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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Dispatch from salary cap hell: How the Saints will rebuild without any money

Posted By on Thu, Oct 29, 2015 at 2:38 PM

click to enlarge New Orleans Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis. - DERICK HINGLE
  • New Orleans Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis.

It all would have worked out brilliantly if not for Junior Galette.

The Saints' need to cut the controversial (and, for fans like me, hated) pass rusher before this season resulted in a "dead money" charge of over $12 million against New Orleans' 2016 salary cap. That charge alone took the Saints from a manageable $8 million under the projected 2016 salary cap of around $150 million to $4 million over

In the past, claims the Saints were in "cap hell" were misleading because, in general, cap hell is pretty flexible. You can Loomis Math your way out of it. The issue with Loomis Math is your players must work out. So many big Saints contracts have failed in such a short period of time that the team has now, finally, stretched the concept of cap flexibility as far as it can go.

The Saints do have some options, but most of them would carry additional dead money charges. They could release receiver Marques Colston, who will cost $5.9 million against the 2016 cap. That'll cost the Saints $2.7 million in dead money, but the net savings will be significant. 

Linebacker David Hawthorne might be another candidate for release, given the progress of rookie Stephone Anthony. Hawthorne carries a $4.5 million charge, and releasing him would cost the Saints yet another $2.2 million in dead money, but at least they'd be under the cap. 

Maybe longtime offensive linemen Jahri Evans and Zach Strief are other candidates for release. The Saints could get comfortably under the cap, with about $7 million to spare, by cutting or trading them, in addition to Colston and Hawthorne. 

But these moves would be a dramatic blow to the team's veteran leadership structure, culling from the locker room a host of players who fit the culture Sean Payton says he wants to maintain. It's tough to imagine the Saints moving on from all those guys at once, especially with the so-far-so-good 2015 draft class at that point entering a crucial second season. If the rebuilding project is to continue next year, today's rookies can't all experience a sophomore slump.

That the Saints find themselves in this situation is a statement about the player personnel system the team used between Lombardi Gras and the 2014 season. In that time, the Saints had the fewest draft picks of any team in the league, as it preferred to build through free agency and via trades for veterans. When the team did bother to draft rookies, it tended to trade up freely, a strategy akin to giving away multiple lottery tickets just to move up a few places in the gas station checkout line.

The most stable and consistently successful NFL teams tend to be the ones that acknowledge the importance of the NFL Draft but also recognize their own limitations at finding players in it. That combination leads, generally, to a quantity-based approach: Only about a third of draft picks turn out to be pretty good NFL players, so the smart play is to acquire a third of 10 or 11 players, not a third of five.

Young players are also cheaper than veteran free agents. The Oakland Raiders gave former Saints inside linebacker Curtis Lofton a deal with a salary cap hit of $6.5 million this year. Lofton's replacement, rookie Stephone Anthony, only counts $1.4 million against the Saints' cap. Even if Anthony never develops into a better player than Lofton (he's certainly not worse, at this point), the Saints will at least fill their inside linebacker spot with a replacement-level player at a cost that won't exceed $2.4 million until 2018.

Rather than emphasize the draft, the Saints took an expensive, veteran-laden approach that emphasized the window — the idea that they had only a limited time to win a championship, so it was better to spend big on players like Jairus Byrd and make risky investments in guys like Junior Galette than to collect lottery tickets. But if Byrd disappears for a year, and Galette goes crazy, the window becomes a brick wall.

The Saints changed their approach in 2015, partly out of monetary necessity and partly because I think they saw the light. They gave themselves plenty of draft choices to work with, and chose players with proven track records of success, rather than failed, if gifted, college athletes like Ronald Powell or Martez Wilson. The early results have been good, and the Saints' cap situation in 2016 will force them to keep employing this strategy.

But the big question is what the Saints will do with Drew Brees, whose $30 million cap hit in 2016 will be all but impossible for them to sustain. If Brees stays healthy this year, the Saints should extend his deal. They don't need to completely cut his $30 million from the books, but they do need to drop that figure by as close to half as they can.

After 2016, the disappearance of Junior Galette's $12 million charge will give the Saints additional room. Even with Brees, the Saints just have to avoid more huge dead money charges until then, and keep leaning on the draft — and they'll finally be out of the salary cap woods.

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