NFL Nation: Mickey Loomis

The New Orleans Saints won big on Wednesday. But now they need to do right by Jimmy Graham.

The Saints still need to offer Graham what he's worth -- at least $10 million per year, no matter if you consider him a wide receiver, a tight end or a hybrid.

This thing still can -- and should -- turn into a win-win proposition, with the sides reaching a new deal before the July 15 deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign long-term contracts.

It should play out just like the dragged-out Drew Brees contract negotiations two years ago, when the Saints ultimately made Brees the NFL's first $20 million-per-year player before that same mid-July deadline.

It’s all contingent on the Saints' paying Graham what he deserves. I believe they will -- even though the team now has a lot more leverage following a groundbreaking ruling by arbitrator Stephen Burbank on Wednesday.

In fact, I think it's even more likely that a long-term deal will get done by July 15 after Burbank ruled that Graham is officially considered a tight end for franchise-tag purposes.

If Graham had been declared a wide receiver, he might have been priced out of New Orleans. The Saints' one-year, franchise-tag tender would have vaulted from $7.053 million to $12.13 million. And it would have been impossible for the Saints to sign Graham to a long-term deal worth less than $12 million per year.

Graham still has some leverage -- namely the fact that he is hugely important to the Saints' success. The Saints don't want to risk losing Graham to a holdout. And there's no reason for them to try to shortchange the guy who has emerged as the second-best player on their roster, behind Brees.

Despite their haggling over whether Graham should be declared a tight end or wide receiver for franchise-tag purposes, this is still one of the best marriages in the NFL. No matter what you want to call his position, Graham is a groundbreaking matchup nightmare who is even more potent in an offense led by Saints coach Sean Payton and Brees, two of the best at exploiting matchups.

Graham has been a monster on the field for the past three seasons, leading the NFL with 36 touchdown catches and averaging 90 catches and 1,169 yards. He has also been a model player, playing through injuries and developing a close bond with his quarterback.

I had no problem with the Saints or Graham fighting over whether he should be declared a tight end or wide receiver, because there were millions of dollars and a lot of negotiating leverage at stake. As Brees and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis have both said, that is just the nature of the business.

But the way teams and players avoid letting these things turn into lasting problems is by ultimately finding the price tag that makes everyone happy.

For Graham, I say that's at least $10 million per year. If he were free to test the open market, I think he would be paid like a top-five receiver, somewhere around $12 million annually.

Even if you want to base Graham's salary off other tight ends, you would have to agree he should raise the bar significantly from the previous high contract -- the $9 million per year Rob Gronkowski received from the New England Patriots in 2012, when Gronk was just two years into his rookie deal and had even less leverage.

As I've written countless times this offseason, I think it's impossible to diminish the numbers Graham has produced over the past three seasons, even though he hasn't been as productive when matched up against cornerbacks and was held quiet in the playoffs.

I strongly dispute the notion that Graham comes up small in big games. He had a combined 11 catches for 131 yards and three touchdowns in two pivotal December showdowns against the Carolina Panthers last season and was huge in the 2011 postseason.

He's the second-most-valuable player on the Saints' roster and one of the biggest reasons they have a bona fide chance to compete for the Super Bowl this season and for years to come after that.

Graham might be "just" a tight end. But he's the most valuable one the NFL has ever seen. And the Saints need to pay him accordingly.
METAIRIE, La. – The grievance hearing over Jimmy Graham’s franchise-tag designation is expected to be held next month, according to New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis.

“I don’t know for sure when the date is. But I have a time frame, and it’s another month,” Loomis said.

Loomis declined to answer specific questions about the pending debate Saturday. But he did explain that the Saints’ side of the argument (that Graham should officially be labeled as a tight end) is handled by the NFL Management Council.

“Obviously we get consulted and talked with,” Loomis said. “But that’s the management council’s duty.”

Graham’s case (that he should be considered a receiver) will be handled by the NFL Players Association.

The two sides will first agree on a neutral third-party arbitrator to hear the case.

The NFLPA filed the grievance on Graham’s behalf earlier this week. His argument is that he should be considered a receiver since he lined up either in the slot or out wide for 67 percent of his snaps last season.

Graham was declared a tight end by the management council when he was franchised in early March, which required the Saints to offer Graham a one-year tender of $7.035 million. If Graham wins, his required tender would vault to $12.3 million -- the number for receivers.

It’s also possible that the Saints and Graham could work out a new long-term contract extension in the meantime. The deadline for franchised players to sign long-term deals with their teams is July 15.
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

METAIRIE, La. -- A wrap-up of the New Orleans Saints' draft. Click here for a full list of Saints draftees.

