With the 2021 salary cap expected to come in much lower than initially contemplated due to lost revenues attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, a handful of NFL teams appear to be in serious trouble for next season. Among those teams, the New Orleans Saints serve as the poster child for organizations residing in salary cap hell. The Saints currently have approximately $276 million on the books for the 2021 season, prior to any salaries allocated for free agency, the draft, practice squad, injury contingencies, etc. Meanwhile, the league and the NFLPA have negotiated a salary cap floor of $175 million for 2021, with the hope being that 2020 revenues will come in better than expected, pushing the cap higher. A reasonable optimist would project an NFL cap number in the $185 – $190 million range. Even in an optimistic scenario, the Saints sit north of $85 million over the projected salary cap. So, how will the Saints slash this unprecedented amount off of their cap for next season? Let’s take a look at how they can do it.
The main tools at the Saints’ disposal are 1) player cuts, 2) contract restructurings, 3) extensions that lower the 2021 cap hit, and 4) trades. The Saints will likely need to utilize all four tactics in order to stay within the confines of the 2021 cap. Note that for this article, we’ll focus only on moves that significantly impact the salary cap, as opposed to diving too far in the weeds. With a goal of slashing approximately $90 million off the Saints’ 2021 cap number, let’s get to work.
QB Drew Brees
The Saints will likely have a change at quarterback, with future Hall of Famer Drew Brees expected to retire at the end of the 2020 season. We’ll start there for our first transaction. Brees currently has a $36.15 million cap number for 2021, comprised of a $25 million P5 salary (P5 meaning base) and $11.15 million in prorated bonus. While the resulting dead money from Brees’ contract will be vast, we will need to save what we can off the 2021 cap. Brees also has two voidable years attached to his contract, so solely for cap purposes, his contract runs through 2023. If the Saints were to cut Brees in 2021 in connection with his retirement, the team would incur $22.65 million in dead money, while saving $13.5 million. For the purposes of this article, we’ll presume the Saints will go ahead with this move and save a much needed $13.5 million from their 2021 cap.
The Saints do have another tool to be used at their disposal, albeit one with complications – a post-June 1 cut. If designated as a post-June 1 cut, then from June 2 and forward, the $22.65 million in dead money would be spread out over multiple years, with the Saints incurring $11.15 million in dead money on the 2021 cap, with the remaining $11.5 million in dead money (attributable to the bonus dollars for his 2022 and 2023 seasons) hitting the 2022 cap. The key issue here is that in order for the Saints to make Brees a post-June 1 cut, the team will have to carry his full $36.15 million cap number up through June 1. Given that the team has to be under the 2021 salary cap at the start of the league year in March, this becomes an extremely difficult proposition for the Saints to pull off. Not impossible, but very complex. So for our purposes here, we’ll designate Brees a pre-June 1 cut.
LB Kwon Alexander
The Saints traded for linebacker Kwon Alexander mid-way through the 2020 season, nabbing him from the San Francisco 49ers for another player and a conditional pick. As a result of the trade, Alexander’s remaining bonus payments accelerated to the 49ers’ cap, making Alexander easy to cut by the Saints since no dead money remains. Alexander has a $13.4 million cap charge in 2021, pursuant to which the Saints can cut Alexander and save…$13.4 million off their cap. Let’s not overthink this here. That’s another $13.4 million saved.
CB Janoris Jenkins
We next move to cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who has been a solid starter for the Saints over the past few seasons. Unfortunately for Jenkins, he has a whopping $14.2 million cap hit for 2021, with $7 million to be saved if the Saints release him. While far from ideal to be saddled with $7.2 million in dead money for 2021, the team needs the $7 million in savings.
WR Emmanuel Sanders
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders joined the Saints in free agency prior to the 2020 season, with the team hoping to solidify the its number two receiver spot. The signing made sense on paper, but the result has been mixed. Sanders currently has a $10 million cap number for 2021, which makes him another strong candidate to be released for savings. As a pre-June 1 cut, the Saints take a $6 million cap hit while saving $4 million. That’s not a substantial amount to save, but it’s necessary given the team’s situation. The Saints will save $4 million off their 2021 cap by cutting Sanders, and let’s go ahead and make this move.
DL Malcom Brown
Veteran interior defensive lineman Malcom Brown has been a solid member of the team’s rotation. Unfortunately, the team needs to save cap space where it can, and Brown is expendable due to his contract. Brown has a $6.5 million cap number for 2021, with $5 million of that amount to be saved by the Saints if they cut him, resulting in only $1.5 million of dead money. Not much more to explain here, but unfortunately Brown needs to go. The Saints save $5 million off their 2021 cap by cutting Brown.
G Nick Easton
Veteran guard Nick Easton has been with the Saints since 2019, starting several games for the team. He’s been a steady performer, but he’s also got a $7 million cap number for 2021. The bad news for Easton is that the Saints save $6 million by cutting him. Not much to think about here – Easton will have to go, and there’s $6 million trimmed off the cap.
The players mentioned above will not be the team’s only cuts. But for purposes of this exercise, they are identified as the team’s primary cuts in order to reach the goal of slashing nearly $90 million. Through the player cuts mentioned above, the team saves $48.9 million off their 2021 cap. This gets us over half way to the goal, but more work remains.
