It has become a rite of passage each March: the Saints restructuring veteran contracts to escape or at least postpone massive salary-cap issues for another year.
New Orleans isn’t quite done trimming yet but will successfully dig its way from $60 million over the cap to being compliant, having shoehorned a $150-million quarterback contract for Derek Carr into the small spaces of what’s still left. No other NFL team has borrowed from future cap space more consistently than the Saints, and the challenge is to stay competitive while operating under a limited budget from past overspending.
So as the start of free agency looms Wednesday afternoon, New Orleans has a difficult task ahead: How will the Saints sustain a top-10 defense that carried them last season (ninth in points allowed and fifth in total defense) while losing a handful of top players?
Until now, New Orleans has largely survived its cap strategy without huge personnel losses on defense, although Trey Hendrickson left for the Bengals two years ago and has 22 sacks and two Pro Bowl nods since, and safety Marcus Williams and nickel Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (by trade) left in last year’s offseason.
Of this year’s free agents, defensive end Marcus Davenport will be among the most coveted pass-rushers available. Spotrac has him generously listed with a market value of $23.2 million per year, impressive for a player who totaled 0.5 sacks in 2022. He is almost certainly gone, and the Saints are left to decide which of their biggest potential losses should be the focus of what limited cap space they will have.
Defensive tackle David Onyemata might be the most functional player to keep, if only because his reworked contract (with four void years) will cost the Saints $10.2 million in dead money — cap space devoted to a player no longer on roster — if he isn’t re-signed before Wednesday. About $5.7 million of that is inevitably counting against the 2023 cap, but re-signing him before Wednesday would keep another $4.5 million in future years, which would cut in half the immediate cap impact of bringing back a key player who might draw $10 million a year on the open market.
Why Saints will regret paying Derek Carr?
Nick Wright argues that the Saints did not make the best move by paying Derek Carr lots of guaranteed money with the team well over the salary cap.
Corner Bradley Roby, another free agent, might be a more acceptable loss, as he totaled only one interception in two years with the Saints and was ranked by Pro Football Focus as 114th out of 118 NFL cornerbacks last season. The absence of others might be felt more by New Orleans — Kentavius Street and Shy Tuttle both played more than 500 snaps on defense, with Street getting 3.5 sacks and Tuttle adding two. Linebacker Kaden Elliss, who stepped in while Pete Werner was injured, was a breakout star with seven sacks, but probably will play elsewhere this fall. The defensive secondary could lose role players like Justin Evans, P.J. Williams and Daniel Sorensen, which could set up a younger group of defensive backs in the upcoming season.
There could be offensive losses as well. Quarterback Jameis Winston will be cut with Carr’s arrival and receiver Michael Thomas won’t be back unless there’s a significant restructuring of his massive contract. Running back becomes a question mark, with Alvin Kamara facing a potential suspension as he faces battery charges in Las Vegas, and veterans Mark Ingram and David Johnson both free agents and over 30. Receivers Jarvis Landry and Deonte Harty, limited by injuries last season, are also free agents.
The most intriguing offensive free agent might be tight end Juwan Johnson, who enjoyed a breakout season with 508 yards and seven touchdown catches. He’s only a restricted free agent, but for the Saints to avoid the possibility of another team signing him to a long-term offer sheet that might be challenging to match, they’d have to give him a second-round tender, which amounts to $4.3 million for one season. A long-term extension could lower that cap number if Johnson is amenable, but a decision has to come on a tender by Wednesday.
The Saints won’t have much of a budget for outside signings, but new defensive coaches will want to bring in familiar faces to offset some of the inevitable losses in coming weeks. That could add up to role players signing on — for new defensive coordinator Joe Woods, it could mean safety Ronnie Harrison, whom he had in Cleveland the past three years, or a flier like Browns corner Greedy Williams, a former second-round pick who has been limited by injuries.
New defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson spent the past four years in Arizona, so it’s possible the Saints might look at former first-round pick Byron Murphy as a potential answer at nickel to replace Roby. New Orleans had the second-fewest takeaways of any NFL team last year with just 14, so finding ball hawks (in free agency and the draft) should be a priority, and Murphy had four interceptions in 2021 before a down year in 2022.
Is Derek Carr a good fit for Saints?
Emmanuel Acho, LeSean McCoy, Joy Taylor and Ric Bucher discuss whether Derek Carr is a good fit for the Saints. McCoy believes the team is set up to be competitive in the NFC South.
And should Carr want to have a familiar face to throw to, with turnover at receiver the Saints could look at Mack Hollins, who caught 57 passes for 690 yards and four touchdowns from Carr in Las Vegas last year. Hollins is 29 and a free agent, likely available for $3 million a year or less.
How long can the Saints stay in salary-cap purgatory like this? It’ll be at least another year of exceeding most normal budgets, restructuring and dealing with limited outside spending. Even if you take Thomas’ massive $58 million off the books, as is surely to happen, New Orleans currently has $264 million committed to the 2024 salary cap on existing contracts — $29 million over the expected $235 million cap. That’s before the Saints add two years of draft picks and any signings over the next year.
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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