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Saints' burning questions: Potential cap casualties

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints have several major roster decisions to make before the start of the new league year and free-agent signing period on March 10. For starters, they must trim somewhere between $20 and $30 million in salary-cap space (most of which will be accomplished by converting roster bonuses into signing bonuses).

Here’s the latest in a series of 10 of the most burning questions the Saints have to answer:

The question: Who are the potential salary-cap casualties?

The answer: I’ve already broken down a few guys who could be in line for pay cuts or possible releases: receiver Marques Colston (likely pay cut); guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs (likely safe -- especially Evans), and cornerback Corey White (possible release).

Here are some others, with where they fall on that sliding scale:

DT Brodrick Bunkley (likely to be released): Bunkley is due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses. The Saints could save $2.9 million against the cap by cutting him -- or all $4.5 million if they designate him as a post-June 1 release and push some of the cap costs to 2016.

Last season, the Saints worked out a substantial pay cut with Bunkley to keep him in New Orleans, so that remains a possibility again. But I think it’s even more likely that they release the 31-year-old, who has been a solid run-stuffer in a part-time role -- but nowhere near as impactful as the Saints expected when they signed him to a five-year deal in 2012 worth between $22.5 and $25 million.

Bunkley’s season ended early last year with a quadriceps injury suffered in November.

LB David Hawthorne (likely to be released or accept pay cut): Hawthorne is due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses, including a $2.5 million roster bonus. The Saints could save $3 million against the cap by cutting him -- or all $4.5 million if they designate him as a post-June 1 release.

Hawthorne, 29, has been decent while playing about 70 percent of the Saints’ snaps over the past two seasons as a starting inside linebacker -- the highlight coming when he had three sacks against the Chicago Bears in Week 15 last season. But like Bunkley, he hasn’t lived up to the big contract he signed in 2012.

Whether they keep Hawthorne, the Saints need to find a younger athlete who can cover more ground in the open field and drop back in pass coverage.

LB Curtis Lofton (likely to stay at current price): Lofton, 28, is due $7 million in salary and bonuses, including a hefty $4.5 million roster bonus. That’s a lot, but Lofton was one of the few defensive players who actually lived up to his contract last season as both a thumper in the run game and a valued leader/captain/quarterback of the defense. He wasn’t perfect, with some limitations in pass coverage and missed tackles, but his 144 tackles ranked fourth in the NFL.

It’s possible the Saints will approach Lofton about a pay cut. If not, they will certainly convert his roster bonus into a signing bonus to save $2.25 million against the cap.

RB Pierre Thomas (likely to stay at current price): Thomas, 30, is due $2.15 million in salary and bonuses, which is borderline for a part-time player. But he’s been one of the most valuable role players in the entire Sean Payton-Drew Brees era as a runner/receiver/pass protector, and he already took a small pay cut last year. Plus, the Saints will need Thomas even more if they don’t re-sign leading running back Mark Ingram, who is an unrestricted free agent.

S Rafael Bush (likely to stay at current price): Bush, 27, is due $1.95 million in the final year of his two-year contract. He’s likely to stay since the Saints valued him enough to sign him to the deal last offseason. But he fractured his lower leg late last season, which could give the Saints a little pause. Bush should at least get to show where he’s at in training camp.

TE Benjamin Watson (likely to stay at current price): Watson, 34, has been about what the Saints expected as a part-time pass catcher, above-average blocker, and locker-room leader since they signed him in 2012. But he’s worth mentioning on this list because he is due $1.5 million in salary and bonuses, all of which could be saved against the cap if he’s released.