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Do the Saints’ recent free agent additions hurt their chances at retaining Michael Thomas?

The Saints just spent a bunch of money they weren’t supposed to have this offseason. Could it come back to bite them when it comes time to pay Thomas?

Philadelphia Eagles v New Orleans Saints Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Saints have been very active during the 2019 free agency period. So far, they’ve signed defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Mario Edwards, running back Latavius Murray, offensive lineman Nick Easton, return specialist Marcus Sherels, and tight end Jared Cook.

On the surface, it appears the Saints have opened the vaults in order to shore up the most glaring deficiencies on their current roster. Sheldon Rankins’ Achilles injury and David Onyemata’s impending drug suspension forced the Saints to sign Brown and Edwards. Mark Ingram’s exit made Murray’s signing a necessity in order to bolster the running back room.

Max Unger’s sudden retirement meant the Saints needed to sign another lineman who could play both center and guard. Ben Watson’s retirement created an immediate need at the tight end position, which lead to the signing of pass-heavy, block-light Cook. The Saints have always needed an upgrade at returner, so they’ve essentially rented Sherels for one year.

As a fan, I’ve been excited watching the news of new signings come across the television or iPhone screen. But I wonder if there are players in the building who don’t share my same enthusiasm. Outside of Drew Brees, there isn’t one other player, whose contract expires after this season, who is more vital to the Saints’ success than wide receiver Michael Thomas.

Divisional Round - Philadelphia Eagles v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

I can’t help but wonder if he secretly stews in displeasure with each of these signings as he sees more money being allocated to free agents while he continues to play on his paltry rookie salary. Thomas’s contract runs through this upcoming season and will have paid him base salaries of $450,000 in 2016, $682,681 in 2017, $915,361 in 2018, and $1,148,041 in 2019. Along with bonuses, Thomas will earn $5,257,440 during his first four years in the league.

We can easily make the argument that Michael Thomas is better than Seth Roberts who makes $5,242,500 per year with the Raiders. We can also confidently make the argument that Thomas is as impactful as Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Mike Evans, and DeAndre Hopkins who all make between $14 and $18 million a year.

We can play devil’s advocate as well and make the argument that pay in the NFL simply doesn’t make “cents” when we compare salaries apples to apples along with player production. For instance, Vikings two time Pro Bowler Adam Thielen makes about the same ($4,811,500/year) as the Bengals’ 1st round draft flop and perpetually injured John Ross ($4,278,966/year).

This past season another Bengals receiver, A.J. Green earned $15 million while playing in nine games and registering 46 receptions for 694 yards and six touchdowns. In the same season, the ChiefsTyreek Hill earned $646,555 while playing in 16 games and registering 87 receptions for 1,479 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

It’s clear, most players aren’t paid what they are actually worth. Many are paid more than they produce and many more are paid less than their production should net them. It’s also clear that the price tags for receivers will only increase north of the $20 Million per year mark, and the Saints should brace themselves for the $19 Million raise their star wide receiver has fairly earned.

Sure, they could place the exclusive franchise tag on Thomas in 2020 for around $17 million, but the Saints must ask themselves, is saving $3 million worth potentially pissing off one of your most valuable offensive assets?

What if Thomas takes the tender as an insult or an indictment against the Saints’ best intentions to invest in him long-term, past the Drew Brees era? He could sit out training camp, or worse, the season, like Le’Veon Bell did. That doesn’t seem like his nature, but the NFL is changing and players are less afraid to stand their ground in negotiations.

It’s not like the Saints haven’t had a heads up that Thomas is a reliable, productive, and positive locker room presence. That’s all he has been over the past three seasons. The second round pick out of Ohio State has amassed more than 90 receptions and 1,100 all three years he has been in the league.

He’s broken the all time record for most catches through his first three seasons with 321 receptions. He’s caught 23 touchdowns while only missing one game back in his rookie season. His 85% catch rate in 2018 was an NFL record that was previously set by Wes Welker, 77.2% in 2007.

This dude takes care of his body, perfects his craft, and has an immeasurable level of leadership and competitive ability that’s absolutely contagious. I remember sitting in the friends and family hang inside the Dome following last year’s season opening loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs. I asked Sean Payton’s assistant if the Saints were getting ready to pay Michael Thomas like Odell Beckham Jr. and he replied, “he wants it now.”

That was in September of 2018. Then, in November, Thomas’ agent David Mulugheta terminated their working relationship citing a “difference in opinion.” What that difference was, we can’t be sure, but as Adam Schefter pointed out, it’s rare for an agent to end a client relationship prior to a big pay day.

Though Thomas has finished only his third year in the league, he is already onto his third agent. After firing Christopher Ellison of First Picks Sports Management, Thomas switched to Mulugheta, who later terminated their relationship. It wasn’t until February 2019 when Thomas hired a new agent, Andrew Kessler of Athletes First.

This type of agent instability could be disconcerting. Maybe Thomas is hard headed or impulsive. Those can be dangerous personality traits when entering contract negotiations. Or, perhaps Thomas is the sane one and his agents have tried to get him to force his hand more than he’s comfortable doing.

Either way, if the Saints haven’t made special efforts towards making Thomas feel wanted and included in their future plans, now is the time to reassure him that he will get paid.

Fortunately, the Saints’ free agent contracts that I’ve looked at this offseason have these assurances hidden within them. The secret to making sure money is available for Thomas can be found in the way the Saints structured their free agent contracts.

Mario Edwards’ contract is only guaranteed this year so if he doesn’t work out, the Saints can cut him in 2020 and only take a $475,000 dead cap hit. If Malcom Brown is a total whiff, the Saints would eat $3 million if they cut him in 2020, but that number drops to $1.5 million in 2021. For reference, the Saints are paying Coby Fleener $3.2 million and Kurt Coleman $3 million in dead money in 2019, so that makes $1.5 million seem like a steal.

Latavius Murray’s dead cap hit drops precipitously from $7.2 million in 2019 to 5.35 million in 2020 before falling to $1.7 million in 2021 and $850k in 2022. Nick Easton’s dead cap hit versus cap savings is another indication of how the Saints have recently structured their contracts so that they can release players who underperform without incurring a ton of dead money.

For instance, in 2019, Easton’s dead cap hit ($4 million) dwarfs the cap money saved by cutting him ($1.5 million). Yet, in 2020, the inverse happens; Easton’s dead cap hit falls to $1.5 million while his cap money saved goes up to $4 million. It should also be noted that Easton’s base salary of $2 million for 2019 is the only guaranteed money in his four year contract.

The full terms of Jared Cook’s and Marcus Sherel’s contracts have not been made public, but we can gather that since only $8 million of Cook’s two year, $15 million contract is fully guaranteed, Cook is also perhaps a glorified one year rental who carries little weight against the future cap if he can’t bring that Jimmy Graham feel back to the tight end position.

It appears the Saints have added several key free agents to positions of great need without mortgaging as much of the future as I had previously thought. They might be positioning themselves to retain one of their top free agents after all.