Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
Now that the Saints are facing the offseason here are my thoughts on the two biggest issues facing Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis. For the record, these two issues are way easier to deal with than the 2012 offseason. Remember when we were wondering who would coach the Saints? Would it be Aaron Kromer, Joe Vitt, Bill Parcells or mystery guy? Bad times. This is way better to talk about.
Graham's situation not as simple as you think
The Saints have some tough decisions to make this offseason and it starts with what to do about Jimmy Graham.
He is the best tight end in football and losing great players doesn't get you closer to the Super Bowl. While some fans might scream Graham not playing well in the post-season proves he's not worth paying huge money, I've learned in life it's best not to make huge decisions off a small sample size. The Baltimore Ravens paid Joe Flacco like he was an elite quarterback after he played four great playoff games and won a Super Bowl. By next December, they'll be regretting it. His poor playoff games will have no bearing on his contract.
The question with Graham is where is the line where his salary becomes too big? Graham's negotiations are different from Drew Brees' in 2012 because with Brees I knew there was ZERO chance he would be playing anywhere but New Orleans. The Saints weren't letting an elite quarterback leave. Period. End of discussion. In the NFL today, if you know or even think you have an elite quarterback you cling to them like a life raft in the ocean, so the Saints haggled with Brees until the last possible second and then signed the deal.
The big question to me is what if a team swoops in and wants to sign Graham and work out a trade for less than the two first-round picks the Saints would get if Graham leaves under the franchise tag?
The Saints won a Super Bowl without Jimmy Graham and as great as he is I'm leery of giving him $11 million a year. Graham has had significant injuries in three of his four seasons. He did fight through a foot injury this year, but he's not less likely to get injured as he gets older. If the Saints are stuck paying an injured tight end $11 million in 2015, it's a nightmare cap situation.
In my opinion, it might be the toughest call Mickey Loomis has had to make on a Saints player since he has been Saints GM. The contract the Saints give Graham and his performance going forward will be a huge factor in if the Saints win another Super Bowl. The only thing worse cap wise than giving huge money to bad players is giving huge money to injured ones.
You might be screaming, "Hey Ralph, Brees was an injury risk too." Indeed he was in 2006, but the Saints protected themselves and for Brees' second contract Brees had proven he was a safe bet as far as injury worries.
With Graham I'm about 80 percent sure he'll be on the team in 2014. but it's not 100 percent. He will probably fight with the Saints over if he should be franchise tagged as a tight end or a wide receiver. He'll want the receiver tag because it means about 4 million more in guaranteed salary for the season.
I expect to read on Pro Football Talk about how frustrated Graham is about his contract 45 times before May.
Can Saints keep the offensive line together?
The Saints offensive line had some major struggles in 2013. They gave up the most sacks since Drew Brees has been under center (37) and they struggled to run the ball consistently.
Sean Payton even turned to rookie Terron Armstead to try and fix the problem. His gamble paid off after a rough start for Armstead in Carolina as the Saints offensive line delivered two very good performances on the road in the playoffs.
So now tackle Zach Strief and center Brian de la Puente are free agents and the Saints have to decide to keep one, both, or neither.
The Saints won't have much trouble getting under the salary cap, but if either Strief or de la Puente get strong offers from other teams the Saints may have trouble matching. If Mickey Loomis is able to keep both and resign Malcolm Jenkins, I'll be very surprised.
The way the offensive line finished I expect the Saints will make every effort to keep it intact. Keeping the offensive line intact also has the added benefit of not forcing the Saints to use a high draft choice on a lineman if they so choose. If either Strief or de la Puente leaves the Saints suddenly have a huge hole the line, just like they did following Jermon Bushrod's departure following 2012.
The Saints drafted Armstead in the third round to compete with Charles Brown to replace Bushrod and the offensive line was up and down all year. If both Strief and de la Puente leave and the Saints can't find free agent replacements, then the draft becomes their only real way to fill the holes.
I'd much prefer the Saints resign those guys and try to fill needs at receiver and corner. If the Saints are drafting a center and tackle to replace lost players then they won't be getting better. At best, they'll be running in place.
My prediction for the offseason is Loomis plays it similar to 2012 by doing the biggest deal last. If you remember in 2012 Loomis re-signed Marques Colston, signed Ben Grubbs, Brodrick Bunkley, David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton and then got Brees done last. I expect the Saints will make all their other moves and then get around to Jimmy Graham.
So knowing how good my predictions are Jimmy Graham will probably be signed by next Tuesday.
Rob Ryan's Big Chart of Fun: All year long I charted how the Saints defense did under Rob Ryan in certain situations. For a full explanation of how it worked read this. Special thanks to the guys at Black and Gold Review who took the chart and made it interactive.
I was too upset after the loss in Seattle to do the chart this week.
That Rob Ryan couldn’t even get a head coach interview is a joke. So you are telling me Jim Caldwell, who was basically a bystander for the Indianapolis Colts, gets a second chance in Detroit but Rob Ryan can’t sniff an interview. OK.
If Rob Ryan looked like say me, he’d have been named the coach of the Cleveland Browns as soon as the clock hit zero in Seattle. But because he looks like a roadie for the Rolling Stones somehow he’s not qualified?
Are you telling me Ryan couldn’t hire a decent offensive coordinator, run the Lion defense, and get that team to the playoffs?
I’m happy he’s staying in New Orleans, but he gets a raw deal as far as being a head coach.
Last Week: 4-0
San Francisco (+3.5) at Seattle: I hate both of these teams. It doesn’t matter who wins this game because either way I lose by having to watch it. The only consolation I tell myself about the Saints loss is the 49ers are the best team in football and beating them a second time would have been very difficult.
I see Russell Wilson really struggling and Pete Carroll looking really sad. Jim Harbaugh will be in another Super Bowl and sometimes life is unfair and cruel.
Denver (-5.5) vs. New England: I’m really excited to watch this game because history and a Grantland.com article say once a quarterback hits 38-years-old the odds are they decline rapidly soon after.
We might not think it now, but this game could be the last time we watch Tom Brady and Peyton Manning while they are still great players. Enjoy it.
I’m rooting for Manning just because I despise the three other teams still playing.
It’s been a fun year everybody. Thanks for all the emails and comments, even the mean ones. I’ll see you once free agency starts.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on facebook, follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.