New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando gathered together some of ESPN’s top talent evaluators for this detailed breakdown of each team’s performance so far in free agency (which requires Insider access).

Sando gave the Saints a B-minus, though he admitted the grade is conservative because they’ve made so many bold moves and still have a lot of draft picks that will become part of the overall picture.

I loved what ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson said on that front: "People will downgrade them in free agency and then laud them in the draft, but what they do in the draft is because of what they did in free agency.”

The other analysts – Louis Riddick, Bill Polian and Field Yates – broke down the pluses and minuses, naturally sharing concerns about trading away Jimmy Graham in his prime. But they recognized the Saints were willing to sacrifice offensive horsepower to improve their physicality and defense. And the overall tone was cautious optimism.

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton spent a lot of his time shooting down speculation during his hour-long sit-down with the media Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix.

He rejected the notion that the Saints would consider trading quarterback Drew Brees, while spending a lot time critiquing the new wave of "speculative reporting."

And when asked if the Saints' decision to trade Jimmy Graham stemmed from discontent over Graham's high-profile franchise-tag dispute last summer, Payton said, "No, no, that really had nothing to do with it. Zero."

Payton also said he felt reports were overblown that the Saints were willing to trade just about everyone on the roster this offseason -- though he did acknowledge the amount of trades the Saints made was abnormal this year, especially one that involved a player of Graham's caliber.

Payton said the Saints really had just four or five discussions with teams about players such as Graham, receiver Kenny Stills and guard Ben Grubbs (all of whom were traded) and guard Jahri Evans (who wasn't dealt). He mentioned the Buffalo Bills as one team they had limited discussion with, even though no deal was made with Buffalo.

Payton said the motivation behind the Graham and Stills trades was to use assets in an area of strength to address more pressing needs on defense and the offensive line. The Grubbs trade was more financially motivated since the Saints felt they couldn't afford to invest so much in both Evans and Grubbs at the guard spot.

[+] EnlargeBrees & Payton
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsSaints coach Sean Payton insists all the offseason movement has been about finding ways to improve the offense around QB Drew Brees.

"I think when the season's over with, Mickey [Loomis] and I sat down and looked closely at, 'All right, here's some musts that we've gotta accomplish between now and when the draft ends.' And you've gotta look at every way that you can possibly fill those musts," Payton said. "There aren't a lot of players that get traded. So I think going into the process, skeptical's not the word, I just would have been, 'Are we gonna be able to get value, where we consider equal value for a certain player?'

"With regards to Jimmy, [we received] a pick that's later in the first round and a player that we identified (center Max Unger), so it's kind of two checks there. You're getting an interior lineman, which is one of these musts that we're discussing. You're also getting a first-round pick that you can hopefully help put towards one of your other needs or musts. Obviously we've gotta get better on defense. So there's a give and take there, and obviously there's that challenge in parting with a real good football player like Jimmy. ...

"No. 1 you trust your gut and your instincts in regard to something of that magnitude. That’s significant when you’re looking at, 'How do we improve as a team overall?' and you’re looking at every avenue. So I think it's having that open mind."

The Saints have beefed up their interior offensive line with Unger and invested heavily in running backs Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller this offseason. Payton said it's not part of a specific plan to change the offensive philosophy. But Payton and Loomis have both stressed that the Saints have been confident in their consistent ability to generate a top offense, even while many of the playmakers have changed around Brees.

"I know for certain this wasn't about going in a different direction philosophically," Payton said. "This was, 'Hey, I think we will move the football in 2015, but let's find a way that we don't have to score 35 points to win the game.'"

Speaking publicly about the Jimmy Graham trade for the first time Monday, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said he knows it’s especially tough for quarterback Drew Brees. But Payton said it’s up to the coaches to make up for the loss.

Payton spoke during the NFL owners meetings with Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, who asked what Brees’ reaction was. Payton didn’t answer directly, though he acknowledged that it’s difficult for Brees to lose such a valued and familiar target.

[+] EnlargeBrees & Payton
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports"It's nothing that we've discussed as something immediate," Saints coach Sean Payton, right, told PFT Live of a potential contract extension for Drew Brees, left.

“I think it’s tough. Especially -- and Drew’s been, shoot for nine years now, he’s played with a lot of different receivers, a lot of different tight ends,” Payton said. “And what’s lost a little bit is there’s an energy that’s required when you’re the quarterback and you’re watching film with these players and working on certain routes. And so it’s difficult.

