The New Orleans Saints made quite the splash for a team that didn't have a lot of salary cap space going into the new league year on Tuesday afternoon.
While fans were worried about the team having enough cap dollars to re-sign All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, even after they purged four respected players from the roster, the Saints flew under the radar to land Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd.
A little more than six hours after the free agency signing period began, the Saints agreed to terms with the 27-year-old Byrd on a reported six-year, $54 million deal with $28 million guaranteed.
The Saints needed to make something happen in the back end of the secondary after releasing strong safety Roman Harper on Feb. 12 and losing free safety Malcolm Jenkins to the Philadelphia Eagles soon after free agency began.
They'll suit Byrd up with strong safety Kenny Vaccaro, a first-round draft pick last season who impressed in 15 starts before fracturing his ankle, and restricted free agent Rafael Bush, who played a lot as the Saints had three safeties on the field a lot in Rob Ryan's first year as defensive coordinator.
"We had hoped for the opportunity to pursue Jairus Byrd," said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. "After meeting with him, we are excited that he will become a member of the New Orleans Saints. We think that his playmaking abilities will be an excellent fit with what we are trying to accomplish with our defense and in our secondary."
Byrd said, "I first want to thank the Buffalo Bills organization and the great fans of Buffalo for their support during my time there. I think there are great things to come here in New Orleans and I'm excited to join this team. We played against the Saints this year and I saw their style of play and was impressed by it. I think I will fit well in the scheme. This is a great opportunity to join a championship organization. I look forward to meeting my new teammates and being part of a great Saints defense."
It was a shocking move for the Saints, who went into the free agency signing period with one major priority although they essentially took care of it more than a week earlier.
With less than $2 million cap space to work with, despite some drastic payroll slashing in the past month, Saints' officials were thought to be busy crunching the numbers trying to figure out a way to give a long-term deal to All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and re-stock their roster with some lower-end free agents.
After terminating the contracts of four players who helped them win Super Bowl XLIV following the 2009 season, the Saints realized a savings of about $19.6 million on the salary cap.
But they needed more cap space to sign Graham, who was tagged as their franchise player on Feb. 28, as well as some of the players who helped them win 60 games over the past five seasons -- counting the playoffs.
After clearing some cap room on the defensive side of the ball with the release of linebacker Will Smith, cornerback Jabari Greer and strong safety Roman Harper, the Saints turned to their offense.
In addition to keeping Graham, the Saints were thought to be trying to hang on to two of their starters on the offensive line -- right tackle Zach Strief and center Brian de la Puente -- as well as wide receiver Robert Meachem and linebacker Parys Haralson.
--Saints running back Darren Sproles is on the move, but he was not granted his wish to be released and choose his next employer.
The Saints and Philadelphia Eagles agreed early Thursday to the framework of a deal that was finalized quickly, shipping Sproles out of New Orleans in exchange for a fifth-round pick.
Sproles was a key piece of the Drew Brees-led offense in New Orleans but played more of a receiver role than a traditional running back. He had just 53 carries last season and 101 rushing attempts the past two seasons compared to consecutive 70-reception seasons with nine touchdowns receiving.
At least six teams were in on the bidding to land Sproles, who is scheduled to make $3.5 million in 2014, the final year on the four-year, $14 million contract he signed in 2011. NFC East rival Washington made a late push to acquire Sproles, but the Eagles won out.
Sproles was expendable in New Orleans where the Saints are shaving money to make improvements in other areas, including defense and their offensive line. The Saints re-signed running back Pierre Thomas and have former first-round draft pick Mark Ingram under contract.
--The Saints were so tight against the salary cap that they tendered only one of their four restricted free agents -- safety Rafael Bush.
Bush, who joined the Saints just prior to the start of the 2012 season, has performed well in his two seasons with the team and was called an ascending player by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan at the end of last season.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that Bush was tendered at the lowest level of $1.431 million for one season. That means the Saints will receive no compensation if he were to sign with another team and the Saints declined to match the offer.
--Two restricted free agents who did not receive a tender offer -- fullback Jed Collins and wide receiver Joe Morgan -- could be still in the Saints' plans and come back at a cheaper price than the $1.431 million minimum tender.
Collins has been the starting fullback for three seasons after spending some time on their practice squad and has been a reliable blocker and short-yardage ball carrier and receiver. But the Saints don't use a fullback enough to justify spending $1.4 million on.
The same goes for Morgan, a speedy wideout who missed the 2013 season after suffering a knee injury in the first week of training camp.
Defensive end Tom Johnson also was not tendered as a RFA. He played in the defensive line rotation for the past three seasons, but was a healthy inactive for two games late in the regular season.
--Six former Saints -- including 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee William Roaf -- are on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2014.
The others are running back Ricky Williams, wide receiver Wes Chandler, tight end Wesley Walls, wide receiver Larry Burton and running back Troy Davis.
