With the Covid opt outs and 2020 draft picks now accounted for I thought it was a good time to take a peek ahead to 2021 and see how team’s salary cap situations may look next year. The chart provides two cap spaces- one in the event of a $175 million salary cap in 2021 and the second in the event of a $190 million cap in 2021. The cap space estimate is based on current cap figures on the books in 2021, signings of enough minimum salary players to reach 51 players, and carryover based on current cap space for 2020 minus a $5 million placeholder for in-season costs. Note that this is not the salary cap health we talked about before (that will be a post after cutdowns) which takes into account possible cuts/restructures just with the roster as is.
2021 Salary Cap Space Estimates
Estimated Cap Space ($175M Cap Limit)
Estimated Cap Space ($190M Cap Limit)
Obviously many teams will have some work to do as the average cap space of $11.6M and $26.6M would be the lowest numbers in recent memory, but many teams do have some levers to pull if necessary for next year. That said there could be a situation where we see a lot of 1 year contracts next year and a great deal of market control coming from just a handful of teams next season.
With the opt out rules finalized here are the current numbers for cap space gained by team in 2020, the list of opt outs thorough August 3, and the positional breakdown. All cap space created can either be used immediately for signing free agents or carried over into 2021. As of yesterday 51 players have opted out of the 2020 season. The deadline is Thursday at 4PM and I would expect many more to be added to the list once they review the final rules.
In the latest proposals the NFL has asked the players to accept a $175 million salary cap in 2021 unless revenue drop is not as severe as anticipated. In return the balance of the shortage would hit the cap over the next three years plus the NFL has made various concessions on other items including opt outs.
How bad would a $175M cap impact the NFL teams? Here is a quick look at what every teams cap space would look like if they were able to carryover their current estimated cap room.
Est Cap Space @ $175M
At this point in time this would be the rosiest picture for teams. The above estimates dont include the cap charges for unsigned rookies and dont adjust the carryover numbers for the change from the top 51 to to the regular season accounting numbers. When you factor those in the number of teams over the cap should go from 8 to 13.
The average cap space next year would be in the ballpark of $15 million per team which are basically unheard of numbers in this day and age. The last few years the average cap room is between $30 and $40 million around free agency.
If they agree to this I would expect a number of mid level veterans to feel the brunt of this during this summer and next winter. Rookies, especially 1st round picks, may see their extension talks get pushed for a year. The other way teams will deal with this is likely to push money into the future via restructures with their secured veteran players who have high base salaries and use those 2022 and 2023 years as ways to “buy on credit” in 2021. Free agency would also be interesting as players and teams could opt for cheaper short term deals to bide time until the money gets higher in the future.
A drop like this is not surprising though I think the NFL should have the ability to deal with a flat cap or flat cap+ standard raise situation in 2021 and/or 2022 rather than this kind of drop. Any type of drop is going to really unfairly put the burden on a smaller group of veteran players. Superstars are going to be cut proof, rookies are all on set salaries and thus also cut proof, and minimum salary vets cant sign for any cheaper. Its that 10-15% of the NFL that doesnt fit into those three categories that are going to get hammered. Is that fair? I don’t think it is, but that may be what happens.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.