Michael Thomas restructures his Saints contract; what it means, and what it doesn’t mean

Here’s the first domino of the New Orleans Saints’ offseason — and their 2022 campaign still isn’t over. ESPN’s Field Yates reports that wide receiver Michael Thomas agreed to a restructured contract with the team that significantly lowers his 2023 salary cap hit by dropping next year’s base salary from $15.5 million down to the league minimum at $1.165 million, folding the difference into a massive roster bonus of $31.755 million.

Still with me? It gets more complicated. That $31.755 million won’t be paid out until 2024, but it becomes fully guaranteed on March 17, 2023 (the third day of the new league year). To incentivize Thomas into agreeing to this deal and remain compliant with CBA rules, he was given a signing bonus equal to his normal game check of $902,941. So what’s the big-picture idea here?

Let’s break it down by asking two questions: what this move means, and what it doesn’t mean:

What it means

The end of Thomas’ era in New Orleans is almost here. The Saints will be able to release or trade Thomas in the spring with minimal salary cap charges. And don’t bet on a trade — finding buyers for an aging receiver with a history of significant injuries is tough, especially in a market flooded with bloated contracts going to lesser talents. Just ask Odell Beckham Jr. about that. Still, placing that deadline after the start of the new league year does give New Orleans a few days to entertain trade offers from other teams. But a straight-up release is the likeliest bet here.

Now, that’s not completely true. This is an ideal scenario for the Saints to exercise the post-June 1 designation and reap greater salary cap benefits. As observed by Over The Cap’s Jason Fitzgerald, the Saints did this restructure with Thomas on the last day they were allowed to in order for him to be eligible for a post-June 1 release. By releasing Thomas in March (before the trigger date guarantees that $31.755 million for 2024) and designating him as a post-June 1 cut, the Saints will carry his $13.15 million salary cap charge until June 2. At that point it reduces to $11.993 million, and New Orleans will be left with a $14.181 million dead money charge in 2024.

So why restructure Thomas now? If the Saints hadn’t touched his contract but still intended to part ways with him, they’d have to carry his $28.2 million salary cap hit on the books all the way through free agency, the draft, and summer workouts until the post-June 1 benefits kick in. They need all the help they can get right now, so lessening his salary cap figure makes sense, even if it’s only a temporary reduction.

As to our opening question: this signals the end of Thomas’ time in New Orleans. But the book isn’t shut all the way just yet. So what else can we learn here?

What it doesn't mean

Okay, I’ll throw some cold water on everything: the Saints restructuring Thomas now does not necessarily mean they’re going to part ways with him in a few months. It’s possible they view this as a regular restructure and plan to have him play on this reduced salary cap hit in 2023, setting them up to tackle the bigger cap hit in 2024 in the future. Effectively crossing that bridge once they get to it. There’s a scenario where Thomas remains in a Saints uniform.

I don’t buy it, though. Taking that route would result in more salary cap headaches. They’d have to figure out a way to manipulate his 2024 salary cap charge with more restructures, more automatically-voiding dummy years written into his contract, and more time spent hoping his body is right. He’s only been able to play ten games over the last two years. With playmaking youngsters emerging at wide receiver like Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed, the situation has changed, and the Saints can go in other directions.

Whether or not he catches his next pass for New Orleans, Thomas isn’t at the end of his NFL career. He could bounce back somewhere else around this league. There aren’t many players with his work ethic and commitment to his craft. He’ll have options as a free agent and it shouldn’t shock anyone if he’s making noise and catching tough passes somewhere next year. It’s just a shame things haven’t worked out to where he can finish his career with the Saints.

Again, this move doesn’t mean that Thomas leaving town is a sure thing. The path could diverge in different ways. But fans should ready themselves now for another offseason exodus of talent from New Orleans. Hopefully the Saints are prepared for it, too.

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire