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NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - INSIDE SLANT
New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said Wednesday he expects the team to reach a long-term contract extension with Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham.
The Saints used the one-year franchise tag on Graham on March 3. Both sides have been in negotiations, and Payton is confident a deal will be complete before the July 15 deadline.
"It's hard to put a timetable on it," Payton said at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla. "But I would say very similar to Drew (Brees' contract), I think all of us feel like it's just a matter of not if, but when. I don't know if there's nervous anticipation."
Graham led the Saints in receptions (86), yards (1,215) and touchdowns (16) last season.
New Orleans has been dealing with salary cap issues this offseason.
There has been a debate on position classification with Graham. He plays tight end but wants to be designated as a wide receiver. The amount of money a receiver would earn as a franchised player is considerably more than what a tight end would make if the franchise tag is applied.
As a tight end with a franchise tag, Graham would receive a one-year contract worth $7.053 million. If he were classified as a receiver, Graham would get a one-year deal worth $12.132 million.
"They know it's a process and Jimmy's got great representation," Payton said. "There's a ton of respect between (agent) Jimmy Sexton and (general manager) Mickey Loomis. All of those things is what makes it a positive, although difficult at times."
--The Saints made quite the splash for a team that didn't have a lot of salary cap space going into the new league year on Tuesday afternoon.
While fans were worried about the team having enough cap dollars to re-sign All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, even after they purged four respected players from the roster, the Saints flew under the radar to land Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd.
A little more than six hours after the free agency signing period began, the Saints agreed to terms with the 27-year-old Byrd on a reported six-year, $54 million deal with $28 million guaranteed.
The Saints needed to make something happen in the back end of the secondary after releasing strong safety Roman Harper on Feb. 12 and losing free safety Malcolm Jenkins to the Philadelphia Eagles soon after free agency began.
They'll suit Byrd up with strong safety Kenny Vaccaro, a first-round draft pick last season who impressed in 15 starts before fracturing his ankle, and restricted free agent Rafael Bush, who played a lot as the Saints had three safeties on the field a lot in Rob Ryan's first year as defensive coordinator.
"We had hoped for the opportunity to pursue Jairus Byrd," said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. "After meeting with him, we are excited that he will become a member of the New Orleans Saints. We think that his playmaking abilities will be an excellent fit with what we are trying to accomplish with our defense and in our secondary."
Byrd said, "I first want to thank the Buffalo Bills organization and the great fans of Buffalo for their support during my time there. I think there are great things to come here in New Orleans and I'm excited to join this team. We played against the Saints this year and I saw their style of play and was impressed by it. I think I will fit well in the scheme. This is a great opportunity to join a championship organization. I look forward to meeting my new teammates and being part of a great Saints defense."
At the league meeting in Orlando, Loomis said pursuing Byrd was about trying to take the ball away more. Byrd had 22 interceptions in five seasons with the Bills.
"That's a forte of Jairus," Loomis said. "Ball skills are a particular forte of his. It's an area we need to improve on and emphasize. By taking our one shot in free agency, if you will, or taking our biggest shot, emphasizing that area is important."
It was a shocking move for the Saints, who went into the free agency signing period with one major priority although they essentially took care of it more than a week earlier.
With less than $2 million cap space to work with, despite some drastic payroll slashing in the past month, Saints' officials were thought to be busy crunching the numbers trying to figure out a way to give a long-term deal to All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and re-stock their roster with some lower-end free agents.
After terminating the contracts of four players who helped them win Super Bowl XLIV following the 2009 season, the Saints realized a savings of about $19.6 million on the salary cap.
But they needed more cap space to sign Graham, who was tagged as their franchise player on Feb. 28, as well as some of the players who helped them win 60 games over the past five seasons -- counting the playoffs.
After clearing some cap room on the defensive side of the ball with the release of linebacker Will Smith, cornerback Jabari Greer and strong safety Roman Harper, the Saints turned to their offense.
Wide receiver Lance Moore was handed his walking papers and the team, and the Saints then traded running back Darren Sproles and signed running back Pierre Thomas to a contract extension.
