One of the biggest questions that always come up when taking salary cap questions deals with a team’s salary cap position in 2021. This is not always the easiest question to answer since rosters are fluid and most of the 2020 rookie class has not even yet signed a new contract to be included in any estimates. So I thought this might be a good time to go over what I try to look at when determining a team’s position with the cap and then use those criteria to come up with an average ranking.
Factor 1: Projected 2021 Cap Space
I tried to make as many adjustments as possible to this to make it as accurate as possible. So what I did first was calculate teams true cap space in 2020 to determine the cap carryover since that plays a big role in a team’s future cap position. To do that I processed the June 1 cuts, processed the rumored retirements, and added in all of our draft pick projections and replaced a $610K salary for each of those moves. I then subtracted $3.9M from each team to account for in-season spending which is around the minimum I would expect teams to need to move from offseason to in-season accounting. For 2021 I used our effective cap space column, added the calculated carryover and then processed the retirements from above and added in our cap estimates for all of the 2020 draft picks who are not yet signed.
The teams that dominate this category are the Colts, Jaguars, Chargers and Patriots while the Falcons, Eagles, and Saints are in trouble.
Factor 2: Max 2021 Cap Space Based on Cuts
For this I added another adjustment to the criteria above by just cutting every non-QB on the roster that would save at least $500,000 in net cap room. 2020 draft picks were excluded from cuts if they qualified. While obviously nobody is cutting everyone they can I always consider this a good way to see how much the roster is filled with sunk costs. The teams that can create the most room are the Bills and Browns while the Lions and Falcons are much more limited. When adding these to our effective cap space our top cap teams are the Colts, Chargers, Browns, and Bills while the low end teams are still the Eagles, Falcons, and Saints.
Factor 3: Max 2021 Cap Space Based on Restructures
Another avenue to creating cap room is to “kick the can” with player contracts and convert salary into prorated signing bonuses. This is a way to buy now and pay later so to speak. As a rough estimate here I calculated the max cap savings that could be found if a player converted all his base salary and roster bonuses into a signing bonus and prorated it over the term of his contract. While teams can, and often do, use voidable contract years I didn’t max them out unless a player had void years already in his contract. This was then added to the cap space from factor 1.
The Eagles by far have the most ability to create cap space using this technique in part because they already have void years in some of their deals but its also based on structure. Dallas and New Orleans are 2 and 3. The teams that cant create much room this way are the Chargers, Steelers, and Patriots.
With this as a signal the top cap teams are the Colts, Jaguars, Redskins, and Dolphins with the bottom being the Steelers, Saints, Chiefs, and Falcons.
Factor4: Potential 2021 Free Agents
One of the other important things to consider is how much is going to be required to keep players on your team. For this I am not going to do any kind of projected salaries and instead just did a basic ranking system of UFAs. If you play at least 75% of the snaps last year you score a 3, over 50% is a 2, and over 30% a 1. There are players under that who also score contracts but since we are in the offseason with rosters so large I didn’t give those players a score as generally those under 30% are the ones that take longer to find a new home and a good portion of these players will be cut. I then assigned a multiplier based on position (QB for example was a 3x, WR 2x, RB just a 1) and a reduction on age (0.7X if over 30). I didn’t include RFAs in this or any tenders in the above factors either. I then summed up the scores to just give a general ranking of the free agent classes. This overestimates the value of some players (Jameis Winston for instance will be a backup this year as will Jacoby Brissett) but for a rough guide this is reasonable enough.
The teams with the most to keep in free agency are the Cowboys, Colts, and Jaguars while the Giants, Eagles, and Browns don’t really have any considerations there. While I am not ranking the impact on cap room directly here its safe to say that the teams with a higher number will likely use up more on their own players either this summer or next offseason than teams with few considerations.
So here is how I would rank the teams in regard to salary cap health (call it the cap health index) followed by a few thoughts on the teams.
|Team||Estimated Cap Space||Max Cap With Cuts||Max Cap With Restructures||FA Score||Avg. Rank|
Tier 1: Browns, Patriots, Bengals, Colts, Redskins, Dolphins, Jaguars, Chargers
These are the teams, with the exception of the Browns, that will likely stand out all of 2020 as having a big chance at free agency in 2020. Ultimately I think with this group the Colts have the most desirable position even if they didn’t rank the highest. Their cap room under any scenario is pretty much absurd and their free agent score is artificially inflated by that Brissett inclusion and that is what drove them down. The Patriots are probably going to wind up with the 2nd most amount of cap room while the Browns are going to be the most flexible team in the NFL if they have to start making big changes with the ability to both cut and restructure. That one caught be a little off guard, but they have been trying to do better with their cap in recent years. The Jaguars and Redskins were teams I didn’t think much about before this but Jacksonville is purging their roster while the Redskins are still finding their way around. No guarantee these teams will be active in free agency next year but basically no extension or signing should trouble them if the cap is normal next year.
Tier 2: Titans, Seahawks, Ravens, Cardinals, Bills, Buccaneers, Jets, Broncos
These are the teams that likely have the most potential to get into the top tier in the run up to free agency unless they front load the salary cap hits in an extension. Basically this group has moderate cap room but won’t have many players to sign and are all in a position to gut their rosters if needed. For some of the teams like the Jets, Cardinals, Broncos, Titans, Bucs, and Bills I think this makes sense. For the Seahawks and Ravens you wonder if maybe they should have taken some added chances this year. Regardless of my opinion they are all in very good shape and if the teams with an unproven young QB(Arizona, Buffalo, New York, and Denver) break out this year there will be massive expectations in the offseason.
Tier 3: 49ers, Giants, Panthers, Vikings, Texans, Packers, Lions, Rams
This is a more haphazard group as it consists of a few teams that will likely have their cap positon overstated in 2021 and a few that will have it understated. For the most part this group of teams have one primary avenue to added cap space- either restructures or cuts but not nearly as much flexibility with both as the teams in the tier above. The 49ers, Lions and Rams can benefit the most with the restructure strategy while the Vikings, Packers, Giants, Panthers, and Texans could slice away to gain room. This is also the group where one big extension could drop them a tier and have a ripple effect on the cap. Of these teams the 49ers have the most overall flexibility and are probably in the best shape.
Tier 4: Cowboys, Falcons, Eagles, Bears, Raiders, Steelers, Chiefs, Saints
This is the group of teams that will mainly be looked at as being in trouble with the cap for a number of different reasons. These teams will have a difficult time moving up a tier and in some cases will need to make some difficult decisions to deal with the cap. The team that has the most potential from here is the Cowboys who have a lot of flexibility with restructures if they want to do that. They also can still re-sign their prime free agent next year (Dak Prescott) by July to increase their carryover and likely do a moderate cap number. The Saints stand out as the worst team overall with little flexibility. Kansas City will be interesting since they have free agents, a QB who will want an expensive contract and not much room up unless they start cutting. Neither the Eagles nor the Falcons are in a good spot but both should be ok due to the ability to restructure for cap relief and a lower group of impactful free agents in 2021.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.