Saints' salary cap in decent shape as Drew Brees, Kenny Vaccaro lead to-do list

METAIRIE, La. -- It's now Day 2 of the New Orleans Saints' offseason. Has the sting started to wear off yet?

Didn't think so.

But you can add this to the list of reasons to be optimistic for 2018: For the second straight offseason, the Saints should be able to avoid "salary-cap jail" with a list of pending free agents that is very manageable.

Obviously one of those free agents is Drew Brees, but there is little doubt that he will re-sign -- likely on a short-term contract. Even if Brees doesn't offer much of a hometown discount and costs about $25 million in new money this year, the Saints can fit that (and still have room to spare) under a salary cap that could reportedly climb to $178 million this year.

They can't be lavish spenders on the open market. But the Saints can operate in much the same way as they did last offseason when they spent big on two free agents (re-signing defensive tackle Nick Fairley and adding guard Larry Warford) while shopping for some quality finds in the second and third tiers (linebackers A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o, defensive end Alex Okafor, receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and running back Adrian Peterson, among others).

Here is a look at the biggest financial decisions the Saints will have to make before free agency begins on March 14:

Current 2018 cap costs: Estimated around $160 million, including top 51 salaries and "dead money."

That includes $18 million in dead money on Brees' old deal, which will likely be pushed into the future with a new contract. And it includes $7 million for Fairley, whose career is in jeopardy because of the heart condition that was discovered last year. Chances are, that number will be reduced after an arbitrator decides how much the Saints owe Fairley.

Key unrestricted free agents: QB Brees, S Kenny Vaccaro, G Senio Kelemete, DE Okafor, DE George Johnson, CB Sterling Moore, S Rafael Bush, QB Chase Daniel, FB John Kuhn, FB Zach Line, G Josh LeRibeus, DT Tony McDaniel, DT John Hughes, LB Gerald Hodges, LB Jonathan Freeny, LB Michael Mauti.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Vaccaro, who has flashed Pro Bowl-caliber potential (especially the past two seasons) while also battling inconsistency at times. He could draw some big interest on the open market, and the Saints might not want to get into a bidding war after drafting safeties Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams over the past two years. ... No one else on this list should break the bank. Okafor should be a high-priority signing if he's on track to recover fully from his torn Achilles. And the Saints can't let Kelemete get away after he has proven to be one of the most valuable "sixth men" in the NFL over the past few years, starting a total of 23 games at guard, center and tackle.

Key restricted free agents: CB Delvin Breaux, WR Willie Snead, WR Brandon Coleman.

This list is a doozy. A year ago, it felt like the Saints would eventually be paying big bucks on long-term deals to Breaux and Snead when they were two of the team's rising stars. But both seemed to fall out of favor a bit this past summer. Breaux wound up missing the full season with a broken fibula, and Snead played a minor role as the No. 4 receiver (behind Coleman). Since all three were undrafted, the Saints have four choices: offer a one-year RFA tender worth about $3 million that would require another team to give up a second-round draft pick to sign them away; offer a one-year RFA tender worth about $2 million that comes with no draft-pick compensation; try to sign them to a cheaper contract or long-term contract; or let them leave as unrestricted free agents.

Potential salary-related casualties: DT Fairley, TE Coby Fleener, OT Zach Strief, DE Hau'oli Kikaha.

It seems unlikely that Fairley will return, though that has not yet been confirmed. And it's unclear what the Saints' financial obligation will be if he is released from his contract. He was originally supposed to be owed $5 million in guaranteed salary and bonuses this year.

Fleener is owed $6.4 million in salary and bonuses this year -- $3.4 million of which is guaranteed for injury only and is scheduled to become fully guaranteed in March. It seems highly unlikely that he will stay with the Saints unless they work out a pay cut, since his role in the offense has been smaller than expected when he signed a five-year, $36 million deal in 2016. The Saints would still be charged $4.8 million in dead money over the next year or two if they release Fleener.

Strief is owed $4 million in salary and bonuses. But he is 34, missed almost all of last season with a knee injury and his replacement is on the roster (Ryan Ramczyk). Strief is a highly valued leader who could be an ideal backup like Kelemete. But retirement could also be an option. He would leave $1.1 million in dead money.

Kikaha is owed just $1.15 million in the final year of his contract, so he could definitely come back despite battling injuries and a reduced role this season.