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FAB 1. The Saints’ Last Hurrah

The Saints’ last hurrah is approaching – rapidly approaching.

According to OverTheCap.com, New Orleans is $95 million over the 2021 salary cap – even if quarterback Drew Brees decides to retire.

That’s assuming that the cap will be near the projected floor of $176 million, but sources have told PewterReport.com that instead of a near $25 million decrease in the 2021 cap due to lost stadium revenue, the league may decide to have a flat cap of $198 million again and keep it flat without any growth for the next couple of years to make up for the losses during the COVID-ridden 2020 season.

Either way, the Saints are toast.

New Orleans is either $95 million over the 2021 cap or it is $73 million over the cap next year. The Saints own the biggest cap mess in the NFL next season – by far.

That’s how desperate New Orleans has been to win the Super Bowl over the last couple of years – restructuring, restructuring and restructuring deals and adding new players with high signing bonuses and putting off the cap crunch for another year, and then another year, and another and so on.

A day of reckoning day will come to New Orleans in March of 2021 and the team’s stranglehold on the NFC South – a division it has won the last four years with either an 11-5 record (2017), a 13-3 mark (2018-19) or a 12-4 record (2020) – will finally come to an end. The Saints will have to purge their roster of several very good players – perhaps even Pro Bowl players – to become cap compliant in a few months.

And which team will vanquish the Saints?

The Buccaneers, of course.

As long as Tom Brady is healthy for all 16 games in 2021, Tampa Bay will win the NFC South next year.

The Bucs will either speed up the process of dethroning the Saints by prevailing in New Orleans in Sunday’s NFC divisional playoffs – finally beating the bully that has beaten Tampa Bay the last five times, including all four meetings with Bruce Arians as head coach – or nature will simply take its course and time finally catches up with the Saints.

According to the odds at SportsBettingDime.com, the Buccaneers are slight 3-point underdogs against the Saints. The odds don’t look so bad. There is still a chance that the Bucs can come out with a win this weekend.

New Orleans has 13 players that have a $10 million salary cap hit in 2021. By comparison, the Bucs are approximately $30 million under the salary cap for next year and have just six players scheduled to have a $10 million cap hit in 2021. That’s less than half.

Here’s a look at the most expensive Saints players on the 2021 roster.

Top Saints’ 2021 Cap Hits

QB Drew Brees – $36,150,000
DE Cameron Jordan – $18,900,000
WR Michael Thomas – $18,800,000
LT Terron Armstead – $16,287,000
QB Taysom Hill – $16,159,000
CB Janoris Jenkins – $14,200,000
LB Kwon Alexander – $13,400,000
G Andrus Peat – $11,600,000
RT Ryan Ramczyk – $11,064,000
LB Demario Davis – $10,800,000
CB Marshon Lattimore – $10,244,000
WR Emmanuel Sanders – $10,000,000
DT David Onyemata – $10,000,000
S Malcom Jenkins – $8,450,000
G Nick Easton – $7,000,000
DT Malcolm Brown – $6,500,000
RB Alvin Kamara – $5,000,000
K Will Lutz – $4,700,000
RB Latavius Murray – $4,200,000
P Thomas Morstead – $4,500,000

Saints QB Drew Brees and Bucs QB Tom Brady

Saints QB Drew Brees and Bucs QB Tom Brady – Photo by: USA Today

Now the Saints just can’t start cutting players to get out of their salary cap mess, as many of these top players have already restructured their deals and would result in several millions of dollars worth of dead cap hits. For example, if Brees does retire at the end of this season his $25 million salary will be off the books, and his $36.15 cap hit in 2021 will be reduced to $22.65 million in dead cap money unless he’s designated as a post June 1 cut, and then Brees will only count for $13.5 million worth of dead money.

That means Brees won’t play in New Orleans in 2021, yet will still count $13.5 million on the Saints’ salary cap.

There are a couple of players that New Orleans can cut without any salary cap ramifications at all, such as Alexander, who is set to have $12.55 million base salary in 2021 and a $13.4 million cap hit, Lattimore, who is set to make $10.244 million, and Ramczyk, who will have a $11,064,000 base salary. Losing Alexander won’t mean much, but having to possibly cut Lattimore and Ramczyk would be huge losses for New Orleans.

And parting ways with Brees, Alexander, Lattimore and Ramczyk would only save the Saints approximately $57.15 million. They’ll need another cut another $20 – $40 million from their roster just to get in cap compliance.

