The Saints’ NFL salary cap doom spiral, explained

The New Orleans Saints started the offseason more than $80 million over the estimated 2024 NFL salary cap. With an expected hard cap of $240 to $245 million, that means the Saints are 33 percent over the cap heading into the offseason.

They’re going to need to be under by the start of the new league year on March 13th, which means creating cap space. That’s just going to prolong their problem.

How did the Saints get so far over the cap?

In short, the Saints chased the prime seasons of quarterback Drew Brees in the 2010s, writing checks they knew they wouldn’t have to cash for years. In the words of Mordo in Doctor Strange, “The bill comes due.”

The NFL allows teams to prorate, or spread out, portions of a player’s compensation over five years if it’s given as a signing bonus to a new contract. As an example, if you give a player a $50 million signing bonus, only $10 million will count in the first year with $10 million hits in each subsequent year. If you move on from that player, the cap hit automatically accelerates to the current league year. (That acceleration is known as a “dead cap hit”.)

In 2012, the Saints paid Brees $40 million in total compensation, but his cap hit was only $10.4 million. The other $26.6 million was pushed into future years. In 2016, they paid him $31.25 million but only counted $17.25 million, a $14 million difference. Those are the two largest cap differences in the Brees contract, but they also did the same for multiple other players over the years, creating this rolling debt monsoon. They were always borrowing from future years’ cap space to keep their team competitive with Brees.

Brees hasn’t thrown a pass since the 2020 season, so it shouldn’t matter, right? Wrong.

When Brees retired, the Saints had paid him $22.65 million more in total compensation than they had accounted for on the cap. Whenever he’s not on the roster, that bills comes due, including when he retires. Brees waited until June 2021 to file his official retirement paperwork with the NFL — nearly three full months after making his announcement — in order to allow New Orleans to split the dead cap hit over the 2021 and 2022 seasons.

As the team continued paying Brees and trying to surround him with enough talent to win more Super Bowls, they kept pushing money into the future over and over again, constantly taxing future years of cap space. Then when those other players left due to retirement or release, their cap hits were due, too. So they did it again with the next group of players. And again. And again.

Over the last several years, Brees’ replacements like Derek Carr and Jameis Winston saw their cap hits be pushed into future years, delaying the accounting for them, as well.

As an example, one of the Saints’ largest cap hits in 2024 is guard Andrus Peat. His cap hit is $13.6 million is the 8th-highest and he’s not even on the team. His contract is expiring.

How can the Saints get under the salary cap in 2024?

In short, the Saints need to keep doing what they have been doing to get under the 2025 salary cap. Ultimately, this is going to continue leaving their team thin at certain positions until they bite the bullet. Even doing half-measures, they have to be very selective about who receives contracts.

New Orleans has 55 players under contract for the 2024 season, plus they will need to pay their NFL Draft picks, plus fill out their roster with role players and depth. In the offseason, only the top 51 contracts count but by the start of the regular season, all 53 players on the roster plus the practice squad and reserve lists combined will all need to be under the cap.

The Saints are going to need to hit the restructure button on a bunch of players. Again.

Simple restructures on contracts won’t be enough. In a simple restructure, you don’t extend the length of the contract with void years. You just pay the majority of a player’s compensation up front as a signing bonus and spread out the hit among the rest of the current years on the deal.

Doing simple restructures on every eligible player on their roster will only clear $48.5 million in current cap commitments, so they’re a little more than halfway there. Woof.

Instead, the Saints are going to have to add more of those void years. Void years are fake seasons on the end of a deal to allow them to pay a new signing bonus over a longer period of time, clearing immediate space but adding it to the future. They automatically void the fake years at the end of the last season of the actual contract, hence the term. Whenever that player leaves the roster via release, trade, or retirement, the entire dead cap comes due including the void years.

Cornerback Marshon Lattimore is a great candidate for a void as he’s only 28 when the 2024 season starts. Adding a void year would clear $10 million in 2024 cap space.

The other players at the top of the Saints’ cap hit list are mostly over 30, so restructuring and adding void years is riskier. RT Ryan Ramcyzk, DE Cameron Jordan, LB Demario Davis, TE/QB Taysom Hill, WR Michael Thomas, and SS Tyrann Mathieu all count more than $12 million on the cap in 2024 as of right now. With older players like that, they are more likely to fall off a performance cliff or retire, and a huge dead cap hit for them will throw an even bigger wrench in the plan.

The process for 2024 cap space has begun

The Saints have already begun their annual round of restructures, converting a chunk of center Erik McCoy’s salary to bonus and spreading it out, clearing $7.2 million for 2024 in the process. On Feb. 23, they made the move with Carr, opening up around $23 million in space. Don’t worry, they’ll need to pay that at some point.

They had big roster bonuses on the books for mid-career players like Carl Granderson and Cesar Ruiz, and those will be converted into “signing bonuses” so they can be spread out.

Cutting some of these older veterans might be in their best interests on the field, but the financial ramifications of it have handcuffed them. Accounting for money that’s already been paid to them won’t go away with a release.

Looking toward the future of the Saints’ salary cap

As we discussed, the Saints have also used void years on contracts to spread out the cap hits beyond when the current contract actually ends. The theory behind it is that the cap is always going up, so eventually that pushed cap hit won’t be as large of a burden. The cap just hasn’t gone up enough to mitigate the process for New Orleans.

The Saints’ poor financial outlook continues into the future. They are still well over and top the NFL in cap commitments into the future in 2025 ($47 million over already), so when they push these 2024 cap commitments into the future, we’ll be right back where we started from 12 months from now.

Already considerably over, those void years are going to continue wreaking havoc. The Saints have Winston under contract through the 2024 season, but in 2025 they’ll need to account for $7.3 million in dead cap because they have added three void years to his deal. His contract will void a couple weeks after the Super Bowl in February 2025 adding $7.3 million to New Orleans’ cap commitments in 2025 even though he will no longer be under contract.

The same can be said in 12 months for receiver Michael Thomas, who will count $9.2 million on the cap despite having an expiring contract, linebacker Demario Davis, who will be owed $6.8 million, and safeties Tyrann Mathieu ($7.3 million) and Marcus Maye ($6 million).

The Saints have $36 million in just void year dead cap coming onto their 2025 cap, but the cap is only going up $20 to $25 million. So you can see how it can snowball over and over again each season getting worse.

And that’s why other teams haven’t followed the Saints into the salary cap doom spiral.

The Buffalo Bills are the next team on the 2024 list at $54 million over the cap. They’re in the middle of the Josh Allen window and will be pushing out large chunks of his cap figure into the future in the next few weeks, as will the Miami Dolphins ($51 million over). The difference with those teams is that they are in their competitive window — both of them have made the playoffs each of the last two seasons — while the Saints haven’t been to the postseason in the last three years since Brees retired.

And the prospects aren’t getting any better.

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