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Saints offseason preview: So much work just to get under the salary cap

saints-offseason-preview:-so-much-work-just-to-get-under-the-salary-cap
Saints offseason preview: So much work just to get under the salary cap

It has become an annual rite of spring, a challenging feat of salary-cap wizardry, figuring out how the New Orleans Saints will get themselves back under the salary cap for the start of the new year.

It’s not unusual for teams to be over the cap in an offseason, but the Saints are incredibly high this year, about $83 million over, which is at least $30 million worse off than any other franchise trying to get back under in the next month.

It can be done, as the Saints have shown in recent years, annually getting their books right largely by borrowing cap space from future seasons. They’re not alone in that strategy — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for instance, borrowed heavily to maximize their window of trying to win with Tom Brady, and are still paying for that.

Before we get into the Saints’ offseason ahead and the potential cap moves they’ll need to make just to get under the cap, we should talk about “dead money” — that’s cap space devoted to players no longer under contract. If you cut a player who has received a bonus pro-rated for cap purposes, the team takes on dead money. If you use void years to lessen the initial cap impact, you pay the price with dead money when that contract expires.

The Saints had a manageable $35 million in dead money in 2023 — about 15 percent of the salary cap, but a necessary evil the way they’ve attacked the salary cap. Right now, they’re on the books for $28 million in dead money for 2024 from expiring contracts, but that could get much, much higher. If tackle Ryan Ramczyk has to retire due to a lingering knee injury, that would mean $35.4 million in dead money, though the Saints can designate that as a post-June 1 move, which would split the damage between $16.5 million this year and $18.8 million in 2025. They would also shed his $17 million non-guaranteed salary for 2024, so the move frees up a much-needed $10.5 million this year, though at 2025’s direct expense.

To get under the cap in past years, the Saints have had to use void years, or dummy years added to a contract to lower the initial cap impact. It’s an interest-free loan for cap purposes, but it’s the NFL equivalent of maxing out your credit cards. New Orleans now has 10 players with at least $5 million in unavoidable dead money hitting the cap when their contracts expire. Add up all the dead money (19 players in all) and the Saints have $135 million in dead money on current contracts, more than half a year’s salary cap already borrowed from future seasons. That figure cannot be lessened in any way, just pushed down the road.

The Saints have been here before and worked it out, though the process of doing so also ties them to players longer than they might otherwise want. Running back Alvin Kamara has played his entire career with the Saints, and while he made the Pro Bowl in each of his first five seasons, he hasn’t in the past two. After averaging 4.6 yards per carry or better in each of his first four years, he’s been at 4.0 or lower in each of the last three. He’s due to make $11.8 million in 2024, but moving on from him means taking on $17 million in dead money from previous restructures.

Consider defensive end Cameron Jordan, a future Hall of Famer who’s also played his entire career in New Orleans. He also turns 35 in July, and his sack totals have gone from 12.5 in 2021 to 8.5 in 2022 to 3.0 this past season. If he were to retire, it would mean $36 million in dead cap — impossible for the Saints this year -— but not only is his 2024 salary guaranteed, if he’s on the roster March 16, his 2025 salary of $12.5 million also becomes guaranteed.

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The cap debt is bad enough they’ll need to not only restructure with older players, but do so with new void years, perpetuating the problem. Take quarterback Derek Carr, due to make $30 million in base salary: You convert that to a $1.2 million base salary and a $28.8 million bonus that can be spread out for cap purposes. Add another void year and you’ve created $23 million in cap space for 2024, but it also means you’re probably tied to him as your quarterback in 2025, because moving on from him after this season would mean $40 million in dead money.

Here we are, 800 words into an offseason preview, and we haven’t mentioned any possible additions, just navigating the cap between difficult cuts, undesirable restructures and even potential trades. The good news? The Saints don’t have any significant free agents to worry about — the offensive line is due for changes, and Andrus Peat and James Hurst are among their biggest names entering free agency, along with part-time defensive players like defensive back Isaac Yiadom, linebacker Zack Baun and defensive lineman Malcolm Roach.

The Saints have the 14th pick in this year’s NFL Draft, and the obvious positions to address are edge rusher and offensive tackle. New Orleans ranked in the top 10 in sacks six straight years from 2017-22, but dropped all the way to a tie for 28th last season, finishing with 34 sacks, 14 less than the year before. With a strong offensive tilt at the top of the draft, it’s possible a solid pass-rusher could fall to New Orleans — FOX Sports’ Rob Rang had the Saints taking Alabama’s Dallas Turner at 14 in his latest mock draft, as just the second edge off the board.

New Orleans is hopeful that former first-round pick Trevor Penning can fill one of the tackle spots, but they don’t have as much in the way of second-day picks to find another starter. They have Denver’s second-round pick (45th overall) from the trade that sent Sean Payton to the Broncos, but they don’t have their own second-, third- or fourth-round picks from previous trades. They’re in line to get three compensatory picks — a fourth and a pair of fifths, most likely — but those are likely helping with depth and not starters.

The expected addition of 49ers assistant Klint Kubiak as the new offensive coordinator could result in some personnel shifts on that side of the ball — San Francisco is also limited from a cap standpoint, but doesn’t have many free agents on the offensive side. Kubiak could turn to previous stops in Denver (2022) or Minnesota (2019-21) for help with familiar depth — someone like Vikings tackle Oli Udoh, who missed most of 2023 with a quad injury but was a starter under Kubiak in 2021.

You’ll see receiver listed as a prominent draft need for the Saints, and while they will likely move on from Michael Thomas, they have a good young 1-2 in Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed and a young receiver they like in A.T. Perry, so it’s unlikely to be a match for their top pick, but rather something where they can take advantage of the depth of this year’s receiver class on the third day.

As much as anything, the Saints must find a way to get younger, having lined up as the NFL’s oldest team in 2023. One way to combat the cap issues they will continue to deal with is to find functional depth through the draft — players on rookie contracts are generally the least expensive players on the roster, so it means hitting on more late-round picks and undrafted gems like Shaheed. Eventually, successors to veterans like Demario Davis and Tyrann Mathieu will need to be found, ideally with an overlap to learn from the players they’ll need to later replace. 

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.


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