The New Orleans Saints released running back CJ Spiller on Tuesday, two days after he was inactive in the team’s regular season opener against the Oakland Raiders. He had just signed with New Orleans as a free agent the previous offseason. However, Spiller ended his first season with the Saints on injured reserve after a preseason knee procedure derailed his campaign. This preseason there was hope he could become a regular contributor for the team but instead never was able to show pre-injury explosiveness which was his trademark.
But the timing seems off. Spiller was always behind Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower on the Saint’s depth chart and there are three other running backs on their active roster. So why wait until the regular season has already started before releasing him? According to head coach Sean Payton, it was a matter of trying to find a trade partner which ultimately never materialized,
“It didn’t have to be done by the first game of the regular season, his salary was guaranteed, this was more about was there a potential trade partner? And then, obviously, the urgency changed when we had the injury to (cornerback) Delvin Breaux.
“I think he’s going to have an opportunity, sooner than later, with another club. And yet, the window I know in this building or this club is not permanently closed.”
The real reason, however, appears to be monetary. The Saints had to wait for cap space to open up before they were able to release Spiller. This happened when Drew Brees signed his one-year extension. New Orleans can now absorb Spiller’s $4.5 million cap hit for 2016 and a $2.5 million cap hit for 2017. In the end, CJ Spiller leaves New Orleans with $9 million for 13 games.
But what’s a little more dead money? The Saints currently have by far the most dead money in the NFL. They are essentially paying 36 players to not be on the team. It’s not unusual for teams to have dead money. In some instances it’s simply the cost of doing business: the dead money cap hit is lower than the active cap hit for a player past his prime, team takes a cap hit on dead money in order to trade a player, and many time teams sign players for little money and subsequently waive them because the money is inconsequential. For the Saints, however, their dead money is no trivial matter. The Saints have $37,819,989 in dead money, or over 25 percent of their total salary cap.
And that is the New Orleans Saints encapsulated. For years the Saints have operated right up against the salary cap, limiting their ability to be competitive. Other teams regularly engage in this same practice as well. The Washington Redskins, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots regularly operate from year-to-year with very little cap room. But this list of teams also demonstrates how difficult it is to do so. Of these four teams only the Patriots have had year-to-year success. And none of these teams have near the dead money of the Saints.
Very little cap room means very little room for error, especially as it pertains to free agent signings and contract extensions. On a team such as the Saints with a solid offensive core built around Drew Brees free agents are meant to shore up weak spots and to take the team over the edge. Instead the team is paying CJ Spiller and Brandon Browner to not be there. And of course a team wants to reward its own good players with contract extensions in order to keep them around and keep the team competitive, but those extensions need to be done right. Instead Junior Galette and Keenan Lewis were cut. Trades? Jahri Evans didn’t work out so well.
These five players are getting $29,400,000 this year from the Saints this year.
If you’re going to operate with little cap room you have to be right much more than you’re wrong. And in a division which had been weak until last season it did not take a Herculean effort to be competitive. Yet in the past 5 years the Saints have finished 13-3, 7-9, 11-5, 7-9 and 7-9. In effect, the Saints are good when their defense is not mediocre. Missing on players such as Browner and Galette does not help. And their dead money as well as that from Spiller, Lewis and Evans prevents the team from spending that $29,400,000 on better defensive players.
This past Sunday the Saints, at home, gave up 35 points, including 22 in the 4th quarter, in a come-from-behind victory for the Raiders. Drew Bree threw for four touchdowns and over 400 yards. The defense had no takeaways, no sacks, only three hits on the quarterback and gave up almost 500 yards of total offense. Their leading tackler was Craig Robertson.
Last season there were rumors Sean Payton could leave. He didn’t. Maybe he should.