Best move: Trading up for dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks with the 20th pick in Round 1. Normally, I preach fans shouldn't expect too much from any draft pick in year one, but Cooks sure looks like he could make a huge impact right away for a Saints offense that suddenly needed some more juice after parting ways with veterans Darren Sproles and Lance Moore.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Matt Cohen/Icon SMIThe New Orleans Saints gained one of the more polished receivers in this draft class in Brandin Cooks, per ESPN's Scouts Inc. profile.
Cooks' combination of college production (128 catches for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State) and dynamic speed (4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash) makes the 5-foot-10, 189-pounder another matchup nightmare for coach Sean Payton to play with. Cooks could also take over the Saints' punt-return role -- another area in which they need some help.

But Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said that's more of a bonus than the reason Cooks got drafted.

"Obviously, we were aware of his skill [as a returner]," Loomis said. "But he also had 120-some catches. We're pretty happy with him as a receiver."

Riskiest move: The same answer. The Saints had to trade away a third-round pick to move up from No. 27 to No. 20. Obviously, I think Cooks was worth that risk, but it’s really the only move the Saints made that could qualify as a gamble. Many NFL teams cherish those midround picks.

Loomis, however, has always shown a willingness to trade up when the Saints have a conviction on a player, which was clearly the case in this instance. And he said the Saints' success with undrafted free agents has made them more willing to trade picks over the years.

Loomis said that third-round choice was "not inexpensive," and it would have been "a hard pill to swallow" to give up more than that. That's why the Saints didn't move higher into the teens ahead of the New York Jets, for example.

Most surprising move: Not drafting a center or guard. It wasn't a huge shock -- I ranked receiver and cornerback as the Saints' top two needs, and that's where they went in Rounds 1 and 2 with Cooks and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. But I did expect New Orleans to add an interior lineman at some point in the draft. Payton explained the Saints considered a handful of centers but never came close to drafting one. He said it wasn't a deep draft at the position in general, and the grades never lined up when New Orleans was on the clock.

That leaves the center position as the Saints' biggest question mark right now, but they're high on second-year pro Tim Lelito. I still think there's a strong chance they'll sign free-agent veteran Jonathan Goodwin to compete for the job.

File it away: What a change for Florida linebacker Ronald Powell to come into this draft as an unheralded fifth-round pick (No. 169 overall). Four years ago, Powell was rated as the No. 1 high school player in the country, according to ESPNU, but he never quite lived up to that potential and missed the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL that required two surgeries.

Powell is still an enticing athlete -- and he insisted those setbacks will only serve as motivation.

"I think he is hungry. It's very important to him. You get that sense specifically with that player," Payton said. "For every one of these guys, it's important. But every once in a while, you talk with one of these players, and that just stands out."
METAIRIE, La. -- Some leftovers from our conversations with New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks and Saints coach Sean Payton on Thursday night:

Giving back to mom: Cooks already earned his first big professional pay day when he posted a blazing time of 4.33 seconds at the NFL scouting combine in February. Adidas awarded him $100,000 for running the fastest time of any athlete wearing a pair of special adidas cleats.

Cooks said that his first big purchase after winning that prize was a new Mercedes for his mother, Andrea.

“She needed one. She was driving around in a 1999 Saturn, and I wasn’t having that anymore,” said Cooks, whose mother raised him and his three older brothers after his father died of a heart attack when he was just 6 years old.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Matt Cohen/Icon SMIReceiver Brandin Cooks' potential has the Saints excited -- defensive coordinator Rob Ryan included. "This guy opens your eyes," Ryan said.
Cooks’ "gut" feeling: The Saints said they didn’t bring in Cooks for a visit to their facility because they were already sold on him. In fact, the last time they even spoke was at that February scouting combine.

However, Cooks insisted that he had a gut feeling he might wind up with the Saints. And he said he “knew something special was coming” when he saw them make the trade up to No. 20.

“At the combine when I had a formal interview with them I thought it was special, in the case when I walked out the door and I had that vibe,” Cooks said. “I definitely felt that since the combine. And hey, it happened, so I guess that I went with my gut feeling and that was the right thing to do.”

Same, but different: Cooks is actually the second Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver from Oregon State that the Saints have drafted during the Payton-Mickey Loomis era. The last one was Mike Hass, whom the Saints drafted in the sixth round in 2006.

Hass drew a lot of praise for his ability to catch everything in sight during summer camps. But he ultimately failed to make the roster, in part because he got beat out by a seventh-round pick from that year and an undrafted guy who had been on the Saints’ practice squad a year earlier (otherwise known as Marques Colston and Lance Moore).

Bargain price: The price the Saints paid to move up from No. 27 to No. 20 seemed appropriate based on recent history. They gave up their third-round draft choice (No. 91 overall) to the Arizona Cardinals. Two years ago, for example, the New England Patriots gave up the No. 93 pick to leap from 27 to 21.

