New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham

The NFL notified teams Wednesday that it expects this year's salary cap to be between $140 and $143 million, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter -- up nearly $10 million from last year, and slightly higher than the league previously projected.

That’s obviously good news for the New Orleans Saints, who are further over the cap than any team in the NFL right now. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Saints’ top 51 salary-cap costs add up to $166.3 million, which means they will have to trim at least $27 million by March 10 -- plus more if they want to make room for free-agent signings.

But as I’ve written often in recent months, it's not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Galette
The Saints can easily trim more than $20 million of that cap space by converting a handful of roster bonuses into signing bonuses. That’s part of the "plan" that Saints general manager Mickey Loomis referenced once again on Wednesday. As Loomis has explained, the Saints planned ahead for this and had "mechanisms" built into recent contracts they signed with guys like Junior Galette, Jairus Byrd, Jimmy Graham, and Curtis Lofton.

As of now, their full roster bonuses are counting against the 2015 cap. By converting them to signing bonuses, they can be spread out over the remainder of their contracts.

Here is a more detailed breakdown of how it will work:

Galette: Due a $12.5 million roster bonus. By converting to signing bonus, it will save $10 million against the 2015 cap by spreading it out over five years.

Byrd: Due a $6 million roster bonus. By converting to signing bonus, it will save $4.8 million against the 2015 cap by spreading it out over five years.

Graham: Due a $5 million roster bonus. By converting to signing bonus, it will save $3.33 million against the 2015 cap by spreading it out over three years.

Lofton: Due a $4.5 million roster bonus. By converting to signing bonus, it will save $2.25 million against the 2015 cap by spreading it out over two years.

Total savings: $20.38 million

That leaves another $6 million-plus the Saints must trim by March 10 by either releasing players, working out pay cuts or restructuring current deals. They have plenty of options, though, many of which I’ve been discussing in my series of Saints' burning questions.
METAIRIE, La. – The 2015 salaries of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham become fully guaranteed on Wednesday, which is the third day of the NFL’s waiver period. Those guarantees are automatically triggered since both are still on the roster.

Brees is due a salary of $18.75 million this year, as part of his five-year, $100 million deal which runs through 2016.

Brees
Graham
Graham is due a salary of $2.9 million, plus a $5 million roster bonus that also becomes fully guaranteed on Wednesday. Previously they were guaranteed for injury only.

The Saints still have the ability to restructure both contracts, if they so choose, as they look to trim more than $20 million in salary-cap space before the start of the league year on March 10.

For instance, Graham’s roster bonus will likely be converted into a signing bonus, which will spread the salary-cap hit over multiple years instead of just 2015. As I wrote last month, the Saints can make that same simple switch with a number of current player contracts – which alone will allow them to trim roughly $20 million in cap space.

That is one of the “mechanisms” that general manager Mickey Loomis referenced when he said he’s not too worried about the Saints’ salary-cap situation, even though it might look daunting on the surface.

As for Brees’ deal, there are no automatic mechanisms in place that will allow the Saints to reduce his massive cap figures of $26.4 million this year and $27.4 million next year.

However, as I also wrote last month, it would make sense for the two sides to consider a win-win contract extension that provides short-term cap relief and keeps Brees in New Orleans long-term.

When asked by the New Orleans Advocate’s Nick Underhill last week if he was willing to consider restructuring his contract this offseason, Brees said, “I’m not going to answer that.”
Meanwhile, in some actual football-related New Orleans Saints news, NOLA.com’s Katherine Terrell posted some interesting nuggets while covering the Pro Bowl in Arizona:

Graham’s shoulder healing: Tight end Jimmy Graham said there are no current plans to have surgery on his lingering shoulder injury, but he said the Pro Bowl week will be “kind of a trial to see where I’m at” and ensure that no surgery will be necessary.

Graham acknowledged that the pain of the unspecified injury never went away all season after being suffered in Week 5. But he said he has “finally had some time to heal” over the past three weeks and feels “great.”

Ingram, Saints both want him back: Running back Mark Ingram, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, said the Saints have let him know “they want me back, for sure.” And he said, “I definitely want to stay with the Saints.”

Of course, he also added that no contract talks have taken place yet and the free-agent signing period is still more than a month away.

“Of course there's always that 'what if you go somewhere and you could be the main guy and do everything,’ but I love the Saints and want to be a Saint," Ingram said.

