The Introduction to the End in New OrleansChris Graythen/Getty Images
In a classic addition-by-subtraction move, the Saints cut troubled pass-rusher Junior Galette this past weekend. It brought to a close months of speculation that the Saints were considering moving on from their star. While New Orleans can rightly say that Galette’s off-field incidents and attitude were at odds with the organization’s values, the decision to dump the outside linebacker also highlights the mistakes the Saints have made on the football operations side. Given the future implications, it’s fair to wonder whether Galette’s release could serve as the beginning of the end for the Drew Brees–Sean Payton iteration of the franchise.
Few players have had more troubling offseasons than the 27-year-old Galette, who went undrafted in part because of incidents that led him to be kicked off of Temple’s team. Galette hadn’t registered any public problems as a pro before, but it’s been a busy offseason. In January, he was arrested on domestic violence charges, which were later dropped. In June, Galette suffered a serious pectoral injury that was expected to jeopardize his availability for the early part of the season. Then, last week, there surfaced a video that allegedly showed Galette hitting a man and striking a woman with a belt during a 2013 fight in Miami. That appears to have been the final straw for the Saints, who released Galette on Friday.
The Saints have begun to leak reports that Galette was a bad teammate and negative influence in the locker room, and I don’t doubt that he was a problem, but I’m very skeptical that those issues had a meaningful part in this decision. New Orleans had been around Galette for five years, during which it gave him two contract extensions, before suddenly deciding that he was a locker-room cancer. (It’s unclear if they knew about the 2013 incident before last week.) Galette’s teammates even voted him to be one of the team’s captains.
I don’t think the Saints saw Galette as a problem before 2014, which makes it difficult to criticize their decision to sign him to an extension last year. New Orleans signed Galette, a restricted free agent at the time, to a three-year, $7.5 million deal in March 2013. What we could have seen happening in advance is Saints general manager Mickey Loomis spending money before he had to.
Galette promptly responded with a breakout season. Long a favorite of tape-hounds for his production in small samples, he moved into a larger role, without sacrificing his speed, to become one of the best pass-rushers in football in 2013, finishing sixth in the league with 12 sacks. With the Saints paying Galette just $1.7 million of their cap for the privilege, it appeared they had developed their undrafted free agent into an incredibly valuable asset.
This contract had modest cap figures through the end of 2015, but there was a catch. The deal allowed Galette to opt out after 2014 if he recorded 12 or more sacks and played more than 60 percent of the defensive snaps that year. The Saints could have kept Galette on his $3 million cap hit for 2014 and hoped that he finished the year with 11.5 sacks or fewer, which would have allowed them to get one more year of Galette in 2015 at a team-friendly price.
Instead, Loomis doubled down. He gave Galette a four-year, $41.5 million extension in September, guaranteeing him $23 million in the process. With little cap room after signing Jairus Byrd, Loomis had to get creative. As I wrote about in December, the Saints gave Galette a $12.5 million roster bonus in the second year of the deal that was always going to be turned into a signing bonus after the season ended. Galette would get his actual money in hand either way, but for cap purposes, the bonus would be spread over the remaining five years of the deal, clearing out $10 million in cap room for a team that began the offseason $20 million over the expected cap.
The risk with that sort of bonus structure is that it’s extremely painful to get out of the contract during the first couple of seasons. That, as you now know, is exactly what’s happened with Galette, and the Saints are going to feel the pain for doing so. They already had a $5.5 million cap charge for Galette in 2015, which doesn’t change, since the move will count as a post–June 1 release and Galette’s 2015 base salary of $1.25 million was already guaranteed. By cutting Galette, the Saints have the remaining $10 million from that restructured signing bonus accelerate back onto their cap in 2016. It might be easier to see what the (guaranteed) bonus1 structure looks like in a table:
Including his nonguaranteed base salary, the Saints previously owed $8.3 million to Galette for 2016. Now, even though they won’t have to pay his base salary, the accelerated bonuses mean that New Orleans will have a $12.1 million dead-money charge on its cap for Galette next season. He will be the third-highest-paid player for a team that is now already $11.1 million over the projected $150 million cap.
