"Salary cap hell" is a term thrown around a lot in the NFL without much substance. Teams are not permitted to go over the league's hard cap number, and entering every offseason it looks like a few teams will have trouble getting under that particular number thanks to outrageous cap hits from big contracts. At the end of every offseason, those teams easily slide underneath the hard cap because of a few minuscule moves that make no difference to fans but make all the difference in the cap world, like converting salary to signing bonuses.
This year, the salary cap dance is going to be much more difficult. For the first time since 2011, the NFL salary cap will not increase year-over-year. Thanks to the lost revenue from a year largely without fans at games, the 2021 salary cap is expected to decrease about $19 million, from $198 million in 2020 to $179 million in 2021. Every year since 2011, the cap has jumped $10 million per year, so all-in-all it's a difference of $30 million from where teams expected the number to be this time last year. NFL teams plan in the long-term, especially with contract numbers and how they relate to salary. Deals signed over the last few offseasons assumed the 2021 salary cap would be over $200 million.
Such a difference obviously throws a big wrench into many teams' plans. Most will have to cut players they would have rather kept and limit free-agent signings, but a few will have to take more drastic measures to ensure their cumulative cap hit for 2021 is at $179 million or less. One of those teams is the New Orleans Saints, who are definitely in cap hell right now, fresh off losing in the divisional round to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As it stands today, the Saints are projected to be nearly $100 million over the cap (all numbers will be via Spotrac). The total cap hits from all of their big contracts on the roster add up to $278 million. They have to get to $179 million or lower by the start of the new league year on March 17, and have to have enough space to sign their newest crop of draft picks . It's going to be very difficult to do that and will take more than extending the biggest contracts to spread out the cap hit and things of that nature.
Drew Brees has the highest hit on the roster and (fortunately for the cap sheet) is very likely to retire this offseason. The money from his contract does not simply go away if he retires, though; Brees' dead-cap hit will count for $22 million against the Saints' cap if he isn't on the roster in 2021 no matter what. The Saints can place him on the retired list and split that into a two-year hit, so Brees would count for $11 million in 2021 and $11 million in 2022. But they can't do that until June 1. For the purposes of getting underneath the cap by March 17, Brees will count for $22 million, and there isn't anything New Orleans can do about that.
The Saints have no less than 12 players who will count for $10 million or more against the cap in 2021. Most of them, like LT Terron Armstead, RT, Ryan Ramcyzk, and DE Cameron Jordan, will have their contracts renegotiated in some form (whether it be an extension or salary converted to bonuses) to help lower their hit on the 2021 cap sheet. The Saints don't have to trade everybody to get under the hard cap, and many of their big deals have dead cap hits that would affect the New Orleans cap sheet even in the event of a trade.
But sacrifices will have to be made somewhere. Older players with low or no dead cap hits are as good as gone. For example, Kwon Alexander is slated to count for $12 million against the cap next season, but will count for nothing if the Saints simply cut or trade him. Emmanuel Sanders ($10 million against the cap in 2021) is in a similar boat with only a $4 million dead cap hit if he isn't on the roster in 2021. The team may even go further and swallow a $7 million dead cap hit for someone like Janoris Jenkins if it means getting his $14 million salary off the books next year.
There is one very obvious change that needs to be made in pursuit of lowering the overall cap numbers, and it involves Sean Payton's favorite gadget player. Taysom Hill's two-year deal he signed last offseason makes it so he will count for $16 million against the cap in 2021. That is an untenable number if he stays in the same role as 2020, where he played less than a third of all offensive snaps in games where Brees was healthy. Unfortunately, the Saints can't just cut him and be done with it; Hill will count for $11 million in dead money if he isn't on the roster next year. They'll have to extend him with the hopes of getting his 2021 cap hit under that $10 million mark, regardless of Payton's plans for Hill.
There are some deals they'll just have to swallow. Michael Thomas isn't going anywhere even after his no-show in the postseason; he'll count for $23 million in dead cap money if the Saints ship him off in 2021 and is entering the first season of a five-year, $96 million deal, meaning an extension is out of the question. It's a similar situation with guard Andrus Peat, entering the second year of a five-year, $57 million extension with a dead cap hit of $23 million.
One player who could be in a different uniform come 2021 is Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore is in the final year of his rookie contract and will count for $10 million against the cap next year. But he has no dead cap hit, meaning the Saints can move on with no financial penalty. Lattimore is one of the game's top cornerbacks on his good days, which means that any extension will come with a big price tag. New Orleans could ink him to a new, backloaded deal that would lower his cap hit in 2021, but they very well might decide they're better off trading Lattimore to clear up some cap room with no consequences. Unlikely, admittedly, but everything is in play at this stage.
The Saints are in this situation because they went all-out in maximizing Brees' final years. Any team would do the same. Now, the crows are coming to roost. GM Mickey Loomis is very good at manipulating the language in contracts to make the cap numbers work, given New Orleans has been in similar but less dire situations before and still managed to get under the hard cap. But he has his work cut out for him in the coming months.