In other Saints news:
  • ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. re-graded the 2014 draft classes for every NFL team in this piece that requires Insider access. Not surprisingly, Kiper was high on first-round receiver Brandin Cooks but underwhelmed by the rest of New Orleans’ underachieving rookie crop.
  • The Chicago Bears poached another new hire from the Saints, adding assistant offensive line coach Frank Smith as their tight ends coach, the team announced.
  • Both NOLA.com and The New Orleans Advocate reported that Canadian Football League cornerback Delvin Breaux (a New Orleans native) will work out for the Saints on Friday – one of more than a dozen auditions scheduled with NFL teams.
For the first time, members of the New Orleans Saints will compete on separate Pro Bowl rosters Sunday. Quarterback Drew Brees landed on Team Carter, while tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Mark Ingram were selected by Team Irvin during Wednesday night's Pro Bowl draft.

This is the second year of the Pro Bowl's new conference-free format. Last year, when Brees was a captain, he drafted all of his Saints teammates to play on his team.

Brees was the second QB selected by his team, which is named after honorary captain Cris Carter. Brees will play behind Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who was selected first overall.

Graham and Ingram will play for the team captained by Michael Irvin. They were reunited with former Saints teammate Darren Sproles, who is making his long-awaited Pro Bowl debut as a return man from the Philadelphia Eagles.

A position-by-position look at where the New Orleans Saints stand heading into the 2015 offseason -- ranked from 1-12 in order of the team’s need for upgrades or replacements.

Current depth chart:

Graham
Jimmy Graham: Age 28, signed through 2017. 2015 salary and bonuses: $8 million. 2015 salary-cap number: $11 million.

Benjamin Watson: Age 34, signed through 2015. 2015 salary and bonuses: $1.5 million. 2015 salary-cap number: $1.9 million.

Josh Hill: Age 24, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $585,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $586,668.

Orson Charles: Age 23, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016. 2015 salary: $585,000. 2015 salary-cap number: unverified, but believed to be $585,000.

Analysis:

There’s no urgent need to upgrade this position -- except for the need to get Graham back to a dominating level after a 2014 season that was far too ordinary. Hill is a rising young backup who scored five touchdowns in a limited role this past season, and could take on a slightly larger role in 2015. And Watson remains a solid all-around tight end who is the best blocker of the bunch.

I don’t think the Saints would go looking for a replacement for Watson in free agency, though it’s possible since he’s 34 now. And it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see New Orleans add a tight end at any stage of the draft. So far, though, there isn’t much buzz about any tight ends being worthy of the No. 13 overall pick.

ESPN scouting insider Matt Williamson’s take:

"Graham’s still a stud. He’s a tough eval for me, because he’s so great, but I feel like he’s so tough and so competitive – and I don’t know him, but the way he plays, I think he plays with a lot of injuries. It was certainly true at the end of last year. And it shows, because as the season goes on, he’s less and less effective. But the bar is so high, 75 percent of Jimmy Graham is still a really good player. And Hill’s a decent player, too. I mean, he’s not a slouch."

(on whether the Saints need a true No. 1 receiver) "I don’t think Graham’s a No. 2 when right. I think he’s a true No. 1, and really him and Gronk (New England’s Rob Gronkowski) are the only tight ends I would say that about."

Previous rankings:

No. 12: Specialists

No. 11: Quarterback
METAIRIE, La. – Over the next week or two, I’ll take an in-depth look at each of the New Orleans Saints position groups, ranking them in order of offseason needs. I asked ESPN NFL scouting Insider Matt Williamson for his insight on each of those position groups.

But first, I asked Williamson for his overall take on the Saints after their disappointing 2014 season -- which was as much of a surprise to him as anyone:

“Well, in the preseason they were my pick to win the whole thing. They were my Super Bowl champion. And obviously that didn’t quite go as planned," Williamson said. "I’m not exactly sure what to pin it on, either. A lot of teams, when they crumble, you say, ‘Wow, their offensive line fell apart’ or, ‘The left tackle got hurt.’ Or some big reason why things changed so drastically. And I don’t know what that one thing would even be with the Saints.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsJimmy Graham, and the rest of New Orleans' "Pro Bowl" talent, didn't always play like Pro Bowlers in 2014.
“Obviously their defense was much better a year ago than it was this past year. But is that enough to go from a Super Bowl contender to a top-13 draft pick? And the offense obviously wasn’t as good either. Is coaching involved? Is it [quarterback Drew] Brees? I think a lot of their stars ... there’s such cap issues that it’s a pretty top-loaded team. The bottom of their roster is never gonna carry things. It’s gonna be Brees and [Jimmy] Graham and whoever. And if you look at where all their money is, a lot of those guys really didn’t come through. The guards [Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs]. Jimmy Graham to some degree, although I think he plays hurt a lot. Brees to some degree. (Defensive end) Cameron Jordan, for sure. And the safeties [Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro].

