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Old 03-02-2006, 07:36 PM   #1
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The Saints likely won't be big players in free agency, but a list of veterans and free agents will be pared as the new staff fits players to its philosophy and frees money for draft picks.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
By Mike Triplett
Staff writer
Whether or not the NFL's players and owners agree on an 11th-hour extension to the collective bargaining agreement, the Saints' short-term plans won't change drastically.

The Saints were not preparing to make much of a splash in free agency, with much of the starting lineup under contract.

They are $8.3 million under the current $92 million salary cap almost exactly in the middle of the NFL pack so they won't need to hold the kind of fire sale that could take place around the league before the free-agency period begins Friday.

But the Saints do need to put aside enough cash for the pricey No. 2 overall pick in next month's draft.

General Manager Mickey Loomis said last week that the team will waive some players currently under contract. But that will be based more on the evaluations of the new coaching staff than on financial desperation.

"Even though we're at the midpoint and we're generally OK relative to the league, we've still got some issues," Loomis said. "We've got some maneuvering to do in order to re-sign the guys we'd like to re-sign and attract an impact free agent or two into our program. We don't have the ability to go out there and start signing four, five, six, seven guys. Not too many teams have that kind of room available.

"I think this year's a real squeeze for all the teams in general, because there is no CBA extension at this point."

Loomis and Saints coach Sean Payton declined to speak about individual players, but several veterans may be released in the next few days or months because of their salaries and pending roster bonuses.

At the top of that list is quarterback Aaron Brooks, who is expected to be traded or released after being benched at the end of last season. Brooks is due $6.25 million in salary this year, plus a $250,000 workout bonus.

Brooks has two years left on his contract and would still cost nearly $4 million against the Saints' salary cap this year if released. But his cap number is nearly $8.5 million if he stays.

Other veterans who may be on the hot seat include:

-- Offensive linemen Jermane Mayberry ($770,000 salary, reportedly due a roster bonus of $2.1 million); Kendyl Jacox ($1.825 million salary and $225,000 in bonuses); and Wayne Gandy ($4 million salary).

-- Defensive backs Fred Thomas ($1.9 million salary and $1 million in bonuses), Jason Craft ($1 million salary) and Jay Bellamy ($850,000 salary).

-- Defensive lineman Brian Young ($1.95 million salary).

-- Tight end Ernie Conwell ($1.6 million salary).

-- Quarterback Todd Bouman ($700,000 salary and $325,000 in bonuses).

-- Tailback Aaron Stecker ($1 million salary).

The Saints also have a list of 16 unrestricted free agents they must consider. The only two high-profile names on the list are center LeCharles Bentley and defensive end Darren Howard, both of whom are expected to sign elsewhere.

The other 14 are mostly second-tier players, led by return specialist Michael Lewis, cornerback Fakhir Brown, linebackers Sedrick Hodge, James Allen and Ronald McKinnon and defensive tackle Willie Whitehead.

Loomis said he expects more roster turnover than usual because of the new coaching staff.

They spent the past month reviewing film, evaluating and discussing last year's roster. But they don't know each player as well as the previous staff.

"Of our unrestricted list, I think that our coaching staff liked a number of those guys and would like to have at least the opportunity to coach those guys. So we're going to make an effort to sign a number of those guys," Loomis said. "I don't know if I could put a number on it. Obviously, there's some guys that don't fit the program, but there's a number of guys who do, and they're good contributors, good people, good teammates."

As for outside free agents, the Saints likely won't pursue many big names. As of right now, an interior offensive lineman and one or two starting-caliber linebackers are the top priorities.

But depending on which players the Saints decide to re-sign or let go, they will need to replace them in free agency.

For example, if the Saints decide to part ways with Brown, Thomas or Craft, then a starting-caliber cornerback will become a top priority. If they decide to let Brooks and Bouman go, they likely will pursue a veteran quarterback who can come in and start.

The same goes for the offensive line and the defensive tackles, among other positions.

Lewis is a particularly interesting free agent because he has been so popular in New Orleans for so long. The 34-year-old missed most of last season with a torn ACL, but if the Saints don't re-sign him, they need to find an impact return specialist.

Loomis said he is not sure how the condition of New Orleans will affect the Saints' ability to attract free agents. He was encouraged by the positive response the team received from head-coaching and assistant-coaching candidates.

But in the open market for players, the Saints might need to pay more money than other teams to push them over the edge.

"I've spoken (to agents) somewhat. I wouldn't say it's been real positive so far, but it's not been overwhelmingly negative, either," Loomis said. "But if we have to overpay every guy in order for them to come to New Orleans, then we're at a competitive disadvantage."

Loomis said the league has not instituted any special incentives for free agents to sign with the Saints, although they have discussed ways to aid the team in free agency or the draft.

BALL UP FOR 49ERS JOB: Saints senior football administrator Russ Ball interviewed for the San Francisco 49ers' president of football operations job this week. He is considered a leading candidate for the job.

The 49ers were high on Seattle vice president Mike Reinfeldt, but he removed himself from consideration two weeks ago.

Ball has been a top executive in the Saints' personnel department for four years. His primary duties include contract negotiations and salary cap management. He also took part in the Saints' recent head coaching interview process.

. . . . . . .

Mike Triplett can be reached at mtriplett@timespicayune.com or at (504) 826-3405.

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