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5 potential New Orleans Saints cap-saving strategies in 2017

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The Saints won’t be the only ones with money to play around in free agency in just three weeks, but the good news is there’s more money to gain.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints look to be players in NFL free agency in just three weeks. However, they’ll not be the only ones. Yes, it’s true that general manager Mickey Loomis will have a seemingly absurd amount of money to throw around during the offseason, which is very uncommon to fans. Having an estimated $30 million to play around with, that figure could go up if some things were to happen.

Putting the GM hat on, here’s five moves that could help the team's cap situation for the near and not-so-distant future.

Convert Terron Armstead and Max Unger's roster bonus to signing bonus

Terron Armstead is the third-highest salary cap hit on the Saints behind Drew Brees and Cameron Jordan. Without question, Armstead had a very disappointing campaign in 2016. While he figures to be back in full force to protect the blind side, he has a $5 million roster bonus owed to him in 2017, while $6.2 million of his 2018 salary becomes fully guaranteed on March 10. The Saints are no stranger to taking roster bonuses and converting them to signing bonuses to help shift some money to help the cap, and this could easily happen for Armstead. They could spread it across the final four years of his deal.

The same scenario could happen for center Max Unger, who is owed a $3.95 million roster bonus in 2017. Now, he already helped the Saints do this once in 2015 by converting $3 million of his $4.5 million figure into a signing bonus. Should the Saints need more, they could ask Unger to do it again and spread it over the final two years of his contract in 2018 and 2019.

Extend Kenny Vaccaro

Kenny Vaccaro is set to count for $5.67 million against the 2017 salary cap because the Saints picked up his fifth-year option. Obviously, Vaccaro has made a tremendous impact for Dennis Allen’s defense, and it was evident that the defense missed him after being suspended for the final four games of the season. It would be ideal to find common ground over the next several weeks if possible, and the price tag Vaccaro has entering 2017 is good for the ninth-highest paid strong safety in the league.

Extend/Restructure Thomas Morstead

Let’s be perfectly clear here. Thomas Morstead is an extremely valuable commodity for the New Orleans Saints. While Marquette King may bask in the glory of popularity, Morstead has proven to be extremely consistent in the league. He’s the 10th-highest cap figure approaching 2017 at $4.7 million, and is under contract through 2018. Restructuring would be a bit harder for the Saints, but extending him as their franchise punter could help free up some dollars the team could use.

Cut Dannell Ellerbe

It may seem like a very unpopular opinion right now, but the Saints could gain an additional $2.5 million by parting ways with Dannell Ellerbe. His dead money hit would only be $700K, and the Saints could look to the draft to get or free agency to pick up a weak side linebacker to replace him. When on the field, Ellerbe is truly a prize for the Saints. However, that’s been the issue with having him. Since 2014, Ellerbe has only appeared in 16 out of 48 games, which includes 15 games for the Saints. He’ll be 32 by November, and may be looking at his last season with the team or even league.

Designate Jairus Byrd as a post-June 1 cut

This is likely the biggest salary cap decision the Saints face, as Jairus Byrd comes in at a whopping $11.2 million hit for the new season. Trimming him as a post-June 1 cut makes a huge difference as opposed to cutting him now. Byrd would only draw $3.4 million in dead money and provide $7.8 million in cap savings if the Saints go that route. By parting ways with him now, the Saints would be out $8 million in dead money and only save $3.2 million.

Of course, that would leave a big gap to fill on defense. Sure, there are potential options that could present itself, but by that point of the offseason when rookie mini-camp and OTAs are here, what would realistically be left? Drafting a potential replacement or seeing the Saints go after a safety in free agency could dictate where Byrd ends up.

Naturally, it would be silly of me not to mention Coby Fleener's deal, which escalated from a $2.4 million cap hit to $7.5 million in 2017. The Saints could potentially restructure Fleener's deal, $5.8 million of which is in his base salary. However, a common misconception on restructures are that a player takes a cut in pay, which is not always the rule of thumb. In Fleener's case, the Saints could convert some of his base salary to a signing bonus, but that would become guaranteed money for Fleener. So, if the Saints were to cut him after 2017, it would only add to the pile of dead money.

Aside the Byrd move, Sean Payton and company could pick up an additional $5-12 million over the next three weeks by being strategic. Of the realistic moves to happen, Unger and Armstead would be the low-hanging fruit to tackle first. As always, it'll be interesting to see what happens on Airline Drive in Metairie.

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