What’s The Exit Strategy For The Saints & Their Salary Cap Situation?

We’ve reached the point in the NFL offseason calendar where everyone’s attention starts to look forward. The draft and free agency are done and the next big event is the NFL’s regular season schedule release. We have weeks and weeks to talk about the upcoming season.

Saints GM Mickey Loomis wants league to cancel the draft over coronavirus' impact | Fox News

But after all the games are done and another Super Bowl champion is crowned in 2025, we’ll do this same offseason cycle all over again. And one thing that will stay the same is the New Orleans Saints will have to dig out of a salary cap hole that is tens of millions in the red for the fifth straight year. Apologies to the Saints’ faithful looking forward to 2024, but to me the most interesting question about New Orleans is how they plan to get off this hamster wheel of restructures and contractual double-downs they’ve boxed themselves into.

Fortunately, there may just be a light at the end of the tunnel.

How Far Over The Cap Are The Saints In 2025?

Saints Fans' Emotional Roller Coaster of 2022 - Sports Illustrated New Orleans Saints News, Analysis and More

Per the NFL salary cap website Over The Cap — the best resource around for NFL salary cap nuts — the Saints are currently in an $80 million hole in 2025 in terms of effective cap space, a house metric from OTC that accounts for how much it would cost to fill out the roster with minimum salaried players and to sign a team’s projected draft class.

That’s about as steep a hill to climb as the Saints have had in the past few years, especially because they’ve already restructured several contracts over the past few years and limited some of their flexibility. However, there’s very good news embedded in OTC’s projection. That $80 million deficit assumes a leaguewide salary cap of $260 million, which would be an increase of just $5 million from the cap this year.

Outside of 2020 when the pandemic caused a shortfall in the overall revenue pie the league splits with the players, the NFL salary cap has grown nearly every single year of its three-decade existence. If the cap goes up by only $5 million in 2025, that would be the smallest increase in two decades. The last time the cap grew by anything less than $10 million was in 2014, and this past year it shot up a record-setting $30 million.

Even if another $30 million leap isn’t in the cards — and that can’t be ruled out with the new CBA and how much money the NFL is making — a jump of $15 million seems like a reasonable floor to project. For the Saints and other teams projected to be in the red, any amount the cap grows over projected would be subtracted from the current deficit.

How Will The Saints Get Under The Cap?

We’ll operate conservatively with a projected cap growth of only $15 million, leaving $70.7 million in player costs that the Saints need to clear. The first step is actually one that the Saints could take this summer

New Orleans Saints | News & Stats | Football | theScore.com

There’s been persistent chatter regarding Lattimore’s place in the Saints’ plans, from well-sourced members of the local beat like New Orleans Dot Football’s Nick Underhill to national reporters at ESPN. The smoking gun is a restructure the Saints did for Lattimore’s contract late last season, converting most of his 2024 base salary into a bonus to spread out over future years like they’d done dozens of times before. Only this time, the Saints used an option bonus instead of a signing bonus.

What that means is that if another team trades for Lattimore, they will pay him the money instead. The option is due shortly before the start of the season, giving the Saints a window to explore trade offers. Trading Lattimore now would be impractical because of how the dead money would put the Saints over the cap, but the math changes after June 1.

The Saints may keep Lattimore if the offers are underwhelming, even if paying the option bonus would make it harder to cut ties in 2025. But there have been some cracks in the relationship between the two sides over the last year or two, with injuries hampering Lattimore’s availability and the Saints underperforming expectations under HC Dennis Allen. The way the Saints restructured Lattimore’s contract makes it clear that this is an option they’re considering.

When healthy, Lattimore remains one of the best cornerbacks in football and there are enough contending teams with a need at cornerback that there should be a healthy market. I think another team would need to put a Day 2 pick on the table for the Saints to consider a trade, but landing CB Kool-Aid McKinstry in the second round might make New Orleans more willing to make a move.

If we assume the Saints find a trade partner for Lattimore, they could enter the 2025 offseason needing to clear $60 million in cap space. There’s one more major player who could be on the way out.

  • Cut RB Alvin Kamara ($18.9M)

Saints RB Alvin Kamara suspended 3 games for role in 2022 Vegas altercation - The Athletic

Kamara’s base salary is set to skyrocket in the final year of the extension he signed back in 2017. He’s slated to make just under $25 million in 2025, none of it guaranteed. There’s always the option of a pay cut to keep a player as celebrated in New Orleans as Kamara around, but one way or another, the Saints must drastically reduce his cap hit. For a player to accept a pay cut, there usually must be a real threat of a release.

