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Why Seahawks shouldn’t expect a flood of inexpensive free agents this offseason

Wild Card Round - Chicago Bears v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The NFL playoffs enter the divisional round this weekend without the participation of the Seattle Seahawks for the third time in four years following the home loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card round. That means it’s the offseason for the Hawks, and fans have started turning their attention to free agency and the draft in hopes of improving the team for next season.

One of the big storylines has, of course, been the revenue drop seen by the league as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the complete lack of fans in the stands. This has created a situation for the NFL where the salary cap is expected to see its largest drop - both in terms of percentage and actual dollars - since it was adopted by the league nearly three decades ago. That drop has led many fans to anticipate a bloodbath when it comes to teams releasing veterans on more expensive contracts, and making those players less expensive in free agency for teams with cap space available.

Those expectations can, for the most part, be put to the side.

There may be slightly more players released than in a normal offseason, but many teams prepared for a decreasing cap through more careful spending last offseason, and by the time free agency starts in March, it’s likely that the cap space available across the league will be plentiful.

Just to give an example which illustrates how little of a problem the impending cap decrease might actually be, a quick review of the cap situation of everyone’s favorite doomsday team, the New Orleans Saints, shows how easily it is to gain cap compliance without gutting the roster. According to the best NFL salary cap resource on the web, OverTheCap.com, with a salary cap of $176M, the Saints are currently projected to be $95.05M over with just 45 players under contract for 2021. Once they reach the 51 player threshold of a full offseason roster, they are looking at being somewhere in the neighborhood of $99.01M over the cap. For the sake of simplicity in this analysis, the nice round number of $100M will be used.

Just to demonstrate how easy it is for the Saints to go from $100M over the cap to in compliance, here’s how New Orleans can do it in four simple steps.

First, reports have Drew Brees expected to retire.

With Brees retiring, the team will need to do some paperwork to move dollars around for cap accounting purposes, but once all the paperwork is done, they will likely wait until the new league year to designate him as a post-June 1 cut. That will save the team $13.5M of cap space starting with his release, which would likely take place in mid-March, and then free up an additional $11.5M of cap space beginning in June. That’s a total of $25M in cap space freed up, and drops the amount by which the Saints are over the 2021 cap to $75M from the $100M starting point.

From there, the second step is for the team to release Kwon Alexander. Alexander was acquired from the San Francisco 49ers at the trade deadline and has no more guaranteed money left on his contract, however, a late 2020 Achilles injury will likely keep Alexander on the sideline for most, if not all, of 2021. With a cap hit of $13.4M, releasing Alexander frees up the entirety of that amount, less a $2M carve out for an Article 45 Injury Protection payment under the CBA. That means a total of $11.4M freed up, and reduce the amount by which the Saints are projected to be over the cap to $63.6M.

The next step is to extend certain players who are entering the final year of their contract and carry larger base salaries in 2021. The three in particular for whom an extension can create additional cap space are Ryan Ramczyk, Marshon Lattimore and Taysom Hill. Those three are slated to have combined cap hits of $32,028,000, and extensions could be used to reduce that number by $20M to $25M. For simplicity sake for this analysis, the $20M will be used, leaving the Saints just needing to free up just $43.6M of cap space.

$43.6M is certainly not a small number, but once they get to this point, they can look to create space using restructures and doing nothing more than restructuring. Specifically, they can call up the following half dozen players who carry larger base salaries in 2021 and rework their contracts with artificial void years at the end of the contract for bonus amortization purpose and convert base salary to signing bonus:

  • Cam Jordan ($11.9M)
  • Terron Armstead ($10.15M)
  • Michael Thomas ($12.6M)
  • Janoris Jenkins ($10.0M)
  • Andrus Peat ($9M)
  • David Onyemata ($7M)

The combined cap hits of those six players are $60.65M, and by doing nothing more than adding fake years on the end of their contracts and converting base salary to signing bonus, the Saints can free up 80% of that $60.65M amount, or $48.52M.

Recall from above that after extending Ramczyk, Lattimore and Hill the team was $43.6M over, and with $48.52M in new found cap space available, the Saints are suddenly in compliance after having released exactly one player. Now, it must be pointed out that this simplistic analysis does not take into account the fact that the Brees move does not free up the final $11.5M of cap space until June, so additional maneuvering would be necessary in the meantime. However, that is something that will not be too difficult, and how exactly the team opts to go about it will be determined largely by their overall strategy to come into compliance with the cap. They could trade players for picks, they could opt to prove me wrong and release a significant number of players.

However, whatever strategy the Saints pursue to come into compliance with the 2021 cap, this example is meant to do nothing more than to show how easy it is for teams which are over the cap to get under. So, there are certainly likely to be players who are released for cap reasons across the league, but with the cap expected to rise quickly once the pandemic is under control and new broadcast contracts are signed, the cap is likely to recover quickly. Thus, don’t be surprised if the expected flood of inexpensive veteran free agents many fans anticipate turns into a small bath of players, the best of whom are likely to sign creative contracts that work around the reduced salary cap in 2021.