NFC South: New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints are down to roughly $850,000 in salary-cap space according to updated information from ESPN Stats & Information and the NFL Players Association -- a decrease of $700,000 from previous estimates.

The difference comes from linebacker Dannell Ellerbe’s deal. It was originally believed that a $2.1 million roster bonus due April 1 would count against the Miami Dolphins’ salary cap. Instead, it will count against the Saints’ cap at $700,000 per year from 2015-17.

That’s not a major difference for the Saints, but every dollar counts since they’re so close to the cap. They’ll probably need to create about $2 million more in salary-cap space to fit in their draft picks, barring trades. And they’ll need even more if they plan to add any other free agents above the veteran minimum salary level.

Coach Sean Payton already referenced two ways the Saints can create more space last week. He said the team plans to rework guard Jahri Evans’ deal, which counts $11 million against this year’s cap (though Payton didn’t specify, it’s possible that could include a pay cut). Payton also said the Saints have talked with defensive end Cameron Jordan’s agent about a possible long-term contract extension, which could include a reduced cap figure in 2015 (Jordan’s $6.969 million salary for this year counts fully against the cap).

Other roster cuts or trades are also possible -- though they aren't necessary strictly for cap purposes if the Saints can use some of those other methods instead.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Jeff Ireland knows a good fit when he sees one. So when the New Orleans Saints’ former player personnel director, Ryan Pace, was hired away as the Chicago Bears general manager, Ireland sent a text message to Saints GM Mickey Loomis:

“Hey, keep me in mind.”

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Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesJeff Ireland said he's visiting about three schools per week as the Saints prepare for the NFL draft.

That led to informal interviews with Loomis and Saints coach Sean Payton to “see if we were on the same page.” And it ultimately led to Ireland becoming the Saints’ assistant GM, heading up the team’s college scouting department.

“It was a great conversation [with Loomis], had the same conversation with Sean,” said Ireland, the former Miami Dolphins general manager, who said he considered Loomis a friend and “mentor” from getting to know him over the years as a young personnel guy moving up the ranks.

Ireland also knew Payton well from their days working together with the Dallas Cowboys under Bill Parcells.

“Both sides were comfortable. … And it’s great to be part of this organization,” said Ireland, who met with the local New Orleans media for the first time since his January hire during LSU’s pro timing day on Friday.

Ireland said it’s been a “rat race,” joining the Saints this late into the scouting process. He’s been visiting about three schools per week while also getting to know the Saints’ scouts and coaches and helping to put their draft board together.

But he said it’s been a great experience after he spent last season out of football for the first time in nearly two decades.

“I was watching a lot of football, but it’s different when you’re watching football on the couch versus watching football in the meeting room and writing reports,” Ireland said. “When you’re out of football and you love football, you grow to appreciate the game more. I missed it so much. I missed the relationships that you have.

“It’s good to be back in the mix.”

Among other topics Ireland discussed:

  • Ireland said he “didn’t start the conversation” about trading for former Dolphins linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, whom Ireland had signed to a five-year, $35 million contract two years ago. But he said he was certainly part of the conversation, since he had intimate knowledge of Ellerbe. "He's a productive football player. He's a great person. He’s a good leader. He's athletic,” Ireland said. “I only got the one year with him. He's transitioning defenses. We've got to get him healthy [after he missed 15 games last year with a hip injury]. And if he gets back to full health, he's going to be a productive football player for this franchise."
  • Ireland joked that it was a “prerequisite” for him taking the job that the Saints load up with nine draft picks, including two first-rounders. But on a serious note, he said that opens up a world of possibilities. “It gives you a lot of flexibility. You can do pretty much anything you want to in the early rounds of the draft. You can slide back, you can move up, you can use a combination of picks to do anything you want. Again, that's going to be up to Mickey and Sean. I'm gonna be part of the process. My job is to put the board together and make sure we've got players in the right positions, and let them make the decisions based on what they need."
  • Ireland said “you don’t want to make a habit of trading young players away.” But he said of the bold moves the Saints made this offseason, including trading away Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills: “In this particular instance, those were some things that Mickey and Sean wanted to do, and we were all for it as an organization. And we’re looking forward to [having so many draft picks now], because we’ve got some holes to fill.”