However, the Saints’ trade was a bargain compared to a deal that occurred two picks later. The Cleveland Browns gave up the 83rd pick in the draft to move up from No. 26 to No. 22 to draft quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Art of the deal: We know the Saints have always been willing to aggressively move up in the draft when they believe a player is worthy – something Loomis expanded on in his pre-draft news conference. But they wouldn’t do it for just anybody.

Payton said the Saints made a list of players that would be worth moving up to get before the draft. And Cooks was the last player remaining on that list when they made their deal. He said the parameters were in place as the Cardinals’ pick approached. But the Saints weren’t sure Cooks would still be around until after the New York Jets’ pick at No. 18, since New York also had a need at receiver.

“You look ahead of you at the teams, but you also understand that the one unknown is always a team coming back in (and trading in front of you),” Payton explained. “There were a couple of teams that had a need at receiver. The Jets, before we made the trade officially, we really sat on that pick waiting. They went the direction of safety, and that all of the sudden made it apparent that this could happen.”

The Saints now have only five more picks remaining in this year’s draft, which means this will be the seventh straight year that they’ve come out of a draft with less than seven total picks (barring another trade).

But Loomis explained that the Saints have felt comfortable doing that over the years, in part because of their success with their undrafted free agents. Last year, seven of the Saints’ post-draft signings cracked the active roster.

Not pre-planned: Heading into this year’s draft, analysts and personnel executives universally agreed that the class was loaded with talent at the receiver position. But Payton said the Saints didn’t take that into account when they decided to part ways with Moore and runner/receiver Darren Sproles this offseason.

“No I wouldn’t say those decisions were based on the way this draft class shaped up,” Payton said. “Those were tough decisions, one with the trade and the other with a guy like Lance Moore. They weren’t predicated on the depth that we were looking at at all. They were separate.”

Along those same lines, Payton said the Saints didn’t feel like it was a must for them to add a dynamic speed element to their offense to fill the void left by those departed veterans. He said the pick was about Cooks’ value.

“I think we have some guys that can run. I think Robert Meachem can run. I think we have other players that are threats. Kenny Stills is someone. Nick Toon, who had a great training camp and didn’t receive as many opportunities a year ago … Joe Morgan will be coming back off an injury,” Payton said. “We have some team speed. This was more about the makeup of this player. Obviously we think he’s a good football player and a good receiver. He’s very confident.

“We felt there were eight players and maybe a little bit of a space with grades and then another clump. We just saw this guy as a real good fit. There were a few others the same way that might not have been at receiver.”
videoMETAIRIE, La. -- The pick: WR Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

My take: I love the pick for the New Orleans Saints, who filled their biggest need for both the short term and long term with a dynamic playmaker. Cooks, a small but speedy receiver at 5-foot-10, 189 pounds, can help fill the void left by Darren Sproles and Lance Moore out of the slot or wherever creative coach Sean Payton wants to move him around the field. Cooks caught a whopping 128 passes for 1,730 yards last year to earn the Biletnikoff Award.

Saints stay aggressive: I projected this trade for the Saints because it falls in line with their aggressive history under general manager Mickey Loomis and Payton. This is now the fifth time the Saints have traded up in the first round during Loomis’ tenure, dating back to 2003. And they also made a bold move to sign Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency. Loomis talked earlier this week about why he feels it’s worth trading up for players when you have a strong conviction on them. And the cost to move up from No. 27 was palatable -- this year’s third-round pick (No. 91 overall).

What’s next: The Saints now have just one pick on Friday since they traded away the third-rounder. Cornerback, center and pass-rushers rank among their top needs. But they’ll take the best available player off their board without reaching to fill any of those needs. Beginning in the second round, it’s unrealistic to address the 2014 needs since guys could take longer to develop. They can probably scratch receiver off the wish list, though.

The best part about Jimmy Graham's decision to file a grievance over his franchise tag? It should light a fire under his negotiations with the New Orleans Saints.

Up until Wednesday, it appeared as though both sides were content to wait until the July 15 deadline for franchised players to sign long-term deals.

But now, they should be motivated to work out a long-term deal even sooner.

Otherwise, they'll be putting an awful lot of negotiating leverage in the hands of a neutral third-party arbitrator. And as former NFL executive Bill Polian said on the subject earlier this offseason: “There's an old saying that when you put an issue in the hands of a third party, then there's a possibility that neither side is happy with the result.”

The debate is compelling: The Saints feel Graham should be considered a tight end, which comes with a franchise-tag salary of $7.035 million. And Graham's camp feels he should be considered a wide receiver, which comes with a salary of $12.3 million.

But that debate doesn't really matter. If the two sides can agree on Graham's value, they don't have to worry about the label.

