Blown Up on the Bayou: How the Saints Ended Up in Salary-Cap Hell

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Things haven’t gone as planned for the New Orleans Saints this season. They might very well still end up in the place they were planning to land — atop the NFC South — but nobody could have imagined they would take this path to get there. At 5-8, it has been a wildly disappointing campaign for one of the preseason Super Bowl favorites. That came to a head this week, when Sean Payton responded to the team’s fourth consecutive loss at home,1 a 41-10 shellacking by Carolina, by releasing reserve wideout Joe Morgan and benching safety Kenny Vaccaro,2 the team’s 2013 first-round pick.

The second-year safety was at the core of what was supposed to be the most improved aspect of this team. Vaccaro, who impressed as a rookie before suffering a broken ankle in Week 16 last season, was shockingly joined at safety by former Bills Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd, arguably the highest-rated defensive player available at the beginning of free agency. Even though the Saints were only a few million dollars under the salary cap and hadn’t yet resolved the contract status of star tight end Jimmy Graham, the Saints gave Byrd a six-year, $54 million deal in hopes of forming the league’s best safety tandem east of Seattle.

It didn’t work. Byrd was wildly disappointing before going on injured reserve with a torn meniscus in early October, often disappearing against the run while failing to pick up any interceptions. Vaccaro didn’t fare much better, as we saw when Jonathan Stewart ran right by his vacated edge for a 69-yard touchdown last week.

Free-agent signings fail and impressive rookies disappoint, but this has been particularly egregious for the Saints because of how they financially leveraged this season. The Saints were about as all in to win in 2014 as a team can be, given how they structured the deals of Byrd and a number of other high-priced veterans on their roster. That would have been fine by Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis if it had delivered a title, but instead, there’s a good chance next year’s Saints team will have less talent than this one. A lot less.

The Cap

The 2015 Saints already have $160 million committed to their cap. That’s without new deals for several starters who will be unrestricted free agents, including Mark Ingram, Jonathan Goodwin, and Parys Haralson. That’s about $9 million more committed to their 2015 cap than any other team.

Adam Schefter reported Thursday that the NFL expects the 2015 cap to come in between $138.6 million and $141.8 million, up from $133 million this year. Split the difference between those two figures and the Saints are about $20 million over the projected cap before signing a draft class or retaining any of their unrestricted free agents. That’s a problem.

It’s actually pretty staggering to see just how much the Saints have committed to some of their more notable players. They have no fewer than seven players, per Spotrac, who will rank among the four highest-paid players at their positions in 2015:

Those seven players alone count for an unreal $92.8 million on the 2015 cap. Galette’s deal isn’t going to actually count for $15.5 million, but more on that in a bit.

This hasn’t snuck up on the Saints. They have a plan for how to deal with this, and it’s something they put into effect before they gave big deals to the likes of Galette and Byrd. They’ll make it under the cap. It just won’t be very pretty getting there.

The Structure

The Saints were over the cap coming into 2014, too, by $10 million. They cleared out about $17 million in cap space by releasing veteran defenders Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, and Will Smith, and also didn’t re-sign Jonathan Vilma. It’s tempting to note the correlation between losing those four stalwarts and seeing the Saints defense decline, but the only one of those four actually playing in the NFL this year is Harper, who has been a liability for the massively disappointing Panthers. (Smith was also on injured reserve last season.) They also tried to trade offensive weapons Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, eventually cutting Moore and trading Sproles to the Eagles for a fifth-round pick in a move that looks to have been a colossal mistake.

Those moves and some restructuring got the Saints far enough under the cap to franchise Graham as a tight end (in advance of his grievance to be treated as a wide receiver), sign their draft picks, and field an active roster. New Orleans entered free agency with about $2.5 million in cap space, which is why nobody expected it to target much of anything in free agency, let alone Byrd. It was a surprise when Byrd visited New Orleans and even more of a surprise when he stayed, signing a deal that guaranteed the star safety $26.3 million.

