't been afraid to make tough personnel decisions as Saints GM.
No, this isn't a fire sale you're witnessing in New Orleans.

The New Orleans Saints aren't succumbing to the salary cap.

It wouldn't even be accurate to say they're in a rebuilding mode this offseason. Because much of the new foundation is already in place.

The Saints have remained perennial Super Bowl contenders because they haven't allowed themselves to be paralyzed by their salary-cap predicament.

Instead, they've continued to aggressively spend money in free agency in recent years on new core leaders such as cornerback Keenan Lewis, linebacker Curtis Lofton and guard Ben Grubbs -- not to mention running back Darren Sproles when he arrived in 2011.

And they'll likely make one or two similar investments in free agency this year.

Of course it's difficult -- for the fan base and the organization alike -- to see the Saints part ways with so many of their all-time great players. The Saints' recent news releases have read more like the induction of a Ring of Honor class than a series of roster cuts: Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer, with Sproles reportedly next.

But the Saints haven't been forced into any of these moves. They've been tough but calculated decisions, made when the Saints feel a player's value no longer matches his salary.

And if anything, the team should be applauded for the way it has planned ahead for these departures.

I'm not saying I love every move the Saints have made. I'm especially leery about the decision to part with Sproles, who will be much harder to replace than anyone else on the list, even if he is starting to slow down at age 30.

I was equally leery about the decision to let left tackle Jermon Bushrod get away last year, since New Orleans didn't have a proven alternative in-house. But I appreciate that those decisions were value-based.

It's also worth noting that Bushrod is the only example that comes close to the Saints being burned by a decision to let go of one of their core veteran players during the tenure of general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton.

"We're always trying to improve our team," Loomis said earlier this offseason, when I asked him about the way the Saints have stayed aggressive in free agency in recent years despite their cap limitations. "I think the biggest challenge of that is that you just can't afford to make many mistakes. That your margin for error is decreased."

Every year, people tend to determine the free agency "winners" and "losers" by the size of the haul.

But the Saints deserve credit for making so many choices that have panned out in recent years despite such a slim margin for error.

"It's exceptionally hard to do," said Bill Polian, the ESPN analyst and a former longtime general manager who raved last month about the job that Loomis and Payton have done in recent years to continually reshape the roster.

"It is this kind of cap management when you're a good team, a contending team, that is most valuable. And in almost every case it goes unnoticed," Polian said. "[Teams like the Saints that] continue to add good players deserve a great deal of credit."

Polian knows of what he speaks, having previously managed the Indianapolis Colts with quarterback Peyton Manning as their high-priced centerpiece.

The Saints made quarterback Drew Brees the first NFL player to make $20 million per year in 2011. In turn, they entered each of the past two offseasons at more than $10 million over the salary cap.

And now they're poised to make free agent Jimmy Graham the highest-paid tight end in NFL history -- likely more than $10 million per year. But I still expect the Saints to keep an aggressive eye on the open market, as they have in recent years.

To do so, Loomis and his staff have had to become masters in mathematics, continually restructuring contracts and back-loading deals to push cap costs into future years.

Sure, the Saints are just delaying the inevitable. But they figure they can wait to pay those bills whenever Brees retires. Their window of opportunity to win titles is now.

[+] EnlargeDarren Sproles
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints may have a difficult time replacing Darren Sproles if they decide to cut him.
Not all NFL teams like to approach the cap that way. The Green Bay Packers, especially, have never liked to spend big in free agency. And former Packers executive Andrew Brandt, currently an NFL business analyst, has pointed to the way the Saints back-loaded Brees' contract as a reason for all of these recent veteran cuts.

"I was, and am, much more conservative," Brandt said recently. "You know, having Brett Favre all those years, I never wanted to leave the team with a big hole based on pro-ration of an old contract. ... You're always going to be either releasing veteran players and/or doing these cap restructures that put more pressure on the future. They're gonna continue to have challenges. I don't think they can continue to be aggressive.

"But they've got this window. And if they keep deleting and pushing out cap, I guess they can."

One thing both Brandt and Polian agreed on is that the Saints, led by Loomis and Payton, have been successful with recent choices made in both free agency and the draft. Player personnel director Ryan Pace, college scouting director Rick Reiprish and football administration director Khai Harley -- as well as others in the front office -- also deserve plenty of credit for that.

The Saints' success with personnel decisions was never more evident than last month, when they bid farewell to longtime defensive greats Smith, Vilma, Greer and Harper. Those moves didn't hurt too much, because their replacements -- Lewis, Lofton and recent first-round draft picks Cameron Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro -- are already in-house.

Now the Saints are hoping that emerging young offense playmakers such as Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Kenny Stills can help fill the voids left by Sproles and Moore.

Perhaps they're playing with fire. But that's not the same thing as a fire sale.
Of all the cuts the New Orleans Saints have been making this offseason, the news of Darren Sproles' pending release comes as the biggest surprise -- and could leave the biggest void.

I suppose I can get on board with the idea -- just as I saw the logic behind parting ways with Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer and Roman Harper. Sproles is 30 years old, an age when a lot of running backs tend to begin a steep decline, and his game has always been built on dynamic speed and quickness.

The difference with Sproles, however, is that he'll be a lot harder to replace.

Sproles was a truly unique weapon that helped make the Saints offense so special from 2011 to 2013, one of those matchup nightmares that coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees loved to exploit so much. Even when Sproles wasn't posting big numbers, he was causing fits for defenses by lining up in a variety of positions and forcing top defenders to spy on him or double-team him.

I think Sproles still would have been worth his $3.5 million price tag in a part-time role, even if the Saints had to limit him to keep him fresh.

But I also can't ignore the fact that Sproles was far more dynamic in 2011 (when he set the NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards) than he was in 2012 or 2013. Last season, he had just 1,273 all-purpose yards and four total touchdowns.

It remains to be seen if the Saints will still consider releasing or trading veteran running back Pierre Thomas as well. Thomas has also been a valuable triple threat throughout his career as a runner/receiver/pass-protector.

I do like the potential of the Saints' younger, cheaper running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. Both of them are capable of stepping into bigger and more versatile roles as pass-catchers and pass-protectors -- as they showed during the playoffs last season while Thomas was injured.

But if the Saints decide to release both Sproles and Thomas, they should definitely try to add another all-purpose threat, either through free agency or the draft -- to follow in the line of Sproles and Reggie Bush before him (free agent Dexter McCluster comes to mind).

So far, the Saints have been able to successfully adapt after parting ways with several longtime veterans and core players from their Super Bowl team in recent seasons. The only one who's really come back to bite them at all so far is former left tackle Jermon Bushrod, since they didn't find a consistent replacement until late last season.

But releasing Sproles might put that success rate to the test more than any previous move.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham tweeted his displeasure with the Saints' latest roster cuts on Friday evening:

Obviously that tweet is dripping with irony, since Graham is a big reason for the Saints' current salary-cap quandary. The Saints placed the franchise tag on Graham last week, which came with a $7.05 million salary-cap hit. And Graham is believed to be seeking well over $10 million per year in a long-term contract.

However, I don't blame Graham for his contract desires – just like I don't blame quarterback Drew Brees for his average salary of $20 million per year. Those guys are elite players with astronomical market values. But that doesn't necessarily mean there is a direct cause and effect between their salaries and the others.

I think it's telling, though, that Graham's tweet came out shortly after the latest news of Darren Sproles' pending release. That one surprised me more than all of the others, too. The Saints also released receiver Lance Moore earlier on Friday.

The Saints' flurry of offseason moves is clearly tough for a lot of people to swallow -- fans and teammates alike.