NFL and NFLPA Look Forward to the Future Salary Cap

A few weeks ago I wrote about the potential for a salary cap disaster in 2021 due to the Covid crises with the main take that the NFL and NFLPA need to start negotiating now to get a better handle on the situation to prevent a rash of releases this summer and again next February. Per NFL.com’s team it sounds as if they are doing just that.

Multiple sources say the NFL and NFLPA both acknowledge that important negotiations are coming quickly to determine how to handle yearly salary caps for 2020 and beyond, considering there are likely to be steep revenue losses with limited or no fans in the stands. 

Overall the article pretty much confirms what I speculated on weeks ago- there are rules in place that could cause a massive cap pullback next year, that the league is looking at a massive loss in revenues this year, and that its not really feasible to go into the season without a plan in place.

The article outlines a few ideas being batted around. One is to smooth the cap by borrowing against future years. We discussed that before and it makes some sense. Im not sure Id agree that a new TV deal will cause a massive spike all at once (the NFL has generally avoided massive spikes in the salary cap since their disastrous 2006 CBA extension), but the cap does always go up so its fair to smooth things out that way. Remember back at the start of the prior CBA the salary cap was flat for 3 years before it began to increase. Teams dealt with that accordingly and there was minimal guidance for that situation.

Another option is eliminating performance based pay. PBP is basically a pool of money that is given to players for playtime that goes well beyond their salary level.  I don’t see how the money there is significant enough to make a dent in the potential losses so I will assume that they meant as part of the “smoothing out” the PA will opt to eliminate the PBP for a few seasons.

The second idea was surprising and that was a “salary giveback” this season. That would seem very difficult to accomplish in part because of how different the NFL’s contract system is.  The way it was written made it sound like we would be talking about reducing P5s for the year. The problem is that some players have incredibly high P5s and other have low ones and in many cases those are for high earning players. In essence you could have two players earning $10 million a year giving up grossly different amounts. None of that would seem very fair nor something that could be negotiated in just a few weeks.

The NFL and NFLPA came to an agreement years ago on rookie contracts when there was a clear mistake in the rookie pool formula because someone probably didn’t sit down and do the math (cap nerds like myself picked up on it quite quickly) that the salary cap could rise and salaries effectively go down if the cap didn’t rise enough to keep up with minimum salary growth. Essentially there was an agreement to create a credit bank to borrow from the future to keep the present at the least consistent.

That’s all spelled out in the current CBA but it does give a bit of guidance as to a way in which the sides can agree to a salary cap freeze. The way I think this could work is that the NFL would “lock” the salary cap so to speak at $198.2 million for 2021 and allow for standard minimum wage growth (around $4 million) with a boost of a few million more. and allow only for a specific growth schedule each year that remains in the CBA. Here is an example where raises are limited to $8M, $11M, $14M, $18M, $23M, and so on… until the bank is “bought back” by the NFL cap. Here is an example where the cap takes a big dip but would be expected to grow by around $20M a year starting in 2023.

YearLocked CapUnlocked CapShortfall
2021$206,200,000$133,200,000-$73,000,000
2022$217,200,000$228,200,000-$62,000,000
2023$231,200,000$248,200,000-$45,000,000
2024$249,200,000$268,200,000-$26,000,000
2025$272,200,000$288,200,000-$10,000,000
2026$298,200,000$308,200,000$0
2027$328,200,000$328,200,000$0

A schedule like this allows the NFL to spread out the cap pain and never really have a massive spike which I would think is important to the NFL. There are a large number of ways to do this but something like this makes some sense and can be based upon whatever the NFL and NFLPA accept as a revenue growth expectation.

I’d also think the other possibility, perhaps in conjunction with something like above, is that the NFL asks the union for a credit of sorts on salaries paid in 2020 counting toward the thresholds for 2021 on. The cap is an accounting number. Loss of revenue is a real number. Losing $73M now to only gain it back in 5 or 6 years may not be acceptable under any circumstance. By applying a portion of salary paid this year (perhaps 50% of whatever the excess team by team or league as a whole is from the 2016 to 2020 bucket) to the cash minimums from 2021 to 2023 gives the sides a way to allow teams to pick and choose how much they allow the revenue loss to impact them.  Doing something like that might save some jobs this season if teams are inclined to cut spending simply because they don’t have to spend this year.

Teams Set to Pick Up Cap Space On June 2

We have officially hit June 1, 2020 which means the salary cap rules for releasing players are about to change. Starting June 2 any player whose multiyear contract is terminated or traded will only count the prorated portion of this years signing bonus on the salary cap with all remaining bonus prorations moving into 2021. Four teams have already made use of this change using the post June 1 designation during the offseason and will finally realize the salary cap benefit of the change tomorrow after months of carrying the players full salaries on the cap despite their release.

