The Saints do not have a lot of work to do this offseason.
The road back to the playoffs is more about patching and complementing than overhauling and rebuilding. Add some pieces to the offense, shore up the defensive line, a little depth here and there, and this team should be good to go.
As it stands, the Saints have a little bit of breathing room with a projected $11 million in salary-cap space, but the team can create additional leeway by extending and restructuring some contracts, or by letting some players go.
Here is a look at five decisions the team will have to make over the next few weeks:
Alter Drew Brees’ contract?
The Saints have a decision to make with Drew Brees’ contract.
They can leave it alone, take the cap charge of $33.5 million, and only have $10.5 million remaining on the cap in the form of dead money when his contract expires after the season. The other option is to do something about that high figure and increase the dead-money hit in 2020.
The first step in lowering his cap charge would be to turn the $11.95 million roster bonus that is due on March 16 into a signing bonus, which would allow New Orleans to split the charge between the next two seasons and lower Brees’ number down to about $27.5 million.
The other thing the Saints could do is turn $10 million of Brees’ $11.05 million base salary into a signing bonus, which would spread the hit over two seasons. This would save the Saints another $5 million this season and take Brees’ cap number down to about $22.5 million.
If the team does both of those, Brees’ dead-money hit in 2020 would be around $21.5 million. If the quarterback stays beyond 2019, the Saints could figure out a way to spread out his money so that the cap number spreads out.
“We’ll see what happens,” general manager Mickey Loomis said. “We know it’s coming at some point. We’ve kind of kicked the can down the road a number of times, haven’t we?”
And that's why this one might come down to necessity. There could be wisdom in paying down as much of Brees' contract now so that it doesn't doesn't remain a burden in the future.
Extend Sheldon Rankins?
The Saints have to decide by early May whether they want to pick up Sheldon Rankins' fifth-year option. Considering the defensive tackle is coming off the best season of his career, one in which he finished with eight sacks, it should be an easy decision.
But here is where it gets interesting: Rankins suffered a torn Achilles tendon during the playoffs, which could put the start of his season in jeopardy. Even if it doesn’t, it seems fair to assume that it could take some time before he regains the explosiveness that made him so active throughout the year.
Picking up the option isn’t the question. Perhaps the Saints look into signing Rankins to an extension instead, which was worth $7.154 million for defensive tackles selected in his range last year. It could make sense for both New Orleans and Rankins to reach a multi-year agreement now instead of waiting a year.
For the Saints, they’d almost certainly be getting a discount considering the injury. And while he’d be giving up some money, Rankins would get some security in exchange as he works his way back to full strength.
Lower Andrus Peat’s cap number?
Andrus Peat has become a solid guard for the Saints and a valuable insurance policy who has helped negate the impact whenever Terron Armstead has missed time due to injury.
Peat is entering the final year of his contract and is due to count $9.625 million against the salary cap next season, which gives him the fifth-highest charge on the team, but 12th among guards in the NFL.
If New Orleans sees Peat as being part of its future, then it should try to sign him to an extension to lower his number for this season. One of the things that makes this interesting is that Peat has enough decent tape at tackle that some team might see him as an answer on the outside, which could result in him making more money than the Saints would be willing to pay him to play guard.
It would be hard to move on, because getting rid of Peat would mean having to find a guard as well as someone who can fill in at tackle in a pinch. But if the Saints know Peat will be leaving after this season, they might want to keep an eye on all possible options.
What does the future hold for Kurt Coleman?
Vonn Bell’s emergence last season made Kurt Coleman an expensive observer most weeks.
After signing a three-year deal worth $16.35 million, the safety only played 34.9 percent of defensive snaps. And that number waned as the season wore on. Coleman did not play on defense during a playoff game against the Eagles and then logged only three snaps against the Rams.
Considering his lack of usage, New Orleans needs to figure out if Coleman is worth his $7 million cap charge. If the team were to cut him, $3 million of his salary would stay on the books in the form of dead money because he was given a $4.5 million signing bonus. Coleman is also due a $650,000 roster bonus if he is still on the roster March 16.
If the Saints decide to move on from Coleman, they would need to look elsewhere to provide depth. But Bell took a big step forward this season and appears capable of playing the part after spending his first two seasons serving behind former strong safety Kenny Vaccaro. Bell also surprised the team this year, because if they knew he was capable of playing how he played last season, Coleman would not have been signed to such a big contract.
Start talking about Michael Thomas' future
The Saints need to start discussing the future with Michael Thomas.
New Orleans has never been a team to pay its offensive weapons at the top of the market. Jimmy Graham is the exception, of course, but the tight end was sent out of town a year after earning his deal.
But Graham isn't Thomas. Brees has never had a player this talented catching his passes, and the Saints know what Thomas means to them and respect the wide receiver’s talent.
Thomas is entering the final year of his contract. It would be wise for New Orleans to start conversations early if it intends to keep Thomas, because they could get a better rate by signing him now instead of bidding against other teams on the open market.
Knowing that, would Thomas want to do it now? It wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to seek something in the range of the $18 million per year that former LSU star Odell Beckham Jr. received from the New York Giants. Thomas certainly should get more than the $16.2 million Brandin Cooks is getting from the Rams.
The other interesting thing here is that, at least according to NFLPA records, Thomas does not yet have an agent after splitting ways with his previous one during the season. That could complicate things.