“Just those guys I mentioned, they have a lot of resources tied up in those guys. And did any of them play like a Pro Bowler? That’s borderline. I don’t think they did.”

For the record, I completely agree with that assessment, as I’ve written several times in recent weeks. I don’t think the Saints have put themselves in “salary cap hell." But they have invested a large portion of their cap space into a handful of guys that they need to play like Pro Bowlers. And they almost all regressed across the board in 2014.

“It gives you less room for error, as opposed to having the total roster,” Williamson said of the way the Saints have invested their cap space. “And I don’t disagree with the philosophy, either, because in the end all that matters is, ‘Hey, can you get a ring?’ And they had a Super Bowl-caliber roster, I thought, at the beginning of the season. So I’m all for teams taking a shot to make a run, especially because Brees isn’t gonna play forever.”

As for what went wrong on defense, Williamson said:

“My biggest reservation about picking them as Super Bowl champ last year was corner. And I thought [Keenan] Lewis was a quality player. He was one of the few that actually I thought played better than expected. I thought he had a really good year for a majority of the season. And I would call him a No. 1 corner right now, which is big praise. But they had no others.

“And I knew that going into the season, but I figured, ‘Hey, Byrd’s gonna be in deep center field. He’ll make up for a lot of issues. They’ll cause a lot of turnovers. Vaccaro’s gonna be a [Pittsburgh’s Troy] Polamalu, all-over type of guy. (Defensive coordinator) Rob Ryan will dial up a bunch to help that off-corner and their nickel corners. If you only have one major weakness, you should be able to scheme around it.’ But their second and third corners got attacked all year, and they just had no answer for it.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Figuring out how to make tight end Jimmy Graham more dominant going forward has to be a top priority for Graham and the New Orleans Saints this offseason.

Graham’s ineffectiveness over the past five games was one of the Saints’ biggest letdowns -- though it was one of many.

He had just 20 catches for 219 yards and one touchdown over the final five games, including a career-high three dropped passes in a Week 14 loss to Carolina and a controversial goal-line fumble in a Week 16 loss to Atlanta.

[+] EnlargeKemal Ishmael
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisJimmy Graham faded down the stretch, catching just 20 passes for 219 yards over the final five games.
Graham’s lingering shoulder issue was clearly one factor. But it couldn’t have been the only factor. Graham still had some big games after the injury, when he scored six touchdowns over a five-game stretch from Weeks 8-12. He still showed plenty of his usual physicality and aggression in games at Carolina and vs. San Francisco, in particular.

As Graham explained last week, it was something he had to fight through all year after first suffering the injury in Week 5. But neither Graham nor coach Sean Payton gave any indication that it affected him more down the stretch, when his production started to fizzle.

“There was no secret,” Payton said Monday when asked if he could reveal whether the injury was bothering Graham more than the team let on, now that the season is over.

“It gradually got a little better, but I honestly think that he was having to deal with that for quite a while,” Payton said. “Obviously it affected him, but to what degree it was causing him pain (in Week 17) or the week before, I wouldn’t know that. … I think he would be able to answer to what degree it was still potentially affecting him later in the year. It was significant for a good middle point of the season, though.”

The bigger detriment to Graham’s success might have been the way defenses approached him. Graham said he always has to deal with safeties shadowing him over the top or cheating his way. That's part of the reason why the Saints couldn’t get the ball downfield to the three-time Pro Bowler like they had in past years.

Perhaps it also hurt when they lost dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks to a thumb injury, allowing defenses to devote even more resources to bracketing Graham. But those downfield throws were a season-long issue for the entire passing offense.

Graham’s 85 catches and 10 touchdowns were in line with his career averages. But his yardage was way down, with a total of 889 yards on a career-low 10.5 yards per catch.

