Evaluating Saints’ 2014 salary cap, free agency plan

New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis

Derick E. Hingle/Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Even after releasing several veterans, the New Orleans Saints entered free agency with the third-least salary cap space in the NFL, at just over $1.5 million, according to OverTheCap.com. Due to this fact, it was fair to expect a very quiet free agency period. Those expectations went to the wayside when general manager Mickey Loomis made safety Jairus Byrd the second highest paid free agent in 2014, signing him to a six-year, $54 million contract. Some will say that he saw a closing window of opportunity for the team to win and others might offer that he simply saw the team being one dynamic player away from becoming elite. He also managed to re-sign longtime right tackle Zach Strief to a five-year, $20 million contract. In order to make his plan work with the NFL’s salary cap restrictions, he had to get creative. This is how Loomis executed his free agency plan while at the same time staying under the league’s salary cap.

*All salary cap information comes from Overthecap.com, the leading expert in salary cap analysis. Their numbers often come directly from the agents, and it is has proven to be the most accurate source for salary information on numerous occasions.

The Foundation:

The Saints laid the groundwork for their plan in the middle of February by releasing three veterans: Will Smith, Jabari Greer, and Roman Harper. These moves saved the team $16.905 million in 2014 salary cap space, and it brought them from $13.5 million over the cap to $3.35 million under the cap.

The Creative First Strike:

Getting under the salary cap ceiling by the new league year (March 11th) was mandatory for the Saints, but just under $4 million didn’t seem like enough cap space to sign a top free agent like Byrd. This is when Loomis got creative. Although Byrd’s contract carries a $9 million annual salary, the cap hit in 2014 is just $3.5 million. His cap number jumps to $10.3 in 2015, and remains in that range for the rest of this deal. This "buy now and pay later" approach allowed the Saints to acquire Byrd for almost a third of his annual salary in 2014, with much higher annual cap hits and guaranteed money coming in the years after. For example, if Byrd is on the roster on the 3rd day of the 2015 League Year his $2 million base salary will become fully guaranteed, and if on the roster on the 3rd day of the 2016 League year, another $6 million in salary becomes fully guaranteed.

The Purge Continued:

After allocating what little 2014 cap space they had to Byrd, the team needed to make several roster moves to get back under the cap and free up enough space to re-sign Strief. Moving on from other veterans was the only way to free up the necessary space, so they released wide receiver Lance Moore, clearing up another $3.8 million in cap space. Next, they traded running back Darren Sproles to the Eagles, clearing up another $3.5 million in cap space.

Kicking The Can Down The Road:

The Saints finally agreed to terms with Strief, and they used a similar approach to structuring his contract except at a lesser scale. Although Strief is set to earn $4 million annually, his 2014 cap hit is just $2 million, with bonuses and guaranteed money "kicked down the road" to later seasons. They continued this strategy by re-structuring the contract of Keenan Lewis, a free agent who they had just signed last offseason. As part of the restructure Lewis reduced his 2014 and 2015 salaries by a combined $4,600,000. $4,400,000 was paid to Lewis in the form of a signing bonus in 2014, which increased his 2014 cash salary by $2.1 million but reduced his salary cap charge by $1.2 million.

Dead Money

All of these past restructures and releases created a pool of "dead money". Dead money is the money that counts against a team’s salary cap even after a player is released. In other words, it’s a cap penalty that requires a team to build a roster with less money than dictated by the league’s salary cap.

When a team chooses to restructure a contract and push the cap hit into future seasons, they run the risk of accumulating a tab of dead money if they release that player. For example, last offseason the team restructured Roman Harper’s contract lowering his 2013 cap hit so they could stay under the cap. When they opted to release him this offseason, $3.69 million of his 2014 cap hit became dead. The Saints have followed the same approach with other veterans, and everyone who they cut this offseason carried with them "dead money".

The Saints currently have the fifth-highest dead money in the NFL, with $13, 737,551 in total.

The Jimmy Graham Dilemma:

Right now, Jimmy Graham is considered a "franchise player" at the tight end position, and under this designation he currently counts $7.035 million against the 2014 salary cap. If Graham files a grievance and wins it, the Saints will be forced to pay him the "wide receiver franchise tag", which would count for $12.312 million against the cap. Graham has until April 22nd to file a grievance. This would force the Saints to either release more veterans or restructure more contracts.

Of course, the most likely scenario is that the two sides hammer out a long-term contract. If they can agree to a deal, Loomis will have the flexibility to decide the cap number for each season including 2014. If he needs the cap space, he can structure it similarly to Byrd’s contract.

Where They Are At Right Now:

In their most recent move, the Saints and Pierre Thomas agreed to a two-year contract extension that actually saved the team $1.33 million in 2014 salary cap space. Next, they allocated just over $2 million combined in three signings/re-signings—Joseph Morgan, Ramon Humber, and Erik Lorig. Currently, the Saints are $2,138,782 under the 2014 salary cap. They will need a total $1,530,245 available in order to sign all of their players from the NFL Draft—this number represents their combined 2014 salary cap number.

The remainder of the Saints’ free agency period will be heavily tied to the conclusion of the Jimmy Graham saga. However, in every other scenario besides the one where Graham files and wins a grievance, the ball will be in Loomis’ court. The Saints are clearly in win now mode and they have a nearly complete offseason blueprint to show for it.