Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer 41d

Alvin Kamara, Janoris Jenkins among Saints' looming contract decisions

METAIRIE, La. -- This could be a pretty fascinating financial offseason for the New Orleans Saints.

As we broke down last week, they have zero quarterbacks under contract, with some big decisions to make regarding Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill.

Their stellar 2017 draft class is now eligible for contract extensions -- meaning we could potentially see contract holdouts from the likes of Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore or Ryan Ramczyk.

They have to decide which cornerbacks to keep from a group that includes expensive newcomer Janoris Jenkins, unrestricted free agents Eli Apple and P.J. Williams and high-priced backup Patrick Robinson.

And to crank up the degree of difficulty, the Saints are already slammed up against the salary cap, as usual.

Here is a breakdown of the money matters that matter most.

How much cap space do Saints have?

It’s hard to be exact until the NFL sets the official number for each team and all of the incentive clauses and carryover money from 2019 get factored in. But it looks like New Orleans will begin the league year with about $5 million in cap space.

That’s not as daunting as it sounds, as that projection includes $21.3 million in “dead money” from Brees’ old deal, which the Saints can continue to push back if they re-sign him. And the Saints have plenty of options for releasing players or restructuring deals to free up millions in cap space, if needed.

The Saints have proved repeatedly that they’re willing to push cap costs into future years so they can aggressively re-sign core players and add a few key pieces in free agency. This year should be no exception.

But you can’t help but wonder if New Orleans will ever reach its limit with one of the NFL’s most talented rosters from top to bottom (a franchise-record total of nine Pro Bowlers this season, including alternates).

Last year the Saints signed receiver Michael Thomas and defensive end Cameron Jordan to extensions worth nearly $20 million per year. Now Kamara, Lattimore and Ramczyk could command deals in the neighborhood of $15 million.

How much is Kamara worth?

Although a holdout is possible with Kamara, Lattimore or Ramczyk, Kamara is the only one who is actually heading into the final year of his contract. (The Saints can exercise fifth-year options on Lattimore and Ramczyk because they were first-round picks.)

And it’s likely that Kamara will want some long-term security, considering the type of wear and tear that running backs absorb.

But determining Kamara’s value could be a difficult process. He is immensely valuable to a Saints team that is already low on offensive playmakers. Kamara has averaged nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage per season. He ranked second on the team with exactly 81 receptions in each of his three seasons. And he led New Orleans with 14 touchdowns in 2017 and 18 in 2018 before a surprising dip to six TDs in 2019.

But all teams wrestle with how to approach paying running backs long term. Kamara missed two games with ankle and knee injuries this season and was limited in a few others before he found his stride again down the stretch.

The jury is out on whether it was worth it for the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams and New York Jets to sign Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell, respectively, to recent extensions that were worth between $13 million to $15 million per year. The Arizona Cardinals definitely didn’t get their value out of a three-year, $39 million extension with David Johnson.

And the price might escalate with the running back market about to explode throughout the NFL, with the likes of Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette, Aaron Jones, Austin Ekeler, James Conner, Chris Carson and Marlon Mack due for extensions in the near future.

In some ways, Kamara is as valuable as anyone on that list because of his versatility and role in coach Sean Payton’s offense, which relies on creating and exploiting mismatches.

On the flip side, Kamara doesn’t play as many snaps as some of those every-down backs. He plays about two-thirds of the Saints' offensive snaps while sharing the backfield with Latavius Murray.

Which cornerbacks should they keep?

Lattimore is a keeper after another Pro Bowl season, though the Saints would probably prefer to wait a year before they make him one of the league's highest-paid corners.

The rest of the position is a mystery. Jenkins played well after the Saints claimed him off waivers in December, and he said he would like to stay in New Orleans. But he is scheduled to cost $11.25 million in the final year of his contract in 2020. So the Saints likely would need to restructure his deal, at the very least, if they want to keep him.

It will likely come down to a choice between Jenkins and Eli Apple at the No. 2 cornerback spot. Apple played well early this season before he struggled a bit down the stretch and then suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him in the final two games.

Williams also has battled inconsistency throughout his career, but he seems to have found his best fit as a slot corner in nickel packages over the past two years.

Robinson’s strength is also playing in the slot. But the Saints aren’t likely to keep him unless he takes a substantial pay cut from the $4.9 million he is due in 2020.

Which free agents should they keep?

The Saints have seven starters scheduled to be unrestricted free agents: Brees, Apple, guard Andrus Peat, safety Vonn Bell, defensive tackle David Onyemata, linebacker A.J. Klein and receiver Ted Ginn Jr.

Of that group, Bell and Onyemata would seem to be the top priorities since they have been rising young players over the past two years. However, the Saints did just add potential replacements in their 2019 rookie class with safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and defensive tackle Shy Tuttle.

Peat was a first-round pick in 2015, and he has played well enough as a starting left guard/backup left tackle to be named to two Pro Bowls. However, he also has battled inconsistency. So this could be an area where the Saints decide to save some money. It’s especially hard to imagine the Saints keeping both Peat and veteran backup guard Nick Easton at his scheduled $5 million cost.

Klein has been a solid leader and starter at the strongside linebacker spot. But this is another area where the Saints might choose between Klein and fellow veteran Kiko Alonso. Alonso’s $1.45 million roster bonus is guaranteed. But he will almost certainly need to agree to a pay cut from his scheduled $6.4 million salary, especially since he’ll be recovering from a torn ACL.

Ginn’s production has dropped off over the past two seasons, but he still provides a deep threat and a veteran presence. Whether or not he comes back, a No. 2 wide receiver to pair with Thomas should be New Orleans’ No. 1 priority in free agency or the draft.

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