The Saints needed to get a lot more out of Graham than that -- especially since they don’t have a bona fide “No. 1 receiver” on the roster.

I wrote several times during Graham’s contract standoff this past offseason about how I believe he can be just as impactful as most No. 1 receivers in the NFL. I ranked Graham in the top 10 among all pass-catchers in the league, regardless of position, and believed his new four-year, $40 million deal was a bargain.

But that wasn’t the case consistently enough in 2014. And the Saints and Graham both need to figure out how to change that going forward.
» Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster

SELECTIONS

Jimmy Graham, TE, third Pro Bowl selection: Graham had a disappointing year compared to his normal output and the lofty expectations that come with a four-year, $40 million contract. The Saints needed a lot more out of him, but the consistency was missing (as it was with pretty much everyone else on the roster). Still, Graham remained one of the top playmakers among NFL tight ends statistically with 79 catches, 835 yards and 10 touchdowns. So his third all-star selection was deserved.

Who he beat out: Dallas' Jason Witten doesn't have the same numbers as the guys who got in, but he could've been selected for his all-around game. San Diego's Antonio Gates and Chicago's Martellus Bennett put up similar numbers to Graham and other guys who made it.

Jahri Evans, G, sixth Pro Bowl selection: This was a bit of a surprise since Evans had a down year. But just like Graham and Drew Brees, he struggled with consistency. He still had some very strong games, especially in his improved run blocking, and he remains a solid veteran who played for one of the league's top offenses. Plus, name recognition and a longtime proven track record go a long way for offensive linemen, who don't have statistics to tell the tale.

Who he beat out: Hard to say since the position is so anonymous. Steelers guard David DeCastro has gotten a lot of credit in Pittsburgh for paving the way for Le'Veon Bell's big year. I've heard good things about Cincinnati's Kevin Zeitler, as well.

SNUBS

Drew Brees, QB: Brees, an eight-time Pro Bowler, is an alternate, just as he was in 2012. It's no mystery why Brees missed the cut: All six quarterbacks selected are heading to the playoffs. Brees leads the NFL with 4,671 passing yards, ranks second with a 69.6 completion percentage and ranks in the top five with 32 TDs and a 99.2 passer rating. But his 14 interceptions are tied for seventh most in the NFL, and too many of them came in big moments. Like the guys I mentioned above, Brees was ultimately too inconsistent. He is the first alternate at quarterback, though.

Who he should've beaten out: I have no problem with the guys who made it, but I wouldn't have been shocked to see Brees sneak in ahead of Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger or Andrew Luck. Those guys all had great seasons, though, and winning matters most.

Others: The Saints didn't have any blatant snubs. Cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker Curtis Lofton also played well enough to merit consideration for their first Pro Bowl invites. But they had an awfully steep hill to climb, playing for a 6-9 team and the NFL's 31st-ranked defense.

Saints’ Pro Bowl prospects are slim

December, 23, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints were officially shut out of the playoffs this past Sunday. They might not fare much better when the 2015 Pro Bowl rosters are announced Tuesday night.

That’s what happens when you’re 6-9. It becomes a lot harder for guys such as offensive linemen and rising young players to get the benefit of the doubt.

Graham
The only real safe bet is tight end Jimmy Graham -- who has had a down year but should still land safely among the four all-stars at the position (which are now chosen regardless of conference).

Even quarterback Drew Brees is in danger of missing the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2007 (though he’d almost certainly make it as an alternate). Brees has still played at a very high level this season (including a league-high 4,671 yards). But the team’s losing record and his struggles with interceptions could slide him out of the top six with so many other worthy candidates (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson among them).

Guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs have gone to multiple Pro Bowls, and they’ve played about as well as they did when they got invited last season. But those are the kinds of guys who go when the team is winning.

Likewise, cornerback Keenan Lewis and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton have played well enough to earn Pro Bowl consideration -- but they’re facing a steep uphill battle on a defense ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed.

Lewis got snubbed last year and started to receive more national recognition this year. He deserves to go sooner than later. But it’s hard to break through at a position loaded with so many big names.

The teams will be announced at 7 p.m. CT. This year’s game is being played in Glendale, Arizona, the week before the Super Bowl.
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NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees wasn't good enough when it mattered most.

Neither was Jimmy Graham. And neither was the New Orleans Saints' offensive line.

