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Salary Cap ‘Hell’ has Come and Gone for the New Orleans Saints

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Four years in salary cap hell have been hard on Saints fans, but something brighter is coming right around the bend.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a phrase that’s been on the mind of any involved fan of the New Orleans Saints and seemingly every bougie national analyst who looks down their nose at the team in the Crescent City: Cap Hell.

That nebulous threat of not being able to sign free agents or properly manage the salary cap has been hovering around Airline Drive for years now, but what many observers don’t realize is that it’s already come to pass.

Cap hell isn’t coming in the days after Drew Brees hangs up his cleats, at least not like we’re imagining it. It’s already come and is on its way out.

Life in cap hell has been the Saints ranking 31st or 32nd in salary cap space every year from 2013 to 2016. It’s been seeing huge swathes of valuable salary cap space spent on players who aren’t on the roster like Jimmy Graham and Junior Galette, or forfeiting cap space to Drew Brees until it wouldn’t be as badly-needed. But the important thing to take away is that 2017 is the year the Saints will escape cap hell.

As of writing, my projection for the 2017 salary cap is around $169.7 million, an increase from the $155.27 million it currently tops out at. Rumors from inside the NFL estimate the salary cap to rest at $166 million, but that’s a conservative guess – which has been common in the last few years.

The rumored salary cap for the upcoming year has been too low every year since 2014. The estimate in 2014 was $126.3 million, but the cap was actually set at $133.1 million. The following year it was rumored to hit $138.6 million, but the salary cap climbed to $143.3 million. This spring a modest gain to $147 million was floated, but surpassed to $155.3 million. You get the idea.

Whether this is happening organically by reporters not wanting to overestimate cap increases or the league is deliberately providing bad information to keep the NFL in headlines year-round can’t be decided.

What I can tell you is that I’ve been projecting salary cap increases every year and I’m getting better at it. My private projections have narrowed the gap to the official salary cap each of the last few years, most recently coming in at $154.9 million – just a few hundred thousand dollars less than the actual number.

For 2017, I’m predicting the biggest jump on record: a leaguewide salary cap of $169.7 million. Estimates at sites like Spotrac.com and OverTheCap.com are at $166 million, largely fueled by NFL sources, so I’m confident in my higher number.

That’s great news for the Saints. At this time, they have just under $8 million in dead money commitments on the books for 2017 – about 5.5 percent of their total spending next year. That leads the NFL, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. For the first time in years the Saints are not only expected to land under the salary cap, they’ll be comfortably beneath it. Their projected $33.9 million in 2017 salary cap is ranked 18th in the NFL.

For a team used to pinching pennies, this kind of ammo will let them go big-game hunting.

What’s more, the Saints won’t be looking to re-sign a bunch of starters, or even middle-class players. They have 48 players on the roster for 2017, which is second only to the San Diego Chargers (49). With contract extensions recently handed out to Drew Brees, Max Unger, and Terron Armstead, the Saints can turn their attention to upgrading the current roster rather than spending all summer haggling with their own in-house free agents.

With a few more roster cuts, the Saints can open up spots for new players while getting more funds to make upgrades.

Releasing safety Jairus Byrd from his contract next spring will save the Saints $3.7 million in 2017 salary cap space.

Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe’s contract voids out if he plays less than 80 percent of snaps, which would turn into $3.2 million in savings.

Right tackle Zach Strief is maligned by many fans, but he’s one of the team’s consistently-productive offensive linemen and a favorite of head coach Sean Payton. Strief will probably be here as long as he wants, but to play the devil’s advocate: cutting Strief would save $2.9 million in 2017.

Contract extensions could be on the way to lower salary cap hits for safety Kenny Vaccaro ($5.676 million), running back Mark Ingram ($5.245 million), or punter Thomas Morstead ($4.7 million).

One more thing: barring some surprise free agent signings or trades in 2016, the Saints will be able to roll over about $9 million in unused cap space on top of what they’re already poised to enjoy in 2017.

All those factors in mind, it’s likely the Saints will enter free agency in 2017 with something in the neighborhood of $40 million to spend. With a stout class of veterans from around the league looming, this is the greatest opportunity they’ve had in years to bring experienced talent to a team in desperate need of it.

This was a lot to digest, so I’ll leave you with this: the Saints are almost out of the woods. They’ve been to cap hell and back, and nobody wants to repeat that experience. I don’t know how many games they’ll win in 2016, but the future is bright from where I’m watching.