How much salary cap space do the Saints need to sign their draft picks?

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Some analysts and fans on Twitter love to use this topic like a cudgel, but no one is sweating the salary cap hurdles between the New Orleans Saints and signing their draft picks less than the team itself. While the Saints are kind of strapped for cap space right now, it’s only a matter of time until enough resources are freed up to ink their rookie draft class.

The first step towards that goal will happen soon with Drew Brees’ $1.075 million base salary reverting to New Orleans after June 1.

Rookie contracts are planned out under the new NFL collective bargaining agreement, so those deals are now tied to draft slots and are easier to project and plan for. The team over at Over The Cap have put together estimates of what each Saints draft pick will count against the 2021 salary cap once they’re signed. I’ll reference those projections often, but keep in mind nothing is official until contracts are signed and the Saints report their cap numbers to the league.

Because only the top 51 contracts are factored against the cap during the offseason, not all of New Orleans’ draftees will even be counted. Remember, whenever a new cap hit is added to the books, it pushes lesser-valued deals below that top-51 threshold. Some of the Saints’ draft picks will carry 2021 cap hits that don’t even meet that bar. After factoring in which cap hits will be displaced, only the Saints’ top four draft picks will rank among the top 51 contracts, at a combined cost of roughly $1.94 million.

Let’s run through the estimates from Over The Cap and consider how each of them factors in to the salary cap:

Round 1: DE Payton Turner

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - SEPTEMBER 19: Payton Turner #98 of the Houston Cougars celebrates a tackle during the first half of a game against the Tulane Green Wave at Yulman Stadium on September 19, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

New Orleans' first-round pick is, of course, their most valuable. Turner's first-year cap hit clocks in just over $2.2 million, which is comparable to what the Saints are accounting for Tre'Quan Smith ($2.38 million) and James Hurst ($2.07 million) this year. And because Turner's addition pushes a smaller cap hit off the books (in this case, one of the $780,000 hits the Saints have for several different players), it costs even less than that to make his contract official. Estimated 2021 cap hit: $2,290,807 Net cost for the Saints: $1,510,807

Round 2: LB Pete Werner

Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Pete Werner (20) watches as the ball falls to the ground after helping break up a pass intended for Penn State Nittany Lions tight end Pat Freiermuth (87) during the second quarter of a NCAA Division I college football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday, November 23, 2019 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]
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The Saints' second rounder carries a significantly lower salary cap charge at just over $1.03 million, which clocks in between deals with players like C.J. Gardner-Johnson ($1.04) and Adam Trautman ($1.02), both former third round selections. Like them, Werner should expect to push for playing time right out of the gate. And like with Turner, Werner's addition would push another $780,000 minimum contract below the threshold, resulting in a net change of about $250,000. Estimated 2021 cap hit: $1,033,579 Net cost for the Saints: $253,579

Round 3: CB Paulson Adebo

Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo (11) intercepts a pass intended for California wide receiver Vic Wharton III in the fourth quarter of a football game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/John Hefti)

We continue on into the third round, where Adebo's $917,275 estimate is the lowest number so far (noticing a pattern?). That's similar money to what players from the 2020 practice squad are counting against the cap this year: Will Clapp, Christian Ringo, and Ryan Glasgow are each drawing $920,000. And that's a tremendous value if Adebo can compete for a starting job right away opposite Marshon Lattimore. But he'll be displacing a slightly higher-paid teammate in the top 51 rankings, either Malcolm Roach or Marquez Callaway, who share cap hits of $783,333. Estimated 2021 cap hit: $917,275 Net cost for the Saints: $133,942

Round 4: QB Ian Book

Dec 5, 2020; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book (12) throws in the second quarter against the Syracuse Orange at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Book is the last Saints draft pick whose estimated 2021 cap hit would qualify for a top 51 slot, and he barely makes the cut at $828,396. He's quit literally No. 51 out of the top 51. He'll wipe out another $783,333 cap charge upon signing, making for a meager net change on the Saints salary cap table. He himself would be pushed down below the threshold if the Saints add higher-priced veterans. Fun fact: Book's projected rookie cap hit is 82.31% of what the Buccaneers are on the hook for Kyle Trask ($1,006,426), 87.22% of what the Vikings are paying Kellen Mond ($949,712), and 87.24% of what the Texans owe Davis Mills ($949,474). Not bad considering they'll all probably see the same opportunities to play and Book was picked a round and a half later. Estimated 2021 cap hit: $828,396 Net cost for the Saints: $45,063

Rounds 6 and 7: OT Landon Young and WR Kawaan Baker

LEXINGTON, KY - OCTOBER 26: Landon Young #67 of the Kentucky Wildcats looks on against the Missouri Tigers as heavy rain falls in the second half of the game at Kroger Field on October 26, 2019 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Neither of these rookies have estimated cap hits that would qualify for the top-51 rule, but let's review the numbers for the same of completionism. Young, the Kentucky left tackle cross-training to line up on the right side for the Saints, is projected to cost $702,445 against the salary cap in his first year. That's far beneath the threshold, though, so don't expect him to factor into the cap sheet until at least next season. As for Baker: the South Alabama slot receiver was one of the final picks in the draft, and his cap hit estimate reflects that, lining up with some of his undrafted rookie teammates at $680,019. His numbers would go up in future years, but first he has to make the team.

South Alabama wide receiver Kawaan Baker (15) out runs Southern Mississippi defensive back Natrone Brooks (18) on his way to a 52-yard touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Hattiesburg, Miss., Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. South Alabama won 32-21. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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