“And yet, from a bigger picture standpoint, you’re wanting to play better defense and reduce the amount of points you may need to score to win a game. So losing players like that … those are always difficult. But they impact a quarterback, especially when it’s a tight end like Jimmy Graham. And now it’s our job as coaches to find additional targets. And we feel like we got one in (pass-catching running back) CJ Spiller, who’s a completely different position but nonetheless a playmaker when the ball’s in his hands.”

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said earlier Monday that no one player will replace Graham’s production, but the Saints are confident that a group of players including running backs Mark Ingram and Spiller, tight ends Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill and receiver Brandin Cooks can all be part of the solution.

Payton echoed Loomis’ comments that the Saints feel like their offense has always been a strength over the past nine years with Payton and Brees -- and that they felt they could use assets like Graham to help shore up other weaknesses, including the defense.

Last year, neither side of the ball was perfect for a Saints team that finished a disappointing 7-9. But the offense still ranked first in the NFL in yards gained while the defense ranked 31st in yards allowed.

The Saints sent Graham and a fourth-round draft pick to the Seattle Seahawks for center Max Unger and a first-round pick, while also freeing up some future salary-cap space just one year into Graham’s four-year, $40 million contract.

“What’s unique this year is there have been a few trades,” Payton said of a busy Saints offseason that has also included the trade of guard Ben Grubbs for a draft pick and receiver Kenny Stills for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a draft pick -- among other free agent comings and goings that Payton said are more common to the Saints’ history.

“Of course it’s a significant trade when you’re trading a guy like Jimmy Graham, who’s a Pro Bowl player,” Payton said. “It’s really looking at, hey, where are those areas where we feel like we need to improve, where are those 'must' areas, and then where are the assets that we feel we can do that? Mickey and I discussed this trade for, shoot, a week leading up to it. And we really felt strongly it was gonna require the player, Max Unger, but also a first-round pick.

“And so, you don’t go in skeptical with something like that, because typically there aren’t a lot of trades with players like that. And yet with Seattle for about a week it was able to work out. So we gotta look at, ‘How do we improve our defense, how do we improve certain weaknesses of our team?’ You don’t ever want to lose a player like Jimmy, and yet we feel like this gives us an opportunity to do that.”

General manager Mickey Loomis downplayed the notion that everyone on the New Orleans Saints' roster was "for sale" this offseason -- and specifically shot down the notion that they had considered trading quarterback Drew Brees. But clearly the Saints were willing to make some bold trades, including the one that sent tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks.

While speaking with a group of reporters during the NFL owners meetings on Monday, Loomis didn't get into too many specifics on how the Graham trade with Seattle developed, but he did explain the reasoning behind the deal.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Paul SancyaSaints GM Mickey Loomis said the Saints felt like they could afford to trade an offensive player such as Jimmy Graham to acquire resources that may help on defense.

Seahawks general manager John Schneider had told Sports Illustrated's Peter King that Loomis had first suggested the names of a couple of Saints receivers. But Schneider asked if anything was off limits, and Loomis said no, so Schneider asked about Graham.

“I think that evolved. That's the best way to describe it is that evolved,” Loomis said of the trade that wound up sending Graham and a fourth-round pick to Seattle in exchange for center Max Unger and a the 31st pick in the draft.

Loomis said the Saints felt like they could afford to trade offense to acquire resources that may help on defense.

“You know, we're trying to do some things to help our overall team. And we've been fortunate to have a really good offense for the entire time that Sean Payton's been our head coach,” Loomis said. “I think we've finished first in the NFL five of the nine years, and the top five every year that he's been our head coach. And the one year he was suspended, we still managed to finish sixth in the NFL.

“So we've been able to generate offense throughout that period. And yet our defense has been up and down. So when you look at your team, you're trying to assess the assets that you have and, ‘How can we help ourselves in areas of weakness?' And sometimes that requires you to take a strength of your team and turn it into something else. And the trade just evolved that way.”

Loomis said the reasoning was similar when the Saints traded receiver Kenny Stills to the Miami Dolphins for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round draft pick. Loomis said Stills is a good player, but since he was a fifth-round pick in 2013, Loomis said the team looked at it like turning a fifth-rounder into a third-rounder and the opportunity to acquire another player.

When asked if young tight end Josh Hill's potential was one of the reasons the Saints felt comfortable trading Graham, Loomis said there's not any one player whom the Saints expect to replace Graham's production.

"Jimmy's a special player," Loomis said. "But we've got some guys we've got confidence in, in (tight end Benjamin Watson) and Josh. And there will be other guys on offense that help pick up the production that he's had for us. You know, (running back) Mark Ingram can do more. And (running back) C.J. Spiller. And (receiver) Brandin Cooks, we have high hopes for and we've seen some good things from. So it's not just any one person, necessarily, replacing his production. It's a number of guys on our team."