And that doesn’t include any new free agents the Saints want to sign, or players they want to re-sign, such as starters like linebacker Alex Anzalone, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, tight end Jared Cook, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, cornerback P.J. Williams, free safety Marcus Williams and backup quarterback Jameis Winston, in addition to New Orleans’ 2021 draft class.

Jenkins is set to have a $14.2 million cap hit in part due to a $10 million base salary. The Saints could part ways with Jenkins and his dead cap hit would only be $7.2 million or $7 million.

Jordan will have an $18.9 million cap hit with an $11.9 million base salary, but cutting him will result in a $16.9 million dead cap hit – unless he’s designated as a post-June 1 hit, which would only be $2 million in dead money this year. Can you imagine the Saints without Jordan, who has been the heart and soul of New Orleans defense for years?

Bucs QB Tom Brady and Saints DE Trey Hendrickson

Bucs QB Tom Brady and Saints DE Trey Hendrickson – Photo by: USA Today

Regardless of who is cut in March the Saints will literally have tens of millions of dollars worth of dead cap money for the 2021 season as a result.

I’m a Bucs expert – not a Saints expert, so I don’t have a whole lot of insight in to which cap maneuvers New Orleans would have to make or want to make this offseason. But the Saints will have to do something drastic in the offseason in terms of parting ways with several established, proven starters in a few months.

Win or lose on Sunday, the Saints’ cap misfortunes next year will likely cause New Orleans to surrender the division to Tampa Bay in 2021. In order for all of the cap maneuvering to be worth it for the Saints this year they have to win against the Bucs on Sunday, and advance to the Super Bowl really. If they don’t, it will be all for naught, save for those NFC South division champion hats and t-shirts.

FAB 2. Hill Is Saints’ Not-So-Secret Weapon In 2020 – And Beyond

The Bucs know all about New Orleans’ 42-year old quarterback Drew Brees, a noted Buc-killer with a 19-10 career record against Tampa Bay.

Todd Bowles knows all about Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas and Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara, who has helped New Orleans win the last five games against Tampa Bay, including the last four contests with him as the Bucs defensive coordinator.

Bowles and his defense even knows about Taysom Hill, Sean Payton’s multi-purpose weapon on the Saints offense, as Hill has seen his production grow in each game he’s played against Tampa Bay over the past four games. Hill has lined up at quarterback, tight end and wide receiver in the Saints offense this year, doing so against the Bucs all three ways this season.

Taysom Hill’s Production vs. Tampa Bay – 2020

Week 9: 2-of-2 passing for 48 yards, 1 catch for 21 yards, 7 carries for 54 yards
Week 1: 1-of-1 passing for 38 yards, 1 catch for 14 yards, 3 carries for 13 yards

Taysom Hill’s Production vs. Tampa Bay – 2019

Week 11: 1 catch for 2 yards, 1 carry for 2 yards, 1 kick return for 12 yards
Week 5: 1-of-1 passing for 18 yards, 2 carries for 14 yards

In New Orleans’ 38-3 win at Tampa Bay on Sunday Night Football in November, Hill totaled 123 yards of total offense, and that was before he was called on to start four games at quarterback for the Saints this year when Brees was out with rib injuries, going 3-1 during that stretch.

Hill isn’t Payton’s secret weapon anymore, but how he will be deployed against the Bowles’ defense remains a big mystery, and that’s what makes the 6-foot-2, 221-pound athlete so hard to defend.

“It’s tough, he can do a lot of things,” Bowles said. “He’s a very good athlete as well as a very good quarterback. He’s a very good running back too, and he runs routes. You’ve got to know where he is at all times and he’s just one of the many weapons that they have.”

Hill, who signed a two-year, $21 million contract in April that included $17.4 million in guaranteed money, is believed to be Brees’ heir apparent and will likely be the Saints’ starter under center in 2021.

He’s made great strides as a passer this year, and supplanted Jameis Winston as the starting QB after just start from Winston when he filled in for Brees. Hill completed 82-of-114 passes (71.9 percent) for 834 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions during that stretch, while running for 209 yards and four touchdowns on 39 carries (5.4 avg.).

Saints QB Taysom Hill and Bucs LB Devin White

Saints QB Taysom Hill and Bucs LB Devin White – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Hill has rushed for a career-high 457 yards and eight touchdowns this season on several designed QB keepers, while averaging 5.3 yards per carry, in addition to catching eight passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. Last year, Hill saw more time as a wide receiver and tight end, catching 19 passes for 234 yards (12.3 avg.) and six scores.

The 30-year old veteran played a huge role on offense in last year’s 26-20 playoff loss to Minnesota, rushing for 50 yards on four carries, completing his only pass attempt for 50 yards and hauling in two receptions for 25 yards and a touchdown.

