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Poor spending decisions have hurt Saints more than cap management

Thanks for submitting your New Orleans Saints questions to me on Twitter. Send 'em anytime @MikeTriplett. Here is this week’s Question of the Week:

@MikeTriplett: This question is in reference to ESPN analyst Bill Barnwell's offseason report card, in which he gave the Saints a D-plus and was particularly harsh toward their salary-cap management under GM Mickey Loomis.

I agree with much of what Barnwell had to say -- though I was slightly more generous with a grade of C in free agency and C-plus for the draft.

Like Barnwell, I was flummoxed by the Saints’ decision to spend such a premium on tight end Coby Fleener ($7.2 million per year) when the defense needed so much more help. I think Fleener will thrive in New Orleans’ offense -- but so would a cheaper tight end.

As for Barnwell’s criticism of the Saints for pursuing free agent cornerback Josh Norman, sure, I think it’s fair to say that followed a somewhat-reckless pattern that hasn’t been paying off in recent years (paying big money for free agents like Jairus Byrd, Brandon Browner and C.J. Spiller).

The Saints deserve as much criticism as you can possibly heap on them for their spending decisions in recent years: Byrd, Browner, Spiller, the Junior Galette extension, previous deals with Ben Grubbs and Brodrick Bunkley, among others. They have led the NFL in “dead money” in each of the past two years because they have cut or traded so many players before their deals are up.

However, I still disagree with Barnwell and others who suggest that the Saints’ salary-cap management itself has hurt them.

More than any other team in the NFL, the Saints keep pushing back salary-cap costs into future years by restructuring or back-loading contracts (i.e. “kicking the can down the road”). And every year they are widely described as being in “salary cap hell.”

But then they just keep spending, because the NFL’s salary cap keeps skyrocketing.

The Saints’ method of cap management has never stopped them from re-signing core players or pursuing free agents they covet.

They just re-signed their second- and third-best players to lucrative extensions over the past two years (left tackle Terron Armstead and defensive end Cameron Jordan). They will eventually re-sign Drew Brees. And whether it was foolish or not, they paid big money for Fleener and were in the running for Norman at $15 million per year.

Even with all that spending, the Saints are on pace to be comfortably under the salary cap by the start of next year.

A lot of people criticize New Orleans for allowing Brees’ cap number to reach $30 million this year. But it made sense to structure his deal that way because the NFL’s cap was only $120.6 million per team when he signed his contract in 2012. Now it’s more than $155 million per team.

The Saints have essentially proven that the salary cap isn’t much of an inhibitor. If they had spent more wisely in recent years, they would probably be praised for it.