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Friday, March 21, 2014
Analyzing Saints' salary-cap future

By Mike Triplett

Much has been made of how the New Orleans Saints are pushing millions of dollars in salary-cap costs into future years. And it's true -- the Saints will again be feeling the pressure of a tight cap squeeze in 2015.

But a closer look at the numbers shows the Saints will be in about the same position in 2015 that they were in this year. And the two years before that.

Not better. But not worse.

And after what we've seen over the past three offseasons, does anyone doubt the Saints' ability to live on the edge of the salary cap?

It helps quite a bit that the NFL's cap is expected to keep soaring. This year, the cap rose from $123 million to $133 million for every NFL team. And analysts project similar increases during the next two years as the revenues from recent TV deals kick in.

Drew Brees
The cap hit for Drew Brees will increase from $18.4 million in 2014 to $26.4 million in 2015.
As of today, the Saints have a total of 39 players under contract for 2015 at a combined salary-cap cost of $124.7 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information. However, that doesn't include any figures for tight end Jimmy Graham or defensive end Cameron Jordan. Graham is expected to sign a long-term contract this offseason, while the Saints are expected to lock up Jordan later this spring with a one-year option for 2015 (see below).

Those new deals should push the Saints' 2015 cap costs closer to $140 million for 41 players. And that projection will continue to rise as the Saints sign more players or restructure more contracts. Remember, a team's salary cap figure during the offseason includes its top 51 salaries. So even 10 minimum contracts would raise that number to $145 million by the start of the 2015 league year.

So the Saints will have to find more creative solutions to get back under the cap again next offseason. But there is no sense of impending doom or disaster. Just more of what we've been seeing in recent years.

Here's a breakdown of some of the more interesting cap issues facing the Saints in 2015 and beyond:

The big leaps: Two contracts will have huge salary-cap increases in 2015 -- quarterback Drew Brees and newly-signed safety Jairus Byrd. Brees' cap cost will go from $18.4 million this year to $26.4 million next year (because his salary and bonuses will increase from $11 million to $19 million). And Byrd's cap cost will go from $3.5 million to $10.3 million (largely due to a $6 million roster bonus).

Free agents: The good news for the Saints is that most of their core players are already under contract through 2015 (once they get those new deals in place for Graham and Jordan, that is). Other than those two, the top players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next year are running back Mark Ingram, linebacker Victor Butler, safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Patrick Robinson.

Graham is expected to sign a long-term contract at some point that should average at least $10 million per year, likely with lower cap costs in the early years. (NOTE: Graham is already counting $7.05 million against the Saints' cap this year because of his franchise tag, so a new deal wouldn't affect the 2014 cap much.)

As for Jordan, the Saints are expected to exercise a fifth-year option on the Pro Bowl defensive end this spring that will likely cost somewhere between $6 and $8.5 million for a one-year deal in 2015. If they exercise that option, Jordan can't become a free agent until 2016.

Big decisions: Linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are both scheduled to receive big roster bonuses in 2015 that could force the Saints to make a decision on their status. Lofton has a roster bonus of $4.5 million due in 2015, plus another $2.5 million in salary and workout bonuses. If he continues at his current level, Lofton could well be worth a total of $7 million. But his contract was clearly designed for that to be a “prove it” clause. Hawthorne, likewise, is due a $2.5 million roster bonus in 2015, plus $2 million in salary.

Smaller bounces: The other cap jumps in 2015 are more modest. Marques Colston, Keenan Lewis, Zach Strief and Pierre Thomas are all scheduled for increases between $1 million and $1.4 million. No one else on the roster is scheduled to go up by more than $500,000.

Raising the dead: If you're wondering why the Saints' total cap figure for 2015 isn't higher, remember that they don't have any “dead money” counting against their 2015 cap yet. This year, the Saints have nearly $13.8 million in “dead money” counting against their cap from the pro-rated signing bonuses of veterans that were released before the end of their contracts (Will Smith, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Lance Moore, Garrett Hartley, etc.).