The New Orleans Saints are paying the price for being a very good, competitive team. Literally.
Years of smart drafting and deft free agent signings have made the team competitive for the better part of a decade, with a Super Bowl coming in 2009. Now, the franchise is trying to figure out how to keep the band together, per the Times-Picayune.
The Saints have a plethora of free agents to try to re-sign this offseason, led by tight end Jimmy Graham. By far the best at his position, Graham is going to break the bank and deservedly so. Other free agents of note include center Brian de la Puente, corner Malcolm Jenkins and tackle Zach Strief.
With next year's salary cap projected to be $126 million, New Orleans is already $12 million over that figure. On the positive side, the Saints' largest contract belongs to quarterback Drew Brees, who is scheduled to make $18.4 million in 2014-15 before seeing his cap hit spike to $26.4 and $27.4 the following two seasons. Luckily, Brees has said he is very willing to restructure his contract to help the team's financial situation.
A few potential cuts could start with linebacker Will Smith and running back Pierre Thomas. Cutting Smith -- who didn't play in 2013 due to injury -- would save the Saints $11.5 million while Thomas is due $2.9 million but can be cut without a penalty. Wide receiver Lance Moore could also be a cap causality, saving the team $2.5 million but also giving it some dead money against the cap. He wouldn't be an easy decision like Smith.
It would be stunning if the Saints let Graham walk out the door. In all likelihood, New Orleans will hand out a few extensions, cut some dead weight off the back side of the roster and either tag Graham or ink him long-term. A long-term deal would help the cap situation in the short term, but could complicate things down the road. General manager Mickey Loomis will have to make that call and live with the consequences.
Jason Witten is currently the highest-paid tight end per year, making $7.4 million. It stands to reason Graham will come close to the $10 million figure with a boatload in guaranteed money on a long-term contract. However, the franchise tag would put Graham at around $7 million next season, while giving Loomis a little time to restructure the cap situation.
Jenkins and Strief might be given the right to look elsewhere for a new deal, with New Orleans trying to replace them on the cheap with draft picks. The Saints hit last year in the first round on dynamic safety Kenny Vaccaro, and will again try to replace a few expensive starters with younger, cheaper players. It would come as a shock to nobody if New Orleans went for an offensive lineman or a corner to pair with Jabari Greer.
Ultimately, the Saints will lose a few players to stay competitive, but with a strong draft and some wise signings they will remain a force with Brees and Sean Payton at the top.