Will 'playing with fire' finally burn Saints when salary cap plummets?

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METAIRIE, La. -- If the New Orleans Saints have taught us anything over the past decade, it’s that the salary cap is never as daunting as it seems.

General manager Mickey Loomis and vice president of football administration Khai Harley have become masters of pushing cap costs into future years -- a practice that has worked out for them while the NFL’s cap has continued to soar by more than $10 million per year in the past seven years.

The 2020 salary cap is $198.2 million per team. But because of lost revenues from the coronavirus pandemic, the NFL's 2021 cap could plummet to as low as $175 million per team -- which means New Orleans might now be facing the most difficult challenge of any team in the league.

Not only are the Saints already on the books for $243 million in cap costs for 2021 -- the second-highest total in the league behind the Philadelphia Eagles, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- but they also need to save room for upcoming extensions with stars such as running back Alvin Kamara, linebacker Demario Davis, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, and offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead, among others.

If quarterback Drew Brees retires after this season, that would save the Saints at least $13.5 million against the cap. But they would still need to account for $22.65 million in “dead money” over the next year or two because of the way they pushed Brees’ cap hits into future years.

And they might have to spend more money to replace Brees if they aren’t convinced Taysom Hill is the answer.

“Well, it's never easy,” Loomis said with a laugh. “And having a lower number next year -- significantly lower next year -- will make it more difficult, no question about it. But look, we'll handle that. We’ll manage it.

“And we don't know what that number is going to be. The way we understand, that [$175 million figure] is just the floor for next year, and we'll see what the results are for this year before that number is determined for next year. But look, I'm confident we can handle and be able to manage our roster under whatever cap we have."

So far, Loomis and coach Sean Payton said the decreased cap has not affected any of their decisions, such as whether to re-sign a current player to a long-term extension or add another high-priced free agent heading into this season. But those decisions will get increasingly difficult now.

The Saints can definitely make the math work -- in the short term, anyway. For starters, the NFL’s cap may indeed go higher than $175 million per team, with lucrative new revenue streams on the horizon from TV deals and legalized sports gambling partnerships.

Plus, the Saints could potentially carry over between $5-10 million in unused cap space from this season if they don’t wind up spending it before the year is up.

Last but not least, the Saints could save another $50 million-plus against the 2021 cap through methods they have used for years -- such as converting salaries into signing bonuses and adding automatically voiding years to the end of deals.

The problem with that, however, is that their cap charges would skyrocket in 2022 and beyond. And it’s unclear when the NFL’s cap will rise back to current levels, since the league and the NFL Players Association have agreed to spread out this year’s revenue losses over four seasons.

“The thing about the cap is you can always get under the cap for the most part. But what is your tolerance?” said former NFL agent and front office executive Brodie Waters, now a consultant who runs ESPN’s Roster Management System. “They’ll really have to understand, ‘What is ’22 going to look like?’”

Waters, however, has no problem with the way the Saints have managed their cap over the past decade – even though most teams prefer a more balanced approach and some critics have accused the Saints of just “kicking the can down the road."

“Yeah, they were playing with fire -- but not without a plan,” Waters said. “It’s hard to argue with their strategy. You can have all these teams and experts saying, ‘You can’t keep doing that, you can’t keep doing that.’ But in a lot of ways New Orleans is one of the teams you would envy around the league.

“Granted, they’ve got a Hall of Fame quarterback. But they’re in contention every year. And if there’s a way to do what they’re doing and you can be in contention every year for a decade and still come out of it without a complete blow-up, I would think that would be a model every team would want to do.

“It wasn’t foolproof, for sure, though. I do think they hedged on the fact that the acceleration of the cap growth was going to allow them to do this. And I think now this presents a pretty significant challenge.”

Former NFL general manager and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum agreed on both fronts.

Tannenbaum said the reduced cap could force the Saints into some tough decisions next year, but he is confident they can find a way to keep a handful of players they feel are essential.

He also believes they have done a “really good job” managing the cap during the Loomis-Payton-Brees era, “when you think about how they’ve kept the window open for a number of years.”

“Those are great problems to have when you have [to pay] really good players like Drew Brees and Michael Thomas,” Tannenbaum said. “They’ve been disciplined to know which guys they can keep. And to take it a step further, they’ve actually been opportunistic where it relates to adding [free agents such as Davis, Jared Cook, Emmanuel Sanders and Malcolm Jenkins].

“You could say they were bailed out by the rising cap. But the other way to say it is, look, they had very good strategic planning.”

Loomis, Harley, Payton, personnel vice presidents Terry Fontenot and Jeff Ireland and others will have to be as sharp as they have ever been, though, in the coming year or two.

Kamara and Davis are both in the final year of their current contracts; Lattimore, Ramczyk and Armstead are signed through 2021.

The tackles should be the most expensive, since Laremy Tunsil just set the OT market at $22 million per year. Ramczyk could threaten that number because he is still just 26 and was just named first-team All-Pro. Armstead might be slightly cheaper since he is 29 and has a longer injury history.

If Lattimore continues to prove he is among the league’s elite cornerbacks, he could cost $17 million or more per year (Darius Slay just set the market at $16.83 million). Davis is 31, so he probably won’t cost as much as Bobby Wagner's $18 million per year. But if he has another first-team All-Pro season, he won’t come at much of a discount. Kamara’s value should fall somewhere between Christian McCaffrey's $16 million per year and Derrick Henry's $12.5 million.

New Orleans will also need to decide whether to re-sign pending free agents like Cook, safety Marcus Williams and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins; and whether to keep mid-priced veterans like offensive lineman Nick Easton and defensive tackle Malcolm Brown.

But Tannenbaum and Waters agree that the question the Saints need to answer first and foremost is what they will do at quarterback.

If Brees decides to stay for a 21st season in 2021, his cap number will be $36.15 million (though the Saints could lower that by tacking on another voidable year or two).

If he retires, that creates a whole different dilemma.

Would they stick with Hill, who just signed a two-year, $21 million extension this offseason? Re-sign Jameis Winston, who will likely cost a heckuva lot more than the one-year, $1.1 million deal he signed this year? Consider another free agent? Get aggressive in the draft? Some combination of those options?

For years it seemed like the Saints would get a chance to “catch up” on their cap whenever Brees retired -- assuming they would probably need a year or two to rebuild their roster with a cheaper developmental quarterback. But since they have had so much success in the draft in the past few years, they have actually built one of the NFL’s most loaded rosters -- which should keep them in Super Bowl contention even after Brees is gone.

As Tannenbaum said, that’s one of those “good problems” to have.