Navigating the Saints 2021 Salary Cap Situation

Though the Saints are looking like the top dog in the NFC, more and more people are starting to take notice of their salary cap situation next year. Jason LaCanfora of CBS wrote an article just last week on it where he asked some other team cap managers how to handle it and they all agreed it’s a pretty big mess. Assuming the cap drops to around $175 million we project the Saints to be in the ballpark of $95 million over the salary cap (this may get reported higher due to a unique contract situation that only occurred because of the CBA but we are factoring in the intent of that contract into our cap number), which I believe has to be the worst salary cap position a team has ever been in, though in the Saints defense nobody every anticipated a pandemic potentially wiping out the salary cap for a year.

So I’ll have some fun and take a shot at running through the Saints roster and some moves that I think they will consider.  At the end of each player move I’ll keep a running tally of where we are with the cap.

Restructure Drew Brees’ Contract Depending on Decision to Retire or Play

A lot of what the Saints will likely do with their roster hinges on the decision of Brees. Brees currently counts for $36.15 million on the Saints salary cap which clearly can’t happen if they want to comply with the cap. If he retires the team will pick up $13.5 million in cap space while carrying $22.65 million in dead money, but I think the Saints can get creative here to work with this contract.

If Brees is 100% certain he is going to retire the Saints can reduce his salary to the league minimum of $1.075 million. That would allow the Saints to drop his salary cap number from $36.15 million to $12.2225 million a savings of $23.925 million. The team would have to carry Brees as an active player until June 2nd at which point they would officially place him on the retired list and receive the June 1 cap benefit. Rather than taking on $22.65 million in dead money in 2021 the team would only have an $11.15 million charge for Brees in 2021 and $11.5 million in 2022.

What if Brees is not sure he wants to retire and acts a bit like Brett Favre at the end of his career? One option is to add more void years to the contract, reduce his salary as above, and convert the $23.925 million to an option bonus that is due after the first game of the season. Under that type of contract Brees would count for $17.01 million, a savings of $19.14 million. If Brees does decide to retire the team would get the same savings as in the first scenario since the option would never be exercised. If he plays then you have a lot more dead money to deal with in 2022 but that is the price of Brees returning.

If Brees is 100% certain that he will return again you have a few options. The basic one would mimic the $19.14 million in savings I just mentioned using a basic conversion. The second one would see him actually extend his contract into 2022 (2022 is currently a void year) with a guaranteed roster bonus due on the first day of the league year. They should be able to make this not subject to any forfeiture such that he can earn it and then retire, ala Andrew Luck. Doing this allows them to bring that cap number down to the $12.2225 million number and get the best of all worlds. Brees would have to also be willing to modify his contract like this. You could also do a similar contract in the Favre scenario if he is agreeable.

After thinking about it for a bit I think no matter what the Saints probably need to turn 2022 into a real contract year under any scenario in which Brees may play in 2021. Doing this  gives them the capability to do the same trick with the contract I said for 2021 and use the June 1 in 2022 if Brees plays in 2021 and wants to retire in 2022. Since Brees seems happy to play for $25M every year a token $25M base salary should be fair.

In any event I’m confident I can come up with a way to get that $23.925 million in savings here with Brees, so about $70 million to go.

Cut Kwon Alexander

No matter what happens this year the Saints have to look at this Alexander trade as a one year shot and not get fooled into trying to keep an often injured linebacker long term. There is $0 associated with releasing Alexander so that will save the team $13.4 million. We are now $56.7 million away from being cap compliant.