As I've written before, I believe Graham should be considered a tight end. But I also believe he deserves to be paid like a top-10 wide receiver based on his production and his value to the offense.

So go ahead and call Graham a tight end -- or a “hybrid,” as quarterback Drew Brees likes to say. But pay him what he's worth. Maybe something like $10.5 million per year.

Regardless of what that specific amount is, it would behoove both Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and Graham's agent Jimmy Sexton to figure it out on their own. Because even though they both believe they have strong cases in the tight end/receiver debate, neither can be assured of how an arbitrator will rule.

The argument for a wide receiver designation is based on where Graham lines up. Last year, he spent 67 percent of his snaps either in the slot (45 percent) or out wide (22 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information. And he led the Saints in every receiving category with 86 receptions, 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.

However, the Saints will counter that lining up in those spots is part of the tight end's job description.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, Graham was one of three full-time tight ends who spent more than 50 percent of his snaps off the line last year – along with Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. Another eight starting tight ends lined up in traditional receiver positions at least 45 percent of the time.

When asked if he considers Graham a tight end in January, Loomis said, “Isn't that what we drafted him as? Isn't that what he made the Pro Bowl as? That's what we see him as, a tight end. … That's what makes him valuable.”

The specific timetable for a hearing hasn't been laid out yet. A neutral arbitrator will be agreed upon by the NFL Players Association and the NFL Management Council. Then a hearing date will be set.

In the past, only one such hearing has ever taken place -- when the Baltimore Ravens and Terrell Suggs debated over whether he should be considered a defensive end or linebacker. But even then, the two sides worked out a compromise before the arbitrator made his ruling.

So while it would be fascinating to see how an arbitrator rules in Graham's case, it would be just as fascinating to see if the two sides allow it to get that far.
Not many NFL teams have enjoyed the kind of sustained success in the draft as the New Orleans Saints have during general manager Mickey Loomis' tenure.

Sure, they've had their share of hits and misses during Loomis' first 11 drafts, beginning in 2003. But few teams have been able to match the quantity or the consistency of those hits.

Since 2006, the Saints have drafted seven Pro Bowlers. That's tied for fifth among all NFL teams during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And Loomis is tied for first among all individual general managers during that span (with Dallas Cowboys owner/GM Jerry Jones and Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman).

That's why Loomis' run is so impressive -- it requires both success and longevity.

Dating to Loomis' debut in 2003, the Saints have drafted 10 Pro Bowlers. That's tied for seventh in the NFL. And Loomis ranks fourth among all individual GMs over that span -- behind former San Diego Chargers GM A.J. Smith (13), Jones (12) and New England Patriots coach/de facto GM Bill Belichick (11).

Obviously others in the Saints organization deserve credit as well, including coach Sean Payton (hired in 2006) and longtime college scouting director Rick Reiprish (hired in 2004).

The Saints haven't had to make many radical changes to their power structure over the past decade. They've only had to rebuild the roster once during Loomis' tenure (2006). And they've only had three top-10 picks (DT Jonathan Sullivan in 2003, RB Reggie Bush in 2006 and DT Sedrick Ellis in 2008).

Ironically, none of those players went on to be Pro Bowlers -- which is a strike against Loomis and the Saints. But New Orleans has been outstanding further down in the draft.

Here's the list of the guys who have made the Pro Bowl so far -- a list that should continue to grow as impressive young players such as safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive end Akiem Hicks continue to develop:

2003: OT Jon Stinchcomb (second round)
2004: DE Will Smith (first round)
2005: OT Jammal Brown (first round)
2006: S Roman Harper (second round)
2006: G Jahri Evans (fourth round)
2007: OT Jermon Bushrod (fourth round)
2008: G Carl Nicks (fifth round)
2009: P Thomas Morstead (fifth round)
2010: TE Jimmy Graham (third round)
2011: DE Cameron Jordan (first round)
From the outside looking in, the New Orleans Saints’ offseason has probably seemed a bit hectic.

The Saints have been full of surprises, from the big-name acquisitions of Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey to the big-name departures of Darren Sproles and others.

[+] EnlargeMickey Loomis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMickey Loomis has made several key additions to the Saints' roster despite salary-cap constraints.
Based on reactions from fans and national analysts alike, the biggest head-scratcher of all has been the fact that the Saints keep adding ammo to the roster despite a tight squeeze against the salary cap.

But none of these moves have been made on the fly.

General manager Mickey Loomis insisted last week that just about every move the Saints made was part of a calculated plan.

“It’s not a process where all of a sudden there’s somebody [available] and you decide, ‘Hey, let’s go do this,’” Loomis said while speaking with reporters at LSU’s pro day.

