The NFL season is over, but one of its most heated rivalries is going another round. For the past decade or so, the New Orleans Saints have made an adversary of the salary cap and the very idea that they should operate with balanced books or any financial constraints in mind. They’ve often emerged the victor, spending wildly on credit, pushing cost obligations into future years, and—magically, it can seem—keeping the core of a solid roster together for the long term. Watching the Saints do business for the past several years has felt like watching the middle scenes of Uncut Gems, when Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler, doubles down on a risky parlay with the money he gets from selling his black opal to Kevin Garnett rather than pay off his debts. It’s worth noting that (spoiler alert!) the parlay hits. It’s also worth noting that Sandler meets a grisly end before he can enjoy his winnings.
The effects of COVID-19 restrictions diminished league revenue and upped the degree of difficulty required for the Saints and other teams playing a similar game of salary cap chicken. Financial losses meant the end of continued salary cap growth—at least in the immediate term—that teams, reasonably, had come to take for granted. The website Over the Cap is basing its 2021 figures off a $180.5 million cap number, nearly $18 million less than the 2020 salary cap of $198.2 million and an even starker decline considering that the cap had grown by at least $10 million per season for seven consecutive years. New Orleans would hardly be in the black if the cap was higher—the Saints are currently $69.5 million over the salary cap, according to OTC. Even in a league where it’s standard practice to shift money around and spend aggressively, OTC founder Jason Fitzgerald told me the Saints face the most extreme cap crunch he’s ever seen.
“There’s no real thought for tomorrow with them. Everything is live for today and figure out tomorrow, tomorrow,” Fitzgerald said. “The Saints just do whatever you’ve got to do to get under the cap this year and we’ll worry about it next year and the year after that and the year after that. To the extent that they’re at the problem that they’re at right now, that’s in part because of how much lower the cap is going to be, but they were still going to be in trouble this year. It’s not like they were going to be in a good position in any shape or form.”
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis got his first job with the organization in 2000 and became general manager in 2002. Under Loomis, aggressively managing the salary cap—often by pushing money into future years—has been the norm in New Orleans. Take quarterback Drew Brees, for example: Last offseason, the Saints and Brees agreed to what was essentially a two-year contract. That deal, though, had two void years in 2022 and 2023 to spread out the salary cap hit from the deal’s signing bonus. It’s a method of creative accounting teams sometimes use to balance their books in the near term while costing themselves down the line. New Orleans wasn’t flush with cap space last offseason either, so Brees’s contract structure allowed the team to get a deal done without taking on a big salary cap hit up front. The trade-off, which the Saints presumably knew they were making, was the likelihood that they’ll still be paying off those cap charges when Brees is no longer with the team.
In order to get under the cap this year, the Saints will have to release or trade good players. For those lucky teams who have money to spend, New Orleans’s losses can be their gains; they’ll be circling the Saints like vultures to find solid veterans on cheap contracts or to trade at an advantage. New Orleans will likely push money owed on existing deals into future years yet again, though it’ll be at a disadvantage in any restructuring negotiations. It’ll also mostly sit out free agency and stock the back end of its roster with draft picks and undrafted free agents on cheaper deals. It’s become conventional wisdom in the NFL to say that the salary cap can be bent to any team’s will, but the Saints are up against the limit of that practice. And yet, it’s also not clear they should have done anything differently or will in the future. The Saints are a mess and they may not have really messed up.
According to Fitzgerald, the first thing New Orleans is likely to do to clear cap space is release linebacker Kwon Alexander, who was largely ineffective in New Orleans after being acquired from the 49ers via a trade last season. Alexander tore his Achilles in Week 16; if the Saints cut him, they’ll create $13 million in cap space. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown is another likely cap casualty; cutting him can save $5 million. Cutting cornerback Janoris Jenkins would save another $7 million. It’s worth noting that these are good players the Saints probably would want to keep. Sometimes, teams in cap trouble are there because they have bad contracts to offload. The Eagles, another similarly cap-strapped team, recently released wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery who, for health- and performance-related issues, were not part of their plans next season; New Orleans may have to part with good players on reasonable salaries simply because it doesn’t have the money to pay them. In a perfect world, for example, the Saints would like to try to re-sign homegrown defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who had 13.5 sacks last season. They almost certainly won’t be able to.
