METAIRIE, La. -- It has become a running joke over the past decade that the New Orleans Saints don’t believe in the salary cap.
That they kept proving it didn’t really exist every time they made Drew Brees the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback or Michael Thomas the highest-paid receiver or Jahri Evans the highest-paid guard or Jimmy Graham the highest-paid tight end or even Jairus Byrd the highest-paid safety. (Hey, they don’t all pan out.)
Unfortunately, the salary cap became a harsh reality for the Saints and other teams around the league over the past year when it unexpectedly plummeted by nearly $20 million per team due to lost revenues from the pandemic. And that forced New Orleans to make some difficult financial decisions, like parting ways with valued veterans Trey Hendrickson, Janoris Jenkins, Emmanuel Sanders, Thomas Morstead, Josh Hill, Sheldon Rankins and Malcom Brown, among others.
But one thing has remained constant: The Saints refuse to let the cap force them into losing their elite core players.
They just made All-Pro Ryan Ramczyk the NFL's highest-paid right tackle with a five-year, $96 million extension, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Earlier this year, they placed the franchise tag on safety Marcus Williams instead of letting him get away in free agency.
Last September, the Saints also signed running back Alvin Kamara and linebacker Demario Davis to expensive extensions, even though they already knew the cap would plummet a few months later. And when it came time to carve out a jarring $111 million in cap space this offseason, they decided not to release or trade any of their most prioritized players (Thomas, Kamara, Ramczyk, Davis, Williams, LT Terron Armstead, DE Cameron Jordan, CB Marshon Lattimore, QBs Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill).
“We’re in the enviable position of having a talented roster -- and when you have a talented roster, you’ve got to pay guys,” said Khai Harley, New Orleans’ vice president of football administration. Harley has been one of the NFL’s most innovative salary-cap pioneers while finding ways to allow general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton to stay aggressive with personnel decisions.
Harley stressed that there is always a long-term plan in place with such decisions, however -- so he has to bite his tongue every time he sees someone criticizing the Saints for “kicking the can down the road.”
“The term often is used like there’s no thought process in it. Like, ‘Hey, we’re just kicking the can down the road and we’re not thinking about the consequences in the future,’” Harley said. “Certainly, the cap going up (most years) is a consideration as you’re doing that. But also your consideration is, ‘What’s the makeup of your team? And where are you at in the life cycle of your team?’
“And certainly the last four or five years we’ve had a very good team that we think is on the cusp.”
The Saints have stayed uber-aggressive by constantly backloading the cap costs on new deals and restructuring old deals to push cap charges into future years. (For example, Brees will still count a total of $22.65 million against the cap over the next two years even though he just retired.)
Many have criticized the Saints for playing with fire with that methodology. And indeed they did get burned this year because of the unexpected cap drop.
But part of the “problem” is that they kept drafting some of the NFL’s most elite players -- like Thomas in 2016 and Ramczyk, Kamara, Lattimore, Williams and Hendrickson in 2017.
And it’s hard to argue with the results since New Orleans has produced the league's best regular-season record over the past four years (11-5, 13-3, 13-3, 12-4) with four straight NFC South titles.
Many other teams have started using some of the Saints’ favored methods this year out of necessity, like adding automatically-voiding years to the end of contracts to spread out cap hits -- most notably their rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who used the method to retain Tom Brady and others from their Super Bowl roster. Even traditionally conservative teams like Seattle and Green Bay made a practice of it. Harley said he didn’t invent voidable years, but he did come up with some creative “firsts” like offseason workout de-escalators and completion bonuses.
Harley, who should be a future GM candidate himself, recently gave a salary-cap presentation at the inaugural Ozzie Newsome General Manager Forum, which was part of the NFL’s effort to increase opportunities for minorities and women in management.
“In general, a basic philosophy is I want to try and maintain as much flexibility to give Mickey and the coaches the resources they need,” Harley said. “When the GM and the coach say, ‘Hey, we want to do XYZ,’ you want to figure out how to do it. I don’t want to be in a position to say that we can’t do something because of the cap.”
The Saints probably aren’t done yet.
They now have nearly $10 million in cap space after Ramczyk’s extension and a recent restructuring of Lattimore’s deal. They could carve out even more if they sign Williams to an extension before the July 15 deadline for franchised players to sign long-term deals.
That should give New Orleans the flexibility to sign a couple more veterans before the start of this season. A big name like cornerback Richard Sherman is not out of the question, though Sherman has multiple suitors.
The Saints will still face two extremely difficult decisions in the coming months, however, with both Lattimore and Armstead heading into the final year of their contracts -- and both likely to command salaries in the range of $20 million per year. Winston and Hill are also scheduled to become free agents next year. The salary-cap should be significantly higher in 2022, with the NFL and NFLPA recently agreeing to a ceiling that could climb as high as $208.2 million per team for the 2022 season.
But if the Saints decide to let any of those players go, it will be because they don’t believe they are worth the asking price (like the decision they made to let Hendrickson leave).
It won’t be because they can’t find room under the cap.