The Rams saga will Todd Gurley more or less comes to a close at least from a cap perspective as his massive $17.25 million cap charge will reduce to $11.75 million, a savings of $5.5 million. The Rams have an estimated $600,000 in cap room so this will at least give them the room to sign their rookies. They will likely need to make some minor changes to some other contracts as the season draws closer to function. Gurley will count for $8.4 million against the 2021 salary cap but the Rams should get a credit of $2.5 million in 2021 for Gurley’s earnings with the Falcons which will offset some of the money he is owed by the Rams.

The Jets will pick up $11 million in cap room with the release of Trumaine Johnson becoming official. Johnson had counted at $15 million on the Jets cap and will now count for $4 million this season and $8 million next year. The move should bump the Jets to around $25 million in cap room for 2020 which certainly gives them the space for an extension for Jamal Adams or to sign a player like Jadeveon Clowney. It would also give them the flexibility to take on an in-season trade if the season goes well from the start. Johnson is still a free agent.

The Falcons will pick up $10.75 million after the release of Desmond Trufant. Trufant was taking up $15.15 million in cap space and will now count for $4.4 million this season and will count for $5.8 million in cap space in 2021. The Falcons were in desperate need of cap room as we estimated them at only $1 million in cap room. This gives them the cap space needed to sign their rookie class and likely function during the year.  Trufant is a member of the Lions.

The Bears dropped Trey Burton despite a $4 million salary guarantee on a $6.8 million salary but a glut of tight ends made him expendable. Burton had counted at $8.55 million but the team will only pick up $2.8 million in cap space since his dead money, even with the June 1, is $5.75 million. The Bears will have a $1.75 million cap charge next season for Burton but should receive a $910,000 credit if Burton makes the Colts this season. The Bears will now have around $11 million in cap room in 2020 which should be enough for them to function during the season.

There should also be two other teams that gain cap room in the coming days, perhaps as early as June 2. The Panthers and Cowboys both had players announce retirements in the offseason but neither was made official with the league. My assumption at the time was that they wanted to use the June 1 but to use that for a retirement requires actually carrying the player until June 2. In interviews I believe the Cowboys admitted that this was the plan as well.

Travis Frederick currently counts for $11.975 million on the Cowboys salary cap and would have counted for $11.04 million in dead money had they officially retired him back in March. By waiting the Cowboys only need to account for $4.975 million in dead money this year, opening up $7 million in cap room to bring them to around $12 million for the season. So waiting was clearly the right move for them as they needed some extra cap space. Frederick’s charge next year will be $6.065 million.  

Luke Kuechly announced his retirement back in January and has been charged at $15.51 million against the Panthers cap. His dead money would have been $11.84 million had his retirement immediately been processed but instead he will count for $4.71 million in 2020 and $7.13 million in 2021. The $10.8 million in savings will give the cap strapped Panthers the room they need this year moving them from around to $3.3 million in cap room to $13.5 million in cap room in 2020.

2021 NFL Team By Team Salary Cap Health

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.

TeamEstimated Cap SpaceMax Cap With CutsMax Cap With RestructuresFA ScoreAvg. Rank
Browns$59,651,443$140,590,228$94,715,61015.457
Patriots$88,091,446$121,706,680$98,924,77921.87.5
Bengals$75,794,942$128,015,608$100,369,94225.058
Colts$126,918,221$159,009,117$140,718,22145.78.5
Redskins$86,957,478$118,028,478$117,951,22826.659
Dolphins$65,102,757$113,983,983$109,614,00721.89.5
Jaguars$97,321,958$130,501,958$119,688,62542.759.75
Chargers$95,755,138$144,990,535$99,130,13840.510.25
Titans$56,312,245$117,489,673$103,820,57822.8511
Seahawks$70,189,985$119,892,999$89,439,98529.9513.5
Ravens$67,234,968$118,597,086$81,810,69428.4513.75
Cardinals$57,498,469$108,957,316$85,923,46923.0514
Buccaneers$51,600,507$121,062,500$69,833,84020.2514.5
Bills$52,751,556$136,257,222$77,466,83329.814.5
Jets$63,792,412$124,144,079$93,292,41238.714.75
Broncos$56,586,675$127,579,685$72,760,50828.515.25
Giants$48,645,655$103,391,726$67,878,9887.716
49ers$51,968,044$84,271,939$97,992,21127.2516
Panthers$47,323,388$90,306,888$71,333,38821.317.25
Vikings$26,160,350$87,341,172$73,693,68317.518
Packers$37,182,988$88,606,092$69,724,65521.718.75
Texans$29,598,841$96,512,173$73,873,8412518.75
Lions$53,222,566$77,025,713$95,040,89935.8519.25
Rams$39,844,432$73,647,626$93,507,1823321.5
Eagles($31,280,282)$5,167,693$64,632,21815.523.5
Falcons($3,867,311)$23,408,153$48,507,68917.523.5
Cowboys$36,707,794$67,192,960$97,496,96148.423.5
Bears$24,564,438$71,372,643$74,295,8083124.25
Raiders$19,199,343$83,144,343$69,608,51031.6525.25
Steelers$18,060,168$75,509,539$23,977,66827.926
Chiefs$27,781,439$82,176,677$47,785,85638.726.5
Saints($34,384,740)$27,188,260$24,573,59330.728.75

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.