“I don’t know if it could really be much worse,” Fitzgerald said.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan currently has the highest cap hit on the team at $18.9 million; about $10 million of that can be pushed off into future years. About another $9 million of receiver Michael Thomas’s $12.6 million base salary can be pushed into the future as well, assuming New Orleans feels comfortable with that commitment given its history of drama with Thomas. Thomas has been the subject of trade rumors—another possible avenue for the team to clear cap space—but dealing him would put $20 million in dead money on the Saints’ books. Guard Andrus Peat and offensive tackle Terron Armstead are both restructure candidates, though lengthening the commitment to either carries its own risk—Peat’s injury history is significant and Armstead’s contract already has multiple void years tacked onto it to spread out the cap hit.
As Fitzgerald sees it, it will be hard for New Orleans to keep both cornerback Marshon Lattimore and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk on their fifth-year options in 2021. Both players were part of a stellar 2017 draft class, which also included running back Alvin Kamara, that allowed New Orleans to replenish the roster with cheap talent and cover up some of the cap problems that already existed. Lattimore and Ramczyk aren’t so cheap anymore, though, since both players will earn more than $10 million this season. A team like the Jets or Jaguars, flush with cap space, should be able to approach the Saints with a favorable trade offer since New Orleans will be incentivized to deal one of those players for the cap savings.
All together, those cuts, restructures and possible trades get the Saints in the ballpark of the 2021 cap. There is, of course, the elephant in the room: Brees has yet to announce whether he will retire or come back and play again in 2021. Brees already restructured his contract to make it easy on the Saints should he choose to retire; assuming he waits until June 2 to make his retirement official, New Orleans will carry $11.15 million in dead money on its 2021 book for Brees and $11.5 million for 2022. If Brees comes back, Fitzgerald presumes the Saints would add void years to his contract to spread out the cap hit so that it is no higher than that figure. Should Brees retire before June 2, his cap number for 2021 would be $22.7 million, but that’s highly unlikely to happen. The big picture is a gutted roster and a fire sale with other teams salivating to take advantage. Well, well, well, if it isn’t the consequences of my own actions.
Given all this, one would think New Orleans would take a long look in the mirror. Fitzgerald, however, doesn’t think that will be the case.
“They’re just going to keep doing what they’re doing,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think anybody really ever learns a lesson from these things.”
Teams like the Saints, Steelers, Vikings, and Eagles who, as my colleague Kevin Clark put it, routinely dunk on the salary cap, have made it fashionable to claim that the salary cap doesn’t matter. Fitzgerald’s addendum to that statement would be that the cap doesn’t matter in any given year, regardless of the financial constraints brought on by COVID-19. Teams have learned it’s better to spend now and worry about the future later, especially when it’s so easy to push the bills farther into the future. But the Saints’ situation shows that when that bill arrives, it hurts. They’re not alone, either. The Bills have spent aggressively in free agency the past two seasons, but the year before that they carried more than $50 million in dead cap charges. (It was a helpful reset, though it did price the 2018 Bills out of acquiring a solid bridge quarterback that in turn forced Josh Allen into starting earlier than Buffalo had hoped.) The Dolphins are currently one of the fastest-rising teams in the NFL; a year ago they were paying 15 players more than $1 million to not be on their roster. The NFL’s version of the tank isn’t for draft picks, it’s for cap space.
“It catches up to you at some point. There’s really been no team that’s been able to get away with it,” Fitzgerald said. “Maybe you can get lucky with some of this stuff like the Saints with that  draft class that kind of hid some of the problems that they had; Dallas with Dak Prescott coming in for Tony Romo. That hid a lot of the problems that they had, their cap was a mess and that hid it. Pretty much all these teams go through it.”
Fitzgerald believes it’s unlikely that this offseason will turn the Saints into careful financial planners for two reasons: Old habits die hard and it’s simply not obvious that the pain isn’t worth the gain. Shorter-term contracts, smaller signing bonuses, and cheaper rookie contracts have made it so that even if teams have individual, horrible cap years, eternal salary cap hell is a rare reality in today’s NFL.
“In the past you’d get stuck with guys for a lot longer because of cap reasons,” Fitzgerald said. “I think teams are a little bit better with that now where you just take one really bad year and you’re at point blank then. You’re starting over. You’ll probably get in trouble four years from now but that’s a long time.”
While we were talking, I asked Fitzgerald, half-jokingly, if the cycle of restructures and cap maneuvers just continues forever.
“That’s pretty much what they do!” he said.
The Saints are in a bad spot of their own creation and given the chance, they might do it all over again. This year’s lower cap number brightened the light shining on what was already a visible reality: Sporadic salary cap pain is now the cost of doing business.