As for how he feels about the state of the Saints after all the moves that have been made, Loomis said, “Yes, but the proof will be in the season and how it impacts our team.”

“I think every team would say they're pleased with the things that they've done in an offseason, and we're no different,” Loomis said. “And, look, we've still got a long ways to go here. There's other players available, we've got an important draft for us coming up. We've got five picks in the first three rounds, and we have to take advantage of that.”

METAIRIE, La. -- As pointed out, the New Orleans Saints no longer have any of their 2010 draft picks remaining on the roster after trading tight end Jimmy Graham and letting cornerback Patrick Robinson go in free agency.

That year, which followed the Saints’ Super Bowl victory, New Orleans drafted Robinson in Round 1, offensive tackle Charles Brown in Round 2, Graham in Round 3, defensive tackle Al Woods in Round 4, guard/center Matt Tennant in Round 5 and quarterback Sean Canfield in Round 7.

Brown lasted four years with the Saints and became a starter in 2013 before being benched late in the season.

Tennant and Canfield both spent two years as backups for the Saints (though Canfield was never activated for a game and spent most of his time on the practice squad). Both were cut after the 2012 preseason.

Woods never cracked the Saints' roster, being cut at the end of the 2010 preseason. However, Woods is still in the NFL as a backup for the Tennessee Titans.

The Saints still have at least two draft choices remaining on their roster from every draft class since 2011. They have one from 2009 (punter Thomas Morstead), none from 2008, none from 2007 (unless receiver Robert Meachem re-signs as a free agent) and three left from 2006 (Jahri Evans, Zach Strief and Marques Colston).

METAIRIE, La. -- When it comes to salary-cap management in the NFL, there's no bigger killer than "dead money."

And this year, the New Orleans Saints are carrying an unhealthy amount of it -- $21.65 million, which ranks second most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

That's the price the Saints paid for trading away tight end Jimmy Graham, guard Ben Grubbs and receiver Kenny Stills, and releasing linebacker Curtis Lofton and running back Pierre Thomas, among others, before their contracts were up. The Saints still have to count the remaining portions of all those players' original signing bonuses against their salary cap, even though they aren't on the roster anymore.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesThe Saints' biggest dead-money hit this year comes from tight end Jimmy Graham ($9 million).

That dead money is eating up roughly 15 percent of New Orleans' salary cap this year. (As of Friday morning, the Saints were about $1.75 million under their adjusted cap limit of $145 million. They will likely need at least a million more to fit in their draft picks.)

The good news for New Orleans is that by wiping all those deals off the books this year, the Saints' salary cap is shaping up to be more manageable in 2016 than it has been in the recent past. (More on that below).

Also, most of the Saints' dead money this year came from trading players -- so it's not like they threw it all away with nothing in return.

How it works: The Saints' biggest dead-money hit this year comes from Graham ($9 million). That's three-fourths of the $12 million signing bonus Graham received last year as part of his four-year, $40 million contract. For salary-cap purposes, that bonus was originally scheduled to count $3 million per year against the Saints' cap over the life of the deal. However, since Graham was traded after just one year, the Saints now have to count the remaining $9 million against this year's cap.

But the Saints got a pretty good return for Graham from the Seattle Seahawks (center Max Unger and a first-round pick). And the Seahawks had to eat the remaining $2.2 million in dead money from Unger's contract.

Likewise, the Miami Dolphins agreed to eat a whopping $7.8 million in dead money from linebacker Dannell Ellerbe's contract when they traded him to the Saints for Stills, which makes Ellerbe a bargain for New Orleans. That's also part of the reason why Miami ranks No. 1 in the NFL in dead money this year at $23.7 million.

It's worse when a team has to absorb a big chunk of dead money for flat-out releasing a player who didn't live out the full life of his contract. For instance, Lofton is counting $5 million against New Orleans' cap this year, and the Saints got nothing in return. Grubbs falls somewhere in between, since he's counting $6 million against the Saints' cap, and they only received a fifth-round draft pick in return.

Those three (Graham, Grubbs and Lofton) are by far the three biggest dead-money hits for New Orleans this year. Thomas is next at $830,000, followed by Khairi Fortt at $309,000 and Champ Bailey at $250,000. Stills only counts for $97,000 in dead money.

