The National Football League is always busy conducting business: transactions sending rookies and veterans alike to new cities are approved daily, collegiate scouts are constantly visiting campuses nationwide, and salary cap wizards are always plugging new data into their spreadsheets.
As the next phase of the New Orleans Saints’ offseason goes underway, we will inevitably start looking towards the next spring and the changes it will bring. Pro football is a year-round product so it’s natural that we start giving attention to what will happen next year before any of the games have even been played in 2016.
So let’s get started by talking about the salary cap.
Unlike other major league sports leagues, the NFL mandates a salary cap on all of its teams in the name of parity. This works very well to keep veteran talent spread between cities and reward teams that manage their resources effectively.
The salary cap has made unprecedented jumps in recent years thanks to new television broadcasting rights negotiated between 2011 and 2014. For example, the salary cap was set at $120-million in 2011 and was only $123.9-million in 2013. It grew to $133-million after those TV deals were signed, delivering more funds to all 32 franchises, and this year it was capped off at $155.27-million.
We can expect the 2017 NFL salary cap to be set at $169.69-million. The New Orleans Saints are on the books for just over $139.02-million.
With more money funneling to teams from those agreements and others being negotiated with online platforms like Yahoo, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, it’s safe to say that the NFL salary cap isn’t going to level out any time soon.
This is great news for the New Orleans Saints. Big-money contracts handed out to locker room misfits like Jimmy Graham and Junior Galette turned into lethal dead money hits, limiting the team-building resources the Saints have had to work with. General manager Mickey Loomis, a gambler by nature, has seen his problems compounded.
But with the tens of millions of dollars lost to those contracts behind them, the Saints are finally poised to step forward in 2017. They had to creatively structure the contracts for new signees like Coby Fleener and Nick Fairley in 2016, but the specter of “salary cap Hell” is almost in rearview.
I maintain some in-house records and projections to look ahead and see where the salary cap will likely set in future years. I expected it to land around $154.89-million in 2016, but was pleasantly surprised when the league settled at $155.27-million instead. I was close, so I’ve adjusted my projection to hopefully be more accurate in 2017.
From what I’ve found with available information, we can expect the 2017 NFL salary cap to be set at roughly $169.69-million. The New Orleans Saints are on the books for just over $139.02-million. That means that the team has about $30-million in salary cap room to bring back their own key veterans and add a few new faces.
In past years the Saints have had to cut bait with veterans who either cost too much, played at a subpar level, or weren’t healthy enough to warrant a roster spot. That could work again next spring. These names are commonly thrown around as candidates for release because of those exact reasons, so I’ve included how much salary cap room the Saints could vacate by releasing them:
- Safety Jairus Byrd, $3.7-million saved
- Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, $3.2-million
- Offensive Tackle Zach Strief, $2.9-million
- Running Back C.J. Spiller, $2.35-million
Here’s the New Orleans Saints’ upcoming unrestricted free agents (UFAs). Once the new league year starts early next March, these players will be able to sign with any team of their choosing:
- Quarterback Drew Brees, 37-years old
- Center Max Unger, 30
- Defensive Tackle Nick Fairley, 28
- Nose Tackle John Jenkins, 26
- Offensive Guard Tim Lelito, 26
- Long Snapper Justin Drescher, 28
- Kicker Kai Forbath, 28
- Running Back Travaris Cadet, 27
- Running Back Tim Hightower, 30
- Linebacker Michael Mauti, 26
- Safety Jamarca Sanford, 30
- Defensive Back Kyle Wilson, 28
- Defensive Back Tony Carter, 30
NFL teams also have restricted free agents (RFAs) and exclusive-rights free agents (ERFAs). Those designations just mean that a player’s current team has the say in whether or not they can look to negotiate a new contract with another team.
- Defensive End Kasim Edebali, 26 (RFA)
- Defensive Back Brian Dixon, 26 (RFA)
- Fullback Austin Johnson, 26 (RFA)
- Wide Receiver Brandon Coleman, 23 (RFA)
- Wide Receiver Willie Snead, 23 (ERFA)
- Wide Receiver R.J. Harris, 23 (ERFA)
- Wide Receiver Reggie Bell, 24 (ERFA)
- Tight End Rashaun Allen, 26 (ERFA)
- Offensive Guard Cyril Lemon, 23 (ERFA)
- Linebacker Tony Steward, 23 (ERFA)
- Cornerback Brandon Dixon, 26 (ERFA)
Of course, the elephant in the room is the best player in team history. Quarterback Drew Brees still hasn’t signed a contract extension keeping him in New Orleans after the 2016 season. Loomis’ failure to amicably work out these contracts with Brees every couple of years will be rightfully seen as the biggest error of his career. But that’s neither here nor there.
The point is, re-signing Brees or bringing in a new veteran quarterback will cost the team anywhere from $18-million to $23-million per year. If the next quarterback of the New Orleans Saints isn’t already on the roster in second-year draftee Garrett Grayson, that quarterback will be the highest-paid member of the organization.
So where does that put the Saints, besides behind the eight ball? At least on paper, the team looks to have holes on the roster at offensive guard, weakside linebacker, nose tackle, and maybe defensive end. There’s a number of young hopefuls that we’re all hoping can claim those jobs, but it’s totally up in the air right now.
That’s why pro football has such an allure: it is an undefeated reality show that can get us talking about events months and years in advance. All that is certain is that our New Orleans Saints will be in better position to attack free agency next spring than they have since winning the Super Bowl. If they invest well and play their cards right, maybe they can get back to that stage.