Good news, everyone: multiple reports came out in recent days confirming that the 2022 NFL salary cap is expected to hit the $208.2 spending ceiling previously agreed to in light of fluctuating profits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The league and the players union agreed on a salary cap floor for 2020 and 2021, as well as a ceiling for 2022. And things are on track to meet it before a series of new media rights contracts come into effect in 2023, prompting a real jump in the cap more in line with what we’re used to.
That’s going to carry serious implications for the upcoming offseason, particularly teams like the Saints. New Orleans is currently projected to start the spring over the cap by more than $61 million — more than any other team, but light work compared to the $101 million mountain the team had to descend this year. Still, some tough decisions are in store for navigating it. Here’s your road map for how the Saints can reach salary cap compliance (and then go further, to a point where they can start adding new players):
Current salary cap outlook
A number of high-profile injuries and offseason departures have racked up high dead money and reserve totals for the Saints this year. A lump in excess of $45 million in money tied up with players no longer on the team like Drew Brees ($11.15 million), Janoris Jenkins ($7.2 million), Emmanuel Sanders ($4.1 million), and Sheldon Rankins ($4.1 million) was already tough to deal with, but another $29 million is sidelined by injuries to big names such as Michael Thomas ($10 million), Andrus Peat ($5.6 million), Wil Lutz ($2.96 million), Jameis Winston ($2.5 million), and Payton Turner ($2.27 million).
In other words, $74 million of the $184 million the Saints were allowed to spend this year (north of 40.2%) have been unavailable. So it’s no surprise that New Orleans is under the cap by just $800,000 or so. They’ve had to pinch their pennies tight and work around the clock to find more resources. The fact they were competitive at all this year is remarkable. A new downside, though, is that the Saints will have little to no unused cap space to roll over into the new fiscal year.
As for what the dead money situation looks like in 2022: right now, the Saints are on the hook for over $12.4 million in accounting for former players. Almost all of that is the final hurdle left over from Brees’ retirement ($11.5 million) with another $850,000 left over from Latavius Murray’s release. Going from 24.4% to 5.9% of your cap commitments being tied to players no longer on the team is a game changer, though that number will inevitably go back up once various roster moves and free agency decisions are completed.
CB Marshon Lattimore: Restructure
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We’ll start with the biggest cap hit on the books for next season. Lattimore’s September contract extension was earmarked for a restructure in 2022, converting his $15 million roster bonus and most of his $9.1 million base salary into a new signing bonus to yield over $18.4 million in cap savings. So he goes from a team-leading $27.4 million cap hit ($13.19% of the established salary cap ceiling) to a relatively modest $8.9 million (just 4.32% of the cap ceiling).
Savings: Up to $18.4 million
RT Ryan Ramczyk: Restructure
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Like with Lattimore, the deal Ramczyk signed late in the summer included a sizeable roster bonus ($8.5 million) and very high base salary ($10.5 million) for 2022, both of which will likely be folded up and spread out through a restructure. That would lower his cap hit from $22.8 million, third-highest on the team, all the way down to $8.4 million and cut the percent of cap commitments tied to him from 10.95% to 4.05%. These two restructures with Lattimore and Ramczyk are enough to get the Saints from $61 million in the hole to just $28.3 million in the red.
Savings: Up to $14.3 million
QB Taysom Hill: Restructure
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Noticing a trend? Like the other recent contract extensions the Saints have given out, Hill’s deal includes a roster bonus in 2022 that will probably be converted into a signing bonus, cutting his cap hit by $7.2 million. The Saints are still on the hook for $5.1 million, but that’s far more manageable. It leaves them over the cap ceiling by $21.1 million.
Savings: Up to $7.2 million
RB Alvin Kamara: Restructure
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The Saints haven’t touched Kamara’s contract in 2021, but that should change in 2022. The percent of the cap committed to him nearly triples in the space of a year. A maximum restructure could lower his 2022 cap hit from $14.5 million to $6.6 million, creating enough savings to get New Orleans down to about $13.2 million over the cap ceiling.
