Now that the book has closed on the incredible Drew Brees era in New Orleans, the “salary cap hell” boogeyman we’ve been hearing about for years has officially arrived.
To their credit, the New Orleans Saints more or less proved that if an owner is willing to do whatever it takes from a cash perspective — and if the cap keeps rising each year — a team can manipulate the cap so much that it is not really a true constraint. At the end of the day, the cap is just an accounting system that artificially suppresses salaries for players in the NFL, as is the case in all professional sports.
This isn’t to say there are no ramifications for continually kicking money down the road — which we will discuss shortly, of course — but if a team is willing to go to extremes, then it can make things work for a long time.
Before the 2020 season began, the Saints missed out on signing free agent Jadeveon Clowney because they could not clear the requisite cap space to do so. So, the cap clearly isn’t actually “fake” as some contend, considering we have direct evidence of it preventing a move (albeit a blessing in disguise at that). Nevertheless, we digress and now turn our focus to just how the Saints can get under the cap in 2021.
The NFL and NFLPA agreed to a 2021 salary cap floor of $175 million, but just to be generous in this exercise, we’ll pretend the 2021 salary cap is $190 million. Here is one example of the bevy of moves the Saints have to make just to be cap compliant in 2021.
Dead money: The cap charge left behind with the original team if a player is cut or traded.
Void years: Dummy contract years that are simply there to hold prorated bonus money in the future. The player is not truly under contract for these seasons.
Start — Saints total 2021 cap liabilities: $276 million
$88 million over our hypothetical $190 million 2021 cap
Quarterback Drew Brees retires, and the Saints carry him on their books through June 1st so they can spread his dead money over 2021-22.
Brees’ 2021 cap hit drops from $36.15 million to $11.15 million, saving a whopping $25 million.
Guard Nick Easton is cut.
Easton’s 2021 cap hit drops from $7 million to $1 million, saving $6 million.
Linebacker Kwon Alexander is released and applies for the injury protection benefit, which would leave a $1.2 million 2021 cap charge with the Saints (avoiding this was why the Ravens made Mark Ingram II a healthy scratch in their playoff game against the Buffalo Bills).
Alexander’s cap hit drops from $13.4 million to $1.2 million.
Update — $44.8 million over our hypothetical $190 million 2021 salary cap