“We have a short-term plan and a long-term plan,” Loomis continued. “And we come into each offseason with 19 or 20 or 25 different things that we want to get accomplished. And you just kind of go down the checklist. And obviously things come up that are unexpected, and you have to react to those. But for the most part, it’s a plan and an execution of the plan.

“So I would say it was kind of business as usual.”

Asked how many of those items the Saints have hit, Loomis said, “We’ve hit a lot of them. We always do. We don’t hit every item, but we hit almost all of them.”

(Click here for a recap of all the Saints' moves as of the beginning of last week.)

The Saints are actually in great shape with the salary cap after agreeing to a pay cut with defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley last week. They’re now $3.6 million under the cap, and they probably don’t have too many more expensive purchases left in their shopping cart.

New Orleans still has some noteworthy tasks left to complete. The biggest is signing tight end Jimmy Graham to a long-term contract extension, but Loomis insisted that there is no immediate pressure to get that done. Graham's franchise tag figure is already counting $7.035 million against the Saints' salary cap, so they don't need to clear out any new cap space for him.

The Saints also need to find a new starting center after letting Brian de la Puente get away in free agency, though they like second-year pro Tim Lelito’s potential as a candidate for that role.

And there are a few other positions where New Orleans needs to get younger, including receiver, but most of those needs can be filled through the draft.

As Loomis suggested, we won’t know until the fall whether the Saints’ plan worked out. But so far, at least, everything is going as planned.

“I feel like we’ve executed our plan well,” Loomis said. “Whether that’s a good plan or not remains to be seen. But we feel like it is.”
So much for salary-cap constraints.

The New Orleans Saints landed one of the top-rated free agents in the entire market on Tuesday, agreeing to a six-year contract with Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd. The deal is worth a whopping $54 million, with $28 million guaranteed, a league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

That’s a stunning investment for any team to make -- especially a team that was already slammed up against the salary cap like the Saints.

[+] EnlargeJairus Byrd
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsPairing Jairus Byrd with Kenny Vaccaro gives the Saints a dynamic, young safety duo.
No one will try to claim the Saints got a bargain. And many pundits often scoff at the teams that make huge wagers on the first day of free agency. But if you’re going to go “all-in,” I do like the idea of investing in a 27-year-old, three-time Pro Bowler who is still in his prime and can help New Orleans contend immediately for another Super Bowl.

They say the NFL is a copycat league, and Byrd is the closest thing to Seattle Seahawks ball hawk Earl Thomas that the Saints could get their hands on. He'll be paired with emerging young safety Kenny Vaccaro, and he’ll be a huge addition for a young Saints defense that was already soaring in the right direction last year.

Signing Byrd is an extreme example of what I just wrote about Tuesday morning -- how the Saints and general manager Mickey Loomis have remained selectively aggressive in free agency in recent years. I like that concept, and I think it's the main reason why the Saints have remained bona fide Super Bowl contenders for five years running.

The Saints have never allowed themselves to be paralyzed by their salary-cap constraints. Last year, that led to one of the best free-agent signings in the entire NFL (cornerback Keenan Lewis at a little more than $5 million per year). Now, they’re almost literally doubling down.

This move will require even more creative salary-cap maneuvering for New Orleans, which is estimated to be just $2.6 million under the cap. But the Saints will save another $3.5 million when they trade or release running back Darren Sproles. And they can easily carve out more space if they’re willing to keep pushing their cap costs into future years.

The Saints can back-load Byrd’s contract, and they can restructure the contract of some current players -- something they have not yet done with any players this offseason. True, that puts a lot of pressure on the cap in future years, and the Saints already have huge cap hits coming in the near future because of other back-loaded contracts. They'll also have to get creative when they re-sign tight end Jimmy Graham to his next deal.

But as I also wrote Tuesday morning, the Saints will pay those bills whenever quarterback Drew Brees retires. For now, they want to try to win as much as they can while Brees is still in his prime.

New Orleans may also decide to cut more players or push for pay cuts. Possible candidates include defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and running back Pierre Thomas.

We’ve obviously seen more of those veteran departures than ever this offseason, with the Saints parting ways with six players who could truly be listed among their all-time greats (Sproles, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Lance Moore).

The Saints also let safety Malcolm Jenkins get away to the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday -- which didn’t come as a surprise since they never showed serious interest in retaining him.

The Saints now have zero defensive players remaining from their 2009 Super Bowl team. And they have only seven players remaining from that roster overall (including free agent offensive tackle Zach Strief and receiver Robert Meachem).

But the aging process is inevitable in the NFL, and the Saints aren’t the first Super Bowl team that has been forced to reinvent itself.

The Saints’ approach to combat that aging process has been to keep spending money aggressively on new core leaders.

