It's not often that the New Orleans Saints go into the new league year with ample salary-cap space, but they will this season.
For years, general manager Mickey Loomis has had to part with valued, but high-priced veterans and re-do other contracts to make the numbers work. But the Saints could be looking at having at least $27.5 million at their disposal this time around when the league year starts March 9.
That number will go up more if the Saints, according to reports earlier this week, cut ties with free safety Jairus Byrd, who has three years remaining on the six-year, $54 million contract he signed in 2014. The Saints could pick up another $3.2 million in cap space if they release Byrd now, but the number would jump to $7.8 million in savings if they designate him as a post-June 1 cut and spread the dead money over two seasons.
Byrd was plagued by injuries his first two years in New Orleans, but played well last season under new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Still, he was valued for his ability to create turnovers, and never came close to duplicating what he did with the Buffalo Bills.
In five seasons with the Bills, he had 22 interceptions -- including nine as a rookie -- but never showed that ability after having back and knee surgeries during his first seven months with the Saints. Byrd eventually lost his starting job last season to rookie Vonn Bell, a second-round draft pick, but still played a lot in three-safety sets Allen had to use because of injuries at linebacker and in the secondary.
Byrd finished the 2016 season with 82 tackles, third on the team, and had two interceptions to tie for the team lead. But his $11.7 million salary cap figure was scheduled to be the fourth-highest on the team behind quarterback Drew Brees, defensive end Cameron Jordan and left tackle Terron Armstead.
The possible addition of almost $8 million in cap space will give the Saints more opportunities to shore up a defense that improved slightly in 2016, but still finished 31st in points allowed (28.4), 27th in total yards allowed (375.4) and was last against the pass (273.8).
With the cap space it has, the Saints could spend some on an edge pass rusher or cornerback in free agency, or even help in re-signing defensive tackle Nick Fairley, an unrestricted free agent who had a solid season with 6.5 sacks in his first season with the team.
Saints coach Sean Payton was extremely busy during the early part of the off-season when he had to fill four positions on his coaching staff.
The changes came after Payton fired long-time associate head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt, defensive line coach Bill Johnson and special teams coordinator Greg McMahon shortly after the season ended. McMahon's assistant, Stan Kwan, also was let go.
Payton hired former Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions coach Bradford Banta to be his new special teams coordinator and kept assistant Kevin O'Dea, who was brought in midway through last season to help the struggling special teams unit. Former San Francisco 49ers coach and veteran NFL defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was hired as linebackers coach, Ryan Nielsen was brought in to coach the defensive line and Ronald Curry was added as an offensive assistant.
Wide receivers coach John Morton also left to join the New York Jets staff, a vacancy Payton filled by re-hiring former wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson, an original member of his staff who left after the 2012 season to become the head coach at Tulane.
Only two years after pulling off a blockbuster trade that sent All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks, the Saints reportedly are in trade talks to possibly deal another of their offensive weapons. ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Thursday that wide receiver Brandin Cooks is the subject of trade talks between the Saints and the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles.
Mortensen reported that Tennessee is a more likely destination than Philadelphia for Cooks, a four-year veteran who midway through last season expressed his displeasure with his role in the Saints' top-ranked pass offense.
The Titans and Eagles both need wide receivers and have draft picks with which to make a deal for the speedy Cooks, a 2014 first-round draft pick who averaged 15.0 yards per catch on 78 receptions for a career-high 1,173 yards last season. He also had eight touchdowns.
Cooks, who voiced his frustration last season when he wasn't targeted in a 49-21 blowout of the Los Angeles Rams, is going into the final season of his rookie contract. The Saints have the option for a fifth year.
If the Saints do decide to part with Cooks to upgrade another area of their team, they would still have two young productive wideouts in Michael Thomas, a second-round gem who set rookie records with 92 catches, 1,137 yards and nine touchdown last season, and Willie Snead, who had 72 grabs for 895 yards and four touchdowns.
Shortly after talking about his role in the offense, a national report had Cooks being the subject of off-season trade talks. But Payton quickly shot down the report and said he "absolutely" expected Cooks to be with the Saints in 2017.
SKIPPING THE GREENBRIER
After spending part of training camp at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia for the last three seasons, the Saints will stay home for camp this summer. The Saints recently announced they would not return to West Virginia and would train at their regular-season headquarters in Metairie, La., where they held camp from 2003-05 and 2009-13.
"We have decided that holding training camp at our practice facility is the right thing to do for our club at this time, where we have the combination of an indoor practice facility in the case of inclement weather as well as access to all of the state-of-the art technology in areas such our medical, weight and video facilities, all factors which are integral to supporting the preparations of our football team," Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said.
Another factor was the ability for the team's loyal fans to watch practice sessions, which was limited to only a week or so when the team returned from West Virginia. Practices in Metairie typically draw a couple thousand fans despite the heat and humidity of late July and August.
"Our entire organization is excited to be returning to hold training camp at our facility in Metairie in 2017," Saints owner Tom Benson said. "This will be a great opportunity for our passionate fans from throughout the Gulf South to be able to experience the fun, excitement and interaction of Saints training camp as our team prepares for what we expect to be a very exciting season."
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