The NFL salary cap is a major concern for teams at two times every season. The first is the most talked about time, which is the month of February when teams are ripping apart rosters to become salary cap compliant for the new League Year and to create the maximum possible cap room for free agency. Once free agency ends the overall importance of the cap is low because only the top 51 contracts plus dead money charges count towards the salary cap.
The second most important time for the cap is right now. By 4 PM on September 4 the cap valuations change. For salary cap purposes rosters expand to include everyone under contract. At a minimum that pushes the roster to 53 players plus a Practice Squad, which every team fields. The cost of two players adds at least $810,000 to the roster and a PS costs a team another $816,000. For teams that have players on Reserve lists such as PUP or IR the salary for the players who are replacing them will now count. For some teams that can be an additional 4 to 5 players that will now be accounted for. It quickly adds up and it all adds up by Wednesday.
While most teams want to carry upwards of $5 million in season salary cap space for emergencies, I just want to focus on the teams that will be around the $3 million mark come Wednesday based on how things stand right now. Based on the top 51 cap room as of the morning of the 29th , nine teams will have less than $3 million in cap space on Wednesday. Of those nine, four will not be cap compliant unless players inside the top 51 are released. Those four are, in order, the Rams, Chiefs, Texans, and Redskins. The other five teams are the Vikings, Seahawks, Chargers, Giants, and Bears.
With that in mind I wanted to look at these teams and moves they may need to make cap space.
Rams- The Rams are projected to about $1.2 million over the salary cap based on their current roster construction. I would not expect the Rams to release anyone of note but instead restructuring deals for cap relief. The most likely candidates are Cortland Finnegan ($9 million base salary), Sam Bradford ($9 million base salary), and Chris Long ($7.25 million base salary). Long already restructured once so its less likely they would go to him again. With questions marks surrounding Bradford and already over $10 million in dead money on the books in 2014, Finnegan is the guy to watch. Converting $7 million of his base into a signing bonus will save the team $5.5 million in cap room and increase his 2015 dead money from $2 million to $5.5 million, which could be considered acceptable.
Chiefs- The Chiefs will be around $500,000 over the cap if moves are not made in their top 51. There are minimal avenues for savings for the team, due to high offseason spending and the fact that they retained Branden Albert on the Franchise tag rather than extending or trading him. There is no one of note that could be released or even threatened with release to really help them. The logical solution would seem to be having Tamba Hali restructure his contract. He carries a $12.25 million dollar base salary and just cutting and prorating the difference would save the team about $4 million in cap room.
If they fail to reach an agreement the other candidate is Alex Smith, and for long term cap planning probably makes more sense to approach than Hali. Smith earns $7.5 million this season and next season. Because the contract only has two years remaining proration is limited over two years, but that could be enough to easily save at least $3 million in cap this season by converting $6 million of salary to a bonus. That would make his cap charge just $10.5 million in 2014, still a bargain for a starting QB. Though neither side will want to extend that deal they could also go the void year route for proration purposes if they wanted.
Texans- Houston will only be about $300,000 over the cap, though that number does not include the replacement body they likely need to carry to cover Antonio Smith’s one game suspension, which would increase the cap to $700,000 over. They could carry 52 players for the week for cap purposes if necessary. The Texans are an older team so extensions to players like Wade Smith are not really a possibility. Jonathan Joseph makes $7.5 million this season and might be a person they look at for a bonus conversion, though that will put the last two seasons of his contract very high in terms of cap charges. This could be a team that also ends up releasing some of the veteran players close to minimum salaries to pick up small amounts of cap.
Redskins- Washington will be right up against the cap and don’t really have much in the way of high salaries to reduce as their situation is compromised by the cap penalties more than expensive contracts. LB London Fletcher is the one player who should be given a pay cut from his $5.5 million base, but that seems unlikely at this point. His contract already contains numerous void years for proration purposes so it’s possible they could simply defer the cap charges to next season. The other person to watch out for would be WR Santana Moss. Releasing Moss will clear $2.25 million from the books. The team could also consider asking Chris Baker, playing on a non-guaranteed $1.323 million tender to reduce his salary by a few hundred thousand.
The Other Five (Bears, Giants, Chargers, Seahawks, Vikings)
I lumped these four together since they should all be cap compliant even after the rosters expand but wanted to touch on them briefly
Chicago we have touched on many times before and just yesterday wrote about why moving WR Earl Bennett is a likely move. The Bears have multiple avenues for cap relief if they want it via extensions, but it seems as if they will weed out some of the lower cost players like Bennett that they feel will not make a contribution rather than extending players.
The Giants cap was dealt a big blow when they lost their starting Safety for the season, but they should be ok. Players in danger could be Bear Pascoe, Louis Murphy, Aaron Ross, etc…They could also work with Chris Snee or Antrell Rolle if needed for cap space….
The Chargers could be in trouble because they already have a massive list of players on IR and PUP. Releasing Max Starks would save the team over $2 million based on cap treatment of LTBE’s and releasing WR Eddie Royal would save $3 million. Royal might be asked to take a pay cut instead.
Seattle is not in terrible cap position, though they currently have a IR number that will eat into it a bit if settlements are not reached. I’d imagine they will continue to cut veterans for cap relief. Releasing special teamer Heath Farwell saves the team $1.5 million and looking at FB Michael Robinson could save $2.5 million. Both could also be asked to take paycuts.
The Vikings might look to simply cut ties with some projected backups making over the minimum (Desmond Bishop, Fred Evans, AJ Jefferson) if they felt they needed more cap space. They will gain some added cap room once Jerome Feltons suspension is official and considering they are right around $3 million in room may not see the need to make any moves.