METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints might have the NFL’s most daunting to-do list over the next month. They need to carve out more than $65 million in salary-cap space, identify Drew Brees’ replacement and decide whether to re-sign pending free agents like Jameis Winston, Marcus Williams, Trey Hendrickson and Sheldon Rankins.
But New Orleans’ most difficult and urgent decisions might actually involve three cornerstones who aren’t scheduled to become free agents until 2022 -- cornerback Marshon Lattimore and offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk. All three could cost nearly $20 million per year in their next contracts.
The Saints must decide now if they plan to make those kinds of investments. Here’s why:
The long-term budget. If the Saints plan to spend big on Lattimore, Armstead or Ramczyk in the near future, they may need to save room by letting some of those 2021 free agents move on. On the flip side, if they're prepared to move on from any of those three players, they could have huge trade value. That way the Saints could afford to keep other players while also receiving premium draft picks in return (like they did with past stars Jimmy Graham and Brandin Cooks).
Avoiding holdouts. Lattimore and Ramczyk, especially, could threaten to hold out this summer, since they are heading into the final years of their rookie contracts. This is the expected timetable for lucrative extensions, as we saw with fellow stars Michael Thomas in 2019 and Alvin Kamara in 2020.
Creating cap space. New Orleans could actually lower all three players’ 2021 cap charges by signing them to extensions and back-loading bigger cap hits into future years. As of now, Armstead is scheduled to cost $16.2875 million against the 2021 cap, Ramczyk $11.064 million and Lattimore $10.244 million. … The Saints could theoretically accomplish the same thing by asking the players to sign fake extensions that include automatically voiding years (a common practice for New Orleans). But it’s possible the players would decline to do so if they’re playing hardball in contract negotiations.
Planning ahead. If New Orleans is planning to lose any of those players, then identifying their replacements would immediately become a top priority in this year’s draft.
With all of those factors in mind, here is a look at the decisions the Saints must make:
The arguments for keeping Lattimore are obvious. The 11th pick in the 2017 NFL draft has often played like an elite cornerback, winning the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year award and being selected to three Pro Bowls. He has a coveted combination of strength and speed at 6-feet, 192 pounds, which makes him a standout in man coverage. He does his best work against No. 1 receivers -- especially the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Mike Evans, which is obviously an important rivalry in the NFC South. And he turns just 25 years old in May.
Furthermore, Lattimore would be extremely hard to replace, since New Orleans’ No. 2 cornerback Janoris Jenkins is 32 and the team doesn’t have any surefire replacements waiting in the wings. For those reasons, ESPN analyst Matt Bowen recently recommended investing in Lattimore.
However, Lattimore has battled some inconsistency throughout his career, admitting that he has let his motivation slip at times when he isn’t locked into duels against high-profile receivers. And the price tag for elite cornerbacks has skyrocketed, with Jalen Ramsey signing for $20 million per year with the Los Angeles Rams and Marlon Humphrey for $19.5 million per year with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Saints need to decide if their internal grades justify that cost -- or if they like the idea of getting a high draft choice in return.
A fellow first-round pick in 2017 (No. 32 overall), Ramczyk could also fetch a premium if the Saints decided to trade him. The 6-6, 314-pounder turns 27 in April, and he has established himself as one of the premier right tackles in football after being named first-team All-Pro in 2019 and second-team All-Pro in 2018 and 2020. Pro Football Focus rated him among the NFL's top eight tackles in each of his first three seasons and 20th last season.
Ramczyk’s market value is a little harder to gauge since he is a right tackle. But that line between right and left tackle has blurred in recent years with so many elite edge rushers lining up on either side. In fact, Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson became the highest-paid offensive lineman at any position in November 2019 when he signed for $18 million per year.
Also, it’s not out of the question that Ramczyk could move back to his college position of left tackle if New Orleans decided to move on from Armstead.
It’s almost impossible to rank Armstead’s value vs. Ramczyk’s value. Armstead (6-5, 304) has rare athletic traits for his size, and he has been among the best offensive linemen in football when healthy -- including this past season. But he turns 30 in July, and he has battled a series of nagging injuries throughout his career. So there might be more of a ceiling on his price tag or trade value.
In the short term, any team -- including the Saints -- should be willing to pay a top-of-the-market price for Armstead to try to win a Super Bowl. PFF had him rated as the NFL’s top offensive tackle in both 2015 and 2018 and top 10 in both 2019 and 2020. He was named second-team All-Pro in 2018 and has been to three straight Pro Bowls. And he has stayed healthier in recent seasons, missing three total games in 2019 and 2020.
A third-round pick out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 2013, the Saints got a steal when they signed Armstead to an extension worth $13 million per year in 2016. They’d have to pay more this time around.
Regardless of how the Saints rank their tackles, however, it stands to reason that they will extend at least one of them. Otherwise the cupboard would be extremely bare at one of the most vital positions on the roster.