Drew Brees Saints 2014
Quarterback Drew Brees could be asked to restructure his contract to help the New Orleans Saints get out of their salary cap woes this offseason. Reuters

One quick look at the New Orleans Saints books would make any NFL fan gasp. The Saints are presently $23.1 million over the salary cap, by far the highest in the league. They have five players making more than $10 million next season, or rather those five players account for $74.2 million of the current $166.8 million devoted to player contracts in 2015, according to figures compiled by Spotrac.com.

With less than a month remaining until the new league year and the star of free agency on March 10, the Saints and general manager Mickey Loomis must find a way to clear salary cap space or run the risk of creating tension with players and or fans. Loomis must also be careful how he makes said space, with the possibility of spilling over into 2016’s cap.

The Saints can ask some of their highest paid players to restructure their deals, possibly spreading out some of their bonuses over a number of years. But if players push back and refuse, the Saints could lose out on some key free agents next month and repeat last year’s disappointing 7-9 run.

Loomis does have $1.7 million in cap savings from last season that will rollover into 2015, but he’ll need far more to pursue free agents and help a defense that ranked No. 31 overall last season.

The first question is whether or not highest-paid player and All Pro quarterback Brees would restructure his deal to help the team right away. With an expected cap hit of $26.4 million next season, Brees’ age, 36, complicates matters because the only real way to create space this year and not have it affect the cap in 2016 would be signing him to a contract extension.

The Saints could convert some of Bree’s $18.75 base salary into a signing bonus, which would be spread out over the two years remaining on his deal. But again that just pushes the debt to next season when defensive end Cameron Jordan and safety Rafael Bush are up for new deals.

Instead Loomis is more likely to ask outside linebacker Junior Galette, tight end Jimmy Graham, guard Jahri Evans, safety Jarius Byrd and or receiver Marques Colston to restructure their deals for the betterment of the team.

As The Times-Picayune’s Evan Woodbery broke down last week, the Saints could save $13.3 million by converting Galette and Graham’s roster bonuses into signing bonuses alone. They could cut an additional $4.25 million by doing the same with linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne.

Byrd, who signed a monstrous six-year, $54 million deal last year, is also due a $6 million roster bonus that can be flipped into a signing bonus. In every case, the Saints would still be paying each player their full bonus, but the payments would be spread out over the lives of their contracts rather than in one lump sum that counts against 2015’s cap.

Thus Byrd would receive a $1.2 million this year, and the remaining $4.8 million would be paid over the remaining four years of his contract. The 28-year-old Byrd missed 12 games last season after tearing up his knee, and could stand to give a little back to the Saints.

Should the Saints scale back all of those deals they’d shave $18.75 million off this year’s cap.

That cuts deep into their debt, but still leaves some room to be desired, and doesn’t give Loomis space to sign free agents.

New Orleans will have to either tinker with more players’ contracts, or outright cut them. Those cuts could come from starting guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, two solid players who anchored a Saints offensive that allowed only 30 sacks all of the last year, tied for the ninth-best mark in the league.

Combined, Evans and Grubbs will count $20.6 million against the cap in 2015. Cutting Evans would constitute a $5 million dead cap hit and Grubbs $6 million. Letting go of both is an option Loomis is unlikely to explore, but one could be gone.

How Loomis spends whatever space he creates is also up for debate. New Orleans does have some key contributors from last season up for new deals, mainly running back Mark Ingram, starting center Jonathan Goodwin and high-value cornerback Patrick Robinson.

New Orleans declined the option of adding a fifth year on to Ingram’s rookie deal before last season, and he rushed for a career-best 964 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games. He also caught 29 balls for 145 yards.

Ingram’s situation could be dictated by the number pass catching backs available in free agency next month, with Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller and San Diego’s Ryan Mathews hitting the open market. Both could better serve Brees out of the backfield, but like Ingram, they have checkered injury pasts.

Goodwin, flanked by Evans and Grubbs, will be 37 in December and was part of the Saints Super Bowl run back in 2009. At his advanced age, and 25-year-old Tim Lelito right behind him on the depth chart at a minor cap hit of $586,000 it seems likely the Saints will let Goodwin walk.

Making up for Byrd’s shortcomings, Robinson roared back from an injury plagued 2013 to rank second on the team with 11 passes defending and two interceptions. Robinson registered a $2.8 million cap hit last year, and he’s likely to ask for a raise given his production.

Loomis must also be wary of his defense’s depth. Reserves like defensive end Brandon Deaderick, inside linebacker Damon Humber, and strong safety Jamarca Sanford are also due new contracts.

There is the possibility that Loomis and the Saints forgo such difficult decisions involving their offensive line and secondary, and choose to find relief in the draft.

At No. 13 overall, the Saints will be in excellent position to nab one of several highly-touted defensive backs. They can also find a new pass rusher who could provide insurance if Jordan bolts via free agency in 2016.

In the first round, Michigan State’s Trae Waynes, Washington’s Marcus Peterson, Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson could all slide in next to a healthy Byrd and third-year safety Kenny Vaccaro.

This year’s draft also has some promising defensive ends, like Missouri’s Shane Ray and Oregon’s Arik Armstead, both of whom could be selected in the first or middle of the second round when the Saints are on the clock.