Savings: Up to $7.8 million
LG Andrus Peat: Restructure
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It’s possible the Saints could instead look to trade Peat after June 1, 2022 (doing so saves $10.8 million), but another restructure feels more likely. That’s been their strategy with him so far, and it would yield $6.5 million in cap savings. While Peat has underperformed and missed time with injuries, cutting him isn’t an option — it would cost New Orleans an addition $9.2 million if done before June 1, and only help them break even if done so afterwards. A pre-June 1 trade would create $1.65 million in savings while leaving $13.8 million on the books, which is unacceptable. So another restructure is the move here, and it gets the Saints down to $6.7 million over the cap without losing any players.
Savings: Up to $6.5 million
DT David Onyemata: Extension
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Onyemata hasn’t been as effective as in the past since returning from a six-game PED’s suspension, but he’s still the best defensive tackle New Orleans has and extending his contract is a no-brainer. It gives them an opportunity to shave his cap hit from $13.1 million down, saving the Saints $5.9 million and putting them over the cap by little more than $800,000. And they still haven’t had to cut anyone.
Savings: Up to $5.9 million
DE Marcus Davenport: Potential extension
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Two highly-paid Saints players we haven’t discussed are Cameron Jordan ($22.6 million cap hit in 2022) and Michael Thomas ($24.7 million), and it’s almost time to get to them. I just wanted to take this opportunity first to show how the Saints can get under the cap without losing either player. Davenport has been the best defensive lineman on the team when he’s been healthy this year, and the Saints would be smart to sign him to an extension before he, I don’t know, plays a full season in 2022 and sees his value skyrocket (much like Trey Hendrickson did).
A good model would be Josh Sweat’s three-year, $40 million contract with $26.9 million in guarantees. If Davenport is up for signing a similar deal, the Saints could keep him in the fold (at what may prove to be below-market value in a year or two) and restructure his fifth-year option payout to create as much as $6.8 million in cap savings for 2022. That gets the team under the cap, expresses confidence in a player who’s fought through a lot of adversity, and might put the finishing touch on a Jordan replacement plan. A restructure is also possible but it saves a similar amount ($6.4 million) and still leaves Davenport as a 2023 free agent.
Savings: Up to $6.8 million
CB Bradley Roby: Potential extension
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I’ll start off the bat by saying it’s more likely Roby is released and maybe later re-signed, just like Kwon Alexander was, but let’s look at the numbers. Cutting or trading Roby before June 1, 2022 saves $9.4 million and $10 million flat after that date. A restructure with the maximum number of ghost years saves $6.7 million, but a real extension could yield as much as $7.1 million in savings.
He’s worth keeping around if the difference in savings comes down to just $2.3 million between cutting or extending him, and he’s played well enough to hang onto (at the right price). He’s a better dime back than P.J. Williams and could continue to push Paulson Adebo for a starting job if his legs don’t slow down (he turns 30 next year). In this scenario, we’ll extend his contract and keep the secondary a strength of the team.
After all of these moves — and no roster cuts — we’re down to $195.1 million in cap commitments, with more salary cap maneuvers available.
Savings: Up to $7.1 million
WR Michael Thomas: Restructure or trade
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Straight-up cutting Thomas is out of the question. Doing so before June 1, 2022 would save just $2 million, and while waiting until after that date would yield $15.8 million — that comes after free agency, and after the draft, at a point when Thomas would be a real factor in team construction. Even if he’s been a frustrating talent to manage, and even if his decision to put off surgery backfired for all involved, he and the Saints are better off together. They both should know that and come to a resolution.
Still, if they don’t, the team could trade him after that June 1 deadline and save the same $15.8 million against the cap while getting something back for him. But that doesn’t feel likely given how critical his absence proved to the receiving corps this season. Look for Thomas and the Saints to huddle up, settle their differences, and attack 2022 together.
