Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Fixing the Saints Salary Cap: 2016 Edition

            Thanks to the failed Junior Gallette contract and years of bad free agent signings, the New Orleans Saints once again head into the offseason in salary cap hell. According to the figures available at the indispensible Over the Cap, New Orleans sits about $10 million over the estimated salary cap for next season. So the question for Saints general manager Mickey Loomis—who made this mess in the first place—and head coach Sean Payton is how to clear it all up?

            The good news for the Saints is that next year they only have about $90 million in cap obligations, but that only includes 30 (of 53) players on the roster and does not factor in a new contract for starting quarterback Drew Brees. Taking all of that into account, the Saints financial future looks brighter than it has in the past few seasons. So unless Loomis and the Saints front office screw this up again (a possibility), this will probably be the last year of desperate cuts and renegotiations.

Saints fans hope that Payton and Loomis have a good plan this offseason. 

            There are two strategies the Saints can employ for getting themselves under the cap: renegotiating contracts or simply cutting players and their salaries. There’s a downside to each. Renegotiating the contracts of underperforming players lowers their salaries, but also means you’re still obligated to pay players you admittedly don’t think are very good. The other approach is to cut these underperforming players. While getting rid of bad players is good, you still need to replace them, but since you’re over the salary cap, you have very little money with which to do so. And good replacements generally aren’t available for pennies on the dollar. Every now and then you can hit gold, but that shouldn’t be a key component of your offseason plan.  With all that in mind let’s look at some of the Saints biggest cap hits.

Cap Hit
Dead Money
Drew Brees
Cameron Jordan
Jairus Byrd
Jahri Evans
Keenan Lewis
Brandon Browner
Max Unger
Dannell Ellerbe
Marques Colston
Zach Strief
David Hawthorne
CJ Spiller
Thomas Morstead
Mark Ingram

So let’s get a few things out of the way first, the Saints aren’t cutting Cameron Jordan, Jarius Byrd, Keenan Lewis, or Mark Ingram. Releasing these players would cost money against the salary cap, so that’s not happening. Could those players renegotiate their contracts? That remains a possibility, but Jordan, Byrd, and Lewis all renegotiated their deals last offseason, so they’d need some incentive in which to do so. Jordan and Lewis are two of the best players on a moribund defense, so they’re not going anywhere. Brees carries the biggest cap hit on the team at $30 million. The Saints could release him and get themselves under the cap by about $10 million, but that would leave them without a quarterback. What will likely happen is the Saints will sign Brees to an extension, lower the cap hit by about $10 million and then have further cuts to make. So let’s look at some likely cuts or renegotiations.

Jahri Evans—an unlikely cut as he would only save $1.1 million and leave the Saints without their starting right guard. Although he missed 5 games with injury last year and is on the downside of his career, expect Evans to hang around.

Brandon Browner—another unlikely cut with only $950,000 in savings. Although it may be worth it just so Saints fans don’t have to cower in fear or scream in anger every time an opposing QB throws deep down the field and a yellow flag goes flying.

Max Unger—releasing Unger would free $4.5 million in salary cap space, but Unger was the centerpiece of the Jimmy Graham trade last offseason and anchors the offensive line. He might receive an extension in order to lower his cap hit, but Unger isn’t going anywhere.

Thomas Morstead--$4.5 million is a lot to pay for a punter, especially one who was hurt last year. It’s unlikely the Saints will cut Morstead, but they might ask him to renegotiate his contract down to something more palatable.

Dannell Ellerbe—cutting the aging and oft injured linebacker would save the Saints $4.5 million. Seems like a no-brainer.

David Hawthorne—for a team with a historically bad defense, Hawthorne barely saw the field as the Saints played Ellerbe in front of him. New Orleans will cut him and take the $2.25 million cap savings.

Zach Strief—cutting Strief won’t save the Saints a ton of money and Strief has indicated that he only wants to play for New Orleans. So the two sides could make an agreement to lower the cap hit and bring Strief back to provide some depth on the offensive line.

Marques Colston—this would be the toughest cut of all. Colston is the Saints career leader in most receiving categories and has been a reliable offensive weapon for Brees and Payton since 2006. Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead, however, have passed Colston on the depth chart and a $5.9 million cap hit for a 3rd WR is too high a price for a team like the Saints to pay. 

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