Which Saints should be untouchable in 2021 cap cuts, trade talks?

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John Sigler
·8 min read
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The New Orleans Saints’ roster is going to look very different in 2021. That’s just a fact; with changes coming in every phase of the game, upheaval is coming for almost every position group. Drew Brees is poised for retirement, while Thomas Morstead is in peril after his worst year as a pro. Defensive starters like Marcus Williams, Trey Hendrickson, Sheldon Rankins, and Alex Anzalone are headed for free agency.

So we should expect the Saints to bring in plenty of new faces. Salary cap commitments will be a consideration, as always, and almost everyone could come up in trade talks with other teams.

But there is a handful of players who should be untouchable due to their contract status. For this group, it would cost the Saints more to trade or release them than it will to keep them around — the math doesn’t check out on moving them for the sake of saving cap space.

You’ll usually see the salary cap hits for players not on the roster anymore referred to as “dead money,” but for illustrative purposes I’ll avoid doing that here. Let’s do a quick review, with all contract numbers via OverTheCap.com:

Michael Thomas

Current 2021 cap hit: $18.8 million 2021 cap hit if traded: $20 million 2021 cap hit if released: $23 million A down year for No. 13 doesn't signal the end of the line for him. Cutting him -- as some fanatical commenters called for between injuries and his midseason fight in practice -- would cost the team an addition $4.2 million. Trading Thomas to another team would cost $1.2 million more against the salary cap. It's not likely to happen, purely from a financial aspect. Sure, crazier things have happened, but the Saints would have to recoup serious compensation to take an even bigger salary cap hit than what they're already preparing for. There probably was more friction behind the scenes than what's been made public. And the Saints have moved their best pass-catchers before, like Jimmy Graham and Brandin Cooks. But they're so tight against the salary cap that paying more money to not have Thomas on the roster is not worth it. A more realistic scenario: restructuring his contract to lower his $12.6 million base salary, which is the highest on the team, by converting a big chunk of it into a signing bonus spread across the future years on his deal.

Alvin Kamara

Current 2021 cap hit: $5 million 2021 cap hit if traded: $12 million 2021 cap hit if released: $14 million Kamara shouldn't be moved, simply from a football perspective. He's too important to the offense as its leading running back and, at times, its leading receiver. His value was proven even with Taysom Hill starting at quarterback, when Hill's one-speed throwing mechanics couldn't make the most of Kamara's skills as a pass-catcher. Kamara remains a highly effective runner even when shouldered with more carries. And moving him would cost the Saints exponentially. His future guaranteed payments would accelerate onto this year's cap number, costing New Orleans an additional $7 million in a trade and $9 million in a straight-up cut. Kamara is a pillar for the offense to be built around. Don't expect to hear of him going anywhere any time soon.

Demario Davis

Current 2021 cap hit: $10.8 million 2021 cap hit if traded: $11.1 million 2021 cap hit if released: $17.4 million Like Kamara, Davis signed an extension just last year. Nevertheless, his name has been floated by some fans and bloggers of other teams as someone the Saints could let go in the name of saving cap space. That's nonsense. Beyond his on-field contributions and off-field leadership (both of which are highly valuable, and explain why the Saints signed him to a long-term deal), Davis is too expensive to trade away. That would cost New Orleans an additional $300,000, which isn't a lot but still means more to them than other teams given their cap situation. He's arguably their best defensive player. Expect Davis to be a solidifying force in the middle of the Saints defense with so many parts moving around him this year. They'll need his playmaking ability and veteran's experience.

Cesar Ruiz

Current 2021 cap hit: $2.8 million 2021 cap hit if traded: $5.0 million 2021 cap hit if released: $10.3 million As a former first round draft pick, Ruiz's contract carries more guarantees than many other players. Losing him at this stage in his career would be a disaster, both in how much more it would cost the Saints ($2.2 million down the drain if released, $7.5 million if traded) and what it means for the on-field product. They need all the cheap talent they can get.

Malcolm Jenkins

Current 2021 cap hit: $6.2 million 2021 cap hit if traded: $6.75 million 2021 cap hit if released: $12.9 million Jenkins was an every-down player for the Saints in 2020, almost literally: his 1,108 combined snaps were the second-most played on the team. He was a big help in his return to New Orleans after six years with the Philadelphia Eagles, and he should continue to be a key piece in the secondary in 2021. That's ensured through his contract, anyway. Cutting him (as is a weirdly popular demand on the Saints subreddit) would more than double his cap hit this season. Trading him would see it go up slightly. He's almost certainly going to stick around as a captain of the defense and leading voice in the locker room. And if both Brees and Morstead leave, he'll be the most-experienced player on the roster with a dozen NFL seasons under his belt.

Andrus Peat

Current 2021 cap hit: $11.6 million 2021 cap hit if traded: $10.4 million 2021 cap hit if released: $19.4 million Yeah, this hurts. Peat consistently graded as the team's worst offensive lineman for five years (when he wasn't sidelined by an unlucky streak of injuries) before the Saints inked him to a long-term extension, and now they're stuck with him after another up-and-down season interrupted by more injuries in 2020. It's the worst personnel decision the team has made in the Sean Payton era; at least you can say they didn't know Jairus Byrd and Brandon Browner would bottom out so badly, or that Junior Galette would start a beach brawl. But let's not lose the track here. The Saints don't have a way out of Peat's contract until 2022 at the soonest, unless they can find a trade partner this offseason. Which will be difficult given his bad resume and guard not being a highly-valued position around the league. Maybe things finally go his way in 2021 with good health and better performance.

Cameron Jordan

Current 2021 cap hit: $18.9 million 2021 cap hit if traded: $16.9 million 2021 cap hit if released: $16.9 million Maybe Jordan is starting to show his age. Maybe the offseason shoulder surgery he downplayed was a bigger hurdle than expected. Whatever happened in Jordan's 2020 season, it resulted in a big dip in production after several great years. He and the Saints have to be hoping for a resurgence in 2021. Especially given his contract offers just $2 million in cap space if he's not on the roster. Expect another restructure for him that will lower his $11.9 million base salary (one of the highest on the team). With Trey Hendrickson possibly leaving in free agency and Marcus Davenport hurtling towards draft bust status, the Saints need Jordan to return and play at a high level.

Lagniappe

There are other players who the Saints probably won't be eager to part with, but the possible savings here are worth considering. They would come closer to breaking even against the salary cap with these names than the other names I dug into earlier. Remember, the idea is to save more money against the cap than you're still liable for in guarantees. Here's the difference in potential cap savings against the dead money still on New Orleans' books if they released any of them:

  • Taysom Hill: -$6.1 million

  • David Onyemata: -$5 million

  • Marcus Davenport: -$4.3 million

  • Terron Armstead: -$2.9 million

  • Emmanuel Sanders: -$2 million

  • Wil Lutz: -$1.6 million

Trading any of those players would change the math a bit, possibly making it worth your while in some situations. But these are all players the Saints have invested heavily in and should hope to keep around for another run at the playoffs in 2021, regardless of who their quarterback is. It's worth finding a way to make the numbers work to keep them in black and gold.

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