Howard, Jones on to-be dealt list

The New Orleans Saints have retained "nickel" cornerback and unrestricted free agent Jason Craft, signing the six-year veteran to a four-year contract. But it's the players that the Saints don't plan to keep around who could make even bigger news.

New Orleans officials have ramped up trade talks in an effort to deal a pair of defensive starters, end Darren Howard and free safety Tebucky Jones, and hope to soon complete trades of both veteran players. The Saints and Miami Dolphins have spent considerable time in the past two days, in fact, working on a deal involving Jones, the leading tackler for New Orleans in 2004.

It is Howard, though, who is generating the most interest.

At least a half-dozen teams, most notably the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys, have discussed a possible swap to land Howard, a five-year veteran and a proven pass rusher. ESPN.com first reported two weeks ago that the Saints, who designated Howard as a "franchise" player, hoped to trade him for a high-round draft choice.

Howard, 28, last week signed the one-year "franchise" qualifying offer of $7.8 million and that is a prohibitive amount for the Saints to carry on their salary cap. New Orleans, which has a pair of first-round defensive ends in Charles Grant and Will Smith, would prefer to rid itself of that cap hit. By dealing Howard, the Saints would recoup the entire $7.8 million and perhaps use the savings to work on long-term extensions for veterans such as tailback Deuce McAllister and center LeCharles Bentley.

While he has been plagued by injuries the past two seasons, Howard remains a top-shelf player at a premium position. As usual, there is a dearth of quality defensive linemen in the unrestricted free agent pool and that has enhanced his value even further. Dallas has apparently suggested a trade package that might include starting middle linebacker Dat Nguyen and draft choices. The Cowboys have plenty of bargaining ammunition, since they own two first-round choices in this year's draft.

Despite having to play out of position at times in 2004, moving inside to tackle in some "nickel" situations, Howard still posted 11 sacks, tying his career best. For his career, he has 229 tackles, 41 sacks and 11 forced fumbles.

Jones, acquired in a 2003 trade with the New England Patriots, became expendable when the Saints signed unrestricted veteran free safety Dwight Smith last week. The Saints regard Smith as a better playmaker, a safety who can create takeaways, something for which Jones was not noted. A heavy hitter, who performs best when close to the line of scrimmage, Jones is probably better suited to playing strong safety.

He had 102 tackles in 2004, the first season in which Jones started all 16 games, but posted only two interceptions in two seasons with the Saints. If a deal is not completed for Jones over the weekend, the Saints will consider releasing him next week.

Craft, 29, appeared in 14 games for the Saints in 2004, after spending the first five years of his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars. A solid "nickel" defender, Craft has seven interceptions and 33 passes defensed for his career. Financial details of his new, four-year contract were not immediately available.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.