The Saints' offense hasn't been their biggest problem throughout this entire wayward season. But it needed to be the solution, led by franchise players such as Brees and Graham. Instead, they came up small Sunday in the biggest game of the season to date -- a 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that eliminated them from playoff contention.

The Saints (6-9) had a total of 78 yards in the first half against a Falcons defense that came into the game ranked 32nd in the NFL in yards allowed.

Then they rallied, only to turn the ball over three times in the fourth quarter, including a controversial fumble by Graham and a killer interception by Brees with 2:35 remaining and the Saints trailing by just six points.

"It's about as bad a feeling as you could ever have as a quarterback," Brees flatly admitted when asked about that pick, which followed a disturbing season-long trend.

Brees has been very good at times this season. He's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards and a 69.6 completion percentage -- good for seventh in NFL history. But those game-killing turnovers have crept up time and again, usually when he's trying to force things in close games.

"Yeah, that's been frustrating and disappointing," said Brees, who now has 14 interceptions and three lost fumbles, including one on a sack on the final play Sunday that was returned 86 yards for an exclamation-point touchdown by the Falcons.

"We could very easily look back and say there were many, many games where we had chances in the end, and we were not able to capitalize," Brees said. "And I'd say in every season, the difference between you being a 12-4, 11-5 team and a team that's just middle of the pack, 8-8, is just so fine. It's that fine line, 'Did you win some of those close games or did you lose them?'

"Fortunately, in the past, I feel like we've won a lot of those games. Unfortunately, this year we have not."

The Saints' sluggish start was just as disturbing as the finish Sunday.

New Orleans was gifted a quick 7-0 lead when Jalen Saunders returned the opening kickoff 99 yards to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram. But then the offense started sleepwalking for the better part of three quarters.

As coach Sean Payton pointed out afterward, that was especially disappointing, as the Saints' defense stepped up and played fairly well.

"We thought it was going to be a high-scoring matchup, but it ended up being different, and we weren't able to make enough plays on offense," Payton said.

Brees wound up sacked a stunning five times by a Falcons defense that had also ranked last in the NFL in sacks heading into Sunday. That was a season-high for both teams.

The Saints' run game went nowhere all day (15 carries for 45 yards by the running backs). Brees couldn't connect with Graham, whose performance was every bit as disappointing.

Graham, who did not appear in the locker room for interviews, caught just one pass for three yards through three quarters, despite being targeted five times. And his fumble -- even if it did occur after he crossed the goal line -- was still a fumble.

We are used to seeing Graham look like a man among boys and outmuscle defenders for tough catches (as he did on his too-little, too-late touchdown in the fourth quarter).

It's hard to say whether Graham's early-season shoulder injury is still bugging him, given he was still playing at a high level for a while after he got hurt. But the Saints need more from him than what they've gotten over the past month.

Brees, who turns 36 next month, was asked if getting older makes him wonder if he's running out of chances to win more Super Bowls.

"Well, I think that's stating the obvious. I'm not getting younger -- none of us are," Brees said. "But I'm not thinking about anything other than the opportunity that's right before you from season to season. I feel like all of the pieces are in place here to do that."

That statement seems a bit optimistic after the way this season just unfolded. But for the Saints to have any chance of that coming true, they'll need to rely most on Brees and Graham to be their two biggest game-changing weapons.

They'll need more than what they got Sunday.
NEW ORLEANS -- The biggest moment of the New Orleans Saints' 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons came when tight end Jimmy Graham lost a fumble at the goal line early in the fourth quarter that appeared to be a touchdown on the replay.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisFalcons strong safety Kemal Ishmael (left) strips the football from Saints tight end Jimmy Graham after a reception near the goal line in the second half.
The ball appeared to cross the plane before it was stripped away by Falcons safety Kemal Ishmael. But referee John Parry told a pool reporter from The Times-Picayune that he didn't see "clear and indisputable" evidence to overturn the original call.

"If we would've ruled score, it probably would have stayed as a score," Parry told the pool reporter.

Coach Sean Payton and players said it appeared to them Graham scored from watching the replay on the jumbotron. Payton said it "looked pretty clear, and yet it is what it is" and it's something the Saints can't control.

"They [the officials] go back to New York with that, and it's disappointing," Payton said.