In addition to keeping Graham, the Saints were thought to be trying to hang on to two of their starters on the offensive line -- right tackle Zach Strief and center Brian de la Puente -- as well as wide receiver Robert Meachem. Strief signed a five-year contract March 17.
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - NOTES, QUOTES
--Saints running back Darren Sproles is on the move, but he was not granted his wish to be released and choose his next employer.
The Saints and Philadelphia Eagles agreed to the framework of a deal that was finalized quickly, shipping Sproles out of New Orleans in exchange for a fifth-round pick.
Sproles was a key piece of the Drew Brees-led offense in New Orleans but played more of a receiver role than a traditional running back. He had just 53 carries last season and 101 rushing attempts the past two seasons compared to consecutive 70-reception seasons with nine touchdowns receiving.
At least six teams were in on the bidding to land Sproles, who is scheduled to make $3.5 million in 2014, the final year on the four-year, $14 million contract he signed in 2011. NFC East rival Washington made a late push to acquire Sproles, but the Eagles won out.
Sproles was expendable in New Orleans where the Saints are shaving money to make improvements in other areas, including defense and their offensive line. The Saints re-signed running back Pierre Thomas and have former first-round draft pick Mark Ingram under contract.
After the departure of Sproles, quarterback Drew Brees said, "I think a Darren Sproles only comes around once in your lifetime, in my career and in everybody's career. There may be another one 15, 20 years from now. But there's not many guys like Darren Sproles. He's a special player. He's a special person. He's a special teammate."
At the league meeting in Orlando, general manager Mickey Loomis said parting ways with Sproles was a difficult decision.
"Anytime you're in a good place and you've had success, which he's had with us, it's definitely painful to have the team say, 'We don't want you anymore,'" Loomis said. "But I'm not in the business of consulting players on the moves we make in management.
"But look, I'm sensitive to how personal these things are to players. I get that. I respect Darren. A lot. He's done a lot for us. When we had the opportunity to trade him, I spoke with his representation a number of times. I wanted to put him in a place where he felt good about going, and yet I've got to consider the team's best interest first."
Loomis acknowledged being concerned about placing Sproles with a conference rival.
He said, "Look that's our competition, but every team in the NFL is our competition at some level. When you trade him to another NFL team, which is all we can do, there's a high likelihood you're going to improve that team.
"And that may come back to bite you. That's OK. I wish Darren nothing but the best. I know he'll be successful, and we'll be happy for that."
--The Saints were so tight against the salary cap that they tendered only one of their four restricted free agents -- safety Rafael Bush.
Bush, who joined the Saints just prior to the start of the 2012 season, has performed well in his two seasons with the team and was called an ascending player by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan at the end of last season.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that Bush was tendered at the lowest level of $1.431 million for one season. That means the Saints will receive no compensation if he were to sign with another team and the Saints declined to match the offer.
--Six former Saints -- including 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee William Roaf -- are on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2014.
The others are running back Ricky Williams, wide receiver Wes Chandler, tight end Wesley Walls, wide receiver Larry Burton and running back Troy Davis.
There are 75 players and six coaches from the Football Bowl Subdivision on this year's ballot. The class will be announced in May.
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--The Saints agreed to terms with unrestricted free-agent fullback Erik Lorig on a four-year contract.
Lorig comes to New Orleans after spending his first four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lorig (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) was originally chosen by the Bucs as a seventh-round draft pick in 2010 out of Stanford.
Lorig has appeared in 56 career games with 24 starts at fullback and tight end. He was originally drafted as a defensive end and converted to fullback/tight end early in his rookie season, blocking for two different 1,000-yard rushers, while also catching 30 passes for 193 yards with one touchdown and contributing on special teams with 17 tackles.
In 2013, Lorig appeared in 15 games with nine starts and recorded 11 receptions for 47 yards. In 2012, he played in all 16 games with seven starts, serving as a lead blocker for running back Doug Martin, who rushed for 1,454 yards with 11 touchdowns.
--The Saints re-signed offensive tackle Zach Strief to a five-year contract.
"We are excited to announce that Zach will stay with us into the future," general manager Mickey Loomis said in a statement. "Not only has he done an excellent job at the right tackle position, but he has served us well as an offensive team captain for the past two seasons and has always been a great asset in the community since he first came here in 2006."