Minimum Cash Spending in 2020

With free agency rapidly approaching one of the questions I am getting pretty often these days is about the spending requirements in the CBA. For those unfamiliar with the NFL CBA there is a rule that requires teams to spend at least 89% of the salary cap over a four year period. The current period, which began in 2017, ends this league year and could give some idea as to who will spend this year on contracts.

Though our cash numbers that we trace are not going to be 100% accurate they should give us a pretty strong estimate of the teams that are in danger of not meeting the 89% threshold. Through last season we did not have any teams that were under $473.9M in spending, which was the mark required to be on pace to hit the 89% mark. The teams that were closest, the Cowboys, Ravens, Colts, and Chargers were all between $477M and $485M. There is a quirk in the rules that could impact teams in cap trouble (spending on bonuses in contracts in February of 2017 should not count towards spending but we track them as cash for the year)  which means maybe the Cowboys and Ravens were slightly under but if it’s the case it should not be by much.

Assuming the cap reaches $200 million this year the four year spending number will jump to $651.8M. Per our estimates we have 11 teams that are under that mark. Of those 11, six should be compliant just by signing their draft picks. Those teams are the Cardinals, Buccaneers, Patriots, Giants, Broncos, and Dolphins. That should leave us with six teams that may have little choice but to spend in free agency this year. Let’s take a look at those teams.

Colts, $43M under– The Colts have pretty much avoided spending in free agency the last few years even with a huge surplus of cap space.  Last year when the unexpected retirement of Andrew Luck came down and the team surprisingly did not ask him to repay millions in bonuses paid just months before the retirement and then followed it up by a seemingly crazy decision to agree to a one year, $28 million extension for Jacoby Brissett I surmised that the team was going to be so far under the spending limit that both decisions were in part driven by this. Seeing how far under they are now I think backs that up. Indianapolis will likely make up half of their shortage in the draft but they will most likely have to finally go out and spend at least a bit in free agency this year especially if they do not keep tackle Anthony Castonzo. The Colts may not want to get tied down to anyone for too long so this may wind up being the landing spot for “rehab” projects that take a one year deal in the hope of improving their stock.

Cowboys, $45 million under- Despite what most people think of the Cowboys they have basically managed a low cost roster for years now. They have a reputation for spending wildly but the fact is they have not really signed a notable free agent in ages. They should hit this number with two tags this year on Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. Even if Cooper signs elsewhere just the tag for Prescott should be enough since they have other free agents to sign plus $14 million in draft pick bonuses to pay out. So I would not expect them to be forced into anything in free agency.

Ravens, $47 million under– Between a tight salary cap and a cautious approach to extensions and free agency the Ravens have been one of the lowest cost teams in the NFL. Certainly this year they got the most bang for the buck with a low cost team that outperformed all expectations going into the season. The team will probably spend around $15 million on draft picks so they are still well under. This is likely part of the reason why rumors are circulating that the team is considering franchising Matt Judon. A tag for Judon would cost around $16 million and put them much closer to the number. Even if the tag was simply just to trade him part of that logic I am sure is that the most they could receive as compensation is a 3 and that would require extra care in free agency something they couldn’t pull off last year with Za’Darius Smith.  The Ravens did increase payroll last year (they went from being close to the lowest spending team in the NFL for 17 and 18  to around 20th in 2019) and did sign Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram but if there was a year for this team to be even more active in free agency this is probably the year. This is probably a logical spot for some veteran players to chase a ring.

Chargers, $48 million under– The Chargers have more or less been resigned to the fact that they were not going to be a legit competitor last year only adding veteran Thomas Davis and backup QB Tyrod Taylor as UFA’s last season. The team will spend $25 million on their first two draft picks alone so its around $20 million they need to spend. I could see this going one of two ways. Either the team signs a few veterans and someone like Marcus Mariota to just hit the minimum spending number or they try to make a splash for their move and go after either Tom Brady or Drew Brees (I personally cant see Brees leaving the Saints but you never know) , tag tight end Hunter Henry, and actually spend quite a bit in free agency to compete. I see this as one of the more fascinating teams in free agency this year that could stun some people with their decisions.

Bills, $53 million under– Buffalo had to go into a spending freeze due to the mess that the roster was a few years ago and just started to spend a bit last year as they came out from it. The team will only cover around $16M in draft pick spending so the Bills look to be a hit destination for free agents. The team has a huge surplus in cap space so they can probably structure a number of contracts favorably to maintain flexibility after 2021. Buffalo hasn’t signed a notable free agent in ages and I could see that changing this year. While I don’t think anyone is sold on Josh Allen as the guy this is the window to take advantage of his contract so if there is a time to take more risks its 2020 for Buffalo.

