METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints should be grateful that wide receiver Michael Thomas and defensive end Cameron Jordan aren't forcing any contract standoffs just yet. Both of the All-Pro stars were back on the practice field this week as the Saints began OTAs.
"I'm a football player first -- I like being at work. So it wasn't really hard to make a decision [to attend OTAs]," Thomas told ESPN -- a similar sentiment that Jordan shared earlier this offseason.
But the Saints should have their checkbooks, calculators and spreadsheets ready nonetheless. Because the downside of building a roster this loaded is that it starts to become very expensive to keep everyone around.
After this season, Thomas, Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Andrus Peat, among others, are scheduled to become free agents. In 2021, Jordan, Alvin Kamara, Larry Warford and Demario Davis come due. In 2022, it'll be Marshon Lattimore, Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk.
Brees is the most expensive member of that group at $25 million per year. But the 40-year-old quarterback has been cooperating with the Saints at this stage of his career, agreeing to essentially sign year-to-year deals as long as he wants to keep playing.
Thomas and Jordan, however, stand out as two of the NFL's most underpaid stars whose deals should demand the most immediate attention. (Kamara, Lattimore and Ramczyk aren't eligible for extensions yet.)
Thomas, who turned 26 in March, is scheduled to make just $1.15 million this season in the final year of his rookie deal. That's an incredible amount of bang for the buck, considering he has averaged 107 catches, 1,262 yards and eight touchdowns per season over his first three years. His 321 catches are the most in NFL history by a receiver in his first three years. Odell Beckham Jr. is second with 288.
"Can't Guard Mike" set franchise records last season with 125 catches and 1,405 receiving yards for a team that struggled to find other reliable pass-catchers. And his playoff numbers are even better: 31 catches for 423 yards and three TDs in four games.
It's not out of the question that Thomas could become the NFL's first receiver to average $20 million per year (unless Julio Jones gets there first).
You know, your standard 1,642 percent pay raise.
Thomas could have made things very awkward this summer for the Saints, who have only $7.5 million in salary-cap space. He has every right to demand a new deal and threaten to hold out of minicamp and training camp, considering the Saints could also get a bargain next year if they slap the franchise tag on him.
But so far, Thomas is still showing up at the office.
"I feel pretty certain that everything will get taken care of and handled professionally," Thomas said. "This is how I approach the game and how I show up to work the same way, and everything else will take care of itself."
Although Jordan wasn't at Thursday's practice, he has been participating this week. And he told ESPN earlier this offseason that he plans to do the same all summer.
Jordan doesn't have quite the same case for a new deal as Thomas, since he has two years left on a five-year extension that he signed in 2015 worth between $55 million and $60 million.
But that was before the 29-year-old really exploded into the player he is now (a first-team All-Pro in 2017 with 13 sacks and a second-team All-Pro in 2018 with 12 sacks). It was before he established himself as one of New Orleans' core leaders in the locker room and in the community. And it was before the NFL's elite edge rushers started getting paid almost as much as quarterbacks.
The Chicago Bears' Khalil Mack is averaging more than twice as much as Jordan at $23.5 million per year. Lawrence and Clark also joined the $20 million club this year. Meanwhile, Jordan's average salary ranks 22nd among 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"All that can take care of itself. Honestly, I just want to be a Saints lifer. I want to go after this record by Rickey [Jackson]," said Jordan, whose 71.5 career sacks are 43.5 behind the Hall of Famer's franchise record of 115.
"I would love to say, 'Hey, I want a megadeal.' I don't really," Jordan said. "I just want to be secure in my job. Now to be sure, do I need to be updated? No doubt. But do I want to be like, 'Hey, I want to break Aaron Donald bank or go after Khalil Mack money even though I have better than Khalil Mack numbers in most categories?' No. For me it's all about just being around my team, making sure that my family and my team is gonna be my family and my team for as long as I can play.
"When it comes down to it, I feel like to miss out on training camp two years out is just no point. I feel like the Saints and I have a phenomenal [rapport], so why would I want to damage that? For me it's not even about money; it's about solidifying a legacy. It's about pushing and furthering what I'm doing. And I love our team to the fact that I want to continue doing what we've been doing. We've gone through some 7-9 seasons, but we've gone through some great times as well."
So how on earth can the Saints afford to pay three different players in the neighborhood of $20 million or more -- especially if Brees keeps playing for another few years?
Well, it helps that the leaguewide cap space continues to skyrocket every year. And the Saints have proven repeatedly in the past that they're willing to keep pushing cap costs into the future -- including the use of automatically voiding years to trick the accounting. They already have $26.3 million in "dead money" scheduled to count against their 2020 cap.
The Saints could similarly backload the cap costs on new deals for Thomas and Jordan (whose 2019 salary-cap hit could probably stay right where it is, at $14 million). If needed, they could restructure someone like Armstead's contract, too, to create more short-term space.
At some point, the Saints can play catch-up when Brees eventually comes off the books. But they might also have to make difficult financial decisions next year on players like Peat or Vonn Bell, who will be free agents -- or maybe even with someone like Kamara in 2021 or Lattimore in 2022.
In the meantime, though, the Saints likely will find a way to take care of Thomas and Jordan. As one of the NFL's top Super Bowl contenders, they can't afford not to.