Restructure Cameron Jordan

The Saints just extended Jordan last season so I have to imagine he is in their plans with or without Brees. Jordan has an $18.9 million salary cap charge next year and $13.8 million in salary. He currently has one void year on his contract and they can tack on one additional one to maximize the cap savings. This move would increase the rest of his contract by $2.565 million a season but save $10.26 million on the 2021 cap. The downside with this move is you are likely locking into Jordan for at least the 2022 season when he will be 33. With this restructure we have $46.4 million left to go. (Note- Thanks to one of our readers pointing it out I had a big error here that moved this number by about $13 million from the original article so the totals are now reflected for that. Sorry for the confusion)

Cut Nick Easton

Easton’s $7 million cap figure is way too high for a player who is going to be a backup barring injury to someone else. They could try to bring his number down for the season but with just $1 million in dead money it probably makes sense to cut and then revisit later on if necessary. This saves $6 million in cap space putting us $40.4 million away from our goal.

Cut Janoris Jenkins

Jenkins is having a decent year but there is no way to justify an $11.2 million salary and a $14.2 million salary cap charge next year. Jenkins does have $1.2 million in guaranteed salary next year with no offsets but I think you just eat that charge. Cutting Jenkins frees up $7 million in cap space, though it also leaves them with an ugly $7.2 million dead money charge. We are $33.4 million away from making it to cap compliancy.

Restructure Marshon Lattimore

Lattimore is going to be a tricky contract negotiation. He is entering the final year of his contract and will count $10.244 million on the salary cap. He has probably gotten worse every year in coverage but I can’t see gutting the entire secondary in 2021 especially if Brees returns. If you enter extension negotiations with Lattimore he is going to be expensive. He is a first round pick and recent contracts for Jalen Ramsey, Tre’Davious White, and Marlon Humphrey have averaged between $17.25 million and $20 million a year. Most likely he is going to look for something close to the $20 million spectrum. I’m not sure if he is really worth that number or not to New Orleans. They could trade him but there is no cap relief associated with that during the lead in to free agency so keep that in mind if that is an option.

In any event there should not be anything that prevents me from adding four void years to Lattimore’s contract for cap purposes and deferring his salary charges to 2021. I can lower Lattimore’s cap charge to $2.84 million by doing this. If the team does wind up extending Lattimore after the season they will keep the $1.85M in proration from 22 to 25 as is, a pretty low cost overall. If they don’t extend him then you are baking $7.4 million dead into 2022, but 2021 is our primary concern not 2022 at this point. With $7.4 million in savings for 2021 we are now $26 million over the salary cap.

Extend Ryan Ramczyk

All of the above for Lattimore may also apply to Ramczyk, who will count for $11.064 million on the Saints 2021 salary cap as he moves into his final contract year. The only reason I put the extend label on him is because I think this is an easier contract to handle. Jack Conklin is the highest paid true right tackle in the NFL at $14 million a year so I think getting to $15 million a season can probably get this one done. On top of that its less money pay outs on these deals- Conklin made $20 million in new money in the first new year of his contract while the cornerbacks are well into the $30 million range. Now you can argue the benefit of a right tackle versus a corner without Brees but many teams will, I believe, opt for the security of the offensive line in front of a young QB down the line.  

I think you can do a deal here that would give Ramczyk an $8 million raise in 2021 while bringing his cap number down to $4.6 million by paying him a $1 million salary and an $18 million signing bonus. That probably means a $17.6 million cap charge the next year but that should be workable especially since they can restructure if needed. We have saved $6.46 million with the extension bringing us to about $19.6 million over the salary cap.

Cut Malcom Brown

Brown is a solid player on the Saints defensive line but I think that you can almost always find solid nose tackles that would probably be cheaper than the $6.5 million cap charge he will have next year, especially if the pandemic leads to a number of veterans being available for pennies on the dollar. If the team cuts him they will save $5 million in cap room which is significant given their cap situation. This puts us$14.5 million over the salary cap.

Cut Latavius Murray

I know the Saints like having Murray to spell Alvin Kamara but once you do that big deal with Kamara you really can’t afford to waste another $4.2 million on a backup. The backup needs to be cheaper at this point. If you cut Murray you will save $2.5 million on the cap. You would have to replace him with either a minimum salary vet (cap charge around $1M) or lower drafted rookie (cap charge around $800K). Maybe the Saints will think the net savings are not worth it , but I would think that they are. We are now $12 million away.

