With free agency and the new league year less than a month away, the New Orleans Saints have some key in-house free agents heading for the open market. Particularly, on the defensive side. In our ‘Build a contract” series, we’ll take a look at what it would take to match the estimated market value for a handful of outgoing Saints without breaking the bank in the upcoming 2021 year.
To start, we’ll take a look at safety Marcus Williams. Williams has one of the more resilient and tumultuous tenures in the Big Easy thanks to the unfortunate Minneapolis Miracle in the 2017 season, his rookie year. Since then, though, he’s continued to battle and improve different parts of his game without losing what makes him special: his range and ball skills. Williams was graded the seventh-best NFL safety in 2020 by Pro Football Focus, he has 13 interceptions and 30 passes defended since he was drafted, and improved his tackling from a 14.1% missed tackle percentage in 2019 to just 4.8% in 2020.
Williams deserves to be paid and will command a market were he to hit it. So let’s take a look at how the Saints can keep the top-ten safety in the Crescent City, pay him his worth, and not break the bank in the process.
To do this in a grounded and unbiased was, let’s use Spotrac’s market value for the average per year cost and contract length. Neither of these numbers is as important as guaranteed money like signing bonus and overall financial promises.
According to Spotrac, Williams’s market value is a whopping $13.5M average per year. The site also projects a five-year deal for the former Utah Ute. That contract average and length is what we’ll use for this structure.
So that makes the total contract value $67.5M over five years beginning in 2021 and concluding in 2025. Although, the real length of the contract is not dictated by these numbers. Instead, it will be dictated by the guaranteed money given at signing and promised for the life of the deal.
Contract total: 5-year, $67.5M deal ($13.5M APY)
Bonuses and Guarantees
Signing bonuses tend to be all over the place in terms of percentage of the full contract amount. I took the average value share of Kevin Byard, Tyrann Mathieu, Eddie Jackson, and Landon Collins’s contracts to find our amount.
That value percentage was right around 21%, so we’ll call this a $14M signing bonus to keep the numbers clean.
The thing to remember about signing bonuses is that they are a prorated bonus. That becomes more important in just a moment.
The big number here is going to be the percentage of the total contract that’s guaranteed. Earlier, I questioned the importance of APY and contract totals. That’s because unless that contract is fully guaranteed, players rarely seethe full value and length of their contract. And even when they do see the full term of the deal, it’s usually restructured or altered in some way before it fully completes.
The average guaranteed percentage of four contracts we used to find the signing bonus was just until 50%. However, I’m going to boost that number to 55.5%, right around Eddie Jackson’s guarantee percentage. Giving a higher amount of promised funds will help the Saints remain competitive if Williams hits the open market. Another team might offer a higher APY, but a lesser amount of guarantees.
There are some other bonuses the Saints could build in. Roster bonuses which come into play once a player is on the roster on a specific day of the new league year, could be added in the later years of the deal. Workout bonuses could be added for meeting a certain percentage of offseason workouts, something we may not see much of as offseasons continue to go virtual. Because those bonuses are usually less than $1M per season, we’ll bypass them for now, but know they could be factored in.
Updated terms: 5-year, $67.5M deal ($13.5M APY) - $14M signing bonus and 37.5M GTD
Next, we’ll detail the first year of this deal separate from the remaining four. Since the 2021 NFL salary cap is dropping as low as $180M, though I’d not be shocked to see it higher, this year’s terms are vital. The good news for the Saints is that the heavy signing bonus helps a ton here.
Remember that prorated bonus? Here’s where it comes into play. Although Marcus Williams received that $14M signing bonus up front, that total on the Saints end prorates and is spread across the five years of the deal. Meaning New Orleans is only on the hook for $2.8M for that payment in each season.
With that, the Saints can give Marcus Williams the highest minimum deal of $1.075M of base salary in 2021. New Orleans would then only be charged with a cap hit of $3.875M even though Marcus Williams walks through 2021 earning $15.075M. (Before taxes and agent fees, of course.)
2021: 1.075M base salary, 2.8M signing bonus, $15.875M cash earnings - $3.875M cap hit
The Remaining Years
With the first year already constructed to pay Williams up front, the remaining contract focus should be on getting the guaranteed money paid out as quickly as possible. With $15.875M already accounted for only $51.6M in the total deal remains. The Saints could spread that out evenly, but with an additional $2.8M counting against the cap each year, that wouldn’t be the best route to go. Instead, thanks to last year’s CBA falling in place in time, the Saints can escalate each year as much as they want.
2022: $10M base, $200k roster bonus, 2.8M signing bonus - $13M cap hit
Now the cap hit looks more like what folks expect the first year to look like based on the average per year amount of the contract. This is akin to what the Saints did with Michael Thomas’s extension. He had a base salary of only $1M in the first year of the extension which will be followed by $12.6M in 2021 with an $18.8M cap hit. This isn’t out of the ordinary for the Saints at all. The following years can scale up and use some roster bonuses to pick up remainder.
2023: $12M base, $225k roster bonus, $2.8M signing bonus - 15.025M cap hit
By 2023, $38.3M total cash has been paid out to Williams, meaning the only dead cap left on the books for the Saints are a pair of $2.8M charges for the signing bonus he’s already received. At this point, New Orleans can divvy up the remaining cap however they choose over the next pair of years, knowing that it can either be extended into new years if the team and player decide on a third contract together, or that they can move on with no dead money moving ahead. A good place to be.
2024: $15M base, $2.8M signing bonus - $17.8M cap hit ($5.6M dead cap)
2025: $15M base, $2.8M signing bonus - $17.8M cap hit (2.8M dead cap)
Now of course a $17.8M cap hit for a safety seems like a lot right now. But with the revenue incoming from the NFL’s new TV deal and 17-game schedule, it may be right on the nose in 2024 and 2025. If not, the Saints can cut bait pretty freely with a team out ahead of 2024. They could also drop some of the base salary and early offseason cap hit by shifting a portion of it to a roster bonus that kicks in with the new league year, or even the year prior.
Total: 5-year, $67.5M deal ($13.5M APY) - $14M signing bonus and 37.5M GTD
2021: 1.075M base salary, 2.8M signing bonus - $3.875M cap hit ($37.5M dead cap)
2022: $10M base, $200k roster bonus, $2.8M signing - $13M cap hit ($33.625M dead cap)
2023: $12M base, $225k roster, $2.8M signing - 15.025M cap hit ($20.925M dead cap)
2024: $15M base, $2.8M signing - $17.8M cap hit ($5.6M dead cap)
2025: $15M base, $2.8M signing - $17.8M cap hit (2.8M dead cap)
Marcus Williams gets paid, the Saints don’t break the bank, and the five-year deal can conclude after as early as the third without a ton of dead cap. We checked all the boxes but for the Saints, it will come down additional factors. Competition on the market, what the final NFL salary cap number looks like, and a saturated safety market all play a large role in negotiations.
The first domino still awaits however, Drew Brees’s announcement will set off the work to be done by the Saints this offseason as they intend to remain competitive next season. If Brees indeed retires, Jameis Winston becomes priority number one. But after the QB position is settled, Marcus Williams is an incredibly important part of the team’s defensive and overall success.
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