From Sean Payton to Mickey Loomis to Drew Brees and other veteran leaders, the New Orleans Saints have consistently stressed the need to improve intangibles such as leadership and locker-room culture in the wake of last year’s 7-9 season.

Payton indicated this week that those qualities remained a priority with the players the Saints added through free agency and trades – respected veteran leaders such as center Max Unger, cornerback Brandon Browner, running back C.J. Spiller and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.

The scouting reports on most of those guys often point to their toughness as well. And Payton singled out Spiller as someone who has a love and passion for the game.

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Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsSaints coach Sean Payton is hoping to improve the culture in the team's locker room.

“Mickey and I said this at the start of the offseason, ‘Let’s not lose track of why we’ve been successful and what’s been good to us,’” Payton said during the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. “And part of that is putting highly-motivated players in that locker room that care about each other. It’s something that seems so simple and yet, it’s not been our secret; it’s just been our formula.

“Getting the right type of guys that are smart, tough football players. That certainly will be an emphasis this offseason, and going into the draft as well.”

On the flip side, I don’t necessarily think it would be right to draw the conclusion that the players the Saints got rid of lacked those qualities.

I have never heard any strong indications that Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills, Ben Grubbs, Curtis Lofton or Pierre Thomas were locker-room distractions or malcontents, etc. And there was a specific reason that everyone was traded away.

With Grubbs, Lofton and Thomas, the moves were financially motivated (and both Lofton and Grubbs, at least, were offered the chance to stay if they took a pay cut). And with Graham and Stills, the Saints made it clear that they were valuable commodities who could generate a large return if traded – which both of them did. The Saints believed like they could afford to part with some of their offensive firepower to acquire assets to help build their defense and offensive line. Graham and Stills were the two most tradeable commodities among their offensive weapons.

However, it is fair to suggest that the Saints deemed all of those players expendable – including Graham, whose production was just as inconsistent and frustrating as many of the other players on the Saints roster who underachieved last season.

Meanwhile, the Saints’ culture change can’t just come from the newcomers. In fact, the Saints pointed to their large amount of roster turnover last year as one of the issues they stuggled to deal with (losing longtime veterans such as Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles).

An improved culture and attitude has to come from a renewed commitment within the current group of coaches and players, as well.

“Every year, every team is different," Loomis said when asked how he feels about the current state of the Saints’ culture this week. "And yet we’ve got a pretty solid core group of guys in that locker room, and I’m pretty confident that we’ll have that straightened out."

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando gathered together some of ESPN’s top talent evaluators for this detailed breakdown of each team’s performance so far in free agency (which requires Insider access).

Sando gave the Saints a B-minus, though he admitted the grade is conservative because they’ve made so many bold moves and still have a lot of draft picks that will become part of the overall picture.

I loved what ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson said on that front: "People will downgrade them in free agency and then laud them in the draft, but what they do in the draft is because of what they did in free agency.”

The other analysts – Louis Riddick, Bill Polian and Field Yates – broke down the pluses and minuses, naturally sharing concerns about trading away Jimmy Graham in his prime. But they recognized the Saints were willing to sacrifice offensive horsepower to improve their physicality and defense. And the overall tone was cautious optimism.

Before the New Orleans Saints unexpectedly landed dynamic runner/receiver C.J. Spiller in free agency, they considered a reunion with Sean Payton's original dual threat weapon Reggie Bush.

Payton said he had dinner with Bush in Los Angeles after Bush was released by the Detroit Lions but wound up changing course when Spiller wasn’t immediately snatched up in free agency.

“I was out there [in Los Angeles], we were able to sit down and that was really prior to really the start of it all. It was really just, ‘Hey, this would be a good fit,’” Payton said of Bush during the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix on Wednesday. “With a player like that, it’s more about, ‘Do we have a vision of exactly how we’d use him?’ And I think we did. But a few days later, Spiller is taking a visit, so it just sorted out in a way that was a little unique. I think we expected Spiller to be somewhere else with a higher number. But it all worked out.”

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSean Payton is eager to get C.J. Spiller going in the New Orleans offense.

Payton continued to rave about Spiller, by the way, during his hour-long session with the media.

I’ve already written a few times about how intrigued both Spiller and the Saints are by his fit in Payton’s versatile offense that loves to exploit matchups. But I imagine it’s a subject I’ll continue to write about more this offseason after hearing the way Payton gushed over him (Fantasy Football Alert!).