There are a few other considerations this year for some of these teams. If they were to extend or restructure players after the season (February 2021) or late in the season signing bonuses should count to help teams meet the number. If the CBA is not extended there are rules that would make it more difficult to do (i.e. extending a Josh Allen in February might not be the easiest thing to accomplish) but it is another route to hit the necessary spending.

The other big question is how do teams approach contracts now that the CBA could expire? I think this year’s free agent group is very strong and we should see a record number of double digit annual contract values being signed but since most teams don’t need to spend will they see this as an opportunity to try to break the union? 

The last time the CBA was set to expire spending hit record lows relative to the salary cap. In part that was because of rules (free agency was more restrictive in 2010 with a number of UFA’s being classified as restricted) but if you want to break any potential strike one of the ways to do that is to not be aggressive in free agency. This week we have seen reports of the NFLPA attempting to advise the players as to how much it would really cost to strike and if there is a thought that this could occur teams may “independently” come to the same conclusion that overspending in 2020 is not wise which could make for a very different free agent period.

Explaining Some of the Different Salary Cap Rules for 2020

As of right now the 2020 NFL offseason and regular season will be a bit different due to the fact that the CBA is expiring. If you follow me on Twitter you have probably seen a few comments here and there about the different rules but I thought it would make some sense to talk about some of them here.

1. There is no June 1 Cut

The question I’ve gotten the most in the last few weeks has been “Hey Jason where did the June 1 option go on the cap and calculator pages” and the answer is quite simple. As of now it doesn’t exist so rather than have people be confused about ways they can manipulate the cap we simply removed it from most of the pages on OTC. For those unfamiliar with the June 1, it was a date in the NFL calendar that was used to defer acceleration (dead money from future years) due to signing bonus prorations to the following league year. So when you cut a player all the cap dollars have to be taken in 2020. While this sounds bad to most fans its not that big of a deal. Only a handful of teams in recent years have had such a bad cap/contract situation where they have needed to use the June 1 so most times deferring money to the following year is just due to circumstance not need. If you wanted to put a number on this the average team should plan on keeping an additional $3-$3.5 million to account for cuts that normally would be treated as a June 1.

2. Teams have Both a Franchise and Transition Tag at their Disposal

In a normal year a team can designate just one player either a Franchise or a Transition player. In 2020 they can designate both. So for a team like the Cowboys with a set of major free agents this is a very useful tool as it gives them the ability to, at the very, least match any offer received for two players. In a normal year a team like Dallas would franchise Dak Prescott which would leave Amari Cooper and Byron Jones free to find employment. Now only one of those two will be 100% free. It’s important to note, though, that you can’t use two Franchise tags or two Transition tags, it’s a one and one situation.

3 Expect some Funky Sounding Contracts due to the 30% rule

To prevent teams from dumping huge amounts of cap into what may one day be uncapped seasons the league has a rule in place that does not allow raises of more than 30% of a player’s cap charge minus the signing bonus proration in 2020. So if a player has a cap charge of $6M in 2020 and $3M of that comes from a signing bonus it means he is only allowed a $900,000 raise in any season beyond 2020. Basically the rule is in place to prevent teams from using a signing bonus and from backloading contracts.

There are creative ways around this by using escalators, incentives, option bonuses, and other mechanisms so it just requires more time for team and agents (or self represented players) to finalize a deal. But we have already seen this going on in 2018 and 2019 and it led to a whole bunch of confusion in particular when Carson Wentz, who signed a deal in excess of $30M a year, had a contract that averaged millions less on paper to comply with the 30% rule but had a million and one ways to unlock the full contract value through escalators and incentives that had a 99.99999999999% chance of being earned.

Because so many don’t know about some of these rules and there is such a rush to report on a contract I can already envision all kinds of mis-information about option years, completion bonuses,  guaranteed salary, and annual contract values. Don’t get me wrong there is a lot of fluff in contracts that gets leaked out to make contracts sound better than they are but this year it’s a different story. If you are old enough to remember the old rookie contract system these contracts will all need to be written like those were. The difference is that back then people knew that Sam Bradford’s $20M contract (or whatever that number was) was really a $78M one. This is the same concept it’s just that people don’t know as much about it.

3A. These 30% Rules also Impact Renegotiations

What that means is that teams who usually convert millions of dollars to a signing bonus in February to create salary cap space in March won’t be allowed to do it that same way because they have to be 30% rule compliant and remember signing bonus prorations won’t count in the equation. This is why there was a flurry of renegotiated contracts in the last week of the 2019 season primarily by the smarter salary cap strapped teams (Falcons, Eagles, Lions, etc…) as it was easier to accomplish last year by some liberal use of what is and is not considered a likely to be earned salary escalator or de-escalator and putting in option bonuses that can be exercised and prorated in 2019.

