The only reason the Saints cut C.J. Spiller yesterday and not before the season was because they literally could not afford to release him. A solid example of this franchise’s failed acquisitions and questionable salary cap tactics, Spiller’s contract now heads to the expensive graveyard of botched Saints moves, and their ghosts are going to haunt this team for a while to come.
The Saints have been in salary cap hell for a while, but I hadn’t realized quite how bad it had gotten. Spiller had no place in New Orleans—his first season had been shortened by injury, and even when he was healthy and Mark Ingram went down, he never quite earned the trust of Sean Payton enough to see significant action. The Saints tried to trade him in camp, and, finding no takers, listed him sixth on a six-man RB depth chart and as a healthy inactive for Week 1. Spiller was doomed, but the Saints were so tight up against the cap, they couldn’t physically take on his dead cap money this year and next, not until they reworked Drew Brees’s contract to free up some space.
The Spiller signing was another disaster for this front office. He earned a guaranteed $9 million for just 70 touches, and his cap hit remains on the books: $4.5 million this season, $2.5 million next. It’s part of a pattern.
The Saints lead the NFL this year with more than $40 million in dead money, which is more than 25 percent of their cap.
Let that soak in for a minute: One-fourth of their salary cap is being spent on players who don’t play for them.
The list includes Spiller, Junior Galette, Brandon Browner and Keenan Lewis, among many others. It also includes Jahri Evans’ old contract.
Lewis, Spiller, and Browner all will have cap hits into next season, meaning the Saints are already starting 2017 at a disadvantage.
This is business as usual around here: A series of poor signings, which is understandable, and short-sighted cap management, which is less so. For years now, the Saints’ have been in win-now mode, spending every possible dollar each season as long as Drew Brees remains effective. That’s a defensible strategy—QBs like Brees don’t come along often—but there is going to be hell to pay.
To remain competitive, the Saints are constantly getting creative with contracts to free up immediate cap space, at the expense of putting off the piper. This too is a legitimate strategy—the Patriots are masters of it, tweaking Tom Brady’s contract every couple of years. But the Patriots are winning. The Saints are pairing short-sighted cap management with a low hit rate on their signings. There is nothing good happening here.
The 2016 Saints season was one that began with a handicap thanks to previous contract trickery. Brees entered the season with a $30 million cap hit, six million dollars higher than that of any other NFL player. It was the price of clearing cap space in a previous year. But rather than bite that bullet now, they’ve again put it off for another day.
Brees signed what is functionally a one-year contract extension through 2017, but its key is that technically, it’s a five-year deal. Those three years after 2017 are fake, basically—the contract will be voided or reworked before they arrive. But they have the benefit of allowing the Saints to spread out Brees’s cap hit across the breadth of the deal. So his $30 million cap hit for 2016 becomes a manageable $17 million, and $19 million in 2017.
(This is the same salary cap math that had NHL teams signing guys to 17-year frontloaded contracts to spread out their cap hits, a practice that got so out of hand the loophole was promptly closed.)
Brees is 37 years old and may not have another contract in him after the Saints void this one following the 2017 season. Whenever he does leave, via retirement or in free agency, the back end of his current contract doesn’t just disappear. It will become dead money, $18 million of it, and it will hit the Saints’ cap all at once. The Saints have been kicking a few different cans down the road, but that road only goes so far. When the Brees era is over, the reckoning will be grim and the rebuilding will be hamstrung by the deferred sins of the past. For all the weaknesses the Saints roster currently has, this is as good as it’s going to be a for a while.