“His cutup is unbelievable,” Payton said of breaking down Spiller’s film with the Buffalo Bills. “And I’m not talking about last season because I think it became challenging, but you go back a couple of years and start looking at his screen reel, a sweep reel, a return reel. So when you watch his film you think of a lot of things he can do.

“He’s physical. He’s the most explosive player on the field a lot of times when you’re watching him. And you know, he’s someone who’s been in the AFC, he’s not someone we see a lot of on film. So he’s an exciting player that clearly heading into free agency there wasn’t any thought about, and then after that first rush there was some interest. And I think to his agent’s credit, they looked at it from a ‘how he was going to be used’ standpoint, the system, the offense and wanting to be a part of it. And we feel the same way.”

When asked how Spiller compares to another former Saints dual threat, Darren Sproles, Payton said there are some similarities and differences.

“I think that Darren’s got this unique quickness that, 10 steps can take place in a second. Spiller can hit the edge and all of sudden go 80,” Payton said. “And you see a [passing game] route tree from Darren that’s pretty encompassing, and then from CJ you see X-number of routes [in how he was used in Buffalo]. So I’m anxious to see some of the things he can do in the passing game.

“I think [Spiller] is a little bit bigger. But they are both playmakers that are explosive, so there will be a lot of similarities that way. ... I would say the thing that’s most apparent, though, is I know how much Darren loves playing, and you can tell you get that feel from C.J. as well. I mean it’s everything to him. You can’t put a value on that enough. They really love playing, and that’s contagious.”

Sean Payton said the New Orleans Saints are committed to keeping Jahri Evans as their right guard – though there’s still a chance his contract will be addressed.

However, Payton revealed Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix that the Saints discussed possible trades for both Evans and veteran guard Ben Grubbs before dealing Grubbs to the Kansas City Chiefs for a fifth-round draft pick.

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Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsJahri Evans won out as far as which veteran guard the Saints would keep around for 2015.

“We knew we weren’t going to be able to keep both veteran guards,” Payton said of Evans, who is due $7.5 million in salary and bonuses this year, and Grubbs, who was due $6.6 million.

“We knew we were going to be able to afford one of the guards,” Payton said. “Both guys we have great respect for, we graded very closely. … [But] we were at kind of a threshold with regards to our salary cap. And we knew we had a young player in [third-year backup] Tim Lelito, he was going to be coming in.”

Payton said Lelito is now projected to be the Saints’ starting left guard. He said Lelito might have been projected as the Saints’ starting center instead if they hadn’t acquired veteran center Max Unger in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks. And in that scenario, the Saints would have looked at either signing a free agent guard or drafting one.

Evans and Grubbs are very similar, since they’re both former Pro Bowlers, both 31 years old and both have shown signs of regression in recent years.

Based on my film reviews, I felt like Evans was still playing at a slightly higher level, especially as a run blocker – though he had some very rough performances in pass protection against Atlanta, Baltimore and Tampa Bay.

It’s unclear if the Saints stuck with Evans out of choice or because they received a better offer for Grubbs.

“Jahri will play for us at right guard,” Payton said of the six-time Pro Bowler, who was due to receive a $500,000 roster bonus on Tuesday. “I think that the structure of his contract with regards to this upcoming season, I don’t know that that’s resolved, in regards to how it’s gonna lay out. Because obviously we’re up against the cap. But I think he’s done a really good job.”

As for Lelito, the former undrafted free agent told | The Times-Picayune while at a charity event Wednesday that he appreciates that the Saints “think so highly of me,” but he insisted any talk of starting is still premature at this stage of the offseason.

“Nothing in the NFL is a for-sure thing,” said Lelito, who also had a strong chance of starting at center last year before the Saints signed veteran Jonathan Goodwin later in the summer.

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton spent a lot of his time shooting down speculation during his hour-long sit-down with the media Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix.

He rejected the notion that the Saints would consider trading quarterback Drew Brees, while spending a lot time critiquing the new wave of "speculative reporting."

And when asked if the Saints' decision to trade Jimmy Graham stemmed from discontent over Graham's high-profile franchise-tag dispute last summer, Payton said, "No, no, that really had nothing to do with it. Zero."

Payton also said he felt reports were overblown that the Saints were willing to trade just about everyone on the roster this offseason -- though he did acknowledge the amount of trades the Saints made was abnormal this year, especially one that involved a player of Graham's caliber.