Teams frequently restructure contracts, which frees up immediate cap room, but at the expense of incurring larger cap charges over the coming seasons. In a sense, think of it as using a credit card – you defer payment now, but the bill will eventually be due later. The Saints will need to utilize this approach as they work to come in line with the 2021 salary cap. Unfortunately, a large reason that they are in this financial mess to begin with is due to restructuring veteran contracts, including repeatedly re-doing Drew Brees’ contract. In any event, the Saints don’t have much choice here given how much money needs to be shaved. As for which players make strong restructure candidates, you need three main components – 1) players with a high P5 salary for the season in question (so 2021 in this case), 2) players who the team strongly expects to be around for years to come, and 3) sufficient duration of contract remaining, or to be added, in order to absorb the future increase in cap charges. Conversely, players who you expect to cut within the next year or two are terrible restructure candidates, because the pain you will endure when cutting them will be ruinous to your cap. With that said, let’s take a look at four players who the Saints could elect to restructure.
DE Cameron Jordan
While Drew Brees has been the franchise cornerstone on offense, it’s defensive end Cameron Jordan who has played the same role for the defense. Jordan has been with the Saints for ten seasons, and he remains a fixture for the next few years at a minimum. Looking at Jordan’s contract status, he has a 2021 cap number of $18.9 million, and his contract runs through 2024 (including voidable years). Jordan makes the ideal restructure candidate, given his stature with the team, his high P5 salary and his contractual status running for four more years. Taking a closer look at Jordan’s contract, he has a P5 salary of $11.9 million in 2021, together with a signing bonus allocation of $5 million, a roster bonus of $1.9 million and a workout bonus of $100,000, thus adding up to a cap charge of $18.9 million. Focusing on the P5 salary, let’s lower this by paying Jordan the NFL minimum salary for 2021, while converting the rest of the salary to an additional signing bonus. The expected 2021 minimum NFL salary for veterans will be in the $1.1 million range, so let’s lower his 2021 P5 salary to $1.1 million, while paying Jordan out an additional $10.8 million as a signing bonus. With Jordan’s contract running through 2024, the new $10.8 million signing bonus gets split over 4 years for cap purposes, providing an additional $2.7 million cap charge via signing bonus over the aforementioned four year period. This will reduce Jordan’s 2021 cap number to $10.8 million, resulting from his new P5 salary of $1.1 million, $2.7 million attributable to the new signing bonus, plus $7 million in previous bonuses (initial signing bonus, roster bonus and workout bonus). Importantly for our exercise, the Saints will save $8.1 million off their 2021 cap, while $2.7 million will also be added to their cap in each of the 2022, 2023 and 2024 seasons.
WR Michael Thomas
Prior to the 2021 season, any notion that top wide receiver Michael Thomas would wear a uniform other than that of the Saints would have been ridiculed. While there has been some tumult between the player and the team in 2020, the smart money here is that Thomas will remain a fixture for the Saints – he’s just too important to the team to trade away. As the Saints still need to unlock more savings, Thomas makes for another great restructure candidate. Looking at Thomas’ contract, he has a 2021 cap charge of $18.8 million, with a $12.6 million P5 salary, $6 million in prorated bonus and $200,000 for a workout bonus. His contract runs through 2024 as well, so we have plenty of room to lower his 2021 cap number. Let’s take the same approach with Thomas as we did with Jordan, reducing his P5 salary to the NFL veteran’s minimum and converting the remainder to a signing bonus to be spread over four years. Doing the math, we convert $11.5 million of salary to signing bonus, resulting in a $2.875 cap charge over each of the remaining four years. As a result, Thomas’ cap charge for 2021 reduces to $10.175 million ($1.1 million P5 salary, $6.2 million in existing bonuses and $2.875 million for the new signing bonus), providing a savings of $8.625 million for the 2021 season. Of course $2.875 million in additional cap charges also hit the 2022, 2023 and 2024 seasons, but we are concerned with 2021 here, and we did our job by saving the team $8.625 million in cap charges for the 2021 season.
LT Terron Armstead
For the last few years, the Saints have boasted one of the top offensive lines in the game, with left tackle Terron Armstead playing a leading role in the unit’s success. The Saints will need to keep Armstead to protect their likely post-Brees successor at QB in 2021, so we’ll get to work in restructuring his salary as well. Armstead has a cap charge of $16.2875 million for 2021, comprised of a P5 salary of $10.15 million, with a multitude of other bonuses totaling $6.1375 million. Armstead’s contract runs through 2023 due to two voidable years tacked onto the end of his deal. We’re going to use those years to help us alleviate some of his 2021 cap charge. So taking his $10.15 million P5 salary, and for simplicity’s sake, reducing him to a new P5 salary of $1.15 million for 2021, we convert $9 million of his P5 to a signing bonus. This results in $3 million in additional cap charges for each year from 2021 through 2023, while resulting in an ultimate savings of $6 million for the Saints’ 2021 cap. Armstead’s new 2021 cap charge becomes $10.2875 ($1.15 million P5 salary, $6.1375 million in existing bonuses and $3 million for the new signing bonus).