Strief has started at right tackle since 2011. He was slowed by a groin injury in 2012 before having his best season in 2013. He has been a team captain the past two seasons. The Saints drafted him in the seventh round out of Northwestern in 2006.
--Running back Pierre Thomas is staying with the Saints, agreeing to a two-year contract extension.
His agent, Lamont Smith, confirmed the news via Twitter, saying "PT will remain a Saint. 2 year extension. Congrats to the Saints and PT."
Various reports earlier in the week indicated that Thomas might be on his way out the door. The Saints parted ways with veteran running back Darren Sproles in a trade and wide receiver Lance Moore before free agency began and were active on Tuesday in the free-agent market, signing safety Jairus Byrd to a big contract.
Thomas led the Saints in rushing last season with 549 yards and two touchdowns on 147 carries. He started nine games and also had a career-best 77 receptions for 513 yards.
--CORNERBACK: Keenan Lewis had a solid first season with the Saints, but Jabari Greer was released and Patrick Robinson, a former first-round draft pick, is coming off a major knee injury. So they could use more bodies here, especially a starter, if they can get one in free agency ore the draft.
--OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Second-year pro Terron Armstead will man the left side, but the Saints will need some help even with Zach Strief re-signed. Charles Brown, who won the left tackle job in training camp last summer, was benched late in the season and signed with the Giants.
--DEFENSIVE END: The Saints are happy with Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, who fit nicely into Rob Ryan's 3-4, but they could use another quality pass rusher for the rotation. If they can't find an experienced pass rusher in free agency, the Saints will likely target one in the early part of the draft.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: TE Jimmy Graham (tendered at $7.035M).
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--DE Kenyon Coleman will not be re-signed by the Saints after missing the 2013 season with a torn pectoral muscle suffered one week into training camp. The 35-year-old Coleman has indicated that he'll probably retire.
--C Brian de la Puente is believed to still be in the Saints' plans after starting 44 games since 2011, but they won't be able to pay the former practice squad member a big salary if another team comes up with a nice offer.
--LB Will Herring agreed to terms with the Cowboys Thursday, but Dallas opted to cancel the deal the next day. That put Herring back on the free-agent market.
--WR Robert Meachem was a bust in free agency two years ago, but fits in nicely with the Saints' offense and could be re-signed after averaging just over 20 yards per catch last season. He's also valued as a willing blocker.
--S Jordan Pugh didn't get a chance to play because he was signed after the wild-card playoff game and was inactive for the divisional playoff game and could be re-signed later in the spring for training camp depth.
--LB Jonathan Vilma had a great career with the Saints, but age and injuries have caught up with him and he was told he won't be re-signed.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--S Rafael Bush (tendered at $1.431M with no compensation) has been called an ascending player by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and will get snaps as the third safety alongside Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
--LB Keyunta Dawson: Potential UFA; $855,000/1 yr.
--K Shayne Graham: Potential UFA; $955,000/1 yr.
--LB Parys Haralson: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--T Bryce Harris: Potential ERFA; $570,000/1 yr.
--LB Ramon Humber: UFA; $795,000/1 yr, $65,000 SB.
--QB Luke McCown: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Joseph Morgan: Not tendered as RFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--T Zach Strief: UFA; 5 yrs, terms unknown.
--CB Trevin Wade: Potential ERFA; $570,000/1 yr.
--S Jairus Byrd: UFA Bills; $54M/6 yrs, $11M SB/$27.9M guaranteedterms unknown.
--FB Erik Lorig: UFA Buccaneers; 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--T Charles Brown: UFA Giants; terms unknown.
--FB Jed Collins: Not tendered as RFA/Lions; terms unknown.
--CB Jabari Greer (released, failed physical).
--S Roman Harper (released).
--S Malcolm Jenkins: UFA Eagles; $15.5M/3 yrs, $8.5M guaranteed.
--DE Tom Johnson: Not tendered as RFA/Vikings; $845,000/1 yr.
--WR Lance Moore (released).
--DE Will Smith (released, failed physical).
--RB Darren Sproles (traded Eagles).