The salary cap is fake: A Saints free agency update
If you asked someone how to use a brick, you’d expect them to say something like, “to build with,” right? But what if they came up with a bunch of different answers? Things like, “a canvas for art,” or even, “as a weapon.”
The latter person is obviously creative, and the more answers they can come up with for a simple object, the more likely it is that they’re a genius.
One question football fans, reporters and executives alike are faced with every year during NFL free agency is, “what does the salary cap mean for my team?” If you answer, “the hard limit set by the league’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that governs how much money each team can spend on players,” you’re not wrong, but you are a two-dimensional thinker.
There are many ways to circumvent the cap because it isn’t real.
Just like “the economy” and “Gross Domestic Product,” the cap does not exist in the physical world. It’s a set of arbitrary rules implemented to promote competitive balance. The cap itself – and the rules surrounding it – changes every year. It’s not bound by the unbreakable laws of physics. The salary cap is an abstract concept and as such, it can be manipulated.
But judging by the way certain NFL writers react every year to the Saints’ cap situation, you’d think otherwise. These individuals will remain nameless, but if you follow the team closely, you know who they are.
Saints fans – especially “Saints Twitter” – bristle at cap apologists because their takes are just like every other outsider’s attempt to understand New Orleans culture. In the words of former Saints head coach Jim Mora, “You think you know, but you don’t know. And you never will.”
Or, to quote the current head coach: outsiders should worry about their own frickin’ meat.
Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and his cohort of cap experts learned how to subvert the cap years ago. The cap will never be an obstacle to the Saints’ success. It’s simply a puzzle to be solved.
The pieces usually involve a restructure here, a cut there. Perhaps the most relevant bit of cap knowledge as it pertains to the Saints is that by turning a portion of a player’s contract value into a cash signing bonus, the cap charge can be prorated over the remainder of their contract.
Essentially, if the team has the cash on hand, they can pay the player a chunk of their salary at once and lower their cap figure for the rest of their contract. The catch is, this lowered figure stays on the books if that player is released or traded. This is commonly referred to as “dead money.”
The Saints have been doing this for nearly a decade. Too much dead money? No problem, keep restructuring contracts. They keep kicking the can down the road and have yet to pay the piper. In fact, unless the CBA changes, they will never pay the piper. There might be offseasons like 2021 where things get tight and creativity is necessary, but there will never be a magic year where dead money, signing bonus conversions and voidable years all cease to exist.
There has been some bloodletting this offseason because the COVID-19 pandemic caused financial problems for the league and lowered the cap, but the Saints will find a way to keep their most important pieces in New Orleans and remain competitive.
The true believers always knew there would be a flurry of roster moves to get in compliance with the 2021 cap, which is $182.5 million. Everyone gasped when it became known that the Saints were, at one point, more than $100 million over the cap, but the front office has known this day was coming. Loomis has probably been sitting on his magical cap to-do list for months.
The negative attention the Saints received for their cap situation is grossly unfair. It took a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic to reverse the growth of league revenue and thus, the salary cap. No one could have predicted this, and it made things look worse than they really are.
But where there’s a Loomis, there’s a way. One day away from the start of the new league year, the Saints are nearly cap-compliant. Here’s what they’ve done so far:
QB Drew Brees – Reduced his salary to the league minimum of $1.075 million before he retired on March 14. Saved nearly $24 million.
WR Michael Thomas, QB/WR/Whatever Taysom Hill, S Malcolm Jenkins, K Wil Lutz, DT David Onyemata, LB Demario Davis, DE Cam Jordan and OG Andrus Peat all re-worked their deals to save about $45 million. Reportedly, a restructure of LT Terron Armstead’s contract is imminent.
OG nick Easton – Saved $5.8 million.
TE Josh Hill – Saved $2.5 million. Has already agreed to a deal with the Detroit Lions.
TE Jared Cook – Saved $9 million. He’s about to turn 34 and he fumbled away the Divisional Round game to Bucs. Sayonara!
P Thomas Morstead – Saved $2.5 million. This was tough. Though Morstead didn’t have his best statistical year in 2020 and the writing was on the wall with Blake Gilliken stashed on IR, Morstead played a critical role in winning Super Bowl XLIV. The “Ambush” onside kick will go down as one of the greatest plays in franchise history. And who doesn’t love a player who embraced New Orleans like Morstead?
WR Emmanuel Sanders – Saved $4 million. Sanders is old, but he was the Saints’ leading receiver in 2020. His production will need to be replaced.
CB Janoris Jenkins – Saved $7 million. This one really hurts. He formed one half of what has arguably been the Saints’ best CB tandem…ever. Suddenly, finding a starting CB becomes a “must” on the Sean Payton “Musts, Needs and Wants” scale. The rumor mill has linked the Saints to veteran CB Richard Sherman.
LB Kwon Alexander – Saved $13 million. Alexander was a good player who instantly brought energy to the defense after he was acquired in a midseason trade, but his torn Achilles means he won’t be healthy for a while. I think he’s the most likely candidate to return on a cheaper deal.
There are some big names on that list, but these are all players on the back end of their careers. The decision to franchise safety Marcus Williams indicates that the Saints are not willing to settle for a rebuild. They’re going to keep the young core together – players like Williams, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyck. Long-term extensions are likely coming for Lattimore and Ramczyck, which will create even more space.
The front office was always going to have to make some tough decisions, but the fact remains that the Saints will not settle for blowing it up. Loomis said as much in a SiriusXM interview on Monday:
As of Monday night, the Saints have already crossed one massive item off their to-do list: re-signing QB Jameis Winston to a one-year deal worth up to $12 million, but which will only count about $2.5 million against the cap in 2021. He’ll compete with Taysom for the starting job.
Next, the four areas they’ll likely focus on are cornerback, linebacker, wide receiver and the defensive line, which is perhaps the most urgent position of need. Rookies on the D-line tend to take time to develop, so I would expect the Saints to explore their options in free agency with the departure of Trey Hendrickson – who just agreed to a 4-year, $60 million deal with the Bengals – and the expected departures of tackles Sheldon Rankins, who’s battled injuries the past two seasons, and Malcom Brown, who has reportedly been traded to the Jaguars.
Despite what cap nerds will have you believe, the Saints will be aggressive in targeting players they like or want to keep. The cap situation around the league will be fascinating to watch, as not every team has a cap guru like Loomis and there will be good veteran players available for less because franchises will be unable or unwilling to spend, given the league’s financial uncertainty.
There could be a number of available and affordable veterans in positions of need. If the Saints can replace some of the depth they lost in the great cap squeeze of 2021, it will free them to draft the way they like: take the best player available, regardless of position.
If I were a betting man, I’d wager that the Saints will be looking to backload contracts and bet that the salary cap will jump significantly in 2022 and beyond, given full(er) stadiums and new TV deals.
I do know one thing for sure: the cap nerds and “concern trollers” will lose. Make It Happen Loomis.