Coming off consecutive disappointing seasons, the New Orleans Saints need to make several moves to improve their roster.
Finding players who can help shouldn’t be an issue. For months, the team has been scouting and compiling lists of players who could fit both via the draft and free agency. The targets and wish lists are assembled.
The issue — and it’s always an issue with this team — is finding the money to acquire those players.
The ledger looks tight. The Saints currently have around $10 million in salary-cap space to spend. If cornerback Brandon Browner is designated as a post-June 1 cut this week, which would allow New Orleans to spread the remaining guaranteed money owed to him over two seasons, another $2.25 million will shake free.
If freeing up money is the goal, the best course of action would be to extend quarterback Drew Brees’ contract. That would lower his $30 million salary-cap number for 2016 to something around $20 million, which would give the Saints more than $20 million in salary-cap space.
Barring those kinds of moves, what the Saints could do this offseason is limited.
New Orleans needs to find a way to retain tight end Ben Watson, sign a guard and add depth to the linebacker corps. Maybe a defensive tackle could fit into the equation somehow. But to make all those moves happen, with the team so tight to the cap, it looks like the Saints are going to have to do their shopping at T.J. Maxx and the thrift store. Nordstrom is out of the question.
Or is it?
If a team were starting out with a clean salary cap, with no dead money and no balloon payments looming down the road, it would never be advisable to structure contracts where the payments drastically climb as the deal ages. Such a structure means you’re typically tied to that player when he’s declining, and your maneuverability is limited.
But the Saints are too far in one direction to go back the other way. Where in most places the third, fourth and fifth year of a contract are evaluated by the public to see how it will hamper the team down the road, in New Orleans those things aren’t worried about. This team, for the most part, operates in the now.
Before the 2014 season, the Saints were in a similar situation, tied close to the cap. It appeared they would not be able to squeeze in any marquee free agents and would be forced to shop for bargains. They still managed to sign safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract.
His salary-cap number in the first year of the deal was only $3.5 million. The Saints accomplished this by giving him a low base salary ($1.3 million) and an $11 million signing bonus that prorated to $2.2 million per season through the first year of the deal. The contract also included a $6 million roster bonus in the second season that later was converted to signing bonus, which increases his bonus payments by $1.2 million each of the ensuing seasons.
Byrd’s salary-cap number jumps as high as $12.2 million in 2018, then down to $10.2 million in 2019, but that’s the way the team had to structure his deal to ensure he could fit under the cap.
Roster bonuses like these are a staple of how the Saints do business. Defensive end Cameron Jordan also had a big one as part of the contract extension he signed last year; it was recently converted to a signing bonus.
By doing that, the team essentially splits signing bonuses into two payments and worries about the full scope of the accounting later.
There is almost always a way to game the salary cap in the short term and keep things going. The Saints figured this out at some point as the window for winning with Brees started to close.
At some point, the accounting is going to catch up with them, and they’ll have to pay for all of these moves. In the interim, it’s possible to keep kicking the can down the road and worry about the ramifications later.
That’s how you end up coming face-to-face with Brees’ $30 million salary-cap number and end up forced into a situation where something almost has to happen so the team can field a competitive team around him. The downside is that situation gives Brees almost all the leverage in negotiations, and he would be within his rights to use it to squeeze every last guaranteed dollar out of the team.
What this means for this season: New Orleans can still go out and sign a high-priced free agent. There’s always a way. The Saints might not really, truly be able to afford a cornerback like Janoris Jenkins, who probably is seeking something around $12 million per season, but there are ways to structure his contract to make sure he can sneak under the salary cap.
For guys like that, the team may never have any intention of letting him see the final years of the deal, when those payments start to balloon. At that point, the Saints can approach the player about taking a pay cut, or just let him go. But the latter option almost always means some dead money will stay on the books.
But those aren’t things to worry about now. This Saints team is playing for the 2016 season.
And in 2016, there are ways to bring more marquee names to the table.