Quarterback Drew Brees said it was a huge play in the game because it took seven points off the board when the Saints could have closed within six points early in the third quarter. But he and other players said you have to be able to overcome it -- and pointed out that they managed to make a defensive stop and follow up with a score to close within 20-14 regardless.

The Saints' bigger problems occurred earlier in the game, when they scored only seven points through three quarters, and later in the game, when Brees threw a costly interception with less than three minutes remaining.

Graham was not available for comment after the game. He especially had a rough game through three-plus quarters. He caught only one pass for three yards through three quarters despite being targeted five times. Then he fumbled on that potential touchdown -- whether the fumble occurred before or after he crossed the goal line. Graham did rally with four more catches for 38 yards and a touchdown after that. But it was too little, too late.
METAIRIE, La. -- It's painfully obvious that the New Orleans Saints' offseason moves haven't panned out. And when a season implodes like this, it's natural to go back and question every decision.

But breaking them down individually, it's still hard to slam a single one of them.

Here's a look at all the major moves the Saints made, and how they've impacted this 5-8 season:

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Jenkins
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsOne player who has been missed on the Saints' roster this season is safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Letting go of Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins: This is the most popular topic right now, with the Saints' veteran leaders lamenting that this team needs more maturity and professionalism.

Clearly, losing all these guys has had some intangible effect. But there's not a single player in that group whom anyone expected the Saints to keep. Greer is the one they miss most on the field, but he had to retire because of a knee injury. Jenkins is the only one still playing at a high level, but he wasn't playing at that level in recent years.

Would some of those veterans have provided a calming influence during the early turmoil? Perhaps. Then again, they were all around in 2012, when the Saints' defense went through a similar implosion.

The biggest issue with the Saints' new roster makeup is that they were counting on a lot of young, breakout players to continue to grow and develop as stars and leaders -- and they haven't.

We're seeing one of those "sophomore slump" or "Super Bowl hangover" type of seasons with the defense. Something like what veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief was alluding to when he said this team needs to learn it can't just show up and expect to win.

They all work hard and care about improving. But one of those young underachievers, safety Kenny Vaccaro, has been honest about wondering why he has regressed, saying he needs to "get that dog back" and admitting he felt like there were a "lot of individual goals" in the secondary early in the season before they started to develop better together.

I still like the core leadership going forward with Keenan Lewis, Curtis Lofton, Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette, Jairus Byrd, Vaccaro and Akiem Hicks. But as I wrote when I broke down the Saints' salary-cap constraints, they absolutely need more from some of those guys -- because they're all-in on them.

Signing Byrd: New Orleans' megadeal for the free-agent safety was their biggest, boldest move -- and it has been a colossal disappointment so far. Byrd played poorly along with the rest of the defense for four weeks, then he suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice.

Byrd
The move was widely applauded when Byrd signed, despite the hefty price tag of $54 million over six years. And the reasoning behind it was sound (heck, the Saints would pay double right now for a defender who could play like Byrd was playing in Buffalo).

Byrd seemed to be exactly what a young, rising defense was missing -- a proven playmaker with a knack for forcing turnovers and forcing quarterbacks to throw elsewhere. His biggest struggle during the first four weeks was missing open-field tackles -- partly because there were too many opponents running free in the open field in the first place.

If the entire defense can get its act together, Byrd can still wind up being a building block for the future at age 28. He'd better.

Sproles
Trading Darren Sproles: This was the only move I questioned at the time -- but I always understood the reasoning, with the Saints overloaded at running back. Sure enough, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson have bloomed in part because of Sproles' departure.

Sproles isn't what the Saints' offense is missing this season. The run game and the short passing game are the only things actually working for New Orleans on a consistent basis. Entering this week, they led the NFL in first downs, completion percentage and third-down conversion rate.

One other thing worth noting: As explosive as Sproles was for Philadelphia early in the season, he has gone quiet. He's averaging just 35 yards from scrimmage per game since Week 2.

Trading up for Brandin Cooks: What the Saints' offense has lacked is a dynamic downfield passing game. Receivers such as Marques Colston and Robert Meachem are showing signs of significant decline. So I applaud the decision to trade up for Cooks in the draft's first round, even more than I did at the time. It's a shame his season ended early because of a thumb injury, but I like his chances to be a big part of the offense going forward.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
AP Photo/Bill HaberSaints rookie WR Brandin Cooks had 53 receptions for 550 yards and three touchdowns this season.
Could the Saints have used a cornerback in Round 1 instead? Maybe. But you can't fill all your needs in the draft, and Cooks filled a crucial one.

