Making a final push late Saturday to land star pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, the Saints got creative, attempting to pull off a move believed to be the first of its kind in NFL history – but couldn't get final clearance from the league.
The Saints were working with another team towards a unique sign-and-trade deal that would've maneuvered around salary cap constraints to bring the free-agent Clowney to New Orleans. But talks fell apart over the NFL's willingness to approve such a deal, and Clowney wound up agreeing to terms with the Tennessee Titans on a one-year deal late Saturday night.
According to sources informed of the talks, the Saints didn't feel they could compete financially with the Titans' offer – $12 million, plus $3 million in incentives – given budgetary reasons. So, they approached another team to find a workaround. (Sources didn't confirm the other team, which hereafter is referred to as "Team X", but it is believed to be the Cleveland Browns, who have ample cap space and a front office known for having a propensity for creativity, most memorably on display in their 2016 trade for quarterback Brock Osweiler.)
The sides discussed parameters of a deal in which Team X would've signed Clowney to a one-year, $15 million contract and paid him a $5 million signing bonus. Then, Team X would've immediately traded Clowney to the Saints, who would've sent Team X a second-round draft pick, as well as a player to take additional salary off New Orleans' books. The Saints would've paid Clowney's remaining $10 million salary.
Just one problem: The teams got word late Saturday the NFL was unlikely to approve such a deal.
Other teams have, in essence, paid cash for picks in the past, including the Browns, who agreed to take on Osweiler's $16 million guaranteed salary in a deal that netted them a second-round draft pick. Last year, the Dolphins paid Ryan Tannehill a $5 million signing bonus on a restructured contract to send him to the Titans and linebacker Kiko Alonso a $1 million signing bonus as part of a trade to the Saints. And Clowney himself received a $7 million signing bonus last August from the Texans to help complete a trade to Seattle.
But several executives from different NFL teams said they couldn't recall any other team executing such a deal involving a free agent who was literally only signed to trade him. One exec summed up the interpretation of the league's bylaws as: "Fundamentally, you can't trade cash."
The Saints have long been willing to convert large base salaries to signing bonuses or add voidable years to contracts to free up short-term cap space. But there is great uncertainty about the 2021 salary cap, given a projected multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall related to COVID-19 that could cause it to drop from $198.2 million per club in 2020 to as little as $175 million. Entering this weekend's cuts, the Saints had over $260 million in cap commitments for 2021, according to NFL Players Association records.
The Saints continued to try to rework their offer late into Saturday night, but without help, they couldn't match the Titans' offer. And after 5½ months on the free-agent market, Clowney decided to head to Tennessee instead.