Backloading Contracts and Mortgaging the Future

When teams sign a player to a certain contract value they have a general expectation of return based on that salary figure. The salary cap numbers, however, can be manipulated pretty easily as some teams will create an incredibly low cap figure early in a contract only to see that contract explode in later years even though the cash component of the contract will always remain as is.  I’ve always been of the opinion that the more cap that you can eat early in the contract the more flexibility it gives you in the future when player’s performances decline. With all the talk of restructures of contracts and their impact on the future I wanted to explore just how much teams are backloading or frontloading those deals to have that cap flexibility.

To calculate our backloading numbers per team is pretty simple. I just want to add up the remaining cap charges from now until the end of the contract and see how much over or under those numbers are than the annual value of the contract. The higher the number it means the more you are a team deferring payments and likely going to have to make cap cuts in the future. The lower you are the better off you probably are relative to the initial expectations. All draft picks, because of the rules, are locked into a specific contract type so Ill eliminate them from the mix. Voidable contracts that are in the player control of the player I’ll modify to accelerate all cap charges into the final true year of the contract.

Here are the top 10 most inflated remaining APY’s inthe NFL

Player Years RemainingRemaining Cap APYOverage% Increase
Larry Fitzgerald1$25,550,000$14,550,000132.3%
Drew Brees1$30,000,000$10,000,00050.0%
Joe Flacco3$28,150,000$8,050,00040.0%
Brandon Carr1$16,534,000$6,514,00065.0%
Tom Brady2$15,500,000$6,500,00072.2%
Tony Romo4$23,608,750$5,608,75031.2%
Lawrence Timmons1$15,131,250$5,572,10058.3%
Ryan Kalil

1

$13,687,000$5,501,00067.2%
Matt Stafford2$22,250,000$4,583,33325.9%
Carson Palmer2$21,062,500$4,562,50027.7%

Most of these contracts are the result of multiple restructures and voidable contract years.  The most leveraged player in the NFL is far and away Larry Fitzgerald which came about last year when the Cardinals choose to keep their legendary receiver rather than cut him. To make the contract work the Cardinals added void years to the backend of the deal to help with the cap charges. Flacco is the only contract that really ended up in this place completely by design and its something that the Ravens probably have some regrets on now. He and Romo have years to go of cap charges well inflated over the value given to them by their teams.

Its also worth noting that while Brady’s name is on this list his contract is such an outlier that it really doesn’t belong.

The top 10 bargains in the NFL are:

Player Years RemainingRemaining Cap APYOverage% Increase
John Sullivan2$5,833,334-$2,666,667-31.4%
Robert Quinn4$11,809,952-$2,443,772-17.1%
Andrew Hawkins2$1,400,000-$2,000,000-58.8%
Vontaze Burfict2$4,275,000-$1,868,333-30.4%
Kyle Williams2$8,150,000-$1,850,000-18.5%
Joe Thomas3$9,833,333-$1,666,667-14.5%
Aaron Rodgers4$20,387,500-$1,612,500-7.3%
Logan Mankins1$7,000,000-$1,500,000-17.6%
Travis Kelce6$7,970,304-$1,398,096-14.9%
Russell Wilson4$20,560,500-$1,339,500-6.1%

The name I find the most interesting on the list is Robert Quinn, who had a large cap hit last year that the Rams were able to deal with rather than restructuring the way most teams would. That will make Quinn one of the great bargains of the next 4 years. Rodgers lands on the list because he signed a contract with two years remaining on his last contract and the Packers never opted for a super low cap season. Kelce actually just signed and his placement here shows the benefits of extending a player versus signing a free agent. The reason for this is because the cap APY of the deal will always be lower than the new money amount.