And they just placed their biggest bet to date on Byrd -- the most expensive free-agent signing they’ve made since they first signed Brees to a six-year, $60 million deal in 2006.
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.
METAIRIE, La. -- In one sense, the New Orleans Saints have been through this already in recent years -- needing to trim more than $20 million from their salary cap by the start of the league year March 11. However, this next month will likely be the most emotionally challenging yet in the era of general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton.

It’s entirely possible the Saints could part ways with up to nine of the 13 players remaining from their Super Bowl roster.

Four are unrestricted free agents (safety Malcolm Jenkins, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, offensive tackle Zach Strief and receiver Robert Meachem). Five others could become salary-cap casualties (defensive end Will Smith, cornerback Jabari Greer, safety Roman Harper, receiver Lance Moore and running back Pierre Thomas).

[+] EnlargeWill Smith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWill Smith has been a Saint for 10 years. An 11th season in New Orleans will be possible only if he takes a pay cut.
The four Super Bowl vets who are most likely to stay on the roster are quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans, receiver Marques Colston and punter Thomas Morstead.

It’s not exactly the end of an era. The Saints are still bona fide Super Bowl contenders, led by Payton and Brees, and have done a great job of continually reshaping a talented roster. But it’s awfully close.

Payton made a point to emphasize some of the tough decisions that are looming when he was asked about the pending contract negotiations with free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham on Fox Sports 1 last week.

"The most challenging part of your job as a coach, and I share that with Mickey or anyone that has been with an organization as long as we have been, going on Year 9, is some of the tough decisions that have to be made with regards to your cap with the ability that you possibly can sign Jimmy Graham," Payton said. "It's very easy to say, 'You are certainly going to get this done.' But you have to understand there is a budget here. That's the challenging part.

"You are going to read these names that have already come across the ticker from Atlanta last week [the release of cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas], and we will be no different."

The Saints are currently projected to be around $13 million to $15 million over the salary cap. If they use the franchise tag on Graham, as expected, they’ll need to carve out about $6.5 million more (a figure that will vault closer to $11 million if Graham is later deemed to be a receiver instead of a tight end). Plus, the Saints will want to clear even more space off the books to sign other free agents and send out restricted-free-agent tenders.

Loomis and the Saints’ front office have proved capable of handling similar circumstances in recent years while remaining fairly aggressive in adding free agents from other teams.

In the process, the Saints have had to let some core players go, such as guard Carl Nicks and offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod. They’ve also restructured several contracts and agreed to pay cuts with some longtime veterans. We’ll certainly see a combination of all three again this offseason.

Smith and Harper are the most obvious cap-casualty candidates. Smith, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is due to receive $11.55 million in salary and bonuses, and Harper is due $3.15 million. Both players could conceivably come back -- but only if they agree to drastic pay cuts, probably closer to $1 million.

I hate to add Greer’s name to that list, since I think he’s been possibly the Saints’ most underrated core player since 2009. But Greer is due $4.5 million and is rehabbing from a major knee injury suffered in November. So chances are he’ll have to agree to a pay cut to stay in New Orleans.

The next wave of possibilities includes Moore ($3.8 million), Thomas ($2.9 million) and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley ($4.5 million). Moore and Thomas have been in that same category with Greer over the years -- underrated core players and fan favorites. Thomas, in particular, may have just had his best season to date in 2013. However, all three veterans in this group play part-time roles now, which doesn’t match their lofty salaries.

Then there are the free agents. Again, it’s possible the Saints could bring back longtime starters like Strief and Jenkins -- but only if the price tag is extremely palatable. If any other team wants to outbid the Saints for their services, they probably will let them go. Strief, in particular, could be in high demand elsewhere after one of his strongest seasons. Meachem and Vilma could be back at veteran minimum salaries, but the Saints need to add youth at both positions.

Here’s the full list of Saints scheduled to become free agents next month:

Unrestricted free agent starters: TE Jimmy Graham, RT Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente, S Malcolm Jenkins, OLB Parys Haralson, K Shayne Graham

Unrestricted free-agent reserves: WR Robert Meachem, OT Charles Brown, QB Luke McCown, LB Jonathan Vilma, LB Will Herring, LB Ramon Humber, LB Keyunta Dawson, DE Kenyon Coleman, S Jordan Pugh

Restricted free agents: FB Jed Collins, WR Joe Morgan, S Rafael Bush, DL Tom Johnson
MOBILE, Ala. -- Ever since Sean Payton, Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston arrived together in 2006, it's seemed like the New Orleans Saints have had their offensive core in place, and they've needed to build a complementary defense.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Nick Toon
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Nick Toon will see more opportunities moving forward, Saints GM Mickey Loomis said.
For example, their top pick in each of the past six drafts has been a defensive player. And most of the Saints' significant free-agent acquisitions have been defensive players during that span, as well.

But suddenly, the Saints' defense seems loaded with young building blocks after breakout performances in 2013 by guys such as ends Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks and defensive backs Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro.

