Payton: Signing Graham will mean tough decisions for Saints' roster

By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com

What will it cost the Saints to keep Jimmy Graham? (USATSI)
What will it cost the Saints to keep Jimmy Graham? (USATSI)

The Saints are roughly $12 million over the 2014 salary cap, which means tough decisions will have to be made in the coming weeks and months. Chief among them: What to do with tight end Jimmy Graham, who will hit free agency next month?

In January, general manager Mickey Loomis reportedly said Graham would be franchised, which would come at a cost of approximately $6.7 million for next season. That assumes, of course, Graham doesn't file a grievance to be classified as a wide receiver (Drew Brees' thoughts on the matter notwithstanding). As former agent Joel Corry has pointed out, franchise tags are determined by the position where the player participated in the most plays during the season. The expected franchise-tag rate for wide receivers: $11.7 million.

Predictably, coach Sean Payton wants to keep Graham -- he's one of the league's most dynamic pass catchers, wherever you choose to line him up -- but he also understands that the economics of today's NFL will make that difficult.

"I know that Loomis, CAA [Creative Artists Agency], Jimmy Sexton [Graham's agent] and all parties involved are going to work very hard and very diligently, no different than they did with Drew on his contract," Payton said in an interview with Fox Sports 1, via the Times Picayune. "With that being said, the first thing that comes to my mind with free agency is your own roster. I think often times that gets overlooked.

"The most challenging part of your job as a coach, and I share that with Mickey or anyone that has been with an organization as long as we have been, going on Year 9, is some of the tough decisions that have to be made with regards to your cap with the ability that you possibly can sign Jimmy Graham. ...

"It's very easy to say 'you are certainly going to get this done' but you have to understand there is a budget here," Payton continued. "That's the challenging part. You are going to read these names that have already come across the ticker from Atlanta last week (the release of cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas) and we will be no different."

This is about more than Graham, even if he's the biggest name on the Saints' offseason to-do list. There are also soon-to-be free agents in safety Malcolm Jenkins, tackle Zach Strief and center Brian De La Puente. Possible cap casualties include linebacker Will Smith ($13.9 million cap number in '14), safety Roman Harper ($5.9 million), wideout Lance Moore ($5.1 million), defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley ($6.1 million), cornerback Jabari Greer ($6.8 million) and running back Pierre Thomas ($2.9 million).

The Seahawks showed that you can win a Super Bowl with a young, relatively cheap roster. Much of the talk in recent days is how other teams will try to emulate this success. In general, it's an extremely difficult proposition, primarily because Seattle's front office and coaching staff have an uncanny ability to find players late in the draft who perfectly fit their scheme. There's also this: Despite that success, the Seahawks, like the rest of the league, also face tough roster decisions this offseason.

Put another way: In the salary-cap era, this is an in inescapable part of life.

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