The Saints showed just how hard it is to beat a team three times in one season. After two easy wins during the regular season, the Saints were eliminated from the postseason by the Buccaneers on Sunday in a 30-20 divisional playoffs loss. The Saints will now turn attention to solving the NFL's most daunting salary cap situation for 2021. The NFC South champions have $284.1 million in 2021 cap commitments with 45 players under contract according to NFL Players Association data. $4.122 million of unused 2020 cap space has been carried over to the 2021 league year, which begins on March 17. Under offseason accounting rules, only the top 51 salaries (i.e.; cap numbers) matter.
The 2021 salary cap was conservatively projected to $210 million before the coronavirus pandemic. The NFL and NFLPA set a $175 million salary cap floor for 2021 with league revenues declining due to COVID-19. If revenues are better than expected, the 2021 salary cap could be higher but will likely remain below the current level of $198.2 million.
The Saints have been aggressive and creative in managing the salary cap in recent years by taking a credit card approach where current obligations become future ones. The bill is coming and it's due in March.
Once there are 51 players counting and the carryover is taken into account, New Orleans is projected to be approximately $109 million over the cap at the $175 million floor. The Saints will need to continue pushing the envelope with the salary cap in order to be compliant when the 2021 league year starts.
The biggest piece of the Saints' salary cap puzzle is Drew Brees. Fox Sports Insider Jay Glazer reported before the Buccaneers game that he strongly believed Brees would retire after the season. Brees was noncommittal after the loss. "I'm gonna give myself an opportunity to think about the season, think about a lot things, just like I did last year, and make a decision," Brees said.
Brees has the NFL's fourth-largest 2021 salary cap number at $36.15 million. Assuming Brees retires, he and the Saints should agree to reduce his $25 million 2021 base salary to $1.075 million, his 2021 league minimum salary, in order for $23.925 million cap relief to be gained instantly. The Saints would need to carry Brees on the roster until June 2 to keep the $11.5 million in bonus proration relating to his voiding 2022 and 2023 contract years from becoming a 2021 cap charge.
At this point, Brees would be placed on the reserve/retired list and his $1.075 million base salary would also come off the books for additional cap relief. Instead of taking the full $22.65 million of dead money, a salary cap charge for a player no longer on a team's roster, in 2021 by placing Brees on the reserve/retired list prior to June 2, there would $11.15 in 2021 and $11.5 million in 2022 this way.
Potential Cap Casualties
It will be necessary for the Saints to part ways with several key contributors from this season's team. $13.4 million of cap room can be gained by releasing linebacker Kwon Alexander, who was acquired from the 49ers at the midseason trading deadline. The Saints eventually would be on the hook for $1.2 million with Alexander, who tore an Achilles late in the season, under the NFL collective bargaining agreement's injury protection benefit since he had remaining contract years if his injury prevents him from playing in 2021.
Releasing tight end Jared Cook before his $8.04 million roster bonus is due on the second day of the 2021 league year (March 18) will create $9.1 million of cap space. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins' $11.2 million 2021 salary, of which $1.2 million is a fully guaranteed roster bonus, and $14.2 million cap number are luxuries the Saints probably can't afford. Parting ways with Jenkins would free up $7 million of cap space. Center/guard Nick Easton's $6.5 million 2021 salary (on a $6.875 million cap number) is too much for a backup. His departure would create $5.875 million of cap room.
$5 million of cap space can be gained from cutting defensive tackle Malcolm Brown. He was only on the field for 33 percent of New Orleans' defensive snaps despite playing 13 games. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders' $10 million cap number could put him in jeopardy too -- although his $2 million roster bonus is guaranteed. Cutting him would create $4 million of cap space.
2020 undrafted free agent Blake Gilliken, who spent the season on injured reserve because of a back injury, could be the heir apparent to punter Thomas Morstead. The Saints could find the $2.84 million difference in their 2021 salaries appealing. Moving on from Morstead generates $2.5 million in cap savings.
Latavius Murray, who is scheduled to make $3.35 million in 2021, helps form one of the NFL's top running back tandems with All-Pro Alvin Kamara. Finding a cheaper option might be a necessity. A Murray departure would free up $2.5 million of cap space. $2.6 million of cap room can also be gained from nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson.
It's hard to envision a scenario where a majority of these players are still around for next season. If all nine are released, $51.975 million of cap space would be created. Presumably, nine players at the $660,000 first-year player minimum salary would replace them in the top 51. The net gain would be $46.035 million of cap room.
