Understandably, it was much easier for Saints fans to get behind their team’s decision to agree to terms on a deal with marquee free-agent safety Jairus Byrd than it was for them to do the same whenever New Orleans has parted ways with some of its most popular veterans this offseason.
But the Saints’ bid to add Byrd to their roster — their latest move in what’s been a smart, if sentimentally painful, offseason — should quell any doubts that still lingered over whether New Orleans is being forced to make decisions it doesn’t want to by a less-than-ideal salary cap situation.
There can be no doubt now that Coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis and their brain trust have a master plan in regards to the moves they feel will give the Saints their best shot at winning their second-ever championship.
They’ve all been in the same spirit as the decisions that followed a deflating Week 15 loss in St. Louis last year, when struggling kicker Garrett Hartley was replaced with Shayne Graham; disappointing left tackle Charles Brown was benched for the promising rookie Terron Armstead; and both men the Saints turned to helped the team win its first true road playoff game in franchise history.
Whether the offseason moves made up to this point have similar results remains to be seen. But it’s hard — and some would say impossible — to find fault with the logic fueling the decisions the Saints’ front office has taken recently.
Loomis has been quite open about how difficult it was when in February the team released Will Smith, Jabari Greer and Roman Harper, and it announced it would not re-sign free agent-to-be Jonathan Vilma.
Certainly, Friday’s decision to release receiver Lance Moore; seeing safety Malcolm Jenkins leave for Philadelphia on a three-year deal reportedly worth up to $16.5 million on Tuesday; and shopping running back Darren Sproles for a trade was no different for him.
Smith, Greer, Harper, Vilma, Jenkins and Moore all helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV and then toiled through the 2012 season marred by the fallout from the bounty scandal. Sproles, too, worked through the 2012 campaign and was a key component of the team’s record-setting offense a year earlier.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” Loomis said during the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in late February when discussing Smith, Greer, Harper and Vilma. “Any time you part ways and say, ‘Hey, you’re not wanted anymore for (this) football team, that’s hard.”
But it can be understandable. Smith (out for all of 2013), Vilma (out for 15 regular-season games and two playoff contests) and Greer (placed on year-ending injured reserve in Week 11) all had major knee injuries and are all either 31 or 32.
Harper, who missed seven games last year with a knee injury, was pricey but less productive at safety than Jenkins and rookie Kenny Vaccaro and about equal in that regard with the younger, ascending Rafael Bush.
Moore — nominally the team’s No. 2 wide receiver — played very well late in 2013, scoring one touchdown each in the regular-season finale and the wildcard win at Philadelphia. But he finished sixth on the team with 457 receiving yards on 37 catches in the regular season, and he was outplayed by rookie wideout Kenny Stills.
Sproles remained a valuable pass-catcher and scoring option, but his all-purpose yardage fell by 53 percent from 2011 (2,696, which set an NFL record) to 2013 (1,273).
The releases of Smith, Greer, Harper and Moore cleared an estimated $19.6 million of cap space — the occupation of which the players’ production simply no longer justified. None of that is to say they all weren’t valuable locker-room leaders the Saints might love to bring back at more affordable deals if at all possible.
New Orleans entered Tuesday at fewer than $3 million under the 2014 salary cap of $133 million. More than $7 million of that was tied up in the franchise tag of All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, and another $18.4 million was going to quarterback Drew Brees, according to estimates.
Unloading Sproles’ contract would free up another $3.5 million; but he remained on the roster Tuesday night despite reports that a third of teams in the NFL are interested in trading for him.
New Orleans didn’t seem to be in a favorable position as the free agency market opened Tuesday. When Jenkins departed for Philadelphia, it briefly appeared New Orleans just didn’t have the dollars to put together an offer to compete with the one accepted by Jenkins, who was among New Orleans’ leaders in tackles, pass breakups and interceptions.
But then the Saints announced they had agreed to terms with Byrd on a six-year contract reportedly worth about $54 million, with $28 million guaranteed. Obviously, Loomis and his crew must now clear the cap space to accommodate the deal. We’ll learn soon whether that’s through restructuring contracts on the books or cutting ties with more players who’ve been in New Orleans.
Yet, what we did learn is that the Saints were willing to tackle that task for a player who’s an upgrade to Jenkins, a ball hawk who is just what coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense needs after finishing fourth from last in the NFL with 19 takeaways in 2013. Here are just two points to illustrate that.
Byrd’s 22 interceptions in his first five seasons in the NFL, all with Buffalo, are 17 more than what Jenkins had with New Orleans during that time span. Tagged as the Bills’ franchise player in 2013, he’s been chosen for three Pro Bowls, and Jenkins hasn’t been to one.
It couldn’t be clearer — the Saints haven’t made any moves they’ve not wanted to. And it’s tough to dispute any of them.
Note: Byrd will speak with local media during a 2 p.m. conference call on Wednesday. the Saints said.