At this very moment, 131 players consume a portion of the New Orleans Saints' salary-cap allotment. Nearly half of them are no longer on the Saints' roster, a rare overload of what's known as "dead money" in the otherwise tightly managed world of NFL finances.
Simply put, dead money in the NFL realm is cap space devoted to players who have moved on. All 32 teams have some of it on their books, and only occasionally does it materially impact the process of team building. At worst, it is a symbol of mismanagement and/or failed roster overhauls that can avalanche over any attempt to use cap space efficiently.
The Saints find themselves in that category thanks to an unsuccessful effort to enhance their championship window with quarterback Drew Brees in his prime.
After winning Super Bowl XLIV to cap the 2009 season, the Saints made consecutive early playoff exits in 2010 and 2011. The following year, they backloaded a market-level contract extension for Brees that gave them salary-cap space to improve the team around him in the short term.
Guard Ben Grubbs and linebacker Curtis Lofton signed free-agent contracts in 2012. Defensive end Junior Galette and tight end Jimmy Graham received contract extensions in 2014. The Saints, however, missed the playoffs in 2012 and 2014 and parted ways with all four players last spring, in part to account for the back end of Brees' contract. His cap number has risen from $10.4 million in 2012 to $23.8 million this year. Grubbs, Graham, Galette and Lofton are consuming $24.2 million of cap space in 2015 even though all four are with other teams. The Saints' NFL-leading total of $32.5 million in dead money means they can use only $110.8 million of their $143.3 million cap allotment to build their 2015 team, which is 3-4 through Week 7.
This year, the range of dead money for NFL teams is between $32.5 million (Saints) and $2.4 million (Cincinnati Bengals). The average is $14.7 million.
So if you made it through those numbers, I'm sure you're asking: What does all this dead money mean in a practical sense for the Saints? They're not paying these players cash, after all. They're merely accounting for them on their cap in an era flush with annual $10 million cap increases.
In this case, the Saints' dead money represents the culmination of a credit card approach that will come due this offseason. Brees' contract will balloon into a $30 million cap hit for 2016. The Saints already have $14.8 million in dead money on the books for next season, thanks in large part to a $12.1 million charge for the remainder of Galette's deal, and are projected to be $4.6 million over the NFL's estimated $150 million per-team cap limit.
Instead of being in the comfortable position of having a 37-year-old quarterback under contract for one more year at a reasonable price, the Saints almost certainly will have to make an early decision on Brees' future. If they release him, they'll add another $10 million in dead money to their books. A contract extension would help in the short term but ultimately push his reckoning day out a few years, continuing the cycle that put them here in the first place.
In the end, it's not the actual dead money that hurts the Saints as much as the failed roster management that it represents. No one would care about their dead money totals if it had helped them extend their run as Super Bowl contenders. Rarely does that happen, however. (The Baltimore Ravens, whose $23.4 million in dead money is the NFL's fifth-highest total, were an exception over time before this season.)
It should be no surprise that the three teams with the lowest dead money figures this season -- the Bengals, Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers -- are a combined 18-0. Their low dead money totals mean that the players they've invested in have largely worked out. If they want to sign a veteran to a contract extension, they have the flexibility to structure it evenly to prevent late-ballooning cap hits and future high-wire cap balancing acts.
On the other hand, seven teams have at least $20 million in dead money this season. None of them has a winning record through Week 7, and combined they are 15-31. It wasn't the dead money that got them there. It was the process that led to the dead money. In any event, less is always better.