LG Andrus Peat
The Saints view left guard Andrus Peat as a building block, as evidenced by the team locking him up through 2024 with a rich extension. Peat’s cap number for 2021 is $11.6 million, with a $9 million base salary and $2.6 from a prorated signing bonus. In other words, he’s an excellent restructure candidate as well. Let’s convert all but $1.1 million of his 2021 P5 salary into a signing bonus, which spreads the new $7.9 signing bonus in equal charges over four years on the cap. As a result, Peat’s new 2021 cap number is $5.675 million, consisting of his $1.1 million P5 salary, existing $2.6 million signing bonus proration and $1.975 million new signing bonus proration. The Saints save $5.925 million off their 2021 cap as a result.
We’re done restructuring contracts, with some immediate relief granted to the Saints in exchange for longer-term cap pain. But again, the Saints don’t have much choice here. The team saves a collective $28.65 million off their 2021 cap with these restructures. We are almost done assisting the Saints with the heavy lifting in their 2021 cap endeavors, but we need to make a few more moves.
The Saints believe that their long term successor at QB currently resides on their roster. Taysom Hill has filled in admirably as the team’s starter while Brees recovers from injury, even if Hill hasn’t quite silenced the doubters outside of the Saints’ organization. Assuming the team wants to commit to Hill for the longer term, then it makes sense to sign him to an extension, while also lowering his 2021 cap number. As it currently stands, Hill has a $16.159 million cap number for 2021, comprised of a $10.72 million P5 salary plus $5.439 million in bonuses. While Hill has shown some promise at quarterback, he still hasn’t quite shown that he’s a safe bet as a franchise signal caller. As such, let’s give him a modest extension, somewhere in the range of $2 years, $50 million, which ties Hill to the Saints through the 2023 season. As for the contract itself, let’s go with a $10 million signing bonus, with two years at $20 million each, with the 2022 P5 salary fully guaranteed. Given the timing of the extension, leaving three years on Hill’s deal, the bonus is spread on the cap over three years at $3.33 million each year. Next, the Saints can earn more relief for 2021 by converting Hill’s 2021 P5 salary into a signing bonus, excluding the minimum salary amount. After doing so, Hill has a $1.1 million P5 salary for 2021, together with an additional signing bonus of $9.62 million, which hits the cap over three years at approximately $3.21 million per season. After the smoke clears here, Hill’s new 2021 salary cap number is $13.079 million, which consists of his $1.1 million P5 salary, $5.439 in current bonuses, plus $6.54 million attributable to the two new signing bonuses. The Saints ultimately save $3.08 million off the 2021 cap, while also gaining some years with Hill under contract.
Along with some difficult player cuts and salary restructures, the Saints will need to make some tough decisions among players that they want to keep. As such, what will be proposed here may ruffle some feathers, but slashing $90 million off a team’s cap does not leave for easy choices.
CB Marshon Lattimore
The Saints drafted exceptionally well in 2017, which re-opened their Super Bowl window over the last few seasons. The only downside to drafting exceptionally well in one season…the bill comes due for that draft group at the same time. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has been outstanding for the team, arguably serving as the team’s best player in the secondary over the past few years. As a former first round pick, Lattimore has a fifth year option in 2021, which the Saints picked up in a no brainer move after the 2019 season. The fifth year option is for $10.244 million in P5 salary, with no bonuses attached. As such, the cap charge matches the P5 salary, with no cap penalties to be incurred by the Saints for trading or cutting the player. While the Saints could make it work to keep Lattimore for 2021 and beyond, the reality is that it will take a very lucrative extension (think $18 million per year or more) to keep Lattimore in the fold over the long term. With stud right tackle Ryan Ramczyk also needing an extension, not to mention the team needing to fill a whole host of other needs (addressing holes from roster attrition via free agency and otherwise, the 2021 draft class, practice squad and contingencies, etc.), the Saints can’t keep everyone. The team may, however, be able to get a first round pick or equivalent compensation for Lattimore, which will help usher in the next era while also providing important cap relief and a cost controlled player for four plus years. Under this proposed plan, the Saints trade Lattimore away for a first round pick and save $10.244 million off their 2021 cap in the process.
We took on the task of reducing the Saints’ salary cap charges by approximately $90 million for 2021, and here’s where we landed as a result of the cuts, restructurings, extension and the trade referenced above:
|Player Cuts||$48.9 million|
|Extension Lowering 2021 Cap Hit||$3.08 million|
So there you have it, more than $90 million has been slashed off the team’s 2021 salary cap. It’s actually amazing how $90 million can disappear off a team’s salary cap, albeit with a lot of moves. And just as a reminder, this is far from an exhaustive list of moves the team will need to make, but the transactions above will lead the Saints most of the way towards 2021 cap compliance. The team will inevitably need to make several tough decisions, some of which will be unpopular with Who Dat Nation. But the result of continuously punting cap decisions into the future will finally come due in 2021. The good news for Saints fans – after making the moves above, the team will still remain formidable. But there’s no question that the 2020 season will be the team’s best shot at a Super Bowl ring, at least for the next few years.