Could cap decisions finally catch up to Saints?

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints have spent almost every offseason since 2012 doing significant work to become salary cap compliant.

The Saints signed quarterback Drew Brees to a then-record five-year, $100 million extension that year, and they spent the next nine seasons crafting the team around him and his escalating salary cap hits.

Brees counted less than $10 million against the cap for his first three seasons. By the time he signed his final contract in 2019, the Saints were working with cap figures of more than $20 million.

The Saints have not wavered from that philosophy, nor have they had a rookie quarterback to ease the cap burden, instead signing Jameis Winston to a new deal in 2022 and Derek Carr to a four-year deal with $100 million guaranteed in 2023.

The Saints have been able to work around that problem for the last decade by restructuring all of their significant contracts on a yearly basis, saving money in the short term but creating bigger cap hits in the future.

While the 2024 salary cap has not been set, the team will likely need to free up roughly $80 million via restructures. That philosophy works well for young players like Erik McCoy or Cesar Ruiz, but it's not an easy decision on other players due to age, injuries or other issues.

Here are some of the biggest contract problems facing the Saints in 2024 and beyond:

The All-Pro right tackle's knee issues

Ryan Ramczyk signed a five-year contract worth $96 million prior to the 2021 season. Ramczyk was 27, had received All-Pro honors three times and had never missed a game because of injury.

Ramczyk has missed 13 games in the past three seasons, mostly due to a recurring cartilage problem in his knee. Ramczyk said that he and the medical staff are going to have to find a solution that could get him through the season.

"I feel like I'm not done yet. I feel like I still want to play," Ramczyk said at the end of the season. "I feel like I'm still passionate about the game. When you think about it like that, my mind frame is, 'I want to play, and I want to keep doing it, so what can I do to get better, to not have this happen in-season?'"

However, if Ramczyk, who turns 30 in April, has to retire prior to the end of his contract, the Saints will have to eat a significant amount of money after multiple restructures over the years.

If the Saints don't touch Ramczyk's contract, a retirement in 2024 would cost them $32 million in dead money. A retirement in 2025 would mean $22.6 million in dead money, and retiring in 2026 would mean $12.6 million in dead money.

If the Saints did a full restructure of Ramczyk's contract, as they have done every year of this deal, they would free up $11.8 million in the short term but pay for it in the future if Ramczyk can no longer play because of his knee.

If Ramczyk retired in 2025 after a 2024 restructure, for example, the Saints would now have $34.4 million in dead money to account for instead of $22.6 million.

Brees helped the team in 2021 by lowering his base salary to the veteran minimum, and waiting until after June 1 to file his retirement papers. Brees counted $11.15 million against the cap in 2021 after the move and $11.5 million in 2022.

The age of defensive stars Jordan, Davis

Ramczyk's future isn't the only one that is uncertain in the next few years.

Linebacker Demario Davis (35) and defensive lineman Cameron Jordan (34) are team captains and have been two of the most important players on the roster for a long time. Davis was named All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl as an alternate this season.

However, they are one of seven current defense players in the NFL who are 34 or older.

Jordan signed a contract extension in 2023 and is under contract through 2025, and Davis is on the last season of his deal heading into the 2024 season.

Jordan dealt with injuries in 2023 -- but did not miss a game -- and finished with his fewest sacks (two) since his rookie season.

Davis has three void years in his deal and will count $6.8 million in dead money if he is not on the roster in 2025. If they do a full restructure of his 2024 base salary and $2 million roster bonus, he will count $8 million against the cap if his contract automatically voids next year.

Jordan is currently set to have $13 million in dead money if he retires prior to the 2025 season and $7.85 million if his contract voids in 2026. That number will jump to $17 million if he retires in 2025 after a restructure, but retiring after June 1 can help spread that out.

Thomas and Lattimore's uncertain futures

The contracts of wide receiver Michael Thomas and cornerback Marshon Lattimore pose some issues.

Thomas will cost the team $20 million in dead money in 2024 if released. If he's a post-June 1 cut, the team will have $11.1 million in dead money this season and $9.1 million next season.

Lattimore is trickier. The team restructured his contract in a way that could lead to a trade. If the Saints do trade him prior to exercising the option bonus and after June 1, they would have $10.6 million of dead cap money in 2024 and $20.6 million in 2025.

Carr and his escalating salary cap hits

Carr is entering the second season of his contract and counts $35.7 million against the 2024 salary cap. His $30 million base salary in 2024 is fully guaranteed and a $10 million roster bonus in 2025 guarantees on the third day of the 2024 league year.

Carr's $30 million base salary in 2025 is guaranteed if he is on the roster next year.

A full restructure would open up $23 million of space in 2024 but will make his 2025 salary cap number grow to more than $51 million.

If the Saints did not touch Carr's contract, they could release him in 2025 with $40 million in savings against the cap (but would have to account for the roster bonus).

A restructure likely pushes that out a year. They would account for $21 million in dead money at minimum as a post-June 1 cut in 2025, or $50 million if the Saints wanted to take the entire dead money hit at once.

Saints coach Dennis Allen and general manager Mickey Loomis have affirmed their belief in Carr throughout the season. If he plays well in 2024, a restructured contract will be less of a problem, however, the contract's ballooning cap hits make restructuring almost a necessity every year at this point if they intend to keep him on the roster.

Kamara and the running back age problem

Alvin Kamara will be 29 when the 2024 season begins. An analysis done by Roster Management System shows that running backs with 75 carries or more over at least four seasons tend to peak at 27 and decline every season afterward.

Running backs with at least 150 carries per season peak at 26. Kamara has had at least 170 carries for the last six seasons and had a career low 1,160 yards from scrimmage in 2023 -- granted, he was suspended for the first three games of the season and missed another because of injury.

"This isn't just Alvin," Allen said at the end of the season. "I don't think we ran the ball as effectively as we needed to be able to run the ball. ... We didn't have quite the explosive plays we're used to seeing from him ... but I thought he was highly productive as a receiver. I thought he had a productive season ,and I think there's still more to be had.

"I think as you get older, and look, in particular at that position, running backs a tough position, but I think he's still got plenty of ability to help us win."

Managing whether to push Kamara's cap hits back while projecting the age of decline will be an important decision moving forward.

Kamara currently counts $18.7 million against the cap in 2024 and has a $1 million roster bonus due on the fifth day of the league year.

A restructure this year would free up $8 million but result in a $19.7 million dead money hit if they cut or traded him before June 1, 2025.

Trading Kamara before June 1 this year would cost them $17 million in dead money but save $1.5 million against the cap.

Will Hill's production slow down at 34?

Taysom Hill, in whatever position you consider him, will be 34 at the beginning of the upcoming season.

He's not considered a running back (and is currently listed as a quarterback), but running the ball has been his primary duty. He has four straight seasons of at least 70 carries and has dealt with a number of injuries during that span.

Hill has two seasons left on his contract, and the Saints would be left with $11 million in dead money with a 2025 release -- but they would save $4.6 million against the cap. A restructured contract in 2024 makes his dead money hit in 2025 rise to $11.7 million.

While Hill's do-everything style for the offense has landed him in the history books (he became the fifth player ever to record 10 passing touchdowns, 10 receiving touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns in a career), treating him as a running back would put him in a rare group. Latavius Murray and Brandon Bolden are the only current two running backs in the NFL that are 34 or older.