Admittedly I’m not as up on how these incentives can be used now that the season is done but we are technically still in the 2019 league year so there may be some ways teams can use the same methods now (Im sure they cant use options to create cap space because they cant increase a cap charge for 19) but the few teams that did it at the end of the year were the smart ones.

4. Teams have to account for all incentives in 2020

Normally when it comes to incentives the way it works is if the incentive was reached the year before it counts on the cap and if it wasn’t then it doesn’t count. At the end of the year the league then determines who did and did not actually earn those incentives and adjusts the cap the following year. For 2020 all of this happens in real time so teams will need to carry the cap space to account for all possibilities.

As an example, since it was well publicized, Richard Sherman earned $4 million in incentives in 2019 from the 49ers. The 49ers were not charged for that on the salary cap because Sherman did not meet the criteria in 2018. Instead they will have their 2020 salary cap knocked down by $4 million. If that same situation occurred in 2020, the 49ers would be required to have $4 million in cap space to cover the incentive.

It will also work the other way too. This year Sherman should carry a $4 million LTBE incentive on his cap figure because of what he did last season. If he does not hit those same incentives the 49ers would then receive $4 million in cap room once it becomes apparent that he will not earn the incentive.

The latter situation really doesn’t help a team too much since it would be near the end of the season when these go unearned, but teams with a great deal of incentives in their contracts will likely need to prepare for the first scenario to avoid in-season problems. Preparing most likely means hoarding a few million extra in cap room.

5. Void Years May be a Problem

We all know that teams use void years in contracts to dump salary cap dollars for the future. It’s a big discussion point right now because of the pending free agency and huge void year prorations for Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Teams often use multiple void years to make cap hits work. That will be fine this year as well except for 1 year contracts.  This is a problem because the void occurs in what is technically still the 2020 league year (the 2020 league year runs until the first day of free agency in 2021). This is never an issue for teams because that void date is post June 1 of the prior year so the money follows the calendar year for all practical purposes.

Since there is no June 1 all the money from those voids should accelerate into 2020 when the void occurs. That means teams will need to carry the cap room to cover those cap charges essentially rendering the void useless. As an example Drew Brees has a 2021 void year charge of $5.4 million. Assume the Saints bring him back on a new one year contract for 2020. The way they have always done Brees’ recent deals would be to do something with a low salary, huge signing bonus, and two or three void years to dump that money. Assume between the existing void and any new ones that there is $20M in void year cap charges. Well once the deal voids the Saints need $20M in cap to cover it. So my opinion is that teams with Brees type players will actually have to negotiate two year contracts likely using the “Revis structure” from his time with the Patriots where you make the second year salary so high that you will be forced to cut the player thus making it a one year deal but protecting yourself from the void charges since in this case you actually release whenever football resumes. So if you see someone like Brees get a $40M a year deal with a big 2nd year payment relative to the 1st its really a one year deal written in a manner to protect both parties.

6. Expect a Second Salary Cap Adjustment

Usually the NFL salary cap is set around the combine in late February/early March. That number is then firm for the rest of the year. Normally the accountants then go over various items to determine where things may have been off and whatever that number is usually gets baked into the cap the following year. This time around I believe they have to issue the adjustment for this season and it should come in later April or early May. The last time this happened in 2010 every team got an additional $4 million or so in cap space to use. If that happened here it would be a help for teams that may have been relying on that June 1. Of course the adjustment could be negative too but Id think that is much more unlikely.

7. There may be no Cap Carryover for 2021

Technically the CBA ends in 2020 so the concept of carrying over space seems unlikely. The last CBA was somewhat different with regard to carryover rules so its not fair to lean on that for information but it was a “start over” in 2011.  So it’s possible that the NFL would agree to just keep things going as if there was no interruption in 2021 but there is also no guarantee. Rather than chance losing it the smart teams should be putting voids and buyback options into player contracts this year which should be a way to accelerate future prorated money into 2020 and thus use up the cap room. Likewise if you want to cut a player who is underperforming you can do it after the season is over and use up some of that cap room that you have and get the player off the books for 2021.

Top Roster Salary Cap Charges vs Cap Space in 2020

During the Rams debacle last night I made mention of how much money they have tied up in the top players of their team, which was quite a lot. So with that in mind I decided to look at the entire NFL and see just how much each team has invested in salary cap dollars in 2020 just on the top 5 players on their roster. I also wanted to see how flexible teams are in that regard so to do that I wanted to look at how much teams could save by releasing any of those top players.

Now its important to remember that cap charges are always flexible. Based on rules in place it may be harder to manipulate those numbers next year than in a normal year if the CBA is not extended, but restructuring requires doubling or tripling down on a contract by pushing sunk cap costs into the future. In essence a short term solution. Teams could, in some cases, also open cap dollars via trades of these players, but for these purposes I didn’t include that because trades are still relatively uncommon and for many of these teams a trade is not a feasible cap option either due to sunk prorated costs.