If we look at the non-rookie signings for each team we can get a very good idea as to how leveraged teams have made themselves in the future

TeamPlayersTotal Years RemainingOverageOver Per PlayerOver Per Year
Ravens2854$24,446,600$873,093$452,715
Cowboys4190$23,750,459$579,279$263,894
Cardinals3854$23,203,218$610,611$429,689
Saints3152$22,277,917$718,642$428,421
Lions2341$17,518,107$761,657$427,271
Patriots3656$17,011,671$472,546$303,780
Panthers3457$16,961,775$498,876$297,575
Steelers4770$14,805,351$315,007$211,505
Broncos3252$14,748,856$460,902$283,632
Redskins4584$13,675,533$303,901$162,804
Dolphins2745$11,071,349$410,050$246,030
Jets4481$10,575,962$240,363$130,567
Bills4890$8,357,624$174,117$92,862
Titans3155$8,156,792$263,122$148,305
49ers3259$8,093,078$252,909$137,171
Chiefs3972$7,520,239$192,827$104,448
Giants3356$7,509,167$227,551$134,092
Eagles4598$7,352,163$163,381$75,022
Packers2749$7,214,583$267,207$147,236
Chargers3356$7,126,750$215,962$127,263
Falcons2856$5,069,994$181,071$90,536
Buccaneers4673$3,971,648$86,340$54,406
Texans3369$2,441,042$73,971$35,377
Bears3349$2,263,960$68,605$46,203
Vikings3463$974,168$28,652$15,463
Browns3153$956,361$30,850$18,045
Seahawks3554$912,190$26,063$16,892
Colts3564$819,774$23,422$12,809
Jaguars3981-$1,038,333-$26,624-$12,819
Rams2649-$1,857,150-$71,429-$37,901
Raiders2441-$2,357,578-$98,232-$57,502
Bengals3263-$7,022,379-$219,449-$111,466

The top 5 that we see here should be no surprise. Year after year the Cowboys, Saints, and Lions have approached the salary cap in a manner where you live for today and deal with tomorrow when it arrives. Arizona has gone all in in recent years with reliance on restructures and void years. The Ravens have generally used a structure for their stars that backloads contracts.

Outside of the top 5 there were again few surprises. The Steelers would have been higher had Heath Miller not announced his retirement and the Panthers have been a salary cap nightmare for years. The one team that did surprise me was New England and again much of that is related to the wacky contract for Brady which shouldn’t even count.

The value the Bengals drive from their long term contracts should not be ignored. They may be the shrewdest front office in the NFL but they get ignored because they lose every year in the first round and nobody pays attention to them. The Seahawks who have a roster of stars ranking so low was also eye opening. The big reason for them doing so well is because they have not gotten into these fights over contract values and dragged players into free agent years. Everyone is extended early and Seattle uses that final low cost rookie contract year to allow them cap flexibility. That is one of the big reasons they have been able to succeed with the high cost roster building strategy while teams like the Saints have generally failed.

  • McGeorge

    Jason,
    I have a question about carry forward unused cap space.
    My understanding is that a team can carry over all unused cap space, every year, and can roll it forward indefinately. So if a team rolls over 10MM to year 2, and don’t use it in year 2, they can roll it to year 3, etc. Is this correct?

    Why don’t teams that aren’t competitive try and do this – roll forward some extra money in lieu of signing a free agent or two. Then if they draft well, they have extra money to do what the Bengals and Seattle (and the Patriots) do – extend them early.

    It seems foolish for a 4-12 team to sign a big name player. Instead, roll that money forward, so that in 3-4 years, when your drafts are nearing the end of their contracts, you have money for them. This would have to come from the owner, as the HC needs to worry about his job, and even the GM may not like such a long horizon.

    • theowl

      I thought all teams rolled their cap space, which is why so many teams have have so much space. There seems to be huge amount of cap space relative to Free
      agent talent this year.

      It will be interesting to see if what you are proposing is what the 49ers do. They are a team that likes to extend players early, but have a lot of young players not yet eligible.

      • eddiea

        Not all teams “roll over”. I don’t know why and can’t remember anyone explaining why. Maybe Jason or one of the OtC writers coukd explain it one day.