Payton said the Saints really had just four or five discussions with teams about players such as Graham, receiver Kenny Stills and guard Ben Grubbs (all of whom were traded) and guard Jahri Evans (who wasn't dealt). He mentioned the Buffalo Bills as one team they had limited discussion with, even though no deal was made with Buffalo.

Payton said the motivation behind the Graham and Stills trades was to use assets in an area of strength to address more pressing needs on defense and the offensive line. The Grubbs trade was more financially motivated since the Saints felt they couldn't afford to invest so much in both Evans and Grubbs at the guard spot.

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Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsSaints coach Sean Payton insists all the offseason movement has been about finding ways to improve the offense around QB Drew Brees.

"I think when the season's over with, Mickey [Loomis] and I sat down and looked closely at, 'All right, here's some musts that we've gotta accomplish between now and when the draft ends.' And you've gotta look at every way that you can possibly fill those musts," Payton said. "There aren't a lot of players that get traded. So I think going into the process, skeptical's not the word, I just would have been, 'Are we gonna be able to get value, where we consider equal value for a certain player?'

"With regards to Jimmy, [we received] a pick that's later in the first round and a player that we identified (center Max Unger), so it's kind of two checks there. You're getting an interior lineman, which is one of these musts that we're discussing. You're also getting a first-round pick that you can hopefully help put towards one of your other needs or musts. Obviously we've gotta get better on defense. So there's a give and take there, and obviously there's that challenge in parting with a real good football player like Jimmy."

The Saints have beefed up their interior offensive line with Unger and invested heavily in running backs Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller this offseason. Payton said it's not part of a specific plan to change the offensive philosophy. But Payton and Loomis have both stressed that the Saints have been confident in their consistent ability to generate a top offense, even while many of the playmakers have changed around Brees.

"I know for certain this wasn't about going in a different direction philosophically," Payton said. "This was, 'Hey, I think we will move the football in 2015, but let's find a way that we don't have to score 35 points to win the game.'"

The New Orleans Saints have been in talks with defensive end Cameron Jordan about a long-term contract extension, according to coach Sean Payton.

No deal is imminent, but Payton told reporters at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix that the team considers Jordan part of the “solution” going forward . And the team would like to work something out long term since the former first-round draft pick is heading into the final year of his deal.

An extension also could offer some salary-cap relief for the Saints, since Jordan is playing under a one-year, $6.969 million contract that all counts against the 2015 cap. That’s the amount of the fifth-year option the Saints chose to extend last year.

Jordan, 25, had a slightly down season in 2014 compared to the lofty standard he set during his first Pro Bowl season in 2013. He dipped from 12.5 sacks in ’13 to 7.5 sacks in ’14, while the Saints’ overall pass rush was too spotty.

But the 6-foot-4, 287-pound has remained highly valued for his versatility as a standout run defender as well as pass rusher, who has been used at both end and tackle in 4-3 and 3-4 fronts over the years.

Among many other tidbits Payton shared with reporters during the hour-long sit-down on Monday, he said the Saints are committed to right guard Jahri Evans, though his contract could still be changed at some point. He said linebacker David Hawthorne will slide over to replace Curtis Lofton at the middle linebacker spot. And he spoke highly of young tight end Josh Hill and receivers Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones, among others.

General manager Mickey Loomis said it wouldn't be right to suggest that running back C.J. Spiller "fell to" the New Orleans Saints in free agency.

"That'd be a little extreme," Loomis said. "But it's not something that we went into free agency thinking that we'd be able to get accomplished."

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Vaughn Ridley/Getty ImagesThe Saints intend to create ways to get the ball to C.J. Spiller in open space.

The Saints signed Spiller to a four-year, $16 million contract less than a week after they had re-signed their own top running back, Mark Ingram, to an almost identical deal.

"I wouldn't say that we went into free agency thinking that we were going to go after another running back, and certainly a player of his caliber," Loomis told reporters Monday during the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. "But just at some point during the course of free agency, it started to make some sense for us in terms of the makeup of our team and the cost to acquire."

Adding a dynamic playmaker like Spiller may have become an even higher priority for the Saints after they traded tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks on the opening day of free agency.

When discussing the Graham trade with Pro Football Talk on Monday, Saints head coach Sean Payton singled out Spiller as someone who could help fill the void.