Potential Contract Restructures and Extensions
Restructuring contracts where salary is converted to a signing bonus pushing current cap obligations into the future has become a way of life with the Saints. Dummy or voiding years are consistently added in these restructures for additional cap relief because the converted salary is also prorated over the fake years.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan has the Saints' second highest cap number after Brees at $18.9 million. Jordan's $1.9 million fifth day of the league year roster bonus (March 21) and $10.825 million of 2021 base salary, which is all but his league-minimum $1.075 million, could be turned into a signing bonus while adding a 2025 contract year voiding on the last day of the 2023 league year (just like his 2024 one). This $12.725 million salary conversion would yield $10.18 million of cap space to bring Jordan's 2021 figure down to $8.72 million. In turn, Jordan's 2022 through 2025 cap numbers would increase by $2.545 million.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas was the subject of trade rumors after he was suspended for a game because of a practice altercation with a teammate. The speculation is resuming. Trading Thomas would add to the Saints' cap woes because there would be $20 million in dead money when his 2021 cap number is $18.8 million.
Converting $11.6 million of Thomas' $12.6 million base salary to a signing bonus while adding a dummy 2025 contract year would create $9.28 million of cap space. Thomas' new 2021 cap number would be $9.52 million.
Offensive guard Andrus Peat is another contract restructure candidate since he's virtually assured of being on the Saints roster in 2022. His $10.85 million 2022 base salary, which is guaranteed for injury, becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2021 league year (March 19). By converting $8 million of Peat's $9 million 2021 base salary with the addition of a voidable 2025 contract year, $6.4 million of cap room would be created. This maneuver would drop Peat's 2021 cap number to $5.2 million.
The Saints need to extend either cornerback Marshon Lattimore or right tackle Ryan Ramczyk's contract since only one can be designated as a franchise player in 2022. Lattimore and Ramczyk, both 2017 first-round picks, are scheduled to play 2021 under $10.244 million and $11.064 million fifth-year options. Locking up Ramczyk may be more essential because 2021 is also left tackle Terron Armstead's contract year.
The Saints could employ the same tactic used with defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins by adding voiding years to Lattimore's fifth-year option in a salary conversion. Lattimore's base salary could drop by $9 million to $1.244 million while tacking on up to four voiding contract years running through 2025. $7.2 million of cap room is produced with the $9 million signing bonus being prorated over five years. Having four years void on the last day of the 2021 league year would leave $7.2 million of dead money in 2022.
Any Ramcyzk extension will surely be more than the three-year, $42 million contract ($14 million per year) with $30 million fully guaranteed right tackle Jack Conklin received from the Browns in offseason free agency. Lane Johnson (Eagles) is the league's highest-paid right tackle at $18 million per year. The most recent tackle data point is Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles' four-year, $68 million extension with $40 million in guarantees making him the NFL's fifth highest-paid offensive lineman at $17 million per year.
Extending Ramcyzk for four years in the Bolles' neighborhood could create $7 million of cap space if a signing bonus/option bonus structure is employed. For example, Ramcyzk could be given a $15 million signing where his 2021 base salary drops to $1.064 million making his 2021 cap number $4.064 million. A $15 million payment during the first couple of days of the 2022 league year would also be necessary to pick up a 2025 contract year (the option bonus) under this example.
If a new deal couldn't be worked out in a timely enough fashion, adding voiding years like with Lattimore could be done as a placeholder. $8 million of cap space would be generated from a $10 million signing bonus and a $1.064 million 2021 base salary with four voiding years. The voiding years would be converted into real years in a new deal.
The Saints will need to decide the comfort level with two high priced tackles. An Armstead extension would likely be north of $20 million per year. His contract is being left alone for now. There's already $5.075 million of 2022 dead money because of last year's restructuring with two voiding or dummy years. Up to $8.06 million of cap space could be created if $10.075 million is converted into a signing bonus and two more voiding years running through 2025 are added.
$40.06 million of cap room gets created from the restructures and a Ramcyzk extension. Adding this amount to $46.035 million net gain from the nine salary cap casualties and the $23.925 million initially picked up from Brees, the Saints would create $110.02 million of cap space. More so than any other team, the Saints will benefit from the 2021 salary cap being set closer to the current $198.2 million number than the $175 million floor.
Attempting to retain key free agents, such as safety Marcus Williams and defensive end Trey Hendrickson, isn't being contemplated. Williams will likely be looking for a deal near the top of the safety market at least in the $14 million per year neighborhood. Hendrickson may have priced himself out of New Orleans after surprisingly tying for second in the NFL with 13.5 sacks.
The Saints unexpectedly signed safety All-Pro Jairus Byrd -- which turned out to be a mistake -- in 2014 free agency when nobody had them as a potential suitor because of their cap situation. It wouldn't be a shock for the Saints to pull another rabbit out of a hat this offseason. Structuring long-term deals with a modest 2021 or first-year cap number and a ballooning second-year cap figure, like with Byrd, will probably be a necessity for the Saints.