I've never been particularly critical about the way the Saints have managed their salary cap in recent years -- repeatedly pushing cap costs into the future by back-loading the cap costs in players' contracts. I'm fine with that as long as the Saints are signing guys in their prime that they expect to play out the entire life of their contracts. I don't even have a problem with the way they structured Drew Brees' $100 million deal since they needed the cap space earlier in his contract and had time to prepare for his big hits of $26.4 million this year and $27.4 million next year.

However, general manager Mickey Loomis has often admitted that New Orleans' limited cap space reduces the margin for error. And it really hurts a team like the Saints when they miss on their big contracts.

The Saints signed Lofton, Grubbs, Brodrick Bunkley, and David Hawthorne and re-signed Marques Colston to big deals in 2012. None of those guys wound up earning the full value of their contracts, with two being dumped this year and the other three agreeing to pay cuts to stay.

Brighter future: The best asset for the Saints' business model is that the salary cap has started to soar throughout the NFL over the past two years -- and should only continue to rise.

The way things are shaping up for 2016, the Saints might actually start next offseason under the salary cap for a change.

As of now, the Saints have a total of 35 players under contract for 2016 at a total of $132 million in salary-cap costs, according to ESPN Stats and Info. That's the highest in the NFL. But the NFL's cap should rise above $150 million next year, and the Saints should be able to stay under that even when their top 51 salaries are factored in before the start of free agency.

Plus, only two Saints starters, defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next year -– though both could command big contracts.

The Saints only have 16 players under contract for 2017, with a total cap cost of $67 million. That doesn't include Brees or left tackle Terron Armstead, among others whose contracts expire that year.

Free-agency review: Saints

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17

Most significant signing: There are plenty of candidates for a New Orleans Saints team that overhauled its roster during a dizzying week (adding cornerback Brandon Browner, running back CJ Spiller, center Max Unger, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and re-signing running back Mark Ingram). Browner was the most critical, though, since the Saints' top priority is to fix their dreadful defense -- and the No. 2 cornerback spot in particular. Browner gives them a physical presence they haven't had as a press corner who can knock receivers off their routes. If the Saints can shore up their coverage on the back end, it should also help a talented group of pass-rushers that underachieved in 2014.

Most significant loss: Obviously tight end Jimmy Graham, whose trade to the Seattle Seahawks might have been the biggest shocker in the NFL last week. The Saints decided they can still manufacture a strong offense even without one of the game's most unique weapons -- and that they could use him to gain resources to help fix their defense and offensive line (they got back Unger, the 31st pick in the draft and future salary-cap space). The offense was flatlining even with Graham at the end of last season, when he caught only one touchdown pass over the final five weeks; and the Saints won a Super Bowl before Graham arrived. However, New Orleans is taking a tremendous gamble by trading away a rare talent who made defenses game plan around him even when he wasn't putting up huge numbers.

Biggest surprise: The Graham trade was just part of a jaw-dropping makeover by the Saints. They also traded away veteran guard Ben Grubbs and young receiver Kenny Stills, released veteran linebacker Curtis Lofton and longtime running back Pierre Thomas, spent big on four newcomers and loaded up on draft picks (five of the first 78 this year). All told, it didn't really add up to a salary-cap dump or a tanking of 2015 to rebuild for the future. It added up to a bold (perhaps desperate) attempt by coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis to force their way out of the 7-9 funk they found themselves in last year. Whether it will work remains to be seen, but they refused to sit idly by.

What's next: I'm afraid to guess, but I assume the pace has to slow down, especially since the Saints are running out of ways to create cap space. At some point, they'll turn their focus to making more waves with all those draft picks, among the top priorities for which a pass-rusher, linebacker, guard and maybe wide receiver should rank. … In the meantime, the Saints might not be done making trades, since they've shown a willingness to move players who are in their prime if the return is good enough. And they have to trim at least a few million dollars more in salary-cap space, whether that's through restructures or releases. I'm pretty confident quarterback Drew Brees and core young players such as offensive tackle Terron Armstead and receiver Brandin Cooks are safe, at least.

video What in the (heck) is going on with the New Orleans Saints?!

I've lost count of how many times I received some variation of that question this week. The only time I heard it more during my 10 years of covering this team was during the course of last year's disastrous 7-9 season.

Are the Saints being proactive or reactive? Bold or reckless? Shrewd or desperate?

The answer: all of the above.

I'm not sold on a few of the moves they made this week. Why spend so much on C.J. Spiller when you've deemed fellow playmakers such as Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, Pierre Thomas and Kenny Stills expendable over the past two years? And I think it's awfully risky to tinker with a passing offense that has made this team so special over the years.

