Here are the signals Saints sent in their phantom $140 million extension with Taysom Hill

The biggest double-take contract numbers on the doorstep of NFL free agency weren’t hard to find Sunday, with the New Orleans Saints signing quarterback Taysom Hill to a gaudy — but entirely voiding — four-year, $140 million contract extension. The key words in that sentence: Entirely voiding.

In most cases of NFL contracts, that phrase translates into numbers as being “entirely meaningless.” In terms of what the extension implies, this isn’t one of those cases.

There are several important signals from the Hill extension.

Dec 25, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) before their game against the Minnesota Vikings at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Taysom Hill's contract adjustment turned heads, but the $140 million value isn't what it looks like on the surface. (Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports)

What is real about Taysom Hill's $140M extension?

First and foremost, the numbers: The entire $140 million extension isn’t a real number. It’s a mechanism used to stretch out Hill’s current salary-cap hit and lessen how much he counts this year. If you’ve been paying any attention the past week in the NFL, you are familiar with teams cutting new deals with players and using voidable years to basically move their money further into the future when there is more cap space available, a maneuver that became necessary this year when the 2021 salary cap rolled back to $182.5 million due to pandemic-related revenue shortfalls. All you need to know about Hill’s deal is that the extension years void at the end of the 2021 season, which means he’s officially on a one-year contract

The math: Hill had a cap charge of $16.159 million that is now reduced to $8.41 million, saving the Saints $7.749 million on this season’s cap. That savings means that a $7.749 million cap charge that won’t count this year will be pushed into 2022 — unless Hill signs a new extension.

All of this is important for two reasons. First, Hill still counts a lot against the cap, even if it is spread out over two years, which should be an indication that the Saints still view him as their potential starting quarterback of 2021 and beyond. And second, the fact that he’ll be counting against next season’s cap whether he’s on the team or not should indicate some motivation on the part of the Saints to start working on an extension during the course of the 2021 season if he starts at quarterback and plays well.

Is Jameis Winston still a factor in New Orleans?

Hill not only appears to be in the running to take over for the retired Drew Brees next season, but his money and contract structure is already suggestive that he is the favorite for the job, especially given that the team has yet to re-sign Jameis Winston. This doesn’t mean that Winston won’t be part of a quarterback runoff for the Saints in 2021. It just makes it clear that New Orleans wants Hill to be a part of that derby and that his remaining cap charge already puts him in a “starting” tier.

As for Winston factoring into this picture, a source close to the quarterback told Yahoo Sports on Sunday night that he wants to remain in New Orleans and views the Saints and head coach Sean Payton as his ideal situation to earn a starting job, not to mention a long-term deal. Whether that happens will ultimately come down to if another team unexpectedly offers Winston a starting job in 2021, which appears highly unlikely. The likelier scenario is Winston taking a deal paying him a low base salary with heavy incentives to raise his earnings if he wins the starting job with a prolific season. The catch is that Winston could be offered that same kind of deal elsewhere, too, although he wouldn’t have the one year of familiarity that he already has in New Orleans.

Don't expect Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson to become candidates

Boiled down, New Orleans appears to be heading right to the point where we all suspected in the event of a Brees retirement: with a quarterback competition between Hill and Winston, but with Hill being the initial frontrunner just from the 2021 salary implications. In an ideal situation, the Saints would see one of those players prove worthy of a long-term extension, which would be set into motion late in the 2021 season, with the Saints being able to use the franchise tag to lock down either Hill or Winston if such an extension can’t be reached.

Lost in all of this is the evaporation of the “fantasy” scenario that was never going to happen, which would have seen the Saints trading for either the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson or the Houston Texans' Deshaun Watson. Not only would the Saints have had to essentially gut their roster or dramatically hammer future cap years to make such a signing happen, the franchise also would have had to surrender considerable assets that would have included some core pieces of the current roster.

Hill’s cap-related extension kills any shot of that happening, which is one more considerable signal sent by a phantom extension that made a lot of noise but really only whispered the same quarterback scenario we’ve been expecting all along.

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