So here is a graph that shows on the X axis just how much in salary cap in 2020 is tied up in the top 5 players on a team and on the Y axis we see how much a team can save with releases from this group of players. The release side of the equation only considers players that result in a gain in cap space if a player is cut, so for a player like Jared Goff who would cost millions above his cap number to cut he just gets a value of $0 because there are no savings since he likely would not be released for cap purposes. The average cap sunk into the top 5 is about $76.5 million and the average that can be saved is about $30.8 million.

The worst place to be in the chart is the bottom right quadrant. The bottom right are teams that are well above average in cap dollars committed to just 5 players and have generally no flexibility. At least for 2020 the same top players the team had in 2019 are likely going to be back in 2020. Generally these are the WYSIWYG teams. The Rams, Falcons, and Eagles stick out like a sore thumb.

The Rams have $108 million committed to Goff, Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, and Jalen Ramsey. They can only lop off $13.7M through cuts and that would simply be if they cut Ramsey which you know they are not doing. None of the others offer any savings.  Atlanta and the Eagles we have talked about here for a few seasons now. Atlanta has always walked a tightrope with their cap while the Eagles have pushed more and more cap to the future for some time. Basically the year that Howie Roseman came back into power they made a number of decisions that were going to lock them into a core group and they have kept with that philosophy. The Eagles would be unable to save a dime cutting any of their top 5 while the Falcons would save a measly  $4.95 million if they cut Desmond Trufant.

Each of these teams will have tough decisions as to whether or not they try to kick the can or just deal with it. None of them have good cap situations next year, all in the bottom third of the league in projected cap room and none look like real contenders at the moment.

You can argue about what is the next best spot. I’d probably lean top left though it depends on your roster construction. Generally these teams don’t have big numbers invested at the top and they have the flexibility to change up the mix. That’s great for bad teams like the Giants, Bengals, and Bucs that don’t have a good mix of players and great for the Ravens, Texans, and Colts who are all playoff contenders.

The top right means you have big money invested at the top but a lot of flexibility. So if you are a bad team it means you may have a chance to overhaul your roster and create some cap space in the process. However it also probably means you sunk a lot into 2019 and if it didn’t pay off its going to lead to two lost seasons. The Jaguars, Bears, Panthers, and to a lesser extent Redskins it that category. The most interesting team is the 49ers. Because they frontloaded certain contracts, in particular the one for Jimmy Garoppolo, and use late vesting guarantees they have a lot of flexibility with some pretty expensive players if things went south or they wanted to move on from one underperformer.

The bottom left has plusses and minuses. If you are a good team it’s a good place to be. It means while you don’t have much flexibility with this particular group of players you also don’t have a great deal invested in the top, so in theory you should have room to add more players or re-sign your own without issue. Now there are a few things to consider before patting yourself on the back if you are a Saints or a Patriots fan. The Saints have Drew Brees in the top 5 at an artificially low cost ($15.9M) and the Patriots don’t have Tom Brady at all ($6.75M). Both are free agents in 2020 but have millions upon millions in voidable year dead money they accrues if they are unsigned. Brees’ cap jumps to $21.3M if he isn’t retained or retires while Brady’s goes to $13.5 million.  Both will get big salaries if they stay so in reality both should be more over to the right. Dallas should be in position to retain their players while the other teams are in position to push some of their top 5 down. Overall Id lean towards this being the second worst quadrant but again it depends on the status of the team.

Finally just a quick guide to see how these teams stack up in actual cap space I plotted the top 5 cap charges against the estimated cap space for each team once they reach 51 players through futures contracts. Not much surprising here other than it really shows you how most teams are teams of haves or have nots. Teams with a lot invested at the top don’t have much cap room. Those without big investments at the top don’t really invest anywhere and have huge cap room. This is more just a weird way with how the league has gone which is seeing more and more teams with either the “go for it” approach with little future consideration or “punt the season away” approach with all consideration toward the future.

Projecting an extension for Cody Whitehair

By: Brad Spielberger  

Throughout the 2018 off-season, the Bears were in talks for an extension with their 2015 second-round pick out of Florida State, nose tackle Eddie Goldman. Ryan Pace extended one of the players that he was personally responsible for drafting in Chicago for the first time. So far the returns have been positive. Early extensions such as Goldman’s enable teams to have a better understanding of both their roster and salary cap situation for the following offseason before that offseason arrives. Last year the Bears knew they wanted to keep Goldman around. Agreeing to a deal as he was entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract was the smart decision to move up the timing of his deal before the market increased.

This off-season is no different. 

By the numbers

The second-round draft pick at No. 56 overall for the Bears in 2016 was Kansas State interior offensive lineman Cody Whitehair. Like Goldman, the veteran interior lineman is entering the last season of a four-year rookie contract. 