In last week’s 21-9 playoff win against Chicago, Hill caught two passes for five yards, carried the ball four times for 15 yards and was sacked once and fumbled. He hit his head in the season finale win at Carolina, and then injured his knee in Sunday’s victory over the Bears. Hill didn’t practice on Wednesday or Thursday and his status for Sunday’s game is in doubt.

But that doesn’t mean that the Bucs haven’t been preparing for him. Tampa Bay has used an undrafted free agent wide receiver in practice to simulate Hill.

“That would be Travis Jonsen,” Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s 6-foot-4, [211 pounds] and was a wildcat quarterback in college. He’ll give us a really good picture.”

Jonsen spent a good amount of time running the ball as a wildcat quarterback in college, in addition to be flanked out wide. Jonsen had 118 carries for 725 yards (6.1 avg.) and 13 touchdowns in two seasons for the Montana State Bobcats, while catching 83 passes for 899 yards (10.8 avg.) and two touchdowns. Last year, Jonsen had 528 yards rushing and scored eight TDs along with 580 yards and one touchdown on 55 catches.

“He’s an interesting guy as an Oregon transfer,” said Bucs director of college scouting Mike Biehl back in May. “He was a quarterback at Oregon. We liked his versatility and that he can do some things for us. He’s kind of raw as a receiver, not having played the position a lot, but we just think he’s somebody we can work with. He’s got a lot of athletic ability, and when you switch from quarterback to receiver you have a whole different outlook on the game. It’s kind of intriguing. I think our coaches will be excited to work with a guy like this and maybe do some different things.”

Bucs WR Travis Jonsen

Bucs WR Travis Jonsen – Photo courtesy of Montana State

Bowles appreciates what Jonsen has done for the Bucs defense in practice this week in his role on the scout team.

“He’s big enough, obviously he’s quick enough,” Bowles said. “He’s not as big as Taysom, but he fared pretty well. He can run the ball very well – he’s got some speed on him – and when he lines up at the wide out spots, he can do a lot of things for them. You can imitate him as close as possible, but it’s not the real thing.”

Whether it’s this Sunday if he plays, or next year when he takes over for Brees at quarterback, the multi-dimensional Hill will be a factor that the Bucs need to account for.

“Sean [Payton] does a great job of moving those guys around, personnel and those type of things,” Bowles said. “He gets a lot of guys involved, so it takes all 11 guys to be very disciplined and we’ve just got to make some plays.”

FAB 3. Rewind Wild Card – Fast Forward Divisional Playoffs

Not having open locker room at One Buccaneer Place and restricted media access to players this year due to COVID-19 has forced me to do less feature segments on players and more analysis on the games. So I’m using the Fab 3 section – called Rewind – Fast Forward – to share some observations from the Bucs’ last game as well as my analysis in previewing the next one. Enjoy.

REWIND: Wild Card at Washington Football Team

Bucs RG Alex Cappa

Bucs RG Alex Cappa – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

• The Bucs lost starting right guard Alex Cappa for the rest of the postseason after he suffered a fractured ankle in the team’s 31-23 win at Washington in the wild card playoffs. Cappa had a very good season in his second year as a starter, surrendering only 13 QB hits and 16 pressures in 17 games and not allowing a single sack in 2020. The hard-nosed Cappa, who was replaced in the second half by Ted Larsen, didn’t want to come out of the game initially and the Bucs were charged with a timeout because he didn’t want to leave the field despite the injury.

“One of the tough guys we’ve had on our team,” Bucs quarterback Tom Brady said of Cappa. “We’ve had a really great group up front, [including] guys who have filled in at different times. ‘Cap’ has been there really the whole year [and] had a tremendous year. [He is] a tough, hard-nosed football player. I know when he got knocked down it was hurting him, [but] I didn’t know what it was. Then he said, ‘No, I’m staying in and playing.’ He didn’t even make a sound. It was like, ‘Cap, what happened?’ ‘Oh nothing, I’m just going to keep playing.’ Then he tried to stand up on it and he was like, ‘Ah, I can’t.’ Nobody really knew the extent of what the injury was until after the game. That’s a tough injury for him. He has done an incredible job for us. It’s a tough role to take over at this point in the year, but we’re going to do the best we can do. It gives some other guys different opportunities to step up, but everyone hates seeing him out and really appreciates what ‘Cap’ brings to our team.”

 • With a 31-23 victory in Washington over the 7-9 Football Team, the Buccaneers finished the 2020 se