How the New Orleans Saints can defy the 2016 salary cap

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Sep 13, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston (12) reacts during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Getting Out of Salary Cap Hell

The New Orleans Saints are not expected to be in the best position to influence free agency in the spring of 2016.  As of this moment, they are sitting about $2 million over my projected 2016 salary cap which is based off of recent trends and the expectations of salary cap managers around the NFL.  So they are already in the red before they even get started.

This doesn’t mean that they will not be active in free agency.  They can free up salary cap room easily enough with the expected releases of aged wideout Marques Colston (savings of $3.2 million) and embattled right guard Jahri Evans (whose release would save $1.1 million against the salary cap).

It’s possible that the Saints could roll over some of their unused 2015 salary cap space, which right now sits at roughly $3.7 million.  That would be welcome assistance, though it hurts their ability to hand out futures contracts like they gave to Delvin Breaux, Kenny Phillips, and Tim Hightower this year.

That will be enough to get them under the salary cap restrictions, but they will still need to set aside funds to sign their draft class.  Each draft pick on average should count for $450,000 against the salary cap in 2016, which comes up to a rookie pool of $2.7 million.  This can be gained by restructuring the contracts of some heavily-involved veterans like weakside linebacker Danelle Ellerbe (cap hit of $5.9 million), punter Thomas Morstead ($4.45 million), or inside linebacker David Hawthorne ($4.51 million).

Any of those veterans could also be released, which would save more cash but open up holes on the roster.  For what it’s worth, the Saints would save all $5.9 million by cutting Ellerbe, with $3.25 million saved by releasing Morstead, and $2.25 million by parting ways with Hawthorne.

Many fans are expecting struggling cornerback Brandon Browner to be released after the season due to his poor play (leading the NFL in penalties and passing-yards surrendered in his coverage so far) but the Saints would only save $950,000 against the 2016 salary cap if they go that route.  They would do better to find a defensive coach who will refer to the previous five years of game tape that shows how to use Browner effectively.  The marriage of Browner’s skills with Rob Ryan’s worst-in-the-NFL coaching has been a failure thus far.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Drew Brees’ $30 million salary cap hit.  The Saints will save $20 million if he is not on the roster, whether he is released or traded before the third day of the 2016 league calendar year (March 9th).  His future in New Orleans is tied to Sean Payton’s:  if Payton leaves for Indianapolis, Miami, Dallas, USC, or somewhere else, then Brees could also walk away.

It’s hard to imagine Payton staying in New Orleans without Brees, so the most likely scenario is for Brees to sign a one-year extension to spread out his established salary cap damage.  It’s also not easy to suggest how much money could be saved by Brees doing this, but similar extension-restructures for Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger in recent years have saved about 40 percent of the initial salary cap hit.  A conservative estimate would say that a reduced 2016 salary cap charge would save roughly $12 million for the Saints.

So let’s do some math:  the Saints are currently $1.94 million over my projected 2016 salary cap.  Releasing veterans Colston, Evans, and Hawthorne gets the Saints to about $4.6 million underneath the salary cap.  Restructuring Morstead and Ellerbe gets them to $10 million in salary cap space, which is close to the league standard.  An additional restructure for Brees brings the number to around $22 million.

Next: Holding onto Assets