Payton, Brees on managing the cap

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints were still just 48 hours into the 2014 offseason when they met with the media for their "exit interviews" on Monday. So they weren't quite ready to dissect all of the business decisions facing this team in the coming months.

But coach Sean Payton expressed a general confidence in the team's ability to navigate the salary-cap constraints like they have in recent years. Quarterback Drew Brees expressed a general willingness to help the team if they approach him with a desire to restructure his contract. And pending free agents like Zach Strief, Brian De La Puente and Malcolm Jenkins expressed their desire to be back, while knowing that it might not be possible.

The most notable pending free agent of all -- tight end Jimmy Graham -- wasn't on hand for interviews Monday. But Payton spoke confidently about the Saints' ability to bring him back. Payton even injected a little humor when asked what he would tell fans to ease their anxiety over Graham's pending free agency.

"Listen, we have smart fans. So they are smart enough to understand that just like we have in years past, we're gonna make the decisions as best we can for our club moving forward," Payton said. "And they're gonna be able to read closely between the lines and understand that we're gonna be in good shape. They're not gonna be in a panic. They're gonna be confident, just the same way we are. ...

"Those are challenges we've had every year. Fortunately I think we've got one of the best at handling it in [general manager Mickey Loomis]. I think he's outstanding. … We've been faced with challenges like this in years prior, and we're gonna be faced with more as we move forward. It means we're developing and drafting good players. So we'll handle it just fine. And I think it's something he does a great job with."

The Saints head into this offseason an estimated $12.5 million over the projected salary cap of $126.6 million. So they will have to get creative by restructuring some current deals (a tactic they've used often in recent years). And they will have to part ways with some veteran players (as I broke down Monday morning).

If possible, they could consider restructuring Brees' $100 million contract. Brees is due $11 million in salary and bonuses this season, some of which could be converted into a signing bonus instead. But the salary-cap costs of his contract are already heavily back-loaded, as it is (with a cap cost of $18.4 million in 2014, $26.4 million in 2015 and $27.4 million in 2016). So the Saints may consider other options first.

Brees said the team hasn't talked to him about doing anything since free agency is still nearly two months away. But he said he's always willing to listen and help out.

"Whatever I can do to help this team, if they want to come to me and extend me even further, that'd be great," Brees said with a smile. "Listen, there are so many possibilities as to what can happen here. Let's just let this offseason start. It's what, today's the second day of it, unfortunately. We all wish it wasn't. But whatever helps this team win and puts the best team on the field."

It's highly unlikely that the team or Brees would consider any kind of pay cut. Nor should they. He has clearly earned the going rate for top quarterbacks in the NFL -- as lofty as that rate is these days.

"Listen, I get compensated very well. I don't take that for granted for one second," Brees said when that idea was vaguely suggested. "But I play this game because I love this game, I love this locker room and I love the opportunity to win a championship."

Strief, De La Puente and Jenkins all gave similar answers about their desire to stay in New Orleans and their understanding of the business side of the NFL.

They know the salary-cap constraints will limit the Saints' options if other teams are willing to pay more. Strief said he's seen that recently within his own position group when teammates like Jonathan Goodwin, Jermon Bushrod and Carl Nicks couldn't turn down lucrative offers elsewhere.

"I was telling guys I don't think I've ever actually cleaned my locker out empty (after a season was over). I've cleaned it up, but never emptied it, which is … it's not the fun part. You know what I mean?" Strief said. "It's the part you feel like you don't have any control over, really. It's kind of like my work is done and now it's up to other people that are not me to make those decisions.

"Obviously this organization has been a big part of my life. I feel like I've been a part of the success here and I don't want to leave that. And yet it's probably my last opportunity to sign a contract in this league. They understand that. I understand that. You hope that everybody at some point comes to an agreement to where you can stay. That's how I feel. I think that's how they feel."