This is quickly becoming a running trend for the Saints, who hardly have the cap space to devote millions of dollars to players who are suiting up for other teams. This year, the Saints are paying $9 million in dead money to Jimmy Graham, who they traded one season into a four-year deal, plus an additional $16.5 million to the combination of Galette, Ben Grubbs (traded to Chiefs), and Curtis Lofton (released, signed with Raiders). New Orleans has more than $27 million of its cap space — nearly 19 percent of the $143.3 million it has to work with — tied up in players who are no longer on the roster. That’s the highest figure in the league by a wide margin, as second-place Miami is more than $5 million behind.
It’s not going to get much easier in 2016. With $12 million already committed to Galette, the Saints have nearly twice as much dead money on their cap as anybody else in football. That will change when we hit next offseason, but the Saints are off to a horrific start. And even worse, while the Saints clearly planned to create cap space in 2015 by restructuring the bonuses in the contracts of Galette and Byrd, the only high-paid player left on their roster with a similar sort of bonus structure is Cameron Jordan. While restructuring Jordan’s deal will save $4.8 million, that will hardly be enough to clean up New Orleans’s cap.
Instead, the Saints will have to slice more veterans off the roster, which will be more difficult after renegotiating the deals of players like Jahri Evans and Keenan Lewis this offseason. They can clear a little over $10 million by releasing Brodrick Bunkley and Dannell Ellerbe, or bump that figure up to $16.9 million by also dumping stalwarts Marques Colston and Thomas Morstead. Many of their other veterans are in deals that would not provide any sort of cap relief, as was the case with Galette.
There is one more player who would create salary relief, and as the Galette decision squeezes New Orleans’s cap even further, I wonder more about his future with the team. 2016 will be the final year of Brees’s five-year, $100 million extension. Brees has the largest cap hit in football this year, a $26.4 million figure that laps the competition; at $20.6 million, second-placed Calvin Johnson is closer to 21st in the league rankings than he is to Brees in first. In 2016, when Brees will be just the third-highest-paid player in the league, he’ll still have a devastating cap hit of $27.4 million, which the Saints cannot restructure without giving Brees a new contract.
He will be 37 in 2016. It’s not out of the question that the Saints would re-sign their franchise quarterback to a two- or three-year extension, but every move Loomis has made over the past few years has suggested that the Saints were basically all in for the final seasons of Brees’s current contract. There would be little point to extending Brees if the Saints were going to finally open the pressure valve on their cap and release their disappointing veteran core.
If the Saints traded (or cut, although that would be unlikely) Brees during the 2016 offseason, they would save $20 million on their cap. It’s their quickest way to financial freedom. It would be professional suicide for Loomis to deal his star quarterback and admit failure, but if the Saints produce another disappointing season this year, it probably won’t be Loomis’s decision to make. A new general manager could spin the move as the beginning of a rebuild forced by the missteps of the old regime while giving Brees a chance to compete elsewhere before he retires.
Brees would be an expensive one-year rental, but even if he slips a little further in 2015, there would be a healthy market for his services. Remember that this is a league in which the Browns and Bills engaged in a bidding war for Josh McCown five months ago. Here’s a quick run-through of teams that could comfortably find money in their budget for Brees and how they would get there, using their current estimated cap space from Spotrac:
• Oakland ($58.4 million) could absorb Brees’s salary without blinking; it’s currently evaluating Derek Carr, but if history is any guide, NFL teams are nowhere near as committed to second-round picks as they are to guys who go in the first round.
• Cincinnati ($39.3 million) would have no problem swallowing Brees’s $27 million cap hit, especially if it cuts Andy Dalton, which would save $5.9 million as a standard release or $10.7 million as a post–June 1 release.
