Saints free agents Trey Hendrickson, Marcus Williams

Saints free agents Trey Hendrickson, Marcus Williams

It’s been a while since the New Orleans Saints have used the franchise tag to lock in a pending free agent. They’ve issued it just three times since 2007: on defensive end Charles Grant; again in 2012, on quarterback Drew Brees; and most infamously in 2014, for tight end Jimmy Graham (whose position was defined during a dramatic arbitration hearing). Feb. 23 marks the opening of the franchise tag window, which closes March 9.

The Saints have run tight against the salary cap in the years since and, frankly, haven’t had many free agents worth issuing the franchise tag to. But circumstances are different in 2021. Several key defenders are set to hit the market, losses which would be tough for New Orleans to recover from — it sure feels like either the team’s sack leader, Trey Hendrickson, or every-down safety Marcus Williams are on the way out.

Maybe things would be different if the salary cap had continued to climb year over year, but the COVID-19 pandemic hit the NFL just like every other industry, and now the cap is depressing. It’ll go no lower than $180 million, but that’s still an $18.2 million pitfall for the Saints to overcome. While issuing the franchise tag to Hendrickson or Williams would buy some time for the Saints to negotiate a long-term deal (or use another team’s interest to set a market value for the player), the hefty, fully-guaranteed salary it brings with it might make that untenable.

So a big part of figuring this out hinges on what those current-year cap hits would look like. Over the Cap estimates the franchise tag for defensive ends like Hendrickson at $17,752,000, which the Saints won’t be willing to tie up, even in the short term. However, the number for safeties is much more affordable at just $11,196,000, so maybe they consider it for Williams.

And it’s possible they look at the transition tag instead. It functions the same way as the franchise tag, but at a lower cost, and with a big caveat: if the player is offered a contract with another team and the Saints don’t match it, New Orleans receives no compensation for the loss. OTC’s estimates for the defensive ends transition tag is $14,811,000, while safeties are set at $9,550,000. We won’t know for certain what these values look like until the NFL makes it official, but it’s an educated guess.

But with the Saints currently standing at almost $68.2 million over the projected salary cap, you have to think they won’t be in position to eat a salary cap hit like that for either Hendrickson or Williams. They’re focused just on getting cap-compliant, and adding a double-digit figure like that into the mix would make for a tough barrier to hurdle. The more realistic outcome may be for the Saints to explore contract extensions with both players, but given their on-field success, meeting at the right price point might be elusive.

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