"Now it's our job as coaches to find additional targets. And we feel like we got one in C.J. Spiller, who's a completely different position but nonetheless a playmaker when the ball's in his hands," Payton said.

Payton put Spiller in the class of runner/receiver mismatches like Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles, who had previously thrived with the Saints in Payton's versatile offense.

When asked if Ingram and Spiller will be used at the same time or in a rotation, Payton said, "Well, to some degree, all of the above."

"We found Mark Ingram had his best season last year, certainly an every-down player. He's smart. He stayed healthy and did a great job for us," Payton said. "We also realize the attrition and the challenges of playing that position for 16 weeks. And to some degree, we've always had complementary players at running back. A guy like Reggie Bush in the early years, and Darren Sproles. Khiry Robinson's a player that we think gives us a physical presence as well.

"But Spiller's unique. And I think one of the things that helped us sign C.J. was the versatility that we'd look to have when he's in the game. And we'll look at packages to put him out wide, packages where he's back in the game with another running back. The key with him when you watch him on tape is finding a way to give him the ball in space because he's so explosive. So that'll be up to us to do that."

Spiller, 27, agreed with Payton's assessment. Spiller said after signing in New Orleans two weeks ago that a running back with his skill set would be a "fool" not to consider the Saints.

Spiller, who had 3,321 rushing yards and 1,195 receiving yards in his five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, had a breakout year in 2012 with 1,703 yards from scrimmage under former coach Chan Gailey. But he had less of an impact as a receiver under 2013-14 coach Doug Marrone. He also missed seven games with a broken collarbone last year.

New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis had no complaints about the way cornerback Keenan Lewis handled his public demands for a new contract earlier this month.

“He’s an emotional player, but that’s part of what makes him such a good player for us,” Loomis told reporters Monday during the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix.

Lewis took to Instagram and two weeks ago to voice how he wasn’t feeling happy or secure with the way so many of his teammates were being shipped out of New Orleans via trades and releases over the past two years. And he threatened to hold out of offseason camps and become a “distraction” if the Saints couldn’t guarantee the final three years of his contract.

Lewis never demanded more money, and he followed up with statements stressing that his desire was to make sure he stayed put long-term in his hometown of New Orleans.

He got his wish when the Saints restructured his deal to include an extra $10.45 million in guarantees (without adding any new dollars) last week.

Lewis said he apologized to Loomis and coach Sean Payton about the way he handled his demands. But Loomis said he didn’t pay attention to the public comments.

“I only know what Keenan’s told me directly,” Loomis said. “And I know this, he loves playing for the Saints, he loves the city of New Orleans, being around his family, being around his team. And I think for him, his dream is to have a long career with the Saints and finish with the Saints. So there’s nothing wrong with any of that.”

The New Orleans Saints know they will eventually need to replace 36-year-old quarterback Drew Brees. And there has been more speculation than ever that the team might take that leap this year, since they're loaded up with draft picks now and coming off of an ugly 7-9 season.

But Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said during Monday's NFL owners meetings in Phoenix that it's not something the team can force if the right player isn't available at the right time.

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AP Photo/Bill HaberDrew Brees tied for the NFL lead with 4,952 passing yards, and ranked in the NFL's top six in touchdown passes (33), passer rating (97.0), and completion percentage (69.2) last season.

"Well, that's a good question," Loomis said when asked when is the right time to look for a replacement and whether it's better to be early than late. "I think that's something that you can't really force. But I think we've treated it much like we treat any position. We're always looking to get a good player at every position that can push the starting player in the position and can develop into a starter. And then he's either your starter or you can have an asset that you can use and get something for later or be a great backup. So I don't know that that's changed any.

"And yet we're not gonna be able to just force a pick and take somebody just because we think Drew's getting older. It's gotta be the right guy at the right time, and that hasn't happened yet."

The Saints have the 13th pick and the 31st pick in Round 1 of this year's draft, as well as a second-rounder and two third-rounders. When asked specifically whether the Saints would consider packaging picks to move up for a quarterback in Round 1, Loomis said, "Well, we'll have to see what happens in the draft. You're giving me a lot of what-ifs here."

When a reporter followed up by saying there's been "a lot of crazy talk out there," Loomis replied, "I think it's mostly crazy talk." But that also could have been in reference to reports Loomis shot down earlier in the conversation about rumors of Brees being on the trading block or the Saints having a "for sale" sign on all their players this offseason.

