The Saints are already over the salary cap.
With 44 players under contract for next year, the Saints have $155,861,293 in contracts on the books for next season. That’s an issue, considering the cap is supposed to reside around $150 million next season (it could be as high as $153 million).
It’s an even bigger issue when you consider the team needs 53 players. Adding nine players at the minimum salary of $450,000 takes the Saints’ salaries figure up to approximately $159 million.
And that’s before considering what it would cost to sign draft picks.
It looks bad on paper, but there are several ways the Saints can get the overall figure down and create some spending money for free agents.
The easiest way to get under would be to sign Drew Brees to an extension. Considering his cap hit for next season an astronomical $30 million, this move is almost a necessity.
While Brees is a very valuable player, it will be hard to field a team around him when he is taking up 20 percent of the available cap space. New Orleans needs to extend his deal, spread out the hit, and get it down somewhere around $20 million.
The easiest way to do that would be to add two years to his current contract at a value of $30 million. The team can clear enough space to at least move forward by making this move.
The trick would be getting Brees to agree to such a contract. The additional years would be below market value. However, even if it is a little richer, the Saints can structure the deal so the hit is lower in 2016 and gets bigger at the end of the contract.
The problem with this approach is that Brees’ bigger hits would be at the back of the contract when he’s more likely to be in decline.
Signing Max Unger to an extension is another move that should be made, and it would also trim some salary from the cap. Considering the Saints gave up Jimmy Graham to acquire Unger, it would make sense for them to want to keep him in New Orleans.
The center is entering the final year of his contract and currently counts $6 million against the cap.
One thing the Saints like to do with their contracts is insert roster bonuses that can later be converted to signing bonuses to create cap space.
The most obvious candidate for this transaction is defensive end Cam Jordan, who has a $6 million roster bonus as part of his deal. The Saints could drop his cap figure of $12.8 million to $7.9 million making this procedural move.
That would save $4.9 million against the cap this season but add $1.2 million each season from 2017-2020.
Brandon Browner ($2.25 million), Zach Strief ($2.4 million) and C.J. Spiller ($1.55 million) also have sizable roster bonuses that could be converted to create a little space.
The Saints are also going to have to make some difficult decisions this offseason. Some will be made because of performance, others will be cap moves.
Looking at a couple of potential moves, the Saints could clear up some additional cap space by releasing the following players:
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (saves $4.5 million against the cap)
Wide receiver Marques Colston ($3.2 million)
Offensive lineman Strief ($1.24 million)
Linebacker David Hawthorne ($2.25 million)
Punter Thomas Morstead ($3.25 million)
Some of these guys are more likely to go than others, but it would create $14.44 million in cap space if all of them are let go.
If the Saints want to get crazy and open up a lot of space this season, they could designate safety Jairus Byrd as a post-June 1 first cut.
According to the calculator on OverTheCap.com, this would save the team $7.5 million against the cap for the 2016 season.
If the team were to look elsewhere with the idea of saving money, cornerback Browner ($2.25 million) or running back Spiller ($3.25 million) could also bring back some savings.
The downside to making these moves is that it means some dead money would go on the 2017 cap. New Orleans is carrying $14.8 million of dead money into the 2016 season, thanks in large part to the $12.1 million hit owed to Junior Galette.
If the Saints can bring down Brees’ overall number ($10 million), covert Jordan’s bonus ($4.9 million), release Colston ($3.2 million), Strief ($1.24 million) and Hawthorne ($2.25 million), that would create some flexibility.
The Brees move would give the Saints the room to continue operations. The other moves would then create more than $10 million in spending money.
The raw numbers paint a bleak picture, but there are ways out of this situation without compromising much of the future.