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NFL sets 2018 salary cap; what it means for Saints

It’s the lowest cap increase since 2013.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) drops back to pass against the Minnesota Vikings defense during their 2018 NFC Divisional Playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) drops back to pass against the Minnesota Vikings defense during their 2018 NFC Divisional Playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The NFL disclosed its 2018 salary cap to the New Orleans Saints and 31 lesser teams in a memo sent around the league Monday evening. Each team will have a total of $177.2-million to spend in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, the lowest year-to-year increase since the 2013 season per Joel Corry of CBS Sports and the National Football Post. Many salary cap projections estimated a climb to heights as tall as $179.1-million, so this is a little underwhelming.

Restricted free agent tenders (which qualify for Saints like wide receivers Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead, and cornerback Delvin Breaux) were also set at the following levels with corresponding amounts of compensation:

  • First round tender: $4.149-million, fully guaranteed
  • Second round tender: $2.914-million, fully guaranteed
  • Original round tender: $1.907-million, fully guaranteed

An important distinction with the lowest tender amount is that it just means a right of first refusal designation for undrafted players. So if the Saints designate any of Coleman, Snead, or Breaux at that level then they will effectively be free agents, though the Saints are allowed to match any contract offers. The Atlanta Falcons have tried to sign safety Rafael Bush and the Chicago Bears have pursued tight end Josh Hill in recent years at that tender amount, so don’t be shocked if this year’s three RFA draw attention.

It’s also possible that the Saints decide none of their qualifying players are worth a $1.9-million salary cap charge, and allow them to test unrestricted free agency. That last happened with defensive tackles Tom Johnson and Tyrunn Walker, who each signed with the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions.

That original round tender is also in play for some intriguing restricted free agents around the league, like Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate and Denver Broncos pass rusher Shaquill Barrett. Neither of them were drafted out of college, so the Saints would be silly to not at least consider making an offer should either of them become available.

As for the Saints’ salary cap situation, it’s currently in flux. If you check you’ll see that they are projected to have $30.855-million to spend, while posits $30.265-million. Neither of those estimations account for several unknown factors including quarterback Drew Brees’ inevitable contract extension, the signing of former Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman, nor the outcome of defensive tackle Nick Fairley’s arbitration hearing.

So just for fun, I’ll throw out a worst-case scenario to fear and a best-case scenario to hope for.

If the world stops spinning and months of assuring quotes from Brees and the Saints staff turn out to be lies, Brees will not have signed a new contract by March 14 (the beginning of free agency, though the “legal tampering” window opens March 12) and the remaining salary cap commitments of his current contract accelerate into an $18-million cap hit in 2018. He’ll also become an unrestricted free agent and begin fielding offers from quarterback-thirsting teams like the Cleveland Browns (eat your heart out, Joe Thomas), New York Jets, and Arizona Cardinals.

In this waking nightmare the Saints would also lose the arbitration decision for Fairley’s remaining guarantees, which total about $7-million. That is also added onto the list of 2018 salary cap charges as dead money, since the team released Fairley last month. Kurt Coleman’s guarantees (and cap hits) are unknown right now, but it was reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport that he will earn $6.5-million in 2018. It’s safe to assume that that is a large chunk of his total guarantees, so I’ll suggest it be his 2018 cap hit as well.

All told, in this worst-case situation, the Saints are staring down the barrel of free agency with just $6.2-million to spend and no Brees to be found. You’re right to be afraid.

On the other hand, things could work out great from here. Brees will sign a new contract and if the Saints are smart, they’ll consider his current guarantees into any new agreement. Rapoport earlier reported that Brees would settle for a mid-range deal averaging $20- to $25-million per year, so I’ll casually project a 2018 cap hit of $22-million for him – tying New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Los Angeles Chargers passer Phillip Rivers at ninth in the NFL. Not bad, in all honesty.

Let’s say the Saints win their arbitration with Fairley and recoup that $7-million (they could get more, but I don’t know how much more, and they could get less, but I don’t know how much less, and this is the “positive vibes” bit, so reread up above for a negative spin on this situation). Oddly, Coleman’s projection of a $6.5-million hit remains the same. Lessening his current-year hit helps in the present, but if he flames out it will be tougher to release him next year. So I expect Coleman is more of a one-year rental than a three-year investment.

Altogether, that paints a nicer picture, but not by much: $15.1-million. That’s plenty enough to make some moves in a lackluster free agent class, though not the misleading $30-million you’ll see listed on sites right now.

It would be great if the Saints offered new extensions to cornerstones who have earned them like defensive end Cameron Jordan (whose $14.247-million cap hit in 2018 leads the team) and running back Mark Ingram (he ranks sixth at $6.245-million). New deals would greatly reduce those hits while locking in both players for the prime of their careers. Tight end Coby Fleener will very likely be a post-June 1 release to free up enough space to sign the Saints’ rookie class, and give them time to find a replacement (Jimmy Graham, anybody?). We shouldn’t anticipate Fleener going away any time soon, though.

Other storylines to monitor include right tackle Zach Strief’s likely-retirement (saving about $2.2-million against the cap) and possible restructures for left tackle Terron Armstead and center Max Unger, which would offer immediate cap relief while making them tougher to cut later on down the line.

So thanks for reading, and stay tuned. The fun part of the offseason is about to kick off. A lot of craziness is going to go down between now and next week.