- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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So much for salary-cap constraints.
The New Orleans Saints landed one of the top-rated free agents in the entire market on Tuesday, agreeing to a six-year contract with Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd. The deal is worth a whopping $54 million, with $28 million guaranteed, a league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
That’s a stunning investment for any team to make -- especially a team that was already slammed up against the salary cap like the Saints.
No one will try to claim the Saints got a bargain. And many pundits often scoff at the teams that make huge wagers on the first day of free agency. But if you’re going to go “all-in,” I do like the idea of investing in a 27-year-old, three-time Pro Bowler who is still in his prime and can help New Orleans contend immediately for another Super Bowl.
They say the NFL is a copycat league, and Byrd is the closest thing to Seattle Seahawks ball hawk Earl Thomas that the Saints could get their hands on. He'll be paired with emerging young safety Kenny Vaccaro, and he’ll be a huge addition for a young Saints defense that was already soaring in the right direction last year.
Signing Byrd is an extreme example of what I just wrote about Tuesday morning -- how the Saints and general manager Mickey Loomis have remained selectively aggressive in free agency in recent years. I like that concept, and I think it's the main reason why the Saints have remained bona fide Super Bowl contenders for five years running.
The Saints have never allowed themselves to be paralyzed by their salary-cap constraints. Last year, that led to one of the best free-agent signings in the entire NFL (cornerback Keenan Lewis at a little more than $5 million per year). Now, they’re almost literally doubling down.
This move will require even more creative salary-cap maneuvering for New Orleans, which is estimated to be just $2.6 million under the cap. But the Saints will save another $3.5 million when they trade or release running back Darren Sproles. And they can easily carve out more space if they’re willing to keep pushing their cap costs into future years.
The Saints can back-load the salary-cap costs of Byrd’s contract, and they can restructure the contract of some current players -- something they have not yet done with any players this offseason. True, that puts a lot of pressure on the cap in future years, and the Saints already have huge cap hits coming in the near future because of other back-loaded contracts. They'll also have to get creative when they re-sign tight end Jimmy Graham to his next deal.
But as I also wrote Tuesday morning, the Saints will pay those bills whenever quarterback Drew Brees retires. For now, they want to try to win as much as they can while Brees is still in his prime.
We’ve obviously seen more of those veteran departures than ever this offseason, with the Saints parting ways with six players who could truly be listed among their all-time greats (Sproles, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Lance Moore).
The Saints now have zero defensive players remaining from their 2009 Super Bowl team. And they have only seven players remaining from that roster overall (including free agent offensive tackle Zach Strief and receiver Robert Meachem).
But the aging process is inevitable in the NFL, and the Saints aren’t the first Super Bowl team that has been forced to reinvent itself.
The Saints’ approach to combat that aging process has been to keep spending money aggressively on new core leaders.
And they just placed their biggest bet to date on Byrd -- the most expensive free-agent signing they’ve made since they first signed Brees to a six-year, $60 million deal in 2006.