How do you sign a player everybody wants without any cap space? You get creative. Byrd has only a $3.5 million cap hit this season because of how the Saints structured the deal. He received an $11 million signing bonus, which is paid up front but prorated across the first five years of his deal. That leaves the Saints on the hook for $2.2 million of the bonus for 2014 cap purposes. They also left him with a paltry base salary of just $1.3 million, which adds up to that $3.5 million figure.

The Saints got Byrd by guaranteeing his future. Several days after he signed the deal, his $6 million roster bonus for 2015 became guaranteed. Pay attention to that roster bonus — it’s how the Saints pull this trick. His $2 million base salary in 2015 will also be guaranteed on the third day of the 2015 league year. With $2.2 million from his signing bonus, $6 million from the roster bonus, and $2 million in base salary (and a $100,000 workout bonus), Byrd’s cap hit will rise to $10.3 million next year, making him the highest-paid safety in football.

The Saints undoubtedly plan on getting past that by converting Byrd’s roster bonus into a second, new signing bonus. That would allow them to spread the cap hit from the roster bonus across the remaining five years of the deal, reducing the impact on the team in 2015. Here’s how Byrd’s signing bonus and initial roster bonus (a combined $17 million) would play out against the cap in three scenarios, with the first being the traditional all-in-one signing bonus, the second being the contract as currently constructed, and the third being what the Saints will likely end up doing:

If the Saints convert the $6 million roster bonus in 2015 into a signing bonus, they will add $1.2 million to their cap for each of Byrd’s five remaining seasons under contract. Versus the traditional construction — one signing bonus, paid up front, prorated across the length of the entire deal — the Saints would save $633,333 this year and pay $566,667 more in each of the next four seasons.

It seems like small change, but the hitch that comes up involves what happens if Byrd has a season during which, say, he performs far worse than expectations before suffering a season-ending knee injury, as he did in 2014. Now, the Saints have problems. Fast-forward to 2016 — Byrd has $6 million of his $7.4 million base salary that’s guaranteed for injury; on the third day of that league year, it becomes fully guaranteed.

Under this current deal (the second column in the table above), if the Saints cut a healthy Byrd during the first two days of that league year, they wouldn’t owe him the base salary and would instead be responsible for the $6.6 million remaining in bonuses on his deal. But assuming they’re going to convert the roster bonus to a signing bonus, they’ll owe $11.4 million in dead money on their 2016 cap. That means the Saints are basically stuck with Byrd in 2016. Even in 2017, when his base salary is unguaranteed, the Saints would owe $4.4 million in dead money under the current structure of the deal and $8 million under the structure they’ll switch it to this year.

How can we be sure they’ll convert the roster bonus to a signing bonus? Well, for one, they need the cap space. The other reason it’s likely is that they’ve already agreed to make the same move with another of their key contributors, Galette. The pass-rusher’s deal was even more ungainly, as it contained a $12.5 million roster bonus payable in 2015, the second year of his deal. Now, once the bonus changes, it’ll instead spread that $12.5 million figure over the remaining five years of Galette’s deal. For a guy who struggles against the run and has just seven sacks this season, that’s too much money.

That’ll cut Galette’s 2015 cap figure down to just $5.5 million, saving the Saints $10 million in much-needed cap room next year, but just as with Byrd, the Saints are far more vulnerable if Galette isn’t worth the money. In 2016, the Saints can either pay Galette a $5 million base salary that guarantees on the third day of the league year or release him. Under his current deal, that would result in just $2.1 million in dead money. Under the deal with the roster bonus converted to a signing bonus, the Saints would instead owe $12.1 million in dead money.

The Saints made moves like these to avoid paying market-value signing bonuses in 2014. The difference between a traditional deal and these eventual restructured deals isn’t particularly large, but because the Saints weren’t paying those bonuses up front at the beginning of the deals, they were forced to (at least partially) guarantee more money down the line, notably with those third- and fourth-year base salaries that are guaranteed days into their respective league years. To save a few million bucks in 2014, the Saints were willing to kick the proverbial can down the road, running the risk they would be stuck with big contracts and lose-lose decisions with unproductive players down the line. Had they built a Super Bowl contender in 2014, nobody would really have cared. But they didn’t.

