The Covid-19 pandemic has been the bane of life in 2020, with even the simplest of life’s pleasures being unceremoniously upended as the world has scrambled to limit its spread. As one such pleasure, sport has taken a big hit this year. In the name of public health and safety, competitions have been postponed and cancelled, crowds were expunged and replaced by canned noises over a PA system or television set, and a lot of revenue was lost for professional sports.
This is evidenced by the NFL and NFLPA’s agreement in July to establish a salary cap floor of $175 million for the 2021 season. It’s $23 million less than this year’s cap, and a monumental $35 million drop on the original projections for 2021. For context, that’s equivalent to the average seasonal salary for Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. The cap could go higher if revenue losses are less severe than anticipated.
The loss of cap space in a hard cap league bodes poorly for teams already pushed up against cap limits. Teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, and Houston Texans will scramble to fit themselves under the cap, but they all have starting quarterbacks signed to long-term contracts now that Deshaun Watson has extended with the Texans. The New Orleans Saints are in completely different territory.
Un-Saintly cap situation
The Saints go into the 2020 season as one of the top contenders for Super Bowl LV. They have talent at every position. However, they project to be more than $36 million over the cap in 2021, and face uncertainty over Drew Brees’ future beyond 2020. His total salary is $23.65 million this season, increasing to $36.15 million next year should he decide to play, according to Sports Illustrated. Should Brees retire, the Saints would still absorb over $10 million in dead cap money.
Additionally, the Saints have to sign some key players to extensions before the end of next year. They exercised their fifth-year options on premier cornerback Marshon Lattimore and excellent tackle Ryan Ramczyk. They must be paid after 2021, and can command large fees given the significant capital paid to others in their positions. Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White just signed a four-year, $70m extension. His yearly salary will exceed Lattimore’s five year contract with the Saints.
The Cleveland Browns signed Jack Conklin to a three-year, $42m contract in free agency. CBS Sports ranks Ramczyk as the 4th best tackle in the NFL, several places above Conklin. In normal circumstances, Ramczyk would be worth at least $15m a season. As it stands, the Saints will have Lattimore and Ramczyk for a combined $21.3m next year. That number may increase by $10m in 2022. It’s a lot of number-crunching before you even consider free agents leaving, or their star running back’s own contract dispute.
Kamara sits out
Reports emerged this week that Saints running back Alvin Kamara had an unexcused absence from training camp this week. This was due to a dispute over Kamara’s current contract situation, CBS Sports reported. Ramczyk and Lattimore have fifth-year options as 2017 first round picks. Kamara was selected in the third round and therefore does not have this luxury. As it stands, Kamara would be a free agent after this season. At 25, Kamara is about to head into his peak years as an NFL player. This year he will make $2.1m, a pittance for his level of talent. The running back market allows him to command as much as $15m a season.
His situation is less like Melvin Gordon with the Los Angeles Chargers, who replaced him with Austin Ekeler. It feels more like a Le’Veon Bell scenario. A Super Bowl-calibre team with a game-changing running back behind a top offensive line. Bell held out and his market in free agency never materialised before his eventual signing with the New York Jets. Bell’s brief time in New Jersey has been underwhelming thus far.
Kamara may want to re-sign with the Saints, but the cap has hamstrung them and they need to extend or re-sign players at more important positions. Demario Davis, considered one of the best linebackers in the league, is a free agent after this year. Lattimore and Ramczyk need long-term extensions. Even tight end Jared Cook is out of contract at the end of the season.
The Hard (Cap) Truth
The Saints can save money from some cuts (releasing receiver Emmanuel Sanders, centre Nick Easton and defensive tackle Malcom Brown would save $17m in cap space). However, they simply cannot retain all of these players in the long-term with a lower salary cap. With Brees’ potential retirement, and the prospect of two of Kamara, Ramczyk, Lattimore, or Davis leaving the team, the Saints suddenly go from perennial contenders to a team short of talent to go all the way.
The original projected cap would have remedied this, as the Saints could re-sign all their stars, draft a quarterback (Trey Lance perhaps?) in 2021, and remain legitimately competitive. Unfortunately like most people in 2020, Covi-19 messed up their plans. As life returns to some semblance of normality, the Saints hope the cap will recover accordingly and prevent the forced exodus of rare talent.