Other draft picks: This has been an obvious flop so far. Second-round cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste has barely seen the field. It's too early to judge that pick since he was always painted as a raw, long-term project. But his inactivity has stood out since the Saints have had such a desperate need for help at corner this season.

Fourth-round linebacker Khairi Fortt has already been cut -- reportedly after missing two team meetings. And the jury's still out on the later-round picks and free-agent class. An aging team with salary-cap constraints needs better out of its draft class.

Re-signing Jimmy Graham: This was the biggest no-brainer of all. I considered four years and $40 million a bargain for one of the game's most productive playmakers. The Saints would have been nuts to let him go.

However, they clearly need even more than they've gotten out of him this season. Graham has had a few great moments, a few bad moments (especially last week) and a lot of in-between. His season has been a lot like Drew Brees' season -- good, but the Saints need greatness every week.

Releasing Lance Moore: Maybe the Saints could use Moore since their downfield passing game has been shaky, and he was so reliable for so long. But they have decent depth, so he would have been more like a fourth receiver -- just as he is in Pittsburgh.

Signing Champ Bailey/cutting Champ Bailey: I don't blame the Saints for signing the future Hall of Famer, since they invested extremely little on him. The bigger surprise in hindsight is that they decided they were better off without him. With Bailey, Patrick Robinson and Corey White all disappointing this season, perhaps the Saints should have invested more at cornerback instead of going all-in at safety.
METAIRIE, La. -- After a career-high three dropped passes in last week's 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Jimmy Graham has his priorities in order heading into Monday night's game against the Chicago Bears.

Graham
When asked what's highest on his list of objectives this week, Graham said, "I like to catch the ball, that's pretty high. I'd like to run-block a little better. And really, probably the highest is just to get a win. I'm just tired of losing."

The Saints (5-8) need Graham to be a huge part of the solution Monday, especially considering the type of game that might play out in some cold, windy and possibly rainy conditions.

New Orleans' game plan could lean heavily on the run game and a short passing game that chews up both yardage and clock -- similar to the game plan that helped the Saints finally win a game at Chicago last year.

Although the weather conditions were much better on that October afternoon, the Saints methodically churned out a 26-18 victory while possessing the ball for 36 minutes and never turning the ball over. Graham had 10 catches for 135 yards.

"I want to play a big role in every game," Graham said when asked if this is the type of game that could require him to play such a role. "But as it unfolds we'll see, depending on weather. We'll be ready rain or cold, doesn't matter. We're gonna go into it and hopefully get a win."

Graham caught just three passes for 25 yards last week in the disaster against Carolina. It was a far cry from the week before when he had zero catches in a 35-32 win at Pittsburgh. In that game, Graham drew so much attention from double teams that it helped allow quarterback Drew Brees to throw touchdown passes to five different receivers, while Mark Ingram ran for 122 yards.

This past week, however, the Saints desperately needed a boost on offense, and Graham couldn't get loose against Carolina's defense. In addition to the three drops, he had three other balls broken up after they hit his hands.

"It was a rough game for all around and we've got to play better ball than that," said Graham, who said he didn't pay much attention to what was happening with the Saints' roster moves or lineup changes.

"I put my head down and come to work every day," Graham said. "It's never fun losing, that's for sure. And as long as I've been here, we've won a lot of games. So it's nothing that I'm gonna get used to. I'm gonna take whatever I need to do, or whatever we need to do collectively, to stop it."
METAIRIE, La. – Grantland's Bill Barnwell took a detailed look at the New Orleans Saints’ salary-cap constraints that will make it even harder for them to fight their way out of this current mess in 2015 and beyond.

I agree with a lot of what he said about the Saints going all in for 2014 with the way they structured new deals with guys such as Jairus Byrd, Jimmy Graham and Junior Galette. And I don’t necessarily disagree with his premise that the Saints are “a team built to self-destruct upon the expiration of Drew Brees.” (They’ll have cap space then, they just won’t have a quarterback).

[+] EnlargeColston
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWide receiver Marques Colston is due $7 million in salary and bonuses next season.
However, I don’t agree with Barnwell's depiction of "salary-cap hell." I don't see anything that will prevent the Saints from continuing to go “all in” as long as Brees sticks around. Especially with the NFL’s salary cap expected to keep rising significantly in future years. To use Barnwell's term, they can keep "kicking the proverbial can down the road."

