2023 Cash vs Cap Spending

Recently I have seen a number of comments about the free agency of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and how cap space is limiting the ability to make an offer. While this may be true in some cases more often than not, especially once free agency has ended, it is the cash budget of a team that has more influence as to whether or not a team makes an offer to a player like Hopkins. While the salary cap certainly keeps teams honest in many cases the owners are not going to give general managers an endless amount of cash reserves to use each year and most teams do have an internal budget to follow.

I went back and looked at every teams average amount spent from 2018 to 2022 and pegged that to the salary cap each year (making an adjustment for the covid year cap to bring it to a normal level). I then applied that percentage to this years salary cap to project a typical budget for each team. The following table breaks down each team’s estimated spend versus their current budget for their highest 60 paid players (this number includes salaries for unsigned rookies).

TeamAvg. % of Cap SpentEst. BudgetCurrent SpendRemaining Budget

Currently 10 teams in the NFL are on the high end of their budgets. These are teams that are mainly very focused on this season and likely borrowing money from the future to maximize their roster in 2023. Most probably will not have the ability to borrow much more to add players and could potentially look to cut some players if a lower cost rookie makes a splash in training camp. The team I would consider an exception to this would be the Texans whose payroll is so high mainly because of the draft.

Nine teams would look to have less than $15 million to spend. This list includes the Jets, Bengals, and Chargers all whom have major contracts that may be addressed and would put them in the same category as the other 10 teams.

The remaining teams are those who are way under their normal budgets. They are teams that are either dealing with the fallout of big budgets and salary cap mistakes of the past or the teams that can actually spend. Here is how the league looks in regards to cap room. The focus here should be on the teams on the right side of the graph.

Teams in the bottom right quadrant are the team that are cap constrained and would need to make some changes to add anyone major. The teams in the right upper quadrant are the teams that have cap room to burn and are currently underbudget.

When viewing the league this way we can see why it is so important for a player to be a free agent at the start of the league year. Once team’s spend their money that is generally it for the teams budget. This is also why the in-season trade market often requires trading teams to pay off a salary and the acquiring teams sometimes overpaying in draft compensation since they cant justify the cost of the player on his full contract.

Right now the only teams that make sense from a cap and cash standpoint to really add to the team are the Bears, Cardinals, Lions, Cowboys, Patriots, and Vikings. Minnesota has a big extension to consider and are more likely to be slashing that spending. Arizona is in more of a retooling process. That leaves a market of four teams for free agents. Dragging other teams into the mix requires convincing a team to even go further beyond their norms to keep adding. You can see why it is very difficult for street free agents to get lucrative deals this late in the process and why summer free agent signings are usually signed for very cheap.

What does this mean for Hopkins, Dalvin Cook, Yannick Ngakoue, Jadeveon Clowney, and so many others still out there searching for a home? Most will now have to focus on finding incentive laden contracts with base salaries that are lower than any contract they have had since they were rookies. There is still time and perhaps some of them will land a big deal but eventually the market will vanish and players can be stuck on the outside looking in hoping for injuries to give them a chance to land with a team during the season.