The NFL season is roughly a third way of the way over, and a number of teams are already in a highly undesirable situation for 2015. With roster movement and contract extensions mostly finished for the league year, let’s take a look at an updated version of Commitment Index. As a reminder, Commitment Index measures how committed each team is from a salary cap perspective to its current roster as a percentage of the commitment level of a hypothetical average team. As a result, 100% is average, and 150% is 50% more committed than average.
In (Relative) Trouble:
New Orleans Saints:
The Saints place among the most cap-committed teams as a result of restructuring the contracts of Drew Brees, Jahri Evans, David Hawthorne, Max Unger, Jairus Byrd, Dannell Ellerbe and (disastrously) Junior Gallette in order to arrange for a relatively active free agency period in which they signed or extended Brandon Browner, CJ Spiller, Mark Ingram and Cameron Jordan. The result has been a disappointing record, and much of their 2016 salary cap is already accounted for with the worst kind of cap commitments: dead money and signing bonus proration. Whereas guaranteed base salary can at least be traded, signing bonus proration and dead money amounts are “stuck” on the salary cap of the team that originally paid the amounts. The Saints may want to swallow hard and accelerate as many future cap obligations as possible into 2016 through trades and releases. A Drew Brees trade would free up $20 million in cap room to facilitate those accelerations (to the extent the accelerated amounts exceed the currently-scheduled cap numbers of the applicable players), while at the same time returning draft assets and enabling a much-needed bottoming out.
Miami Dolphins/Kansas City Chiefs/Baltimore Ravens:
These teams appear to be stuck on a treadmill of mediocrity wherein they are each not devoid enough of talent to justify blowing up their roster, cap-flexible enough to pursue many significant upgrades or asset-rich enough to draft their way out of the predicament. Each team has significant true cap commitments outstanding to middle-tier QBs, large base salary guarantees scheduled for 2016, and big chunks of signing bonus proration extending out for several years. These teams are more dependent on their current players turning around their performance than most teams are.
Because the Seahawks have extended so many young core players over the past several years, it is tempting to fall under the impression that the team is on the verge of some sort of cap-induced break up. However, the Seahawks still rank below the league average in Commitment Index, and it will probably take a large Russell Okung contract in February/March to push them over 100+. While all of these players may collectively account for a large amount of cap room going forward, the vast majority of the amount consists of non-guaranteed base salary. The team will likely not have to initiate cap gymnastics until 2017, at which point there will be enough malleable contract money to create cap room for several years through restructuring productive players or releasing nonproductive players.
The narrative surrounding the Colts’ offseason seems to be that they “went all in” on the 2015 season, presumably because the team signed a number of older free agents. While this may or not be an accurate description of the mindset of the organization, I would dispute the idea that the Colts have somehow mortgaged their future as a result of signing these players. While Andre Johnson, Frank Gore, Trent Cole and others may not play a role in the long-term future of the organization, the team has not actually committed much to the group at all from a salary cap perspective. The team ranks well below average in Commitment Index even after handing out extensions to T.Y Hilton and Anthony Castonzo, and an Andrew Luck extension may not even take them to the average. As a result, the Colts can mostly start fresh in 2016 if they choose to do so.
The Bengals have quietly become one of the most cap-savvy teams in the league, seemingly choosing to pass on any contract that is not clearly structured in a team-friendly way. The large contracts that they have given out (Green, Dalton, Atkins, Dunlap, etc.) do not contain any second-year option bonuses or future team option accelerated deadlines (i.e. 2016 salary becomes guaranteed in 2015). As a result, they have the flexibility to release, restructure, trade or keep players as they see fit. To illustrate this point, Andy Dalton is scheduled to count $79 million against the cap over the remainder of this contract, but only $7.2 million of that amount is truly cap-committed. Compare that to the numbers for Alex Smith (55.3/24.9), Carson Palmer (48.125/19.125) and Joe Flacco (84.45/25.85). The point is not necessarily that Dalton’s contract is a bargain, but that it provides the Bengals with an extremely high degree of flexibility.
Green Bay Packers:
The Packers have also been able to avoid unfavorable contract structures involving option bonuses and future team option accelerated deadlines, and the team also has a habit of signing players to deals which are considered somewhat under-market even at the time of signing. This may be the result of focusing the majority of cap dollars on re-signing (well-drafted) internal players, as opposed to convincing external players to sign as free agents. The Packers appear to be well-positioned from a salary cap perspective in 2016 and beyond, but because the large contracts on the books (Rodgers, Matthews, etc.) consist primarily of malleable non-guaranteed base salary as opposed to fixed prorated signing bonus amounts, the team does have the flexibility to leverage-up in free agency if it ever decides to change its (heretofore highly successful) roster-building approach.
Part 1: The “Mortgaging the Future” Assertion
Part 2: The Trough Model and the Folly of “Matching Cash With Cap”
Part 3: Measuring the Mortgage
Part 4: Realizable Cap Room and Relevance Adjusted Cap Number
Part 5: Potentially Asked Questions
Bryce Johnston is the creator of Commitment Index and the co-creator of Expected Contract Value. Bryce earned his Juris Doctor, magna cum laude, from Georgetown University Law Center in May 2014, and currently works as a corporate associate in the New York City office of an AmLaw 50 law firm. Before becoming a contributor to overthecap.com, Bryce operated eaglescap.com for 10 NFL offseasons, appearing multiple times on 610 WIP Sports Radio in Philadelphia as an NFL salary cap expert. Bryce can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com or via Twitter @NFLCapAnalytics.