Cut Thomas Morstead

Morstead has been around forever and those players are hard to part ways with, but his $4.5 million cap charge is the second highest in the NFL and about $2.5 million more than the league average spent on the position. I just don’t see how you justify that, especially in today’s game. The Saints rank 22nd in number of punts through 8 games so around the NFL average or just below. They save $2.5 million by releasing Morstead getting us to $9.5 million.

Restructure Michael Thomas

I saved this one for last because while I think it will be necessary if the cap hits the lowest of lows to sign rookies and/or a QB if Brees retires I was a little hesitant because of the issues the team seems to have had with Thomas this year. Right now trading Thomas would cost the Saints $1.2 million in cap room so I don’t see that as likely even if Brees retires. However, restructuring this contract probably makes him untradeable in 2022 as well which most likely will be the last year he would have any significant trade value. By adding a void year I can drop his cap charge from $18.8 million in 2021 to $9.5 million, which blocks our trades in 2022 unless we want to take on over $25 million in dead money. So they need to make sure they are 100% on board with Thomas if they want to go here. This brings us to pretty much where we need to be to at least comply with the cap.

Other possible moves

I avoided a few other moves for a few reasons but we can walk through them here. I did not cut Emmanuel Sanders despite a $10 million cap hit. This was strictly related to my thinking Brees comes back and I think would want that third receiver. I don’t see a point in adding even more dead money to his 2022 void year because unlike Lattimore I don’t see any chance that they retain him in 2022 so I would rather bite the bullet all in 2021. If Brees does not return he is a no brainer cut regardless of a $2 million salary guarantee. Cutting him saves $4 million….I did not touch the contract of Terron Armstead. 2021 is his last year under contract and there is already $5 million in dead money for him coming in 2022. Armstead is a terrific player when healthy but has played in 7, 10, 10, and 15 games the last four years. He’ll be expensive to extend if he stays healthy but I would rather wait to see how things shake out over the next year. If they did push money on him, which would be reasonable if they see a better than 70% chance they extend him in 22, you would save $8.12 million if you add void years. If you fail to extend him, though, you have gone from $5.075 million in dead money in 2022 to $13.2 million, which is a ton of leverage for a player to have. It probably makes more sense to just extend him outright in this scenario….No chance I’m touching the Andrus Peat contract. Peat has an $11.6 million cap charge and they could open up around $6 million there, but he has the most downside of the players on that line and they should keep open the possibility of cutting him in 2022…I also didn’t touch Taysom Hill’s contract because there is no point to it and I don’t see them cutting him so no need to mention it. So if the Saints went absolutely crazy all in for 2021 and did all these things then you are looking at being around $18 million under the cap.

Final Outcome

So based on the numbers above would likely need to cut Jenkins, Alexander, Brown, Easton, Murray, and Morstead. We would be a few minor moves away from having enough space to sign rookies and a few low cost free agents. We could get lower if we really need to go all in to get to $20 million or so under which gives us more wiggle room to really look at the pros and cons of bringing back Jared Cook, Alex Anzalone, and Sheldon Rankins. If Brees does retire the team will certainly need a QB unless they really go crazy with Hill. I think they can come to a low cost agreement with Jameis Winston and if they keep him on the sidelines most of this year they can get pretty creative to give him a reasonable way to earn some money without having it count on the cap in 21. Winston flopped in free agency last year and while there will be more openings in 2022 I think they offer the best opportunity for both sides.

Remember these numbers are all worst case scenarios. If the revenues are not impacted as much as we think and they are offset by other union concessions this year you may be able to add millions and millions of dollars to these figures putting them well under the salary cap for next season.  2022 would remain challenging for the Saints even if Brees retires but each year should get easier for them as they transition to the post Brees era, though it is going to be some time before they trend toward the NFL averages for salary cap health.

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @Jason_OTC