by Paul Wanecski
The New Orleans Saints salary cap issues have long been chronicled here at Hashtag Sports (see last season’s articles ‘Tis the Season and The Jimmy Graham Saga). Currently projected $25.1 million over salary cap, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis has given the impression that the cap number is a little inflated and will be easy to bring down. We beg to differ. Head coach Sean Payton will have to reinvent the wheel with his offense this season along with paying attention to the team’s glaring defensive needs.
Well, we all knew this was coming. It is not mystery why the Saints are looking at a second consecutive sentence in off-season cap jail; this if familiar territory. With plenty of overpaid players and a herd of marginal talent, looking for improvement based solely on the NFL draft is all the organization has to look forward to. They also hold the highest first round selection they have had since 2008, selecting 13th in this upcoming draft. Actually, this is only the 5th time since the infamous Ricky Williams trade in 1999 that the Saints have had an equal or higher selection. The team leads the league in current players (nine) under contract with a minimum salary cap figure of $9 million or more. Those nine players account for $102.7 million of the estimated $140 million cap figure for 2015 (for those keeping score at home, that accounts for 73% of the total salary cap allocated to 9 players out of the 51 used to figure the salary cap).
I could write a book on the mistakes made over the last 6 seasons with quarterback Drew Brees’ contract. While he is an elite level quarterback, New Orleans has pushed salary to the back end of this contract for a long time and now the chicken is finally coming home to roost. He is in the last year of his contract with an alarming salary cap figure of $26.4 million. The team has several options but only one is really likely. If they were to trade Brees, they will save $11.6 million (unlikely). He could take an elective pay cut (extremely unlikely). They could (and most likely will) look to extend his contract an additional 2-3 years, convert some base salary this year into a signing bonus and spread out the impact over the remaining life of the deal. It would be in the team’s best interest to deescalate his base salary as well in the final years of the deal to control his salary cap number as he grows older and the projected scale of his skills will diminish.
The following players are owed roster bonuses that if restructured into signing bonuses, can free up cap space this year but will ultimately raise the player’s salary cap figure in future years. While I am not a fan of this theory of salary cap management, it is fair to say that a majority of the personnel decisions they have made near the last decade I have questioned financially:
DE Junior Galette can convert his $12.5 million roster bonus, which immediately counts against this year’s salary cap number, into a signing bonus, saving $10 million this year but raising his cap figure $2.5 million every year after that. The same goes for the $11 million cap charge for TE Jimmy Graham. $3 million can be shaved this year converting roster bonus to signing bonus. Converting some of his base salary into signing bonus would also free up additional room, however, it will again raise his cap charge for every year remaining on his contract. Jarius Byrd can convert his roster bonus saving $4.8 million this season. LB Curtis Lofton, who ranked 4th in the NFL in tackles last season, can save the team $3 million converting roster into signing bonus.
RG Jahri Evans and his $11 million cap hit could turn into a $6 million cap savings if he is released. He did not play like the best right guard in the NFL (his contract is ranked 1st in NFL for RGs) as he was knocked around in pass coverage.
LG Ben Grubbs counts as $9.6 million cap figure (that is the 3rd highest contract in NFL for LGs) and at age 30, extending his contract does not make much sense given the offensive lines performance in 2014. That’s right, two guards paid at the top 3 in their respective positions. Not good. Annually one of the best O-lines in football, New Orleans ranked 20th in pass blocking but 9th in the run. It is time to move on. Releasing Grubbs saves $3.6 million.
LB David Hawthorne being cut saves $2.9 million. While he was second on the team in tackles, he can be replaced with younger, more affordable talent
DT Broderick Bunkley prior to finishing the season on injured reserve was only playing about 40% of defensive snaps. His release saves just under $3 million.
RB Pierre Thomas took a pay cut last year to stay with the team. New season, same story; his release would open up $1.75 million in cap space.
WR Marques Colston cap figures around $10 million in each of the next two seasons. The long time Saint should be cut as his contract carries too much base salary for most teams to take on. He has stated to the media previously that he would take a pay cut of a “mild nature” to stay in NO. Clearly, the term “mild” can be interpreted many ways, but if he can drop his base salary about $2.5-$3 million, that should be enough to keep him in the ‘Nola.
DE Cameron Jordan is now in his team-exercised option year with a cap figure of $6.9 million. At age 25, he could be a tag candidate next year if not extended and restructured this season.
CB Patrick Robinson was solid but should not be given an offer over 2 years. They could use the secondary help.
RB Mark Ingram should not be brought back as the Saints purge the remains of a once envied stable of running backs.
Currently no centers are on the roster so expect them to take the first center off the board. Reese Dismukes (Auburn) was a 4 year starter. J.B. Grimes, Auburn offensive line coach, told AL.com's Joel Erickson after Auburn's SEC Championship last season. "He's the glue. He holds it all together. [He is] the finest leader I've ever had, tough, smart, fast, quick, strong, balanced, just one of the best football players I've ever been around." While he will not be selected in the first 20 selections, he may not make it out of the bottom of the first round.
The plus side is that RBs, CBs and Guards are available late in the draft, where LBs can be the focus at the top of the draft class. WR is also an amazingly deep position, so they can look to improve here this year or invest in a QB for the future, as they haven’t drafted this high since 2008. QB Brett Hundley (UCLA) would be a stretch as early in the 1st round as the Saints are selecting, but a trade down while retaining a first round pick would allow them to secure either a center or quarterback of the future.
Expect them to make a play for a center, but do not anticipate them breaking the bank for any player. With the cap situation on red-alert, they will not have a ton of room. They will try and find value anywhere they can, however, they will need help at guard, running back, corner, linebacker and wide receiver if all things shake down with restructuring or releasing of current roster players.
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