MAQB: The Saints Have a Major Salary Cap Crunch This Offseason

After years of strong drafting and all-in signings, the Saints have a lot of work to do in what may be the first year after the Drew Brees era.
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Four teams left, and two fantastic championship games on tap. Let’s go …

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• As we’ve gone over, the Saints have been all-in the last couple years. The bills on that coming due, combined with the expected retirement of Drew Brees and league-wide salary cap situation figure to put the franchise at a very real crossroads. Ten players (Michael Thomas, Cam Jordan, Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Taysom Hill, David Onyemata, DeMario Davis, Jared Cook, Emmanuel Sanders, Janoris Jenkins, Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyk) have eight-figure cap numbers for 2021. Add those 10 up and you’re at right around $159.2 million. Brees, if he retires, leaves $22.65 million in dead money. So for 11 guys, one of whom wouldn’t be on the team in that scenario, they’re already up over $180 million with the cap unlikely to top $200 million, and maybe be closer to $175 million, with 43 roster spots to fill. I’m not smart enough to figure out how they’ll make it work, and GM Mickey Loomis has been a master in the past at wiggling out of these situations. But with all this, plus guys like Lattimore and Ramczyk potentially wanting extensions in the neighborhood of $20 million per year, and guys we didn’t even mention (Malcolm Jenkins, Alvin Kamara) carrying significant numbers, it sure looks like there will be a lot of tough calls to make. The good news is that, since assistant GM Jeff Ireland arrived a few years back, New Orleans has drafted better than anyone in football—and the draft is where you find the cheap young talent to alleviate these problems.

• Senior Bowl week is less than a week away, and credit to Jim Nagy and his staff for making it happen amid incredibly challenging circumstances. I believe this will be the first full-scale national all-star game played since the initial COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. 10 months ago. Part of that for Nagy & Co. has been making decisions on injured players. And with the challenges those guys are facing, and the likelihood the combine as we know it will be called off (and shifted into regional medical checks and regimented pro days), Nagy felt like it was important to be flexible with guys who couldn’t physically perform. So the Senior Bowl will honor invitations to Alabama C Landon Dickerson (who tore his ACL in the SEC title game) and Ohio State RB Trey Sermon (who dislocated his collarbone in the CFP title game). And it extended one to Alabama Heisman winner DeVonta Smith—who just had stitches taken out of his right hand on Friday, after dislocating a finger in the title game last week—even though Nagy knew he wouldn’t be able to take the field. The upshot here is that Smith, Sermon and Dickerson will get to spend extensive time with the Panthers and Dolphins staffs, and interview in-person with officials from the other 30 teams. It’s a great plus for the teams, too, and the game itself, which gets to show future candidates the benefit of coming to Mobile.

• I can say the Eagles are doing extensive background on Patriots OC Josh McDaniels. That doesn’t mean he’s getting the job, but I do believe that Jeffrey Lurie and Howie Roseman are intrigued with what McDaniels might be able to do, and he’s an easy answer to a question they’re trying to confront: Which available coach is best equipped to build an offense that works for our quarterback(s)? I also believe this one can work because Roseman and McDaniels have different strengths. Where they’d have to bridge gaps would be in how the organization would set up structurally, since both guys have a very defined vision for that. But I think, in a certain way, both guys here could be really good for each other, if everyone is reasonable. I also think that Roseman’s experience, and belief that his job first and foremost is to go and get players for the coaches, borne of his experience with Andy Reid, would go a long way in melding coaching and scouting, if McDaniels is the guy.

• Ohio State QB Justin Fields was the biggest name to declare on the deadline day for juniors and redshirt sophomores to come out, and I still think, through some ups and downs, he’s a slam-dunk top-10 pick. Part of that is because I know the people in Columbus believe that he’ll run 4.4 in the 40, which would illustrate what kind of athlete he is. But there’s more to it than just that. “I think he’s a starting quarterback in the NFL,” said one NFC exec. “He’s as talented as anyone in the group not named Trevor Lawrence. He’s got good size, a really good arm. His accuracy and ball placement can be an issue, his processing can be an issue, he locks on to his first read too much—but there’s no reason he can’t be as good as anyone in the class with some development. Someone should draft him and make him their starting quarterback.”

• The 49ers officially promoted Mike McDaniel to offensive coordinator and DeMeco Ryans to defensive coordinator on Monday, and both guys are richly deserving. McDaniel is brilliant, and has been as tied in to Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system as anyone other than Shanahan himself—giving McDaniel the title was what the Niners had to do to keep him away from others poaching him to be a play-caller, and really reflects what he’s been anyway. As for Ryans, it would not be surprising if he’s a head coach soon, and maybe as soon as 2022.

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• The Browns’ big decision going into the offseason will relate to quarterback Baker Mayfield. Because he hasn’t been a first-ballot Pro Bowler yet, his fifth-year option number will be an average of the third to 20th highest cap numbers at his position, which will probably put him somewhere in the low $20 millions. Cleveland has to make a decision on that 2022 option by early May and, this is the twist, this year will be the first in which those options are fully-guaranteed on the date they’re exercised. So really, the Browns would be making a two-year commitment of sorts to Mayfield by exercising the option. I do think they’ll pick the option up. It’s just a little more complicated than it used to be.

• Likewise, the Ravens come out of this season with that sort of call to make on Lamar Jackson—the difference is his option number will be the equivalent of the QB transition tag, because he’s been a first-ballot Pro Bowler. That means the number will be around $25 million.

• Rams coach Sean McVay has an interesting decision on his hands in replacing DC Brandon Staley in the coming days. There are a few names that make sense there. Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is one who interviewed with the Rams last year, when the job went to Staley. Colts secondary coach Jonathan Gannon—who could land in Atlanta, Philly (if McDaniels gets that job) or with the Chargers—is another guy to watch. But what’s tough here is that McVay has a couple really good coaches in-house, in Aubrey Pleasant and Joe Barry, who were passed over last year. And it makes you wonder if passing over them again could lead to one or both eventually departing.

• The Ravens staff shifting is worth watching too. Linebackers coach Mike Macdonald is off to Michigan, and defensive line coach Joe Cullen could leave for Jacksonville. Baltimore’s going to try and inject some new ideas, and outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins has earned the respect of the staff and could have a more prominent role with some of the attrition.

• FYI, as far as I can tell, Bills OC Brian Daboll hasn’t made a firm decision on staying in Buffalo. And that’s not to say he’s unhappy at all. I just know if the Texans or Eagles were to make a late call, he’d definitely listen.