Coach Sean Payton confirmed Monday that the Saints explored the idea of a unique sign-and-trade deal with an unspecified team to help them fit Clowney's salary under the cap. However, the NFL said such a deal would not be allowed.
The idea was for another team to sign Clowney and pay his signing bonus -- then immediately trade Clowney and his remaining salary to the Saints in exchange for a draft pick. The other team essentially would have been "buying" a draft pick, which the NFL has never allowed.
"We felt like we got close," Payton said. "We weren't able to match the money; and that's one of the challenges each year, when you're going after a player -- what type of place do you have. [General manager] Mickey [Loomis] and [vice president of football administration] Khai [Harley] and those guys did a great job of really spending time with his representation. In the meantime, we had a good visit when we went out to see him.
"And it was one thought, just creatively relative to, essentially, having a team sign a player, take some of the financial burden away from the team they trade him to, and essentially then get a draft pick back."
Payton said the first response the Saints received from the NFL "was very positive; and then, ultimately, they decided against it. So we move forward."
NFL Network reported that the Saints were prepared to send a second-round pick and a player to the unspecified team. However, a source said it never got to the point of a finalized offer, since they reached out to the league for permission first.
Regardless, it is the latest example of the Saints' aggressiveness and creativity when it comes to managing the salary cap under Loomis, Harley, Payton and others.
The Saints are routinely slammed up against the salary cap -- but they continue to retain their own core players and add free agents from the outside by pushing cap costs into future years. Their methods will be put to a serious test next year, however, when the cap could drop by more than $20 million from this year's $198.2 million because of lost revenues from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Saints had less than $7 million in cap space for 2020 before they trimmed their roster to 53 players Saturday. Clowney agreed to a deal with the Titans that was worth up to $15 million, including incentives, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Nevertheless, the Saints dialed up an "all-out blitz" to try to woo Clowney late this week, as sources described it to ESPN's Dianna Russini. A source confirmed that Payton and other staff members traveled Friday night to join Clowney for a private dinner, as first revealed by Clowney's personal chef on Instagram.
A source told Russini that the Saints' final offer was roughly $2 million lower than Tennessee's.