NEW ORLEANS -- Saints general manager Mickey Loomis would one day like to see a future where New Orleans isn't at the bottom of the salary cap standings.
But the Saints have a lot of work to do to get there.
The salary cap is expected to be set at $224.8 million, a jump from the 2022 cap of $208.2 million. It's back on the upward trend after dropping in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Saints were $55 million over the salary cap when the NFL informed teams of their pending cap space in late January, according to Roster Management System.
That's not nearly as bad as in 2021, when the Saints were $100 million in the red. There were some consequences to that, such as defensive end Trey Hendrickson signing with the Cincinnati Bengals and a quiet free agency year, with rotational defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon being their biggest addition.
"Look, we've got to catch up. We've got to manage this back to the middle," Loomis said in January. "That's been our plan all along, and obviously the COVID year and the reduced cap and the reduced leaguewide revenues and the smoothing out of all that has impacted that. But yes, we have to make up for some of that."
It helps that the Saints got the contract of retired quarterback Drew Brees off the books this year. But with a murky future at the position, New Orleans could use any extra space to sign a free-agent quarterback or trade for one like Las Vegas Raiders' Derek Carr, had he decided to waive his no-trade clause.
Here's some of the decisions the Saints can make to not only become salary cap compliant but to sign free agents:
Restructure salaries of DE Cameron Jordan, CB Marshon Lattimore, OT Ryan Ramczyk, QB/TE Taysom Hill, RB Alvin Kamara and S Tyrann Mathieu
Jordan turns 34 in July, but it's hard to imagine the Saints moving on without a solid replacement for the defensive end. If they chose to release him, they would save $2.2 million against the cap. He is entering the final season of his contract with three void years on the end. The Saints can do a simple restructure as they have for several years in a row.
They'll do this by reducing his $13.9 million base salary and reducing it to the league minimum of $1.165 million and converting it into a signing bonus. That would allow them to spread $12.7 million over the remaining three void years. By doing this and converting his $500,000 to a signing bonus, the Saints can lower Jordan's 2023 cap number by about $10 million. However, it will pile on more dead money in the future if the Saints don't sign him to an extension in 2024.
Savings: $10 million
Lattimore missed most of the 2022 season with an injury, although he immediately made his presence known with a pick-six upon his return late in the season. His 2023 base salary became guaranteed last year, so if the Saints pulled a stunner and traded him, the new team would be responsible for that salary.
It's more likely that the 27-year-old has his contract restructured like last year. The Saints would take his $14.5 million base salary to the minimum of $1.08 million and spread it out over the remaining four years of the contract he signed in 2021. That would lower his cap hit from $22.9 million to $12.4 million.
Savings: $10.065 million
Ramczyk's cap number of $21.4 million above can be lowered to $11.75 million with a simple restructure like those listed above, spreading the portion of his base salary over the final four years of his deal, if the Saints don't add void years.
Savings: $9.69 million
Former Saints coach Sean Payton has joked about taking Hill's contract off the Saints hands if he returns to the NFL, but Hill's nine touchdowns proves he's still needed in New Orleans. A restructure would take a trade out of the question (and trade savings would be almost nothing). But it would save the Saints some money and cut his $14.75 million cap number in half.
Savings: $6.8 million
Kamara has a $16 million cap hit in 2023. The Saints can take a portion of his $9.4 million base salary and his $1 million roster bonus and convert that to a signing bonus, saving about $7 million in the process.
Savings: $7.65 million
Mathieu signed a three-year deal with two void years in 2022. They can reduce his $8.9 million cap number to $4.5 million with a restructure of his $7 million base salary.
Savings: $4.3 million
Convert C Erik McCoy's and S Marcus Maye's roster bonuses into signing bonuses
McCoy signed a five-year extension in 2022 with a $10 million roster bonus due in 2023. The Saints structure contracts this way on purpose so that the roster bonus can be converted into a signing bonus and spread out over the rest of the contract. That saves $8 million in 2023 and adds $2 million to each future year.
