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New Orleans Saints retain key player, free up cap space with two moves

As the new league year inches closer, the Saints are becoming more active, clearing $4.3M in cap space and bringing back a key piece.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Early bird gets the cap space as the New Orleans Saints made two moves reported Wednesday morning. The Saints have reached a new deal to keep safety and special teams ace J.T. Gray in New Orleans and have also restructured defensive tackle David Onyemata’s deal to free up some more breathing room.

Gray helped the Saints land a top-five special teams grade from Pro Football Focus last season landing a 90.3 team grade. He contributed seven special teams tackles in 2020, second to only running mate Justin Hardee. The punt return unit in particular was spectacular, allowing a historically low 46 return yards to opponents. Meanwhile, David Onyemata piled on 44 total tackles, 6.5 sack, which is fantastic from the interior, 10 tackles for a loss, and 16 QB hits. He also added an interception.

These deals come one day after re-signing defensive end Noah Spence. The Saints have now prioritized two simpler re-signings ahead of the larger, more complicated contracts. As’s Amie Just mentioned on Locked On Saints last week; this is no surprise. The team took a similar approach last season when their first re-signing brought back long snapper Zach Wood.

As listed above, Gray’s two-year $4M deal comes with $2M guaranteed. Details to follow on bonuses and structure but if there are any, a $1M signing bonus would make sense. That would put his first-year cap hit at $1.5M, the same deal as Justin Hardee’s last season.

Like Hardee was ahead of the 2020 league year, Gray was a restricted free agent before signing his new deal. It makes sense that New Orleans went the route of a new contract as opposed to an RFA tender which would have cost them at least $2.13M this season and could have been upped by another team submitting an offer sheet New Orleans would have been forced to match in order to keep Gray. This way, you take a lesser cap hit (at max $2M, probably), keep Gray for up to two seasons, and don’t have to worry about another team upping your deal like they could on the RFA tender. A smart move.

Another good move comes with the restructuring of David Onyemata’s contract. This frees up just over $4.3M for this season after a portion of his base salary was converted into a signing bonus, reducing his 2021 cap number. This is a common method you’ll see used throughout the offseason as the Saints chip away at their cap situation. Restructuring is an option for players like Terron Armstead, Michael Thomas, Demario Davis, Cam Jordan, and others.

The other side of this move comes with the escalating future cap hits. A $13.17M price tag in 2022 may feel like a lot, but as The Athletic’s Katherine Terrell explains above, Onyemata’s contract can continue to be adjusted moving forward. That could even include another full-on extension for the 2016 draft pick.

This is a move that essentially doubles-down on a key defensive player, lowers his cap hit for 2021, and puts you in position to have flexibility later and choose between eating some dead cap, or extending him to keep him in New Orleans. Considering Onyemata has earned as much acclaim as he has playing like one of the better defensive tackles in the league, can’t mind that option at all.

New Orleans continues to ramp up its offseason efforts and will need to be compliant with the salary cap by the new league year beginning on March 17th. At this time, we don’t yet know what the official 2021 cap number for teams will be, but it’s clear that the Saints have a plan and are well prepared to make the moves necessary to get compliant while also bringing back important pieces.

Some moves to keep an eye on: further restructures, pay cuts, and more of the smaller (monetarily) but important deals like fellow special teams star Justin Hardee, fullback Michael Burton and offensive lineman James Hurst who could all find their way back to New Orleans. All eyes will continue to be on safety Marcus Williams and quarterback Jameis Winston as well, along with of course, Drew Brees’ highly-anticipated announcement.

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