But the Saints certainly have a conviction about what they're doing.

To dismiss this overhaul as "throwing in the towel" on the 2015 season is off base. It's not just a salary-cap dump, either. For every player heading out the door, the Saints are spending decent money on newcomers such as Spiller, Brandon Browner, Max Unger and Dannell Ellerbe. And now they've loaded up with five of the top 80 picks in this year's draft.

Is that a sign that the Saints lacked conviction in their previous plan -- or flat-out invested poorly in some of their free agents and draft picks over the years? Those are absolutely fair critiques -- as fair as they were three months ago when the Saints blew a chance to win the dreadful NFC South.

Pile on this team all you want, because the Saints earned it on the field last year.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Browner
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinBrandon Browner, who is physical in man coverage, should help the Saints' secondary.
But in the here and now, as I've written often this week, the Saints have permission to try something drastically new. They especially needed to inject some life into their defense and interior offensive line.

Of course, you have to wonder how quarterback Drew Brees feels about watching two of his top targets being stripped away in the trades of Graham and Stills. It sure seems like a dynamic, go-to tight end like Graham would be the ideal weapon for a 36-year-old quarterback who relies heavily on short-range and midrange passes. (Scratch that: Graham is an ideal weapon for any offense.)

But then again, Brees' two biggest enemies last year were inconsistent pass protection up the middle and a porous defense that hardly ever allowed Brees to play with a lead. Brees pressed too much -- a big reason why he turned the ball over 20 times. And he wasn't able to get the ball downfield to Graham consistently enough, with only one TD connection in the last five weeks.

The general philosophy the Saints seem to be working under is that they can manufacture an offense that is still very good, while they need resources such as draft picks and future salary-cap space to improve their defense. General manager Mickey Loomis specifically mentioned that as a reason for the Graham trade, while also saying that Brees is capable of "throwing guys open" when talking about filling in at the tight-end position.

No, the Saints aren't going to find someone of Graham's caliber in free agency or the draft. But it's not lost on the Saints that they won a Super Bowl before Graham, Sproles or Stills arrived.

Trading Stills was a head-scratcher because he's young, cheap and on the rise. But he should be replaceable. The Saints still have veteran receiver Marques Colston and last year's first-round pick, Brandin Cooks. They're high on Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones, their undrafted young receivers from last year. And maybe the Saints will even use one of those top picks on another young, cheap receiver.

Meanwhile, by the time the Saints get through this offseason makeover, Brees should be working with a better offensive line, a better run game and a better defense.

Just how much better can that defense be? That's probably the biggest key to making this whole experiment work.

It can't be much worse than last year, when the Saints finished 31st in yards allowed and dead last in overall efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Saints have several young players who underachieved last year and should improve in 2015 (Jairus Byrd, Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks and Kenny Vaccaro among them). They're bound to inject some much-needed athleticism to their front seven with that stockpile of draft picks. And I think they addressed the most glaring need on the entire team by adding a physical, press-coverage corner in Browner, who should also add some veteran leadership and toughness.

Still, I'm not going to overhype the acquisitions of Browner or Ellerbe (who seems like an even trade for Curtis Lofton at best) -- especially after getting this lukewarm feedback from ESPN scouting insider Matt Williamson:

"Can't say I am super excited about either. Browner is obviously huge. He is best in man coverage and beating WRs up at the line of scrimmage. But he takes a ton of penalties and doesn't have the makeup speed if he is initially beaten. As for Ellerbe, he was a huge flop in Miami and I would say he is a slight downgrade, especially vs. the run, from Lofton."

So that's my long answer to the most popular question of the week: What the (heck) are the Saints doing?!

As for the more important question: Will it work?

Sorry, I can't help you there.
Jimmy Graham spoke for the first time Thursday after being traded from the New Orleans Saints to the Seattle Seahawks. He told reporters on a conference call that he was on a beach in South Florida when he got the surprise call from Saints coach Sean Payton telling him he had been traded.

"It was definitely out of left field," Graham said. "But when [Payton] told me it was Seattle, it put a grin on my face. It was a moment of shock, but once that shock cleared, I realized I was going to the best team in football."

Graham said he had no hard feelings toward the Saints, though.

"When I went there I was a boy and I feel like now I'm leaving there as a man," Graham said. "I owe a lot to that coaching staff, my teammates and that city for believing in me."

Graham also talked about his excitement to join a team that seems to have a “culture that breeds a brotherhood” and is “not about individual anything.”