Savings: $8 million
Maye signed a three-year deal in 2022 with two void years. He is due a guaranteed $5.8 million roster bonus in 2023.
The Saints can drop his $8.5 million cap hit to $4.25 million by converting the roster bonus into a signing bonus and spreading it out over four years.
Savings: $4.25 million
Restructure or release OG Andrus Peat
Peat has been with the Saints since they took him in the first round of the 2015 draft and has gotten fairly pricey to keep, considering he has missed 28 games since the start of the 2018 season. His cap number for 2023 is $18.37 million.
If the Saints restructure Peat, they'll save almost $8 million against the cap but will also balloon his cap number to more than $20 million in 2024, the final year of his deal.
Restructure savings: $10.37 million
Post-June 1 cut savings: $11.825 million
Cut savings: $1.387 million
Release WR Michael Thomas as a post-June 1 cut
Post-June 1 cuts allow the team to spread out the salary cap hit over two years instead of one. The tradeoff is that the team has to carry that player's salary until after June 1, even if the player is cut months prior.
Brees voluntarily reduced his base salary from $25 million to the veteran minimum prior to his retirement in 2021. The Saints still had to deal with the prorated portion of his signing bonus, but it gave them some cap relief to get the base salary down.
Thomas recently reduced his own base salary to $1.165 million, giving the Saints flexibility to move on from him if they wish. If Thomas was a regular release, they would have to account for the entire remaining portion of his signing bonus in 2023 ($26.1 million). If released, he'll be a post June-1 cut so they only have to absorb the $11.9 million portion of his signing bonus on the books for 2023.
Savings: $1.365 million
Release QB Jameis Winston
It's hard to imagine the Saints moving ahead with Winston as their quarterback after attempting to replace him twice, first with a failed attempt to acquire Deshaun Watson and then with Andy Dalton in-season.
Winston signed a two-year deal last year that was structured in a way that they could move on quickly. Winston is due a $12.8 million base salary and has $11.2 million remaining of the $14 million signing bonus from last year.
He could be another post-June 1 cut if the Saints want to save $12.8 million against the cap, but it's possible they want the cap space immediately. By releasing him prior to his contract guarantees kicking in on March 19, they'll save $4.4 million against the 2023 salary cap.
Savings: $4.4 million
Release WR Tre'Quan Smith
This would only bring minor savings, but Smith's usage dropped significantly in 2022 despite his role as a blocker. He had only one touchdown in 2022.
Smith isn't expensive, but if the Saints need to start looking for change in the couch cushions, this is a potential cut.
Savings: $1.9 million
Add void years to K Wil Lutz's contract
Lutz is entering the final year of his contract and will count $5.62 million against the cap. The Saints might be hesitant on an extension at this moment after Lutz missed the 2021 season and converted a career-worst 74.2% of his field goal attempts in 2022.
They can add void years to the contact if they're not ready for an extension. If the Saints added two void years, they can do a restructure of his $3.4 million base salary, converting it to a signing bonus and dropping his cap hit to $4.1 million.
Savings: $1.5 million or more (depending on amount of void years)
What else can the Saints do?
Defensive linemen David Onyemata and Marcus Davenport are scheduled to become free agents who will still count against the salary cap if they leave because of the void years in their contracts. Onyemata would count $10.1 million against the salary cap if he leaves.
If the Saints gave Onyemata the same deal he got in 2020 (three years and a void year, $27 million, $10 million signing bonus), it would be a cap hit of $9.4 million (base salary and signing bonus added to the $5.71 million of the old signing bonus on the 2023 cap).
While that particular scenario wouldn't save the Saints a ton of cap space, at least they wouldn't be spending $10 million in cap room on a player they don't have.
The Saints are in a similar situation with Davenport, as he'll count $7.6 million against the cap this season if he leaves because of a restructure to his fifth-year option in 2022.
Total savings: About $70-$80 million