• St. Louis ($34.3 million) hasn’t come to terms with Nick Foles on an extension, and if the Rams find their new quarterback lacking, they could easily clear out cap space by releasing Jared Cook (saving $5.7 million), Kenny Britt ($4.9 million), Akeem Ayers ($3 million), or even Chris Long ($11.8 million).
• Chicago ($33.8 million) would save only $6 million by releasing Jay Cutler as a post–June 1 cut, but assuming that the Bears also release Jared Allen ($8.5 million), they should have space to afford Brees.
• Washington ($14.8 million) doesn’t appear to have much space, but if it cuts Robert Griffin III, his nonguaranteed fifth-year option salary of $16.2 million would disappear off the books. Throw in the $8 million for Dashon Goldson and the $3.4 million saved by releasing injured cornerback DeAngelo Hall, and Scot McCloughan could very easily have enough space to acquire Brees.
The Saints at least appear to have a succession plan in place for Brees, having drafted Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson in the third round this year. (I don’t know what Grayson will turn out to be, but the track record of recent third-round picks is far from promising.) With Galette, the immediate plan will likely be to use a rotation of former Cowboys starter Anthony Spencer and second-round pick Hau’oli Kikaha, the latter of whom seems like Rob Ryan’s best hope for a pass rush. Jordan is a useful pass-rusher on the interior, and Ryan can always dial up a blitz, but the only time the Saints defense looked good last year was during a brief midseason stretch when they stopped blitzing.
If they start cutting other veterans to clear out much-needed cap space, the path to competence remains unclear. There are more draft picks on the roster after Loomis dealt away several veterans this past offseason, but those picks have to play. The Saints had a huge hole at cornerback last year after cutting presumed starter Champ Bailey in training camp and seeing Patrick Robinson burned badly in September, but they refused to use second-round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who played all of eight defensive snaps. Players like Kikaha, inside linebacker Stephone Anthony, and corner P.J. Williams are going to have to play meaningful snaps on a regular basis in 2016 as replacements for released and/or injured veterans, if not as early as 2015.
It also makes Loomis’s offseason that much more curious. You can certainly understand his decision to go after help in the secondary, and the addition of Brandon Browner should plug New Orleans’s hole at corner. The trade for Ellerbe, a free-agent bust in Miami, was a way to find a replacement for the departed Lofton. Loomis did little to upgrade the depth behind New Orleans’s embattled defensive line, though, adding only 34-year-old veteran Kevin Williams to aid the league’s worst run defense.
Instead, most of the money he did have went to … running backs? With Mark Ingram showing his first sustained signs of life as a pro, the Saints continued to buy in on one of Loomis’s worst decisions as general manager and gave Ingram a four-year, $16 million deal. And after dumping Darren Sproles to save cap room last year, only to see him star in Philadelphia, the Saints went after a new Sproles by signing C.J. Spiller to a four-year, $16 million deal of his own. The team needed a receiving back, but given its massive needs elsewhere, you have to wonder whether it could have gone after a cheaper option like Jacquizz Rodgers or drafted one this spring.
As for Galette, well, he wouldn’t have been able to void his contract after all. He finished the year with 10 sacks, which would have locked him in on New Orleans’s 2015 cap at a relatively modest $2.9 million. The Saints could have used that leverage to negotiate a friendlier deal, or if they really had the same concerns about Galette’s attitude that they’re expressing in the media after this release, they could have parted ways without serious financial repercussions.
It would be wrong to say that Loomis should have obviously known that Galette wouldn’t make it to 12 sacks, but since 1990, just 23.5 percent of players who have recorded 12 or more sacks in a single season (like Galette did in 2013) have repeated the feat the following year. It’s fair to say the Saints were too aggressive in ripping up Galette’s old deal, even without considering the off-field concerns. As much as the Saints are trying to present the front that moving on from Galette is a sign of their newfound maturity as a franchise, it feels a lot like business as usual.