Brees had a down year by his lofty standards in 2014 with a total of 20 turnovers -- some of which came in big moments in close losses. But he still tied for the NFL lead with 4,952 passing yards and ranked in the NFL's top six in touchdown passes (33), passer rating (97.0) and completion percentage (69.2).

When asked specifically about his confidence level in Brees, Loomis said: "I have high confidence level in Drew. I just said a little bit ago, we've finished No. 1 in the league in offense five of the last nine years. And we've been in the top [six every year with Brees]. I think that speaks for itself."

My take on Loomis' comments: I think he's being genuine, and agree with him when he says it has to be the right guy at the right time. The Saints have not yet reached the point that they need to reach for just any quarterback. I think Brees will remain a high-end starter for at least two or three more years, and think the Saints feel the same way.

However, it also sounds like Loomis is opening the door a crack wider than he has in years past to the possibility of drafting a quarterback. And the way the Saints have been aggressively tweaking the roster this year, I wouldn't be surprised at anything. As I've mentioned a few times now, I'd handicap a trade up for someone like Marcus Mariota as a long shot, but I also won't completely dismiss it.

Speaking publicly about the Jimmy Graham trade for the first time Monday, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said he knows it’s especially tough for quarterback Drew Brees. But Payton said it’s up to the coaches to make up for the loss.

Payton spoke during the NFL owners meetings with Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, who asked what Brees’ reaction was. Payton didn’t answer directly, though he acknowledged that it’s difficult for Brees to lose such a valued and familiar target.

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Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports"It's nothing that we've discussed as something immediate," Saints coach Sean Payton, right, told PFT Live of a potential contract extension for Drew Brees, left.

“I think it’s tough. Especially -- and Drew’s been, shoot for nine years now, he’s played with a lot of different receivers, a lot of different tight ends,” Payton said. “And what’s lost a little bit is there’s an energy that’s required when you’re the quarterback and you’re watching film with these players and working on certain routes. And so it’s difficult.

“And yet, from a bigger picture standpoint, you’re wanting to play better defense and reduce the amount of points you may need to score to win a game. So losing players like that … those are always difficult. But they impact a quarterback, especially when it’s a tight end like Jimmy Graham. And now it’s our job as coaches to find additional targets. And we feel like we got one in (pass-catching running back) CJ Spiller, who’s a completely different position but nonetheless a playmaker when the ball’s in his hands.”

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said earlier Monday that no one player will replace Graham’s production, but the Saints are confident that a group of players including running backs Mark Ingram and Spiller, tight ends Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill and receiver Brandin Cooks can all be part of the solution.

Payton echoed Loomis’ comments that the Saints feel like their offense has always been a strength over the past nine years with Payton and Brees -- and that they felt they could use assets like Graham to help shore up other weaknesses, including the defense.

Last year, neither side of the ball was perfect for a Saints team that finished a disappointing 7-9. But the offense still ranked first in the NFL in yards gained while the defense ranked 31st in yards allowed.

The Saints sent Graham and a fourth-round draft pick to the Seattle Seahawks for center Max Unger and a first-round pick, while also freeing up some future salary-cap space just one year into Graham’s four-year, $40 million contract.

“What’s unique this year is there have been a few trades,” Payton said of a busy Saints offseason that has also included the trade of guard Ben Grubbs for a draft pick and receiver Kenny Stills for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a draft pick -- among other free agent comings and goings that Payton said are more common to the Saints’ history.

“Of course it’s a significant trade when you’re trading a guy like Jimmy Graham, who’s a Pro Bowl player,” Payton said. “It’s really looking at, hey, where are those areas where we feel like we need to improve, where are those 'must' areas, and then where are the assets that we feel we can do that? Mickey and I discussed this trade for, shoot, a week leading up to it. And we really felt strongly it was gonna require the player, Max Unger, but also a first-round pick.

“And so, you don’t go in skeptical with something like that, because typically there aren’t a lot of trades with players like that. And yet with Seattle for about a week it was able to work out. So we gotta look at, ‘How do we improve our defense, how do we improve certain weaknesses of our team?’ You don’t ever want to lose a player like Jimmy, and yet we feel like this gives us an opportunity to do that.”