The bigger question isn't the Saints' salary-cap constraints themselves. It's just how much you trust the guys that they've invested in -- and whether you think they're worth all the dollars that created the cap constraints. They need better production going forward than they'e gotten this year from many of their core players (including Brees, Graham, Byrd and young defensive building blocks such as Cameron Jordan, Kenny Vaccaro and Akiem Hicks).

The two things you fear with salary-cap constraints are that you won’t be able to add any new impact players and that you won’t be able to re-sign your own core players. But the Saints have proven under similar circumstances in recent years that they won’t stop doing those things.

They were supposed to be in salary-cap hell last year, too, and they went out and signed Byrd to a mega-deal and inked Graham and Galette to new long-term deals. In previous years they added core free agents such as Keenan Lewis, Curtis Lofton and Ben Grubbs.

The “victims” of the salary cap are the older guys who the Saints feel have diminishing value – which is why they parted ways with guys such as Darren Sproles, Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer.

As Barnwell pointed out, the only one of those guys the Saints really miss is Sproles. But as good as Sproles has been in Philadelphia, his absence has hardly been the Saints’ biggest problem this year. The run game and the short passing game are two of the few things New Orleans is doing consistently well.

I plan to examine all of the Saints’ offseason moves in more detail on Monday, to see if and where they went wrong. But in general, I doubt the Saints regret any of those moves in and of themselves.

Meanwhile, looking ahead to the moves the Saints need to make going forward, it won’t be that hard for them to get under the cap next year by restructuring current deals (as Barnwell broke down in great detail) and by releasing or demanding pay cuts from certain veterans. That group could include Brodrick Bunkley (due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses) and David Hawthorne ($4.5 million in salary and bonuses). And it will likely include receiver Marques Colston ($7 million in salary and bonuses) in one form or another – as tough as that decision will be.

Decisions also might need to be made with guards Jahri Evans ($7.5 million in salary and bonuses) and Grubbs ($6.6 million in salary and bonuses), who have big salaries and are starting to show signs of decline. But the Saints might keep both of them since they don’t have any obvious backup plan in place yet.
METAIRIE, La. -- Jimmy Graham had another quiet day in Sunday’s 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Only this time, the New Orleans Saints’ standout tight end had himself to blame as much as the defensive game plan.

Graham dropped a career-high three passes, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and had two other potential catches broken up as they hit his hands.

Graham
Graham finished with only three catches for 25 yards -- two of which came in “garbage time” in the final two minutes. He had another catch nullified by a penalty.

Graham was officially targeted 10 times, though two of them were throwaways by Drew Brees under pressure.

The Panthers played good, physical defense against Graham, with standout linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and safety Roman Harper each breaking up at least one pass. But they didn’t use many double teams on him.

And Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t let Graham off the hook.

“I think overall, he like the rest of the guys on offense, there were things that you look at the tape and you think ... we've got to be better at. We've got to be able to handle some balls that are thrown our way,” Payton said. “And sometimes it's going to be tight and sometimes it's going to be bumped. That's part of the deal.”

Graham hasn’t spoken to the media since Sunday’s game.

Drops haven’t been a season-long issue for Graham, who was credited for only two all season by ESPN Stats and Info before Sunday.

And Sunday’s game played out much differently than the game at Pittsburgh two weeks ago, when Graham wasn’t targeted once. In that game, the Steelers used a heavy dose of double coverage on Graham, and the Saints made them pay with touchdown passes to five different receivers, 162 receiving yards for Kenny Stills, and 122 rushing yards by Mark Ingram.

Overall this season, Graham’s production is a bit below expectations -- mostly because the Saints haven’t been able to get him or any of their receivers open deep down the field on a consistent basis.

Graham is on pace for 84 catches, 855 yards and 11 touchdowns. The catches and touchdowns are typical -- but the yardage is down significantly.

The shoulder injury that Graham suffered in Week 5 doesn’t appear to be an issue with his ability to catch the football or with his snap counts. Although Graham admitted this past Friday that the shoulder has “really held me back at times” as a blocker, he has still put up some big games since suffering the injury. He had 31 catches and six touchdowns during a five-game span from Weeks 8-12.

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