And by comparison, the offense has started to look like the unit that needs more young developmental talent for the future -- especially at the offensive line and receiver positions. The immediate future of veterans such as right tackle Zach Strief, center Brian de la Puente and receivers Lance Moore and Robert Meachem is in some doubt for various reasons (free agency, the cap, diminishing roles). And someday Brees, Evans and Colston will need to be replaced, too -- though the Saints are hoping they've all got several good years left in them.

"It's a good question," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said when I asked if the team's focus needs to shift this offseason toward stocking that next generation of offensive talent. "The last few years the focus has been more on defense in the offseason and with the draft. I think it's going to be more balanced this year."

Loomis was quick to point out, however, that the Saints do like the potential of several young offensive players who contributed in 2013 -- even though they weren't big draft or free-agent investments.

"We've got some good young players," Loomis said while visiting with the media during a Senior Bowl practice Tuesday. "[Rookie left tackle] Terron Armstead, I thought, was really good in those last four games. Obviously, he had a few struggles early, but he responded, so I think we're excited about the prospects for him.

"We like this [guard/center] Tim Lelito, he's an undrafted free agent who we're excited about. [Receiver] Kenny Stills was productive as a rookie, fifth-round pick. And we like [second-year receiver] Nick Toon. Nick has been held back by the number of opportunities we can give him. Josh Hill, a [undrafted rookie] tight end. So we've got some good young players on offense. I know it might seem like we don't, but we do."

Toon is one of the most curious names on that list since he was inactive for the second half of the season after struggling when he got his most prominent opportunity of the year against the New York Jets. But when asked if Toon was in the "doghouse," Loomis explained what I always figured to be the case -- that Toon was simply stuck in the back of a crowded position group.

Maybe if Toon had performed better in New York, he would have forced the Saints to keep him in the lineup. But for the most part, he was active for a handful of games when the Saints had injury issues -- then he went back to being the inactive fifth receiver when everyone else was healthy.

"The only thing holding Nick back is the number of opportunities," Loomis said. "He'll get those going forward."

Loomis later spoke about undrafted rookie running back Khiry Robinson, third-year running back Mark Ingram and second-year offensive tackle Bryce Harris, among others whose roles could expand going forward.

It's too early to predict what the Saints' most glaring needs will be in free agency and the draft. They have five starters scheduled to be unrestricted free agents (tight end Jimmy Graham, Strief, de la Puente, safety Malcolm Jenkins and outside linebacker Parys Haralson). They might also opt to part ways with one or more current starters to shed salary-cap space.

But in general, the Saints don't appear to have many positions that "must" be filled in the first round of the draft -- to use a term that the Saints often use when categorizing their offseason needs.

"Always our goal is to fill as many of those holes prior to the draft -- those ‘musts' -- so we can take whatever may fall to us," Loomis said. "Obviously, we're not relying on it, but we'll see what we can do there. It's more of a challenge when you have salary cap issues, obviously. ...

"That best available player [concept in the draft] is always our goal. And that's what we like to talk about. Yet, you always have to have an eye on what you need for our team."

I also jokingly asked Loomis if the Saints have already identified this year's undrafted running back from some Division II school that will come out of nowhere to be a breakout player -- like undrafted standouts Robinson, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, among others in the Saints' recent past.

"We're going to," Loomis said with a laugh. "We will have one, I guarantee you that."

Loomis: Secret is out on Ryan Pace

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
MOBILE, Ala. -- After losing quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi to the Detroit Lions on Tuesday, New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis was asked about another hot name in the organization -- player personnel director Ryan Pace.

Earlier this month, the Saints denied the Miami Dolphins permission to interview Pace for their general manager vacancy. Loomis said Tuesday that they denied the request because the Saints were still in the playoffs at the time. But Loomis said he expects Pace to get away at some point.

When asked if he could describe what makes Pace so talented, Loomis said, "Yes, I can, but I don't like to. I kind of feel like he's been our secret for a while.”

“But look, he's a great, young personnel director,” Loomis continued. “He's got a great eye for talent and guys that fit with what we are doing and what we want to do. He's very talented. He's a guy that we're going to lose at some point.”

Pace originally joined the Saints in 2001 as an assistant in areas like game-day and training-camp operations before working his way up through the scouting department. He was promoted last year from pro scouting director into his current role, where he oversees all pro and college scouting.

MOBILE, Ala. -- Count New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis among the proponents for NFL playoff expansion. (And it sure seems like he'll get his wish with the league leaning toward adding a seventh team in each conference).

Loomis has long been an advocate for expanding the playoff field. If it were up to him, he'd probably go all the way up to eight teams per division.