Running cap deficit: $41.1 million

  • Restructure LB Demario Davis ($5.6M)
  • Restructure C Erik McCoy ($6.7M)
  • Restructure G Cesar Ruiz ($6.4M)
  • Restructure DE Carl Granderson ($5.2M)

Due to the way the Saints have structured their contracts and made decisions about restructures, there’s no path for New Orleans to just cut its way out of its cap deficit. They have and will have no choice but to do more restructures. All four of these players have significant amounts of guaranteed salary already in 2025 and represent what the Saints would probably call the core of their team. If the Saints restructure contracts, this is likely the group they will pull from. In total, the Saints can save $23.9 million against the cap in 2025 by restructuring this group, possibly a tick more if they add void years.

Running cap deficit: $17.2 million 

Cut candidates

  • WR Cedrick Wilson ($2.4M)
  • RB Jamaal Williams ($1.6M)
  • DT Khalen Saunders ($2.6M)
  • TE Foster Moreau ($2.5M)
  • S J.T. Gray ($2.1M)
  • DT Nathan Shepherd restructure ($2.7M)

There are more prominent players and decisions to address but these are a little simpler to project. Shepherd’s contract contains minimal savings if cut but a more notable sum if restructured, so I lumped him in here. The rest of the list are veteran role players who don’t break the bank but aren’t so irreplaceable that a minimum-salaried option couldn’t replicate their production for cheaper next year.

The way things play out during the season will decide their fate, but for the sake of projection, I’ll make an educated guess that the Saints restructure Shepherd and cut Williams, Wilson and Gray.

Running cap deficit: $8.4 million

  • TE Taysom Hill ($4.7M cut, $5.8M restructure, $10M June 1)
  • DE Cameron Jordan (-$3.9M cut, $9M restructure, $11M June 1)
  • S Tyrann Mathieu (-$984,000 cut, $4.5M restructure, $6.2M June 1)
  • RT Ryan Ramczyk ($6M, $11.2M restructure, $18M June 1)
  • QB Derek Carr ($1.3M, $31M restructure, $30M June 1)

If you had to label this bucket of players, something like “hard decisions” or “more information needed” might be apt. The Saints will need to do something with at least a handful of these contracts and what exactly will likely be decided by how the 2025 season plays out.

Carr is the biggest name here. The Saints restructured his contract this offseason after a late push to close the season kept the team in the mix for the NFC South and made his stats look respectable. There are surely limits to how patient the Saints are willing to be with Allen, Carr and this regime, however. Another season of underperforming expectations could lead to a radical shakeup, and Carr would not be exempt in that scenario.

Ramczyk’s future is tied to his knee and the career-threatening condition he’s dealing with. His status is a huge question mark after Allen admitted he hadn’t made the progress the two sides had hoped for this offseason.

Ramczyk reworked his deal to take a pay cut with the chance to earn money back via incentives. The Saints used a first-round pick on a potential replacement, RT Taliese Fuaga, but they will leave the door cracked for a player like Ramczyk as long as they can.

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Jordan had just two sacks last year — the fewest since his rookie season in 2011 — and will be entering his age-35 season. It’s an open question how much gas he has left in the tank despite signing an extension just last summer. Jordan will likely go into the team ring of honor someday, so both sides will be motivated to keep things on good terms and allow Jordan to finish his career in New Orleans if that’s what he wants. It could even lead to a pay cut, as it will be tough to justify a $12.5 million base salary if Jordan has another year in 2024 like he just had in 2023.

Ultimately, how the Saints perceive themselves going into 2025 will dictate how they approach their salary cap situation. If they think they can keep contending with the bones of the current core roster, they can double down again on restructures, keep riding it out with players like Carr and Jordan and get $30 or $40 million in cap space to keep improving the roster. If they want to hit the reset button, they can do that too.

It should be pointed out that the Saints can only designate two players as June 1 cuts, which is important because there are multiple players here where the best escape hatch is through the June 1 mechanism. The salary cap space from a June 1 release also usually doesn’t kick in until after that date, and teams have to be in the black by the start of the new league year in March.

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Right now, the Saints have just 13 players under contract for the 2026 season, excluding players who still technically have void years and not including New Orleans’ seven-player 2024 draft class. Over The Cap has them accounted for $226 million in costs for 2026 at the moment, with tons of time for that number to fluctuate dramatically. Moving on from players like Lattimore, Kamara and others would lower the Saints’ expenses, restructuring players like Carr or Jordan or signing players in free agency in 2025 would raise them.

But the key number will be the leaguewide salary cap. OTC projects it to be $284 million, a $30 million increase from 2024. It’s not inconceivable that the number could end up being $290 million or even close to $300 million with how much NFL revenue has been growing. No matter what, all three of those numbers would currently give the Saints significant breathing room for the first time in years, even accounting for the need to fill out a 53-man roster.

The Saints built their salary cap strategy around the idea that the cap growth every year would offset some of their aggressive spending. So it’s fitting that a return to league revenue growth is what will ultimately pull them out of the financial hole they’ve been in for years. As things stand right now, there is a great chance the Saints will enter the offseason in 2026 without a preliminary laundry list of items just to achieve cap compliance.

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