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Checklist: Saints need solid offseason to stay in Super Bowl chase

Fashioning a long-term contract for free agent Jimmy Graham may be their top priority, but the New Orleans Saints have plenty of work to do in the offseason in general (Photo: Parker Waters).Fashioning a long-term contract for free agent Jimmy Graham may be their top priority, but the New Orleans Saints have plenty of work to do in the offseason in general (Photo: Parker Waters).

NEW ORLEANS -- I begin with a friendly, PG-rated poke at the Denver Broncos.

How many Broncos does it take to change a tire? One, unless it's a blowout, and then you need the whole team!

On a serious note, congrats to the Super Bowl XLVIII champion Seattle Seahawks. They were truly the best TEAM in 2013, capped by the 43-8 demolition at MetLife Stadium.

And they have positioned themselves for similar success next year and the year after. They have 15 UFAs, most notably DE Michael Bennett, WR Golden Tate, T Breno Giacomini, T Paul McQuistan, K Steven Hauschka, CB Walter Thurmond, DT Clinton McDonald, DT Tony McDaniel and FB Michael Robinson. WR Doug Baldwin is a RFA.

Seattle is currently $631,240 under the projected $126.3 million salary cap, according to spotrac.

I mention the Seahawks because they are the current NFL gold standard, a dynasty waiting to happen.

By comparison, the New Orleans Saints are $15,249,590 over the projected cap, with 15 UFAs, four RFAs and two ERFAs.

I'm not going to dwell on the importance for Saints officials to reach a long-term deal with TE Jimmy Graham. Until I see or hear otherwise, I am going to assume it will get done in time for the start of training camp. But we all know what happens when you assume ...

Re-signing Graham is a high priority but it's not the first order of business on my 2014 OFFSEASON PUNCH LIST. Consider:

1. In order for GM Mickey Loomis and Coach Sean Payton to start reshaping their roster, Loomis has to find sufficient cap room to make it possible and that begins with releasing those unwanted/overpaid players and freeing up additional space by restructuring the contracts of some current players.

Obviously, the team's cash cow is QB Drew Brees, who counts $18.4 million against the 2014 cap and commands a $10.75M base salary. But there are other ATM options, beginning with the restructuring or outright release of OLB/DE Will Smith, who's penciled in for a base salary of $10.4M with a $13,902,451 cap number. Other potential restructurings/cuts include DT Brodrick Bunkley ($4.4M base, $6,112,500 cap), CB Jabari Greer ($4M, $5.825M), S Roman Harper ($2.35M, $5.87M), RB Pierre Thomas ($2.5M, $2.9M) and WR Lance Moore ($3.1M, $5,068,570), among others.

2. After Graham, I would re-sign the following free agents at fair market value. In order of importance: RT Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente and FS Malcolm Jenkins. There are other UFAs worth keeping at the second tier level, most notably DE Kenyon Coleman, OLB Parys Haralson, DE Keyunta Dawson, LB Ramon Humber, WR Robert Meachem, QB Luke McCown and LT Charles Brown.

But I also place great value on four RFAs: WR Joseph Morgan, DE Tom Johnson, S Rafael Bush and FB Jed Collins and two ERFAs -- T Bryce Harris and CB Trevin Wade.

3. Now the fun part. Once Loomis & Associates are in a position to shop, they can go after one or two marquee free agents on their wish list. Depending on the comings and goings on their own roster, I see several areas that could be upgraded from the pool of available veteran FAs: CB, OL, DL, WR and LB.

Keep in mind, a number of injured players are expected to return: OLB Victor Butler, CB Patrick Robinson, S Kenny Vaccaro and Morgan, whose downfield speed makes him a coveted RFA.

4. In the draft, picking late in round 1, I would look for the best player available, say a defensive end or a big, physical wide receiver. OK, so the thought isn't an original one but BPA makes the most sense at No. 27.

5. Overall, with an offseason filled with prudent personnel decisions, the Saints should once again contend for the NFC Championship. But they've got to find playmakers to complement Graham in the passing game (assuming he comes back), refortify the offensive line to protect Brees and strengthen the running game, create more takeaways on defense, improve the return game and quit finding ways to lose on the road.

Some of these needs/issues can be addressed within the organization. Players can be coached up. Playbooks can be tweaked. Coaches can break tendencies. The walking wounded will return to action. But some solutions may require an upgrade in personnel via free agency and/or the draft, not only to stay ahead of the pack in the NFC South but to catch the Seahawks in the NFC.

Seattle is the betting favorite to win it all again in '14. With good reason. It is a tough-minded, in-your-face collection of ballers who play with a single purpose. Ask Denver. Ask New Orleans. The Seahawks got game and they aren't going anywhere. They can be found in the Pacific Northwest, home of the celebrated 12th Man and now the Lombardi Trophy.

You want it? Come and get it.

 

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