The decisions the Saints have to make on Marshon Lattimore are among the most fascinating of the offseason.
There are many directions New Orleans could take this decision, but how the team moves forward largely depends on if Lattimore is in the team’s future plans. If he is, then the Saints can sign him to an extension, which would create the opportunity to lower his $10 million salary cap charge due to hit the books next season.
That can all be easily done if there is a common understanding on value.
But what if, for some reason, he isn’t in those plans – which would be a surprise – or Lattimore and the team can’t agree on value? The one thing that is almost guaranteed is that Lattimore can’t remain on the books at his current rate. Something has to happen for that number to get lowered.
The second scenario is where things start to get interesting. So, what is going to happen?
The answer depends on how the team views Lattimore. There are times when Lattimore could convince someone watching that he is among the most talented cornerbacks ever to play the game. When he is playing well, there is no question he can reach heights that most players will never touch. By his admission, Lattimore has been inconsistent throughout his career and doesn’t approach every game the same way.
So, how should the Saints value Lattimore? Is he a good player who sometimes plays great? Or is he a great player who occasionally plays down to his level of competition? The two sides of this debate will almost certainly get argued by Mickey Loomis and Lattimore’s agents, James Sexton and Tory Dandy.
Even figuring out what a Lattimore extension would look like is difficult.
The Giants signed James Bradberry, the former Carolina cornerback, to a three-year deal worth $14.5 million per season. While he probably won’t see that contract’s final year, he’s still on the books as making $14.5 million per season.
Lattimore is going to want to blow that deal out of the water.
Assuming Jalen Ramsey’s $20 million per season is out of reach (it should be), Marlon Humphrey’s deal with Baltimore that pays him $19.5 million per year is next on the list. If that’s too rich, Tre’Davious White ($17.25 million) and Darius Slay ($16.683 million) probably set the floor for what Lattimore will want.
And Lattimore should be asking for as much as he can get, but New Orleans would probably rather be somewhere in the next tier, with Byron Jones ($16.5 million), Xavien Howard ($15.05 million) and Bradberry’s contracts. Going even lower, New England’s Stephon Gilmore, Denver’s A.J. Bouye and Arizona’s Patrick Peterson all make $14 million or less.
There is going to be some push and pull here between Lattimore’s talent and inconsistencies.
If there isn’t an agreement on value or an unwillingness from either side to extend this deal, the easiest way to get Lattimore’s salary down would be to add a couple of voidable years to his contract to spread out the salary-cap charge over a couple of seasons. The team did the same thing with Sheldon Rankins’ fifth-year option last season.
Here is how the voidable years work. Lattimore is due to count $10.244 million against the salary cap next season. If the team adds two years that automatically void and convert $9 million of his salary to a signing bonus, it would allow the team, for now, to count one of those $3 million hits against the cap in each of the next three seasons. That would then put Lattimore’s number for this year around $4.2 million. If he left after next season or signed a deal where nothing gets done to keep those hits in place, the remaining $3 million hits would accelerate and count on the 2022 salary cap as $6 million in dead money.
There is no reason for Lattimore to not agree to something like this unless his representatives want to take a hardline approach and use his cap charge as leverage in contract negotiations.
That’s where things get interesting. What happens at this point? Do the Saints let Lattimore play out his contract, see how he performs and then try to re-sign him or use the franchise tag next offseason? Using the tag would cost north of $16 million, which could be prohibitive given that the 2022 cap situation will also be tight.
Do you explore trade options? Lattimore could be traded without any financial implications and would almost certainly bring back a first-round pick. This seems like a stretch, and replacing Lattimore would be incredibly difficult, but New Orleans has made similar moves in the past when it knows it won’t be able to retain a player. Not advocating for this. Just pointing it out as an option, however unlikely it is to happen.
There are no easy decisions here if the two sides are on opposite sides of the value spectrum. Keeping Lattimore will not be cheap. Every option comes with a high cost. The Saints have to figure out which one is the right one for them, and not just for the short term. While the immediate financial implications are important, they can’t drive the negotiation.