He said past skirmishes with Seahawks defensive players were spurred by the emotion of the game. And he said he “loves” new coach Pete Carroll, calling him a “player’s coach.”
For about 24 hours, Max Unger became an afterthought -- the “other guy” involved in the blockbuster trade that sent tight end Jimmy Graham from the New Orleans Saints to the Seattle Seahawks.

But the new Saints center can be much, much more than that.

ESPN scouting insider Matt Williamson called Unger a “great addition” and correctly pointed out that it could help the Saints fortify their aging interior offensive line -- which Saints coach Sean Payton identified as the team’s No. 2 need last month.

Unger, 28, is a two-time Pro Bowler (2012, 2013) who has earned a reputation as one of the NFL’s best centers during his six-year career. He was first-team All-Pro in 2012.

[+] EnlargeUnger
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergMax Unger has started in all 75 of the games he's played in since being drafted in 2009.
However, the 6-foot-5, 305-pounder has battled injuries -- including knee and ankle injuries that sidelined him for 10 regular-season games last season. The Seahawks played well without Unger, which reportedly was among the reasons they felt they could afford to part ways.

“Injuries have been an issue for Unger, but he is still in his prime and among the best centers in the league,” Williamson said. “He started his career at Oregon as an offensive tackle and is an excellent athlete for the center position, which really shows up when he is blocking in space in the run game. And his time at OT shows up huge in protection.

“Over the [Drew] Brees era, maybe no team in the league has invested more in the interior offensive line spots, which makes perfect sense, as Brees with his height issues needs a clean pocket to see. Plus, he is awesome at stepping up in the pocket when the edge rush crashes down on him. Also, maybe by adding Unger, the Saints will then cut or restructure one or both of their guards [Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs], which has been talked about for quite a while now.”

Williamson is dead-on about how much the Saints have valued those interior line spots. Their play up front was part of what made New Orleans truly special when guards Evans and Carl Nicks were in their All-Pro primes from 2009 to '11.

But current guards Evans and Grubbs have shown signs of regression -- leading to the possibility that one or both could be released. The Saints were also looking to upgrade from veteran center Jonathan Goodwin, a free agent.

Those guys were especially inconsistent in pass protection last year -- a big reason why Brees and the Saints' offense struggled to get the ball down the field consistently. Graham averaged a career-low 10.5 yards per catch last season, which minimized his impact.

I remain skeptical about the trade because I think Graham remains one of the NFL’s top offensive weapons, and he was part of what made the Saints so unique at their peak in 2011, among other years.

However, the Saints' offense was losing its luster in 2014 even with Graham on the field, especially when he practically vanished over the last five games of the season.

It’s worth pointing out that the Saints didn’t just dump Graham with nothing in return. Swapping Graham and a fourth-round pick for Unger and a first-rounder is not a bad return.

Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson and Mike Renner gave the Saints only a C-plus for the deal in this piece Insider (which requires Insider access) -- mostly because PFF is so high on Graham. But they heaped Unger with praise.

“Unger is one of the league's best centers and ended the season with a PFF grade of plus-12.4, good enough for fourth in the league despite missing 10 games,” they wrote. “The Seattle offense looked completely different when he was on the field, and his one poor game of the season came during the Super Bowl, which was a big reason Seattle fell short.

“Unger has been in the top four of the PFF center rankings in two of the past three seasons, but the year he wasn't (2013) he was barely average, surrendering three sacks and struggling to hold together an offensive line that was dealing with inferior players at both guard spots. What the Saints do with their guards going forward could have a big impact on Unger's ability to hit his best form, as those were trouble spots for New Orleans this season.”

The Hawaiian-born Unger was a second-round draft pick out of Oregon in 2009 and was one of only three Seahawks players who predated coach Pete Carroll. Unger became an immediate starter and has started all 75 of the games he’s played, including the playoffs.

However, he played in just one game in 2010 because of a toe injury and just nine games this past season and postseason combined. Unger’s ankle injury sidelined him for the final six regular-season games in 2014 before he returned for the playoffs.

Unger is scheduled to fly into New Orleans next week to take a physical before the deal is fully approved. There is no reason to think that will be an issue, since Unger finished last season healthy.
That didn’t take long. Former New Orleans Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton agreed to a deal with the Oakland Raiders two days after being released. Good for Lofton, who was still playing at a high level even if the Saints deemed him expendable because of a high salary.