General manager Mickey Loomis downplayed the notion that everyone on the New Orleans Saints' roster was "for sale" this offseason -- and specifically shot down the notion that they had considered trading quarterback Drew Brees. But clearly the Saints were willing to make some bold trades, including the one that sent tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks.

While speaking with a group of reporters during the NFL owners meetings on Monday, Loomis didn't get into too many specifics on how the Graham trade with Seattle developed, but he did explain the reasoning behind the deal.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Paul SancyaSaints GM Mickey Loomis said the Saints felt like they could afford to trade an offensive player such as Jimmy Graham to acquire resources that may help on defense.

Seahawks general manager John Schneider had told Sports Illustrated's Peter King that Loomis had first suggested the names of a couple of Saints receivers. But Schneider asked if anything was off limits, and Loomis said no, so Schneider asked about Graham.

“I think that evolved. That's the best way to describe it is that evolved,” Loomis said of the trade that wound up sending Graham and a fourth-round pick to Seattle in exchange for center Max Unger and a the 31st pick in the draft.

Loomis said the Saints felt like they could afford to trade offense to acquire resources that may help on defense.

“You know, we're trying to do some things to help our overall team. And we've been fortunate to have a really good offense for the entire time that Sean Payton's been our head coach,” Loomis said. “I think we've finished first in the NFL five of the nine years, and the top five every year that he's been our head coach. And the one year he was suspended, we still managed to finish sixth in the NFL.

“So we've been able to generate offense throughout that period. And yet our defense has been up and down. So when you look at your team, you're trying to assess the assets that you have and, ‘How can we help ourselves in areas of weakness?' And sometimes that requires you to take a strength of your team and turn it into something else. And the trade just evolved that way.”

Loomis said the reasoning was similar when the Saints traded receiver Kenny Stills to the Miami Dolphins for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round draft pick. Loomis said Stills is a good player, but since he was a fifth-round pick in 2013, Loomis said the team looked at it like turning a fifth-rounder into a third-rounder and the opportunity to acquire another player.

When asked if young tight end Josh Hill's potential was one of the reasons the Saints felt comfortable trading Graham, Loomis said there's not any one player whom the Saints expect to replace Graham's production.

"Jimmy's a special player," Loomis said. "But we've got some guys we've got confidence in, in (tight end Benjamin Watson) and Josh. And there will be other guys on offense that help pick up the production that he's had for us. You know, (running back) Mark Ingram can do more. And (running back) C.J. Spiller. And (receiver) Brandin Cooks, we have high hopes for and we've seen some good things from. So it's not just any one person, necessarily, replacing his production. It's a number of guys on our team."

As for how he feels about the state of the Saints after all the moves that have been made, Loomis said, “Yes, but the proof will be in the season and how it impacts our team.”

“I think every team would say they're pleased with the things that they've done in an offseason, and we're no different,” Loomis said. “And, look, we've still got a long ways to go here. There's other players available, we've got an important draft for us coming up. We've got five picks in the first three rounds, and we have to take advantage of that.”

METAIRIE, La. -- A year ago, the New Orleans Saints made one of the biggest splashes in the NFL by signing free-agent safety Jairus Byrd, which helped them generate a lot of buzz as a top Super Bowl contender.

A year later, that buzz is gone. But Byrd isn't.

Now healthy again, the three-time Pro Bowler still has a chance to make the kind of major impact the Saints expected when they signed him to a six-year, $54 million contract last March.

[+] EnlargeJairus Byrd
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsJairus Byrd will get another chance to live up to the deal he signed during the 2014 offseason.

"The biggest thing I'm looking forward to is just a full offseason. Just being out there, being around the guys, going through everything and just staying healthy," said Byrd, who put a lot of blame for the Saints' 2014 struggles on his own shoulders -- or, rather, his back and his knee.

Byrd, 28, missed most of the offseason last year after having back surgery to relieve a nagging disk issue. He came back during the preseason, but wound up missing the final 12 weeks of the regular season after tearing the lateral meniscus in his knee during practice.

He wasn't around enough to be the playmaker -- or the veteran leader -- that the Saints sorely needed.

And the four weeks that Byrd did play weren't pretty, either, as the entire secondary struggled with missed tackles and blown assignments during a dreadful 1-3 start.

"A lot of it, if we're really gonna go back, I would really put a lot of the blame on myself," Byrd said Friday. "Just for the fact that, you know, look, I came in in the offseason and, boom, I had the back surgery, I was out. So that cohesion, the getting together with the guys, that's not there. Then I play a little bit in the preseason, then it's the season right away. Then we go through those growing pains -- obviously I only played the first four games, but we're still trying to figure things out, then we're already behind the eight-ball.

"[Blame] is probably the wrong word, but I just put that on the fact of staying healthy. Because anytime you have those moving parts, it's hard."

Byrd pointed out that his replacement, Rafael Bush, also got injured (as did rookie backup Vinnie Sunseri), which continued to take a toll on the Saints' secondary all season.

That was hardly the only issue for a Saints defense that finished 31st in yards allowed last season and struggled in just about every way imaginable, from those assignment breakdowns and missed tackles to a lack of a consistent pass rush.

Byrd was right there with the rest of the repeat offenders for those first four games, missing too many open-field tackles -- especially when running backs like Dallas' DeMarco Murray were breaking free too often into the second and third levels of the defense.

The Saints are hoping that improvements across the board can help put Byrd in a better position to do what he does best: roaming the back of the defense as a ball hawk who had 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles during his first five years with the Buffalo Bills.

Byrd did show one flash of that ability by stripping the ball away from Falcons receiver Julio Jones in Week 1 last year, but he never snagged an interception.

"I just want to improve on everything," Byrd said. "Obviously our season didn't go as a team as we wanted it to. But for me, every year, no matter if I go to the Pro Bowl or whatever, I'm always trying to improve on everything.

"So this year is no different than any other. You should never stop improving as long as you're playing."

Byrd said that motivates him more than any criticism he may have received last year. He said he didn't pay attention to any free agent "bust" lists and isn't heading into this year with any kind of chip on his shoulder.

"Obviously each individual has to get better, and we know that," Byrd said. "And then once we get better as individuals, we can get better as a defense. We have a lot of work to do, and I think everyone understands that. And we're coming back with that mindset."

Byrd, who did most of his rehab in New Orleans, has also spent time training in California -- along with old Bills teammate and newly signed Saints running back C.J. Spiller. Byrd announced earlier this month that he was officially cleared for the 2015 season, and he said he's physically able to do everything he'd normally be doing this time of year.

Byrd said he is also eager to take on more of a leadership role if that's what is needed from him.

The Saints struggled in that department last year, as well, after they parted ways former leaders like Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer.

Byrd did join in on meetings as the season went on, trying to help wherever possible -- something other defensive backs credited him for last year. But it's not the same as being there on the field.

"I'm ready for whatever role I gotta take," Byrd said. "Obviously we lacked that [leadership]. And it just goes back to injuries. If we continue to talk, the more it comes back to injuries. When you're not there in the spring, you can't build that camaraderie. Then you get thrown in right when the season starts, you don't have that foundation.

"If you're not there, you can't be a presence."

Of all the new additions the Saints make to their defense this offseason, getting Byrd back on and off the field might wind up as the most important -- even if it's a year later than originally planned.

Saints re-sign OT Bryce Harris

March, 20, 2015
Mar 20

METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints re-signed backup offensive tackle Bryce Harris to a one-year deal, his agent, Derrick Fox, confirmed.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed – though it probably won’t affect New Orleans’ salary-cap situation all that much. Only the top 51 salaries count against the cap, and Harris’ deal shouldn’t be significantly higher than a minimum-salary deal. The Saints decided not to tender Harris as a restricted free agent two weeks ago, which would have cost $1.54 million.

Harris, 26, struggled for the Saints last season when he was used as a left tackle for the first time in his career, replacing injured starter Terron Armstead for three-plus games. However, Harris has shown promise in the past as a backup right tackle and extra blocker in jumbo packages – roles that best suit the physical 6-foot-6, 300-pound lineman.

Harris could compete for the backup left tackle job again this year now that he has more experience. But one way or another, New Orleans needs improvement in that spot over last season, when Harris especially struggled in late-season losses to Carolina and Atlanta.

The Saints currently don’t have any other proven alternatives on the roster behind starting tackles Armstead and Zach Strief. It will be interesting to see if that becomes a priority for them in the draft.

Harris began his career as an undrafted free agent out of Fresno State in 2012. The Saints signed him off the Falcons’ practice squad early that season.