MOBILE, Ala. — Mickey Loomis knows one thing is certain about this offseason – it won’t be any different than any other recently.
The Saints are over the salary cap, have key free agents to decide what to do with and must also figure out who to draft.
But it’s the salary cap issue that would seem to be the biggest issue he’s dealing with right now.
It’s the price of success.
“When you’ve had a good team and you’ve been successful for a good stretch of time, you’re gonna have these players mature from their first contract into their second and third contract,” Loomis said this week from Mobile, Ala., where he was attending the Senior Bowl. “And they’re desirable. If you’re a successful program and you have good players, you’re gonna have to pay to keep them.”
Loomis and the Saints aren’t alone, at least. The Patriots have been dealing with the situation for years and Denver will see the same problem this offseason.
“It’s not unusual,” he said. “There are a number of teams that have been good teams that get in this position. We’ll navigate our way through it. It’s not our first rodeo in terms of having this circumstance.”
That won’t make it any easier.
New Orleans is reportedly more than $12 million over the projected $126.3 million salary cap.
The Saints general manager must figure out how to fit whichever of the 15 free agents the team wants to keep, as well as the four restricted free agents, into the equation. New Orleans must be under the salary cap by 3 p.m. CST on March 11, the same day free agency begins.
It will help that only the top 51 contracts are used at this time.
Yet, it’s the puzzle of a lifetime for Loomis, who must figure out how to fit in tight end Jimmy Graham, who likely will command a record-breaking contract for a tight end, along with those who have started and played well for the Saints (center Brian de la Puente, safety Malcolm Jenkins) into New Orleans’ next roster.
“If we were flush with cap room, obviously we’d be able to do more,” Loomis said. “It’s just a puzzle that we have to piece together and make sure all the pieces fit. And yet, the overriding variable is hey, are we improving our team. We’re not trying to just stay level.”
There’s no question the Saints will keep Graham around. The record-breaking tight end either will be signed long term, which would help the Saints, or franchise-tagged, which could make for a contentious relationship with the youngster in the future.
Getting Graham in, however, could hamper the Saints’ moves in free agency. Then again, they were under the weight of a large cap number in recent years and still signed linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Keenan Lewis.
“I think the biggest challenge of that is that you just can’t afford to make many mistakes,” Loomis said. “That your margin for error is decreased. So whether we’re able to do that this year remains to be seen.”
Then there’s what other teams that have been successful are doing.
New Orleans must decide how many of the moves are done with an eye on Seattle, San Francisco and Carolina and how many are done strictly based on the vision of Loomis and coach Sean Payton, who have guided the Saints to a 48-16 regular season record since 2009 (2012 excluded).
“In large part, this is a copycat league so you do pay attention to what the best teams have and how they’ve done that,” Loomis said. “And yet, we’ve been one of the best teams for a number of years here. We’ve been one of the better teams.”
He added, “You do pay attention to what successful teams are doing and yet, we’ve got a pretty established program and we’ve got some beliefs and some philosophies that have worked well for us and I don’t see us straying away from those.”