The New Orleans Saints now know how much money they can spend this offseason.
The NFL reportedly set the salary cap at $177.2 million, a rise from last year's mark of $167 million. The only problem is, it will take some time before the team knows how much money it will have to spend before free agency begins March 14.
The two outstanding questions New Orleans needs to answer before things clear up: 1) How much will Drew Brees cost? and 2) Will the Saints receive a credit for Nick Fairley's contract?
As it is now, the Saints have about $36 million in cap space, and another $2.8 coming when Zach Strief files his retirement papers, which looks like an enviable position. That number could drop quickly — and will — once safety Kurt Coleman's salary figures are known.
If Brees is not signed to a new deal by March 14, the $18 million he has remaining on his deal — which is currently set to count $6 million against the cap for each of the next three years— will accelerate onto this year's ledger, cutting New Orleans' available funds in half. A new deal would prevent that from happening.
But it's hard to know what the quarterback's contract will look like because the team often does creative things to manipulate the cap. While Brees' next deal could have an average annual value of $25 million, the Saints might do something creative with the structure to space out the hits and keep his cap number down. It seems safe to assume, however, that at the very least he'll be eating up $17 or $18 million of the cap in 2018, and likely more.
The other big question is Fairley's situation. His case is currently being heard by an arbitrator and remains unresolved. The defensive tackle stopped playing last year after doctors discovered he has a heart condition, and he currently counts $6 million against the team's salary cap. If the case goes New Orleans' way, the team could get some or all of that money back.
Jimmy Graham will soon hit the open market.
So, for now, it remains impossible to know how much the Saints can spend this offseason. Fairley's $6 million would nearly cover the entire cost of linebackers A.J. Klein and Alex Anzlaone this season. Figuring out where things stand with that situation would be helpful in mapping out the offseason.
There are some other moves the team could make to create additional flexibility. Punter Thomas Morstead is due to count $4.85 million against the cap, the highest figure among NFL punters. If the team views him as being part of the future of the organization, it would make sense to sign him to an extension and lower his number.
If New Orleans finds another tight end, it could also look to designate tight end Coby Fleener as a post-June 1 cut to create some funds to sign this year's draft class. That would then create some more flexibility in free agency since it wouldn't have to set aside that cash.
INDIANAPOLIS — The Saints won't know how good this draft class looks until it sets its draft board the second way.
There are also several other small moves that could be made in the coming weeks to clear out the coffers and use money elsewhere.
But depending on how things shake out with Fairley and Brees, the Saints could have anywhere between $15 and $25 million to spend, which makes it difficult to figure out how they'll will approach the offseason.
It also might not make a difference. This organization has always figured out ways to get the players it wants under the salary cap.
Chances are, if there is someone the Saints feel they need, they'll get a deal done.