Saints could finally escape salary-cap jail in 2017, even if they re-sign Drew Brees

After five years of living uncomfortably close to the salary cap, the New Orleans Saints could finally have some breathing room in 2017 -- even if they sign quarterback Drew Brees to a blockbuster new contract between now and then, as expected.

As of today, the Saints have only $101.5 million in salary-cap costs on the books for 2017, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The cap could be well over $160 million per team if it keeps rising like it has in recent years.

Of course it must be stressed the Saints have only 36 players under contract for 2017. And that list does not include pending free agents such as Brees, left tackle Terron Armstead, center Max Unger and defensive tackles John Jenkins and Nick Fairley, among others. I recently listed Brees, Armstead and Unger as three of the Saints' five most indispensable players. They will all command monster deals.

But even if the Saints re-sign all or most of those guys, their total cap costs likely won't add up to more than $40 or $45 million in 2017. Maybe less, depending on how the deals are structured.

New Orleans also needs to decide within the next month whether to exercise its 2017 option on safety Kenny Vaccaro, which would likely cost between $5.5 and $6 million. And the Saints' 2016 draft class will hit the books later this summer.

But even if you add all of those potential costs together, the Saints should still have $10 million or more in cap space left over -- a number that could grow if they release any veteran players next year, which is typical every offseason.

That would still lead to some "dead money" being left on the books. But the Saints should also cut way down on their dead money in 2017 after they have led the NFL with more than $25 million in each of the past two years.

Dead money is what's left on the books when a player is no longer on the team if he doesn't play out his full contract. The Saints got hit with a ton of it when they traded tight end Jimmy Graham and released linebacker Junior Galette just one year into lucrative long-term deals, for example.

The Saints do already have about $3 million in dead money slated to count against their cap in 2017 -- because of the way they designated former cornerback Brandon Browner as a post-June 1 release and the way they structured Fairley’s one-year contract as a three-year deal that will automatically void in February. But New Orleans should be able to avoid reaching that $25 million mark next year.

The Saints won’t exactly be swimming in cap space in 2017. But they should finally get a chance to come up for air after they've spent most of the past five offseasons finding different ways to push their salary-cap costs into future years.

Their method of "kicking the can down the road" has drawn its share of critics among NFL analysts. But I've been OK with it since it has allowed New Orleans to keep spending aggressively while Brees remains an elite quarterback. And I always figured the Saints could wait to catch up whenever Brees retires.

Now it looks like they might catch up even sooner, which should give them an even better chance to get back into playoff contention while he is still around.