At every step of the way during his tenure with the Bears, Whitehair has demonstrated exactly what the Bears were seeking when they drafted him three years ago: versatility and reliability. Whitehair has shifted back and forth between center and left guard multiple times already and has featured well in both spots. He has even handled some duties at right guard in emergency situations. That the veteran has missed only 25 total snaps in three years (per TheQuantEdge), demonstrates just how dependable of a player he is. 

Pro Football Focus deemed Whitehair’s rookie season third-best among all centers since they began recording statistics in 2006. Here is what the analytics database had to say about Whitehair’s second season in 2017: 

“Though tasked with playing guard to the tune of 259 offensive snaps last season, Whitehair still predominantly played center and played extremely well at the position in 2017. Whitehair ranked fifth in run-block grade (81.8) and fourth in run-block success percentage (17.6) in 2017.”

Whitehair was not only PFF’s third-highest-graded center in 2016, he was No. 13 in 2017, and No. 10 in 2018. At the initial peak of his accomplished career, he allowed a grand total of zero sacks and zero QB hits in 2018. This was while playing every offensive snap. 

Run blocking may have suffered a bit for the whole Bears’ offensive line unit in 2018, which will have to be mitigated in coming years. But it was Whitehair and the Bears’ collective pass protection that took a major leap forward. 

Here was PFF’s review of the whole season for the big men up front in Chicago: 

“The Bears finished the season with the league’s second-best pass blocking efficiency of any offensive line, and this was yet another team without a real weak link. Rookie James Daniels ended up earning their lowest grade at 62.3 overall, but Charles Leno Jr., Bobby Massie, and Cody Whitehair were all over 70.0.” 

All of these accolades are great, which brings up an important query: why are the Bears moving Whitehair to left guard after he was one of the NFL’s premier centers (according to at least one metric) in the last three years? It’s a multi-faceted answer.

First, James Daniels is the more natural center, as it was his college position. Second, Whitehair struggled mightily with shotgun snaps in 2018. Matt Nagy utilized the shotgun formation on 79 percent of all offensive snaps in 2018, which was tied for the second-highest percentage in the NFL. The Bears cannot afford to be stressing over quality shotgun snaps. It should be a routine exchange and the more natural center in Daniels gives them that drilled regimen.

What’s most important in Whitehair’s position shift is getting the rest of the Bears’ offensive line to ascend. PFF had complements for Charles Leno Jr. and his run blocking, but the rest of the big boys struggled mightily. Pairing Whitehair and Leno Jr. together on the left side is a calculated decision from Nagy, Pace, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. Tarik Cohen and David Montgomery are elite change-of-direction running backs who need space to work with before they can create magic out of thin air. Thanks to the presence of these two dynamic backs, I expect there to be a heavy usage of counters and cutbacks to the left side behind Leno Jr. and Whitehair. 

Taylor Gabriel and Cordarrelle Patterson running jet sweeps from the right side to the left should also be a feature of the Chicago offense in 2019. According to SharpFootball’s 2019 NFL preview, the Bears ran the ball behind the center and to the left more than they did to the right in 2018. This may have had something to do with Kyle Long’s absence. An understandable point considering Long’s proficiency as a bruiser in the running game. But I see this trend continuing, and perhaps expanding, in 2019.

While purely speculative, one can also assume that the Bears did not want to put too much on James Daniels’ plate in Year 1. It’s difficult enough to be a rookie in the NFL. If Daniels also had to learn all of the cadences and snap counts of a brand-new offense (along with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky), it could have been a disaster. The shift from center to left guard for Cody Whitehair and vice versa for James Daniels in 2019 makes plenty of sense, and better suits both of their skill-sets long term.

Now what effect does moving Whitehair from center to left guard have on his contract? Many seem to believe that left guards get paid significantly more than centers, but that is not the case. 

Below is a table with the top-five free agent contracts in each off-season based on average per year for both left guards and centers:

Top Five Free Agent Signings by APY

As you can see above, only in 2018 did the top-five contracts at left guard have a higher average APY than those at center. This is primarily a result of somewhat of an outlier of a contract – Andrew Norwell’s $13,300,000 per year free agent deal with the Jaguars. Norwell may have proven to be a cautionary tale for teams looking to extend their guards to big deals: he missed five games in 2018 and did not play particularly well in the other 11. In the 2019 free agency cycle, Rodger Saffold, another second-round draft pick and perhaps the best comparison to Whitehair’s situation, was the only left guard to top $7,000,000 APY. However, Mitch Morse, Maurkice Pouncey, and Matt Paradis all topped the $9,000,000 mark at center, and technically these are Whitehair’s cohorts of the past three seasons. 

Saffold received an overall PFF grade of 73.2 in his 2018 season with the Rams, compared to Cody Whitehair’s 70.4. A discrepancy that small doesn’t mean a great deal, both were good players last year. Whitehair has the benefit of youth, as he is just 27-years-old whereas Saffold is 31. 