The Future

Now, Loomis, Payton, and the rest of the front office have to look 2015 in the eye and wonder how they want to build their roster. When the roster bonuses for Byrd and Galette become signing bonuses, it’ll create about $15 million in cap space for the Saints in 2015. They can also make the same move with Graham, converting his $5 million roster bonus into a signing bonus that will be spread over the three remaining seasons of his contract, saving the team $3.3 million. A similar move for Curtis Lofton would combine with the other three to create about $22 million in cap space, which will bring the Saints back in line with the projected salary cap. The crisis will be temporarily averted.

The problem is, they still won’t have any real space to upgrade their roster. They’ve already been aggressive with restructuring player contracts to try to create more cap space in the present while throwing the future to the wind, and it’s beginning to catch up.

Take Marques Colston, who is 31 and on pace to set full-season career-lows in just about every offensive category. His cap figure in 2015 is already at $9.7 million, an unpalatable number for an aging receiver. Because they’ve already restructured his deal, though, if the Saints want to cut him next year, they’ll owe $5.4 million in dead money and only save $4.3 million on their cap. They can choose to designate him as a post–June 1 cut, which would send some of the dead money into their 2016 cap, but that would be yet another example of sacrificing tomorrow for a marginal today.

Instead, the Saints will have to target some of the other players on their roster with more traditional deals. Their expensive tandem of guards come to mind, notably Jahri Evans, whom the Saints could release while clearing out $6 million in cap space. They’ll also have to replace Evans, though, and that’s going to be an issue. Evans has slipped this season, but he still made five consecutive Pro Bowls before this year, and he’s extremely likely to be better than whomever the Saints bring in to replace him. It’s the same sort of logic that ended up with the Cowboys unable to afford DeMarcus Ware this offseason.

Let’s say the Saints cut Evans and Colston. That’s $10.3 million more in savings. Throw in Pierre Thomas and Rafael Bush. Now the Saints are up to $14 million in freed cap space. Great. They still have major holes up and down the roster. They can’t afford to really upgrade at cornerback, where there’s been a massive void across from Keenan Lewis. They’ll still need to give Cameron Jordan a contract extension, one that will likely emulate the second-year bonus structure afforded Galette. They’ll probably want to re-sign Ingram.

They’ll still lack front-seven pieces, have one of the worst wide receiver groups in football, and will be missing two starting interior linemen with Evans and Goodwin both gone. The 2015 Saints will be a team whose replacement-level parts have already been exploited in 2014, just with more replacement-level parts.

This is, truthfully, a team built to self-destruct upon the expiration of Drew Brees. Brees’s deal, whose cap hit increases from $18.4 million to $26.4 million next year, runs through the 2016 season. At that point, he’ll either retire, negotiate what is likely to be a smaller deal, or move on. Whatever he does, the Saints will likely use that year to let some of their awful contracts wash away into the ether, burn a lot of dead money, and create cap space for the next Saints quarterback in 2017 and beyond.

And it’s not necessarily accurate to say this is a bad way to build a football team. The better way to describe it, as I said when eulogizing the 2013 Falcons after Julio Jones’s injury last season, is as a high-variance strategy. If the Saints hit on Byrd, and Galette became a dominant pass-rusher, and the 2014 Saints went 13-3, Loomis wins executive of the year and we remark at how creative he was in opening up space for the final pieces of his puzzle.

Instead, Loomis swung for the fences and popped one up. The Saints might make the playoffs, but they won’t be serious contenders and it would be an upset to see them make it out of the first round, let alone go further. In return, they sacrificed future flexibility, left themselves vulnerable to massive declines, and limited Loomis’s ability to improve the team in 2015 and beyond. Even if the Saints can ensure the bill doesn’t come due for a number of years, it turns out the meal wasn’t really very good, anyway.

Filed Under: NFL, New Orleans Saints, Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell