Every year we discuss the Saints future salary cap and every year it is met with a response that the “cap doesn’t matter and it is easy to find a way”, but that excuse holds more merit when the team is a playoff team and you are living for today rather than tomorrow. This year it is different for the Saints. Last year the team won 9 games and nearly made the playoffs but now the team is staring at a 2-5 record and is on pace to be one of the worst teams in the NFL.
The Saints typical strategy to manage the salary cap is to “kick the can” on all of their players. This year it was an absurd amount of can kicking. As of last week the Saints had committed to $190.8 million in prorated money for the 2022 season. That is $21.2 million more than the next closest team (Rams) and $86.5 million more than the NFL average.
Of that $190 million, $122.3 million was in the form of restructure bonuses- salary conversions of existing player contracts for salary cap relief. That was $66 million more than the Buccaneers who ranked number two in the NFL. The average conversion for the other 31 teams in the NFL was just $17.2 million with a median of about $16 million.
The Saints have 21 veteran players at or near the minimum salary this year who also have prorated money in their contract, three more than any other team and much more than the NFL average of 9. All but three eligible players on the roster have a base salary under $2 million. The players over the $2 million number include PJ Williams, who had a contract that for cap purposes had a salary that was treated as if it was the minimum for cap purposes and the other was kicker Wil Lutz. The team was in such a tight cap position that they recently converted the remaining salary of RFA WR Deonte Hardy but since they waited five weeks his prorated salary may be over $2 million for the year. Everyone else has a salary about as low as allowed by NFL rules. Overall the Saints 2022 roster has 56% of their cap commitments tied up in prorated money, tops in the NFL with the Packers a close second. This is about 20% points more than the league average.
Looking ahead to the 2023 season the Saints situation looks bleak. The team currently has 34 players under contract who currently account for $258.9M in salary cap charges. They have four player contracts that will void, leaving the team with $21.2M in salary cap charges if not extended. They have about $4.5 million in dead money on the books as well. While they do not have to bring the roster to 51 players in the offseason that will cost at least $12.75 million on the cap if they do.
If you add that all up it would bring the team’s top 51 to about $297M in cap commitments. While the salary cap is an unknown next year that number is, by far, the worst in the NFL. It would put them around $70 million over a $225 million salary cap and $60 million over if they just leave the roster with the existing players. At an average age next year of 27.6 it is also the oldest group of players in the NFL.
Here is what the salary cap looks like for the Saints next season
|Name||2023 Salary Cap||Dead Money if Cut||Cap Saved if Cut|
*cap figure assumes contract voids
Once the Saints reach 51 players it should be noted that every release will also see a player earning at least $750,000 take the cut player’s place on the roster. With that in mind only seven players on the roster would have a net savings over $1 million. Not one player would be over $4 million in savings. If you cut every single player with positive net savings on the roster you would only create $21 million in net cap space, a far cry from the $70 million necessary to function. It more or less leaves them in a position where doubling down is going to be necessary to some extent. So what options does the team have?
The first thing that New Orleans has to do is to be realistic about their team moving forward. They have not been that the last two years, especially this past offseason. Barring an incredible turnaround over the next few weeks the Saints are going to have to make decisions about the future of certain players on the roster by December rather than waiting until next year.
The NFL gives teams the ability to designate two players per year as post June 1 cuts. What that means is you can defer the acceleration of dead money to the following year but it comes with a catch- you have to hold the player’s salary cap charge at the stated amount until June 1. That does not do you any good when you have players with cap hits over $20 million. You also can not use the post June 1 designation if you renegotiate the players contract after the season, but you can do it before the end of the regular season.
This was something I had discussed a long time ago and the Eagles wound up exploiting that loophole a few years ago by making future roster decisions in December and essentially asking the player’s agents to help them out with the salary cap. There was a time when most agents probably would have flat out denied such requests but nowadays the stronger relationships with teams go a long way, so rather than putting a team on their heels they work on helping them salvage their salary cap.
The Saints should choose two players to do that with this season. The first candidate has to be Michael Thomas. Thomas has $25.4 million in dead money if cut or traded and a cap figure over $28 million. In the last three years, Thomas has played in just 10 games and he has had a somewhat rocky relationship with the team as well. The Saints could go to him and promise him his freedom for 2023 in March as long as he redoes his contract.
To rework his contract they would remove all offseason bonuses and bring his salary down to the minimum of $1.165 million. To ensure his release the contract would contain a dummy salary in 2025 of some crazy amount that would be guaranteed if he were on the roster on the 2nd day of the 2023 league year. In that scenario his cap figure would be reduced from $28M to $12.978 million, a savings of $15.285 million. On June 2nd his cap would drop to $11.813 million and they would defer the rest of the $28 million in dead money to 2024. This is a significantly better option than taking $25 million dead for him in 2023 or restructuring the deal again and keeping their fingers crossed that he can be healthy and play at the level he used to play at.
The team would then have to decide who would be the second player to do that with. The one that makes the most financial sense is Cam Jordan, but I would put the more logical candidate to be Andrus Peat. Peat’s re-signing with the Saints in 2020 is one they probably wish they could have back. They seemed prepared to let him walk until the price got low enough to where they brought him back. Peat was already showing durability concerns at that stage and he only played in 6 games last season. He has played in 5 game this year and has been a low grade players for at least the last two years.
Peat’s cap charge next year is $18.371 million. By doing the same trick as above they can lower it to $7.7 million and reduce the dead money from $16.9 to $6.54 million next year with the balance going to 2024. Between those two players the team will open up $25.95 million putting the Saints in a far more manageable position. But remember this has to be done this year to make it work for next year.
The next player the team will need to make a decision on will be Jordan. Jordan will be 34 next season and entering the final year of his contract. I can’t see a scenario where they release him unless he asks to be released. If he were to retire they could do the same trick as above and that can be done after the regular season (the Saints did this with Drew Brees a few years ago). Most likely he will finish his career in New Orleans so I would just expect this to be a kick the can contract. The max savings here on a straight conversion would be $11.068 million. While you are dumping more dead money to the future I would assume that 2024 would be a retirement and they would split that now between 2024 and 2025. Certainly not ideal but they are not in good shape. This gets the Saints to about $23 million over the cap.
There would really be no reason to move on from Ryan Ramczyk who is only 27. The max conversion here would net them $10.336 million in salary cap savings in 2023 about $13 million away from being good to go (and maybe even good if the cap really spikes). This is a conversion that should be fine for now and the future.
Marshon Lattimore in an interesting discussion. He is also only 27 and the team is financially invested in him for 2023 but I do think a trade market could exist. That said they would lose $6 million in cap space so they would need to hold off on trading him until after June if they wanted to make cap space. His cap number is $22.4 million so they would have to get very creative to do that. The smart play for them might be to see about converting his guaranteed salary to a guaranteed option due late in the summer. That would allow them to drop his cap charge down by $10.736 million and still keep a trade to be a possibility since the option would only be the responsibility of New Orleans if Latimore is on the team after the date the option is due.
Erik McCoy has a $10 million roster bonus due in the offseason. That would seem to be a pretty easy decision to just convert to a prorated bonus and spread it out. That saves the team $8 million. That move puts the Saints under our theoretical cap of $225 million assuming that they do not sign any futures deals. I have seen teams in cap trouble avoid maxing out the roster (the Ravens I know did it in the past and I think the Falcons may have as well) but to be on the safe side I think they would need to make another $10 million or so in cap space.
Personally I don’t see the need for a kicker with a $5.6 million hit on the team. Cutting him saves $3.7 million. Lutz is in the final year of his contract. Tight end Nick Vannett did a strange restructure this past year and I believe gave up guaranteed money to stick with the team. Unless I’m mistaken they would pick up $2.6 million with his release as only a small portion of his 2023 salary is protected. The team more or less opted early into Carl Granderson as a RFA in 2023 and they probably should opt out now, saving $3.98 million in the process. I could see them wanting to hold onto him because of his age but they need to have a bigger role designed for him if that is the case.
If they do all of this it should give them the cushion they need to at least work with the roster a bit. They could cut Jameis Winston but with no QB under contract it may be better to just threaten the cut and bring his salary back down to around $5 million. The Saints likely screwed themselves over this year when it came to Winston due their pursuit of Deshaun Watson. When they failed to land Watson they went back to Winston, signing him a two year $28 million contract. The prior two years as a free agent Winston had signed for the league minimum to backup Brees and $5.5 million the next year to compete for the starting job. He was hurt after a few games and there was no real reason to bump the salary by so much other than they had no other option to go to at the time. Winston has been hurt again this year so they should aim to get it down by a good $7-$8 million with a chance for him to make it up in incentives.
I would not touch the contracts of Tyrann Mathieu, Alvin Kamara, or Marcus Maye. While they could create cap room with each player they are all more valuable in a trade or as a planned release. Mathieu’s salary drops to just $7 million in 2023 which should make him attractive to teams. If traded, the Saints would open up $1.3 million and avoid paying that $7 million salary so the gain over a two year period is pretty strong. There are no offseason bonuses to consider so they could trade him at any point before the trade deadline and save room for the future.
Trading Maye would open up $3.8 million though I think teams would hedge on his contract. He has a roster bonus due in March so they cant just hold onto him the way they would Mathieu to wait for a trade. I don’t see the future here to convert his bonus as that just seems pointless if you can be cap compliant with the other moves.
Finally trading Kamara saves $1.7 million if traded prior to his roster bonus being due and about $700K if traded after. While Kamara is not looked at the same way as Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers just received four draft picks from a desperate team for him. Even if I have to eat the $1 million I would rather hope for a trade rather than prorating the whole contract. If a trade is impossible at his salary (and it may be) they probably should work on reducing his salary from $11 million to $5 or $6 million or just move on. He has $4 million that becomes guaranteed early in free agency which makes cutting him hard once that is earned. Cutting him prior to that would be neutral on the cap but they would avoid $10 of the $11 million and that $1 million is probably covered by offsets. That $10 million is money that would be saved for 2024.
Beyond that the Saints should just be trying to get by the 2023 season. They should not be in the business of prorating everyones contract. Signing free agents that they should not be signing by using void years and future guarantees. It should all be about getting things fixed and finding a way to be relevant in the future. If they did the above their cap position should go from 3rd worst in the NFL in 2024 to somewhere in the higher part of the bottom third of the league. If they just hold onto all of the players they will move into the worst position in the league come 2024.
To make matters worse for the Saints they made an absurd trade this spring where they sent off their 2023 1st round pick and 2024 2nd round pick to add an extra first rounder in this year draft. The selection became Trevor Penning. Penning has been on IR all season. It was a “win now” move of sorts for a team that had no business thinking they were a “win now” team. That is really the biggest lesson everyone should learn from this. When you do not have a viable QB on your roster in no way shape or form can you trade away a future number 1 draft pick unless it is for a quarterback. Rather than scouting the potential QB of the future the team is just hoping that they don’t have to watch the Eagles get a top 10 draft pick next year while the Saints try to navigate an old, expensive, declining roster.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.