There are 75 players and six coaches from the Football Bowl Subdivision on this year's ballot. The class will be announced in May.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Running back Pierre Thomas is staying with the Saints, agreeing to a two-year contract extension Wednesday.
His agent, Lamont Smith, confirmed the news via Twitter, saying "PT will remain a Saint. 2 year extension. Congrats to the Saints and PT."
Various reports earlier in the week indicated that Thomas might be on his way out the door. The Saints parted ways with veteran running back Darren Sproles and wide receiver Lance Moore before free agency began and were active on Tuesday in the free-agent market, signing safety Jairus Byrd to a big contract.
Thomas led the Saints in rushing last season with 549 yards and two touchdowns on 147 carries. He started nine games and also had a career-best 77 receptions for 513 yards.
--CORNERBACK: Keenan Lewis had a solid first season with the Saints, but Jabari Greer was released and Patrick Robinson, a former first-round draft pick, is coming off a major knee injury. So they could use more bodies here, especially a starter, if they can get one in free agency ore the draft.
--OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Second-year pro Terron Armstead will man the left side, but the Saints will need some help here if right tackle Zach Strief departs in free agency. Charles Brown, who won the left tackle job in training camp last summer, was benched late in the season and is a UFA as well.
--DEFENSIVE END: The Saints are happy with Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, who fit nicely into Rob Ryan's 3-4, but they could use another quality pass rusher for the rotation. If they can't find an experienced pass rusher in free agency, the Saints will likely target one in the early part of the draft.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: TE Jimmy Graham (tendered at $7.035M).
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--FB Jed Collins (not tendered as RFA) has been a valuable blocker and ball carrier and receiver, but did not receive an offer because of cap issues. The Saints want him back at a lower price.
--DE Tom Johnson (not tendered as RFA) was part of the team's defensive line rotation the last three years, but probably won't return after snaps were cut late in the season.
--WR Joseph Morgan (not tendered as RFA) missed the 2013 season with a knee injury and team could not afford to tender him at $1.431 million although they'll try to sign him at a lower price.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--T Charles Brown likely won't be re-signed after the winning starting left tackle job in training camp. He started the first 14 games, but was plagued by penalties and was benched midway through a Week 15 game in favor of rookie Terron Armstead.
--DE Kenyon Coleman will not be re-signed by the Saints after missing the 2013 season with a torn pectoral muscle suffered one week into training camp. The 35-year-old Coleman has indicated that he'll probably retire.
--C Brian de la Puente is believed to still be in the Saints' plans after starting 44 games since 2011, but they won't be able to pay the former practice squad member a big salary if another team comes up with a nice offer.
--LB Parys Haralson started eight games after being obtained in a trade just before the season opener and had 3.5 sacks. The Saints have an interest in re-signing the former 49ers standout if they aren't out-bid for his services.
--LB Will Herring agreed to terms with the Cowboys Thursday, but Dallas opted to cancel the deal the next day. That put Herring back on the free-agent market.
--QB Luke McCown was a capable backup for Drew Brees although his primary job is as the holder for extra points and field goals and could be back unless the Saints find a younger and slightly cheaper alternative.
--WR Robert Meachem was a bust in free agency two years ago, but fits in nicely with the Saints' offense and could be re-signed after averaging just over 20 yards per catch last season. He's also valued as a willing blocker.
--S Jordan Pugh didn't get a chance to play because he was signed after the wild-card playoff game and was inactive for the divisional playoff game and could be re-signed later in the spring for training camp depth.
--T Zach Strief, a three-year starter and one of the offensive captains, had a solid season and was one of the most consistent players on the offensive line. While the Saints would like him back, he'll test the open market.
--LB Jonathan Vilma had a great career with the Saints, but age and injuries have caught up with him and he was told he won't be re-signed.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--S Rafael Bush (tendered at $1.431M with no compensation) has been called an ascending player by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and will get snaps as third safety alongside Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
--LB Keyunta Dawson: Potential UFA; $855,000/1 yr.
--K Shayne Graham: Potential UFA; $955,000/1 yr.
--T Bryce Harris: Potential ERFA; $570,000/1 yr.
--LB Ramon Humber: UFA; $795,000/1 yr, $65,000 SB.
--CB Trevin Wade: Potential ERFA; $570,000/1 yr.
--S Jairus Byrd: UFA Bills; $54M/6 yrs, $11M SB/$27.9M guaranteedterms unknown.
--CB Jabari Greer (released, failed physical).
--S Roman Harper (released).
--S Malcolm Jenkins: UFA Eagles; $15.5M/3 yrs, $8.5M guaranteed.
--WR Lance Moore (released).
--DE Will Smith (released, failed physical).
--RB Darren Sproles (traded Eagles).
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