Also worth a click:
  • posted videos taken by Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette during the confrontation that led to his January arrest for domestic violence and the 911 call made by the alleged victim (the charges were later dropped). The video shows Galette arguing with the alleged victim, asking her to leave and shooting down her claims of being attacked. The woman is demanding that her cell phone be returned or that the police be called, claiming she was attacked and bitten by a dog.
  • In case you missed it, ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter Terry Blount had a great take on why Jimmy Graham will be a big difference-maker for his new team, even though there was some bad blood in the past.
  • Blount also posted comments about the trade from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider. Said Schneider: “We started talking to [the Saints] three days ago about general things and a lot of different players. This is one of the players that was brought up and we continued to pursue it. You never know how serious people are. It just depends on the different scenarios that you talk through.”
  • Graham tweeted a thank-you message to Saints fans and teammates – and changed his Twitter bio to just say, “Traded.”
  • Saints quarterback Drew Brees posted a snapshot of one of his sons wearing a Graham jersey.
  • The Saints posted a thank-you video to departed veterans Graham, Lofton and Pierre Thomas.
  • The Saints also posted an interview with newly re-signed running back Mark Ingram. Said Ingram: "Just to be able to stay home – the team that drafted me, the team I am familiar with, the team that is familiar with me – it’s nothing but positives."
  • Former St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Kendall Langford, who visited with the Saints last week, opted to sign with the Indianapolis Colts.
The New Orleans Saints will eventually wipe a total of $27 million off the books by trading Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks. That’s how much Graham had left on the four-year, $40 million contract he signed last year.

But for salary-cap purposes, the Saints will save only $2 million in 2015, with the other $25 million being saved in 2016-17.

That’s because the Saints paid Graham a $12 million signing bonus last year, which was scheduled to be divided equally over four years on the salary cap. They had $3 million count against their cap last year. The remaining $9 million will now count against the cap this year. Then Graham will be completely off the books after that.

In the end, Graham’s historic contract (the richest in NFL history for a tight end) wound up being a one-year, $13 million deal for New Orleans -- and a three-year, $27 million deal for Seattle.

The trade doesn’t give the Saints immediate cap relief -- in fact, their cap number actually went up since they added center Max Unger, whose $4.5 million salary in 2015 all counts against the cap.

However, the Saints can still use the future cap space they saved to their advantage by signing new players to deals with back-loaded salary-cap costs (like what they’ve been doing with most of their big deals in recent years).

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said Tuesday night the Saints will use the resources they acquired in the deal to help fix their defense.
General manager Mickey Loomis explained that the New Orleans Saints traded Jimmy Graham because they felt like they "had to make a bold move" to help improve their defense.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Paul SancyaGM Mickey Loomis said the Saints' consistent success on offense enabled them to trade Jimmy Graham and seek defensive improvement.
"I think at the end of the day, it comes down to this," Loomis told SiriusXM Radio. "We've had a good offensive team for a number of years. ... We feel like we do well on that side of the ball, but we've got to improve ourselves on defense. And there's three ways to get players in our league. That's through free agency, through the draft, and then trades. We kind of believe in using all avenues.

"So we took one of our assets on offense and turned it into some resources hopefully we can improve our defense with. But it was a tough decision, because love Jimmy Graham. He's been a great player for us. ...

"But, man, in order to improve ourselves we felt like we had to make a bold move, and so we did."

The Saints didn't immediately help their defense, since the only player they received in the swap was two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger. But they also upgraded from a fourth-round draft pick to a first-rounder. And they wiped $27 million off the books that was owed to Graham over the next three years (though the salary-cap savings won't really kick in until next year).

The Saints can use that space, though, by back-loading the cap costs on any new deals they sign -- an approach they've been using for years. And they've already targeted one of the top free-agent cornerbacks in Green Bay Packers veteran Tramon Williams, who was scheduled to arrive for a visit Tuesday.

As for the draft, Loomis said an emphasis will be placed on defense with picks No. 13 and 31. And he said there are no immediate plans to package those picks to move up.

"But you know how these drafts go," Loomis said, hinting that the Saints will explore all options based on their draft board at the time.

Asked how the Saints plan to fill the tight end void, Loomis complimented current backups Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill and said, "Obviously we'll be looking for another guy, whether that comes in the draft or later in free agency we'll wait and see. ... And Drew has a way of throwing a lot of these guys open."

Loomis was also asked if the team approached Brees about restructuring his contract, which still owes him $39 million over the next two years (with cap costs of $26.4 million in 2015 and $27.4 million in 2016.)

"No, that wasn't necessary for us," Loomis said.

That makes sense, since I never expected the Saints to demand a pay cut from Brees, despite his struggles with turnovers in 2014. I thought an extension might make sense. But if they wanted to simply restructure contracts to push money into the future, then they had other avenues that made more sense than Brees' deal.

