Back-ended deals leave New Orleans Saints in bad salary-cap shape

Posted by Jeff Duncan, The Times-Picayune January 18, 2009 6:00AM

Saints’ 2009 cap breakdown
From July 2005 to June 2008, the Saints doled out the largest contracts in franchise history.

Deuce McAllister signed an eight-year, $50.1 million deal in 2005 that at the time was the most lucrative in club history.

Two days later, Mike McKenzie signed a five-year, $22 million contract.

McAllister’s payroll supremacy lasted less than eight months. In March 2006, Drew Brees signed a six-year, $60 million contract. Two months later, Reggie Bush signed a six-year, $62 million deal.

Those deals were followed by blockbuster contracts for the team’s starting defensive ends. Charles Grant agreed to a seven-year, $63 million deal in 2007, and Will Smith signed a seven-year, $64.5 million the following year.

By Saints standards, the spending spree was unprecedented. More than $321 million in commitments were made in a 35-month span.

The back-loaded deals, with the largest amounts paid in the final years of thecontract, have become a financial reality this year. The golden goose has come home to roost.

The stockpile has inflated the Saints payroll, thrusting it through the ceiling of the NFL’s projected $123 million salary cap. The Saints were $4.6 million above the cap as of last week.

It’s an unfamiliar position for a club that has enjoyed eight-figure shortfalls on the cap in each of the past two offseasons.

It’s also an inconvenient truth for a club in desperate need of defensive improvement. Barring some of the most creative accounting in league history, the Saints likely won’t have the cap flexibility to land a big-name free agent this offseason, the kind the club’s long-suffering fans dream about daily in anticipation of the Feb. 27 start of the signing period.

The Saints will need to get below the cap before that time, and to achieve that goal they’ll need to release players or restructure existing contracts.

Either way, it’s going to be painful.

The prime candidates for both options are McAllister and McKenzie, two of the club’s biggest stars and most respected team leaders.

McAllister’s contract will count $7.3 million against the salary cap next season, an exorbitant price for a player whose role and production have been drastically reduced in recent years because of two severe knee injuries.

Saints officials are expected to meet with McAllister in the next week or two to determine his future. He has indicated he’d be willing to restructure his contract to remain with the team in a lesser role, but it’s unclear if the Saints are willing to consider that option. If he is released, it would create more than $4 million in cap savings.

McKenzie is in a similar to position to McAllister a year ago. He’s carrying a large cap figure — almost $6 million — is entering the final year of his contract and is coming off two major knee injuries. The Saints could save $4.5 million by releasing him, but instead probably will seek cap relief through a restructured contract.

David Patten, Brian Young, Mark Simoneau and Jamar Nesbit also are candidates for release or restructure. All are veteran players nearing the end of their careers that have experienced injuries or suspensions in the past year and seen their roles reduced. Their releases would collectively save the club more than $6 million.

The Saints need the cap room to re-sign some of their top players who are scheduled to become free agents. Unrestricted free agents Jonathan Vilma, Jon Stinchcomb and Devery Henderson and restricted free agents Lance Moore and Jahri Evans head the list.

Vilma’s deal in particular will be expensive. Top linebackers command deals with average annual salaries of $6 million to $7 million.

Stinchcomb and Henderson have been key pieces in the Saints’ offense the past few years but might be too costly, considering the club has young reserves waiting in the wings at their positions.

So specifically, how did the Saints get here? Their cap issues are primarily the result of significant increases in the deals of their star players.

The five highest-paid players — Smith, Brees, Bush, Grant and McAllister — collectively will count more than $21 million more against the salary cap this season than a year ago.

Brees’ cap charge increases from $9 million to $14 million. Bush’s deal jumps from $5 million to $12 million. Smith goes $3.4 million to $9.4 million. McAllister’s deal leaps from $4.5 million to $7.3 million, and Grant goes from $4.2 million to $5.4 million.

The club expected to have more room to absorb the inflation, but an improbable spate of injuries last season ate into their cap cushion. The club was a comfy $14 million under entering last season and still about $10 million under during the season, but a spree of injuries forced the club to sign several replacements late last season. Instead of carrying over the $10 million in cap credits to 2009, the club carried only about $4 million.

Current salary-cap tabulations account for the salaries of only the top 51 players per team under contract, and are fluid because they don’t include players who might be released or restructure their contracts to create cap space. The numbers do, however, provide a general idea of the club’s position as it enters free agency.

There are a bevy of big-name players scheduled for free agency, including Albert Haynesworth, Julius Peppers, Nnamdi Asomugha, Brian Dawkins and Terrell Suggs, but the reality is that most or all of those players probably will end up staying with their current teams. The players who become available aren’t likely to be nearly as attractive.

Considering the Saints’ dire cap situation, it might not matter who hits the market. The club will do well to get Vilma back in the fold and sign a solid safety. Anything beyond that will be lagniappe.

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