Monday, Feb. 18, was the first date on the NFL calendar when teams could make roster moves that affect the 2013 season by placing franchise tags on players. It also was the date free agency began. That kickoff to the preseason brings with it the reality that teams must bring their player payrolls under the salary cap by the league-mandated deadline of March 12.
The New Orleans Saints have been busy since Jan. 23, when head coach Sean Payton first met with the full staff while in Mobile, Ala. for the Senior Bowl. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was fired and replaced with Rob Ryan, and secondary coach Ken Flajole also was sent packing. Stan Kwan was added as the new assistant special teams coach, and Dan Roushar was named new running backs coach.
Now the attention must turn to the roster and difficult decisions about which players to keep — based primarily on money. The Saints reportedly were as much as $16 million over the salary cap on Fat Tuesday, and they must scramble to get below the cap before they can even consider shopping for new talent.
The two main ways teams get under the cap is by restructuring player contracts or waiving and releasing players. Linebacker Curtis Lofton agreed to restructure his contract in a move that saved the team $4 million. The Saints then released tight end David Thomas and waived cornerback Johnny Patrick, freeing up almost $3 million. The team also will ask defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma to restructure their deals, which combined could reduce the payroll by about $15 million.
A few high-salary players could be asked to restructure their contracts as well, and there certainly are a few players the staff believes the Saints could do without. On social media, safety Roman Harper (with a $5.25 million salary) seems to be the Who Dat Nation's favorite pick to restructure his deal for the good of the team.
The Saints have other decisions to make come March 9, the day NFL teams can begin talks with players on their teams who will be unrestricted free agents. The biggest name on that list is left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who takes consecutive Pro-Bowl appearances into the negotiating room. Two years ago he signed a two-year deal worth more than $9 million. At the time, Bushrod said he did that to put himself in a better position for a lucrative long-term deal in the next contract. The offensive line, however, has left guard Ben Grubbs making $5.2 million and right guard Jahri Evans making $7.2 million. Plus, center Brian De La Puente is a restricted free agent and there is a considerable amount of money being spent to beef up the front line.
In the past, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis has shown an ability to make the money end of the franchise work while maintaining talent. His task this offseason will not be easy, but New Orleans has five picks in April's NFL draft: the 15th pick of the first round, the 13th pick of the third round, the 12th pick of the fourth round, the 11th pick of the fifth round and the 15th pick of the sixth round. Saints management has shown it has the ability to find players through the draft who can step in and play. It also is possible the Saints could use its deep backfield of running backs to trade for another pick.
There is no true offseason in the NFL, and the moves the Saints have made and will make before the team ever steps onto the practice field could determine just how much success the Black and Gold will have this season.
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