The New Orleans Saints currently sit a bit more $20 million over the salary cap [editor’s note: moments ago a Jairus Byrd bonus conversion has trimmed this number by $4.8 million]. It’s been trendy to label their financial situation as “a mess” and assert that they are currently experiencing “salary cap hell“. There is no question they are limited in what they can spend and some trimming must be done to be in compliance with the league imposed maximum. But assuming they are in no position to improve the roster would be incorrect. Of course there is less margin for error, so the need to hit on free agents and draft picks is heightened. It is important to remember that general manager Mickey Loomis (pictured) is an expert at managing the cap, with his background in accounting. The Saints have a plan in place and Loomis will execute it. Like any team that has success, eventually you have to invest heavily in those players that helped you succeed (Drew Brees, Jahri Evans, Jimmy Graham to name a few).
Last offseason you’ll remember the Saints cap situation was even worse. At the time they released aging vets Will Smith, Roman Harper, Lance Moore and Jabari Greer – while trading away Darren Sproles. But just when everyone assumed they wouldn’t be a player in free agency, they gave Jairus Byrd the richest deal in NFL history for a safety (at least until Earl Thomas earned that distinction weeks later). Byrd was largely viewed at the time as the best free agent on the market. So while the Saints were limited, they were still able to add a player that many teams would have been desperate to land. Unfortunately for the Saints, Byrd spent most of 2014 on injured reserve and that coupled with a mediocre draft class led to the team struggling in 2014. But to suggest they can’t navigate through this to field a competitive team is misguided.
There will be some hard decisions to make this offseason, much like a year ago. The Saints have already said goodbye to Pierre Thomas in a move that will save them ~$1.5 million. There’s also rumors they are shopping some of their best defenders in Curtis Lofton and Junior Galette, both of who carry exorbitant 2015 cap figures. Beyond these roster moves, the Saints can easily create $15 million in cap space fairly quickly simply by turning a couple of roster bonuses into signing bonuses. Mike Triplett of ESPN does a good job of explaining exactly how they do this, as does Nick Underhill of the Advocate. That would put the Saints at even with the cap. Now of course they’ll still need to create space to sign free agents, retain their own, and sign draft picks. But tweaks in their current salaries will immediately fix the overage. And they can do this without parting ways with any players.
Beyond that, how else can the Saints create some space?
Two contracts of underperforming players that immediately come to mind are those of LB David Hawthorne and DT Brodrick Bunkley. Releasing those two players would give the Saints roughly ~$6 million in cap space. In addition to this, the team is currently in negotiations with both Marques Colston and Jahri Evans to re-structure their deals so their cap hits are not nearly significant.
The Saints will have cap space to be players in free agency despite their currently misleading cap number. Like last year, though, the team can’t afford any mistakes in their investments if they want to give Drew Brees a shot at returning to glory in the latter stages of his career.