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Drew Brees can help clean up Saints’ salary cap mess in 2013

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Drew Brees could help the Saints create cap space in 2013 (Getty Images)

As pointed out by Mike Triplett of The Times-Picayune, the New Orleans Saints potentially face a salary cap mess in 2013. The club is currently around $16 million over a 2013 league-wide cap figure that has long been projected to increase only slightly over the 2012 figure of $120.6 million, and the team will need to re-sign left tackle Jermon Bushrod and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, as well as clear a few million dollars for a restricted free agent tender on center Brian De La Puente. (A "First Round" tender would be worth $2.879 million in 2013, a mandatory five percent increase over the 2012 restricted free agent tender amounts)

Triplett notes that the Saints could part ways with defensive end Will Smith, who is scheduled to earn $9 million in base salary and, according to a source with knowledge of Smith's contract, a $1 million roster bonus that is due on the 15th day of the 2013 league year, plus a $150,000 workout bonus. Along with proration from signing bonuses, Smith's 2013 cap figure stands at $14,502,451. Releasing Smith outright, which the club may have to do in order to be cap compliant at the start of the new league year in March, would save $10.15 million in cash and $7.719 million in cap space. If the Saints designated Smith as a "post-June 1" release, they would save over $10 million in space in 2013, but the veteran defensive end would remain on the books ($2.392 million) through 2014.

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Triplett also mentions linebacker Jonathan Vilma, whose release would clear $6 million in cash and cap space, a figure comprised of his $4.8 million base salary, a $100,000 workout bonus and a $1.1 million roster bonus that comes due on the second day of the 2013 league year.

Another component of a potential 2013 salary cap mess is quarterback Drew Brees, whose five-year, $100 million contract calls for a cap figure rise from $10.4 million in 2012 to $17.4 million in 2013. Brees actually counts $15.325 million against the Saints' 2012 cap - due to carryover signing bonus proration from the voidable year of his previous contract - but his new deal provides a path towards salary cap compliance.

According to a source with knowledge of the contract, Brees' $9.75 million base salary in 2013 will become fully guaranteed three days after Super Bowl XLVII. The Saints could ask Brees to reduce his base salary to the league minimum ($940,000) and convert the remaining $8.81 million into a signing bonus. If prorated over the four remaining seasons on Brees' contract, that simple restructure would reduce Brees' cap number to $10.7925 million, a cap savings of $6.6 million. The Saints could clear over $7 million in 2013 cap space if they tacked on an additional season to Brees' contract and prorated the renegotiated signing bonus over the maximum five seasons. Since the Saints are going to rob Peter to pay Paul, why not take as much as they can get now?

As the Saints did on March 8, 2012, they could gain more cap room by renegotiating guard Jahri Evans' contract. Evans is scheduled to earn $7.2 million in base salary and by lowering his base to the league minimum ($840,000) and converting the remaining $6.36 million into a signing bonus, the Saints would clear $4.77 million in cap space if prorated over the four remaining seasons, and over $5 million in cap space if an additional season were tacked onto the current deal to get the benefit of a five-year proration.

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The Saints currently have around $2.5 million in cap space remaining in 2012 and whatever is left over at the end of the season could be rolled over into 2013. By releasing Smith and Vilma, and renegotiating the contract of Brees and Evans, the Saints could create over $25 million in cap space in 2013, which would not only pull them into cap compliance, it would allow them to keep Bushrod, Ellis and perhaps add a piece or two in free agency. The Saints may not necessarily stop there, either.

Guard Ben Grubbs is due $5.2 million in base salary and over $3.3 million in cap space could be cleared if his contract is renegotiated the same way that Brees' and Evans' deals are expected to this offseason. Another contract to keep an eye on after Super Bowl XLVII belongs to linebacker David Hawthorne, who was signed to a five-year, $19 million deal on April 12, 2012. Hawthorne has battled injuries for much of the season, recording just 31 tackles and a pass defensed while playing in 26.69 percent of the team's defensive snaps with just eight snaps on special teams this season. Hawthorne's contract included $8.5 million in guarantees, but according to a source with knowledge of the deal, the Saints can get out of the $4 million in partially guaranteed money in 2013 shortly after Super Bowl XLVII.

Hawthorne's $1 million base salary in 2013 is guaranteed for injury only and, like Brees' base salary, Hawthorne's salary will become fully guaranteed if he's on the roster three days after Super Bowl XLVII. The Saints can avoid that guarantee, along with a $3 million roster bonus that is due on the third day of the 2013 league year and is guaranteed for skill & injury only, by releasing Hawthorne for cap purposes. Releasing Hawthorne would only save $1.72 million in cap space, but would free up $4 million in cash, which will be helpful when attempting to retain players like Bushrod, Ellis, De La Puente, or possibly working towards an extension for tight end Jimmy Graham.

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