The way Loomis sees it, more playoff teams is better for more organizations, coaches, players, fans and the league. Clearly, he isn't worried about the loss of byes for top seeds or the fear of a watered-down playing field.

“I've been in favor of it for a number of years,” Loomis said while discussing a variety of topics while attending Senior Bowl practices this week. “I just like the fact that we have more events. I think these playoff games are great events for the city, the communities that they're in. I think it's good for the organization. The first measure of success is making the playoffs. I personally don't like the byes. There's no byes in the NBA. That's just the way I feel about it.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Loomis doesn't feel as strongly about the idea of reseeding playoff teams based on overall record -- even though the Saints have had to go on the road as a wild-card team against a division winner with a worse record twice in the past four seasons.

In 2010, the 11-5 Saints had to play at 7-9 Seattle (and lost). This year, the 11-5 Saints played at 10-6 Philadelphia and won.

“I don't know. I'd have to put more thought into that,” Loomis said. “I've read some things. And yet, I personally think that winning a division should have some meaning to it, some significant meaning to it. Look, there's a pretty stark contrast when you have an 8-8 team versus a 12-4 or an 11-5 wild card. But what about the times when you have a division winner is 9-7 and the wild card is 10-6, so it's a one-game difference and maybe the division winner had a much tougher schedule? There are a lot of variables here. I tend to think that we've got a pretty good system now that has worked well.

“There has been the occasional anomaly and obviously [the Saints' situation was unusual in 2010]. But we could have answered that by going there and beating them. So they beat us fair and square.”

While we're on the subject of potential NFL rule tweaks, it's worth mentioning that Saints coach Sean Payton has long been an advocate for the college football system of replay review, where the decisions to review plays are done by officials upstairs instead of being based on coaches' challenges. Payton thinks it's more efficient and accurate.

And based on the reaction to the fumble that wasn't able to be challenged late in the San Francisco 49ers-Seattle Seahawks game this past weekend, it seems like a lot of public and media sentiment is shifting in the same direction -- though there has been no indication yet that the league will consider such a change.
MOBILE, Ala. -- New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis visited with the media Tuesday to review the 2013 season and look ahead to 2014. The hottest topic, obviously, was the looming contract talks with free agent tight Jimmy Graham and the possible battle over his franchise-tag designation.

But Loomis also broke down a variety of interesting topics during the lengthy Q&A session. He also spoke about the departure of quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi to the Detroit Lions and the Saints’ growing coaching tree. I’ll break down more of the highlights in a variety of specific posts over the next couple days.

But first, some of Loomis’ overall thoughts on the season that just ended – an 11-5 campaign that fell short of the ultimate goal when the Saints lost in the divisional round of the playoffs at Seattle.

“I think this: We had a good year, a lot of real good things to feel good about. And yet it wasn’t a great year because we’re not in the Super Bowl,” Loomis said. “And that’s just where we’re at as a program. We expect and want to play in that game, and we want to win it. And we had a chance. I thought our coaches and players did a great job. And yet when you lose that last one, you’re always wanting more.

“And I think Sean [Payton] said this after the Super Bowl, ‘Once you’ve eaten steak, you don’t want hamburger any longer.’ So that’s kind of where we’re at. We’re still in that mode. ...

“We’re right there. We were in the playoffs and had opportunities to win the game in Seattle and we didn’t. They were the better team in that game. [But] we’re confident in our building that we can play and beat any team on a given day. We’ve felt that way for quite some time.”

Loomis admitted that the salary cap will be a hurdle once again for the Saints this year. They’re currently about $12.5 million over the projected cap of $126.6 million. And they’ll have to make room for Graham’s new deal, among others.

Starting right tackle Zach Strief, starting center Brian De La Puente and starting safety Malcolm Jenkins will likely rank as the other highest-priced free agents among this year’s class.

But the Saints dealt with similar constraints in each of the past two years, as well. As Loomis said, “We’ll navigate our way through it. It’s not our first rodeo in terms of having this circumstance. And yet it does limit us.”

“It’s all part of the puzzle,” Loomis added. “If we were flush with cap room, obviously we’d be able to do more. It’s just a puzzle that we have to piece together and make sure all the pieces fit. And yet, the overriding variable is, ‘Hey, are we improving our team?' We’re not trying to just stay level. We’re trying to improve.”

In recent years, the Saints have let some of their veterans go in free agency (like All-Pro guard Carl Nicks and Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod). They’ve worked out pay cuts with other veterans. And they’ve moved a lot of money around through restructured contracts.

Yet through it all, the Saints have also aggressively added pieces in the open market like cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebackers Victor Butler and Parys Haralson last year; and linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, guard Ben Grubbs and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley in 2012.

“Well, you know, we’re always trying to improve our team,” Loomis said. “And 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. So whether we’re able to do that this year remains to be seen.”