As I keep saying, the Saints aren't being forced into these player releases just because of their cap situation -- and there could be more to come. They're mostly making these decisions in the wake of a 7-9 season that has forced them to abandon the status quo.

The New Orleans Saints didn't have a salary-cap problem. They had a 7-9 problem.

The Saints were never more disappointed or frustrated during the Sean Payton-Mickey Loomis-Drew Brees era than last year, when just about every unit on the team underachieved. And they vowed they weren't going to grow stale gracefully.

That's why all options were on the table -- including Tuesday's stunning trade of tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round draft pick to the Seattle Seahawks for two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round pick.

Graham, 28, signed a groundbreaking, four-year, $40 million contract last summer and was one of the most talented players on the Saints' roster -- and maybe in franchise history. But Graham also underachieved as much as anyone on the team last season, practically vanishing during the final five games as the Saints blew a golden opportunity to salvage their season.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesIn his five seasons with the Saints, Jimmy Graham caught 386 passes for 51 touchdowns. Replacing that kind of production will certainly be difficult.
"We're not just gonna patch a few holes here and throw the ball out there next year," Payton promised after the season.

He wasn't messing around. The Saints also released linebacker Curtis Lofton and running back Pierre Thomas last week. More moves are possible, including the possible release of six-time Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans.

The Saints didn't make these moves purely for financial reasons, even though they started out last week roughly $23 million over the cap. In fact, they actually added more than $2 million to their 2015 cap with the latest trade, when you factor in Unger's salary and the dead money on Graham's deal.

No, this was a football decision -- as shocking as it might be on the surface.

Ultimately, I think Payton was frustrated by Graham's inconsistent production. Yes, Graham had to fight through a shoulder injury. And he came up big from Weeks 8-12 -- but the Saints expected that to be the norm.

Instead, Graham fizzled down the stretch, catching a total of 20 passes for 219 yards and one touchdown in the final five games. That included a career-high three dropped passes in an ugly loss to Carolina and a controversial goal-line fumble in a season-killing loss to Atlanta. All season long, defenses seemed to force Graham to settle for check-down passes, taking away the downfield threat he brought earlier in his career. Graham averaged a career-low 10.5 yards per catch in 2014.

And the number that mattered most was 7-9 -- the Saints' record, even with Graham on the field. That gives them permission to try something else, especially considering they won a Super Bowl the year before Graham arrived.

So do I understand the move? Sure.

But do I like it? Not immediately.

For one thing, it's hard to give the Saints the benefit of the doubt at a time when they're trying to reverse some of the bold moves they made last year. (They also reportedly tried to trade outside linebacker Junior Galette after signing him to a four-year, $41 million extension last September.) This doesn't feel like part of a master plan as much as it feels like throwing out the playbook and writing a new one in the dirt.

Maybe the Saints will redefine their offense after adding a power-blocker such as Unger and ponying up to re-sign running back Mark Ingram. And I still trust Payton's offensive mind more than most any in the NFL.

But defenses used to fear what Payton could do with a unique weapon like Graham, who should have been part of the solution to the Saints' woes, not part of the problem.

Graham is a unique type of offensive player who helped make the Saints one of the most special offenses in NFL history in 2011. I ran out of breath last summer arguing why Graham's salary should rank among those of top 10 pass-catchers in the league. And the Saints sure didn't look the same last year after dumping another unique weapon in Darren Sproles, whom I believed was even more replaceable.

Furthermore, I'm skeptical as to the effect this offseason shake-up will have on the rest of the team.

Top cornerback Keenan Lewis certainly hasn't reacted well. He was so thrown off by the flurry of moves that he vowed to skip OTAs and minicamp if he doesn't get the rest of his contract guaranteed, as he feels unsecure and unhappy watching so many veteran teammates get cut.

Brees told the NFL Network of the Graham trade: "I'm as shocked as everyone else. I love the guy."

Brees didn't complain too vocally last year when the Saints traded Sproles, but he made it clear that it was a move that hit him harder than most. This could have a similar effect.

The Saints aren't in a full-on rebuilding mode, though. They did just give Brees some much-needed added protection up front with Unger. They also kept Brees' longtime go-to guy, Marques Colston. They're building around young receivers Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills. They're working on a revamped defense, with Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams coming in for a visit. And now they have two first-round draft picks to work with.

The Saints decided they needed a new approach. Whether it was bold or desperate remains to be seen. But either way, it proved they weren't willing to just patch a few holes and throw the ball out there.

That's the price of 7-9.
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.

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.