And a restructure would do a lot to help lower his $24.7 million cap hit, which ranks second-highest on the team. Restructuring a big chunk of his base salary into a new signing bonus would create $9.8 million in savings and free up resources to spend elsewhere — like finding him a quality No. 2 receiver to work alongside. In this scenario, that gets the Saints down to $185.3 million in cap commitments and about $22.9 million under the cap.
Savings if restructured: Up to $9.8 million
Savings if traded: Up to $15.8 million after June 1, 2022
DE Cameron Jordan: Restructure or trade
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This might be the toughest decision the Saints make in the offseason. Jordan is the longest-tenured player on their team, with the second-most sacks in franchise history. He’s been voted a defensive captain and is a fixture in the locker room. But his play has continued to regress in recent years, and at his current contract value it’s time to consider moving on.
But don’t expect anything to happen prior to June 1, 2022. Releasing or trading Jordan before that date yields just $1.2 million in savings, while waiting frees up $14.5 million (that could be put towards extensions with younger players). And a trade makes more sense, because Jordan would be welcome on nearly every defensive line around the league. But if the Saints can’t find a good trade offer in return they could cut Jordan and let him choose his own landing-spot.
While a departure feels likely in the spring, we shouldn’t rule out a reworked contract. A restructure saves $8.5 million and keeps Jordan on the team for another year or two. He’s been consistently productive throughout his career to warrant a longer look. If the Saints can create enough cap space with other moves, as we’ve done in this exercise, maybe they find a way to keep No. 94 in black and gold.
Savings if restructured: Up to $8.5 million
Savings if traded: Up to $14.5 million after June 1, 2022
S Malcolm Jenkins: Potential restructure
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There have been some snaps where he’s shown his age, but Jenkins has played significantly better in 2021 than he did in his 2020 return to the Saints. Unless he really falls off a cliff in the final weeks of the season he should be back in 2022, and a restructure makes the most sense. That would create a little over $3 million in cap space, which is comparable to the savings in cutting him outright ($3.8 million). $800,000 isn’t worth losing a team captain and important defender.
With that said, 2023 looks like the likely exit window for Jenkins, who could choose to retire and pursue his other business interests. A 2022 restructure would increase the dead money left behind whenever he does part ways with the team, but not by much.
Savings: $3.06 million
LB Demario Davis: Potential restructure
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Davis is in a similar spot to Jenkins as an aging leader on defense with a cap hit at around $11 million. And the considerations are the same: releasing Davis isn’t an option, at least not before June 1, 2022 (saving only $500,000), given how well he’s played. But he is closer to the end of his career than its beginning, and that’s got to weigh into contract decisions.
Still, a restructure makes the most sense for both parties. That frees up $4.2 million against the cap for New Orleans and gives Davis some more job security. Pete Werner has played well next to him and might make Kwon Alexander expendable, but you’d like to have another young linebacker ready to step up once Davis calls it a career. That hasn’t happened yet.
Cap savings: $4.2 million
K Wil Lutz: Restructure
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Any speculation that the Saints could move on from Lutz and his big contract died when four or five different kickers failed to fill in for him this season. Brett Maher (twice), Aldrick Rosas, Cody Parkey, and Brian Johnson have all struggled to bring any consistency to the kicking game. Assuming Lutz makes a full recovery from core muscle surgery, the Pro Bowler should step back into the lineup in 2022. A restructure would quickly save $1.3 million against the cap, which isn’t much, but as the Saints have shown every dollar counts.
Savings: $1.3 million
2022 free agents
S Marcus Williams (franchise tagged in 2021)
LT Terron Armstead
QB Jameis Winston
LB Kwon Alexander
DB P.J. Williams
WR Tre’Quan Smith
RB Dwayne Washington
RB Ty Montgomery
S Jeff Heath
QB Trevor Siemian
DE Jalyn Holmes
TE Juwan Johnson (ERFA)
DT Jalen Dalton (ERFA)
WR Deonte Harris (RFA)
DE Carl Granderson (RFA)
DT Shy Tuttle (RFA)
TE Garrett Griffin (RFA)
LT Ethan Greenidge (RFA)