If we look at the centers specifically, Morse is 27 and Paradis is 29. Two guys more relatable in age to Whitehair. They also played the same position as the Bears’ interior swingman the past few seasons. That makes them a potentially better gauge of his true market, even though he is sliding over to left guard for 2019. 

Morse was drafted No. 49 overall in the 2015 draft, one year before Cody Whitehair was selected at No. 56. Morse played out his rookie contract with the Chiefs and became an unrestricted free agent this off-season. While Morse did play at a high level when healthy, he missed five games in 2018 after missing nine games in 2017. There are some concerns about his concussion history, as he has already been diagnosed with three, and he remains in the Bills’ concussion protocol as of today, August 21st.

Paradis, meanwhile, is a journeyman center that was selected in the sixth round in 2014 and eventually placed on the Broncos’ practice squad. He became a UFA in 2019 after playing on a second-round RFA tender for $2.914 million in 2018. Paradis also missed seven games in 2018, though he hadn’t missed a snap in three years prior to that. Managing a PFF grade of 79 was all the more impressive in a shortened 2018 season.

Below is a table with each of the four player’s PFF grades since 2016: 

PFF Grades

While PFF grades are not the end-all be-all authority on player effectiveness, this table demonstrates the type of impact that draft pedigree can have on contract negotiations. Paradis is the only player taken later than the second round. Though he grades out better than the other three players above, he will have received the smallest contract of the group. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I believe Whitehair will come out with the largest contract of his peers.

The largest APY signing at left guard in 2018 was Norwell with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Norwell was an undrafted free agent with the Panthers and played on a RFA tender in 2017 before agreeing to terms in Jacksonville. It should be noted that the Jaguars went on a spending spree in 2018, shelling out the fourth-most cash in the league. Norwell’s three-year PFF grade average prior to 2018 was a 79.37. Norwell’s $13.3M APY extension under the 2018 salary cap equates to $14,125,620.80 APY under the 2019 salary cap. Norwell received $30 million fully guaranteed at signing out of a $66 million total, which is roughly 45 percent. Rodger Saffold, Mitch Morse, and Matt Paradis all received similar guaranteed-at-signing percentages of around 45 percent. 

While Ryan Pace, Joey Laine and Co. have presumably attempted to negotiate a lower number by offering the extension a year early (a la Jaylon Smith in Dallas), Whitehair’s camp is still probably looking for top dollar. Pace had no problem making Eddie Goldman one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in the NFL last off-season after his third season. Expecting anything but a similar contract at left guard for Whitehair may be foolhardy. The goal for the Bears’ front office at this point should be to just keep the eventual number below Norwell’s.

Whitehair’s contract projection: 

Four years, $49 million ($12.25M APY), $22.5 million fully guaranteed at signing ($14.5 million signing bonus, $1.5 million 2019 base salary, $3 million 2020 base salary, $3.5 million 2020 roster bonus). 

In this deal, there will also be a 2021 roster bonus of $3.5 million guaranteed for injury only at signing. The roster bonus will become fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2021 league year. Whitehair is currently due a $1,026,078 base salary in 2019 and the remainder of his rookie contract signing bonus is for $318,103. 

Below is a table with the full contract details, including a small $473,922 pay-bump to his 2019 base salary that becomes fully guaranteed:

Whitehair has too many positives working in his favor to not receive a strong, secure contract extension. He’s 27, a former second-round draft pick, extremely dependable and reliable, and capable of playing at a high level at multiple positions. The change of position in the contract year muddles negotiations a bit, but the left guard and center market are still pretty similar.

This projection is a very nice payday for Whitehair, especially when considering that the extension is a year early as he enters the fourth year of his rookie deal. For comparison’s sake, Jaylon Smith of the Dallas Cowboys just became the fourth highest paid inside linebacker (based on APY) in the NFL after starting just 22 games since being drafted in the second round of the 2016 draft (at No. 34 he went 22 picks ahead of Whitehair). As I mentioned at the top of the article, Cody Whitehair has missed only 25 snaps in his three year career out of a possible 3,073… Jaylon Smith has missed 26 starts out of a possible 48. The inside linebacker and interior offensive line market have nothing to do with each other, but consistency brings huge value, particularly to a position that relies on the unit to develop chemistry. 

Whitehair becoming the fourth highest paid left guard/center in terms of APY would mean his APY falls around $11 million. This estimate of $11 million APY was essentially where my Whitehair projection began, but the more I dove into the (scarce) resources available to determine Whitehair’s market, the more that number moved upward. 

All of the Bears’ moves to clear cap space prior to the 2019 free agency period and most recently with Charles Leno Jr. were not for naught, as another draft pick will be rewarded before the 2019 season kicks off. This hypothetical move will take up roughly $3.4 million in 2019 salary cap space, lowering the Bears’ number to around $18 million (per the NFLPA Public Salary Cap report dated 8/21/2019)