The salary cap again will be a hurdle for the New Orleans Saints in 2014. They're already $12.5 million over the projected cap of $126.6 million, according to ESPN's John Clayton. And that's even before signing unrestricted tight end Jimmy Graham, who certainly will become the highest-paid tight end in NFL history.
Recent history suggests the Saints still will find a way to keep their core players and even add one or two key free-agent signings. But it will require both some creative restructuring of contracts and some difficult decisions to part ways with some longtime veterans.
Here's a breakdown of some of the key decisions looming this offseason:
Thoughts: First of all, this is not a bad list, with only four full-time players on it. Teams, including the Saints, have faced much worse.
The only no-brainer who definitely will be re-signed is Graham. He will be back at any cost, even if it means a fight over his franchise tag designation (tight end vs. wide receiver). It would be a win-win if they could avoid the franchise tag altogether and structure a cap-friendly long-term deal. But negotiations may go on longer than expected, because general manager Mickey Loomis and agent Jimmy Sexton will be breaking new ground on this deal.
After Graham, I would put Strief, de la Puente and Jenkins in the same boat. I think the Saints like all of them (Strief and Jenkins are both captains) and would very much like to have all of them back at the right price. But I wouldn't be shocked to see the Saints let them go if they get bigger offers elsewhere (like Scott Fujita, Jonathan Goodwin, Carl Nicks, Jermon Bushrod, etc., in years past).
I could also see the Saints bringing back guys such as Haralson, Meachem and a handful of others from this list if the price is bare bones.
Another interesting name on this list is kicker Shayne Graham. He looked like a lock for a 2014 roster spot after being a hero in the wild-card playoff win against Philadelphia. Then he missed both of his field-goal attempts Saturday in Seattle. I still like his chances of coming back and at least competing for the job. All kickers will miss occasionally, and I've got to think the Saints liked what they saw from the coolheaded 12-year veteran.
As for the restricted free agents, I could see all of them coming back -- especially Collins and Bush. The Saints might have to give those guys second-round tenders, though, which will probably cost more than $2 million each.
POSSIBILITIES FOR RELEASE OR PAY CUTS:
DE/LB Will Smith (due $11.55 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $13.9 million)
S Roman Harper (due $3.15 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $5.87 million)
CB Jabari Greer (due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $6.8 million)
DT Brodrick Bunkley (due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $6.1 million)
WR Lance Moore (due $3.8 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $5.1 million)
RB Pierre Thomas (due $2.9 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $2.9 million)
Thoughts: Smith and Harper are the most obvious names on this list. I wouldn't be shocked to see them come back at a significantly reduced rate (like the pay cut to $1.2 million that Vilma took this past offseason). But it will depend on Smith's health and whether Harper gets more interest on the open market.
Greer's major knee injury might make it hard for the Saints to invest so much in him. Bunkley and Moore both played some of their best football of the season down the stretch -- and Moore obviously has a fantastic history with this team. But those are awfully high salaries for two guys whose roles diminished quite a bit this season (losing snaps to rookies John Jenkins and Kenny Stills, respectively).
I was hesitant to even put Thomas in this category because he was as valuable as ever with the Saints this season. But with younger running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson proving their worth in the playoffs, it wouldn't be stunning to see the Saints cut costs at that deep position.
OTHER NOTABLE SALARIES:
G Jahri Evans (due $7.5 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $11 million)
G Ben Grubbs (due $6.1 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $9.1 million)
WR Marques Colston (due $5.6 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $8.3 million)
LB David Hawthorne (due $2 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $3.5 million)
CB Patrick Robinson (due $950,000 in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $2.4 million)
Thoughts: It's less likely that the Saints will demand a pay cut from anyone on this list. And part of Colston's salary is guaranteed. But some of these veterans do come with significant price tags, so there is at least a slight possibility with each of them, for various reasons.
Thoughts: Restructuring contracts is different than actual pay cuts. It's a common win-win practice for teams and players, where salary is converted into a signing bonus -- which pushes some cap costs into future years. The Saints could do that this offseason with many of the players mentioned above, or with other high-priced veterans, including quarterback Drew Brees (due $11 million in salary and bonuses, with a cap cost of $18.4 million).