How Teams Are Using The Signing Bonus to Manage the Salary Cap

This year brought about a lot more use of signing bonuses than usual, but this has been a method of managing the salary cap that teams have used for years. To try to put the numbers a little more into context I wanted to look at how leveraged teams are with the use of the signing bonus. To do that I looked at how much salary teams have on the books from 2022 to 2026 that is not prorated and compared it to the amount that is prorated. The reason for the 2026 timeframe is because that is the final year that any prorated money is currently on the books for.

The Biggest Abusers

Eagles- 40.7%

The Eagles are well known for their use of bonus restructures to deal with the salary cap and deferring millions of dollars to the future. They rank 2nd in the NFL with $151M in future charges related to signing bonus prorations which is incredibly high when you consider they don’t have a QB on a veteran multi year contract. With just $221M in other salary to account for the Eagles are pretty much going to be in a pinch whenever they need to cut a player or a void hits the books. The Eagles have around $60M in prorated void money over the next five years by far the most in the NFL.

Steelers- 37.5%

I would feel confident in saying that the Steelers pledge more signing bonus money at signing than any team in the NFL, but they have also heavily relied on restructures. They had been able to keep things somewhat in check, though, by avoiding the use of voidable contract years on their restructures until 2021. The Steelers were hit hard by the decline in the cap to the point where they needed to use void years for even low level signings. The team has about $97 million remaining in non prorated salary and $57 million in prorated salary that is sunk. $20 million of that number comes due next year if the first set of voids kicks in, the highest void total in the NFL.

Falcons- 37.1%

The Falcons have made a mess of their salary cap the last few years in an effort to keep signing players but they have still more or less avoided the use of void years (their recent restructure of Dante Fowler’s contract is a void year without calling it that) which is a positive. They have gone heavy into their stars which makes trading their players or cutting them difficult. In a sense they remind me a little of the Lions in the “big 3” era where the team hurt themselves by going to the well too many times on just a handful of players.

Saints- 35.5%

The Saints attempts to skirt the salary cap for the last five years is well documented. They have used almost every trick available to push salary out, second only to the Eagles in the use of restructures and void years. Their ratio is technically a little better than this because technically Drew Brees is still on the roster in 2022 due to a void and he will be released prior to that but that is just shuffling the money from potential dead money to actual dead money once they process his retirement on June 2.

Seahawks- 31.9%(Does not include Lockett extension)

I didn’t expect to see Seattle here but they used a massive signing bonus with Russell Wilson and really played their cap haphazardly the last two years on a relatively lower cost team. They had to go in and do a few conversions this year and used void years in almost every signing. They are shorter term voids compared to other teams but that still pushed them over the top.

The other teams that are over 30% are the Buccaneers (a complete departure that all happened this offseason), Panthers, Cardinals, and Packers.

The Non-Users

Colts- 4.3%

Indianapolis has taken over the Buccaneers historical position of being allergic to the use of the bonus for cap relief. The 4.3% is basically all due to rookie contracts where teams do not have much of a choice because of the expectation of paying rookies a big chunk of change in their first year in the NFL. Their $10.5 million of prorated bonus money is about $15 million less than the next closest team giving the team great flexibility for the future to handle roster turnover that occurs in the NFL.

Jets- 12.1%

The Jets have done a complete 180 in regards to contracts over the last two years going from a bonus heavy team that has dealt with awful cap consequences to one that is hardly using them. The Jets signed two big ticket players this year and barely used a signing bonus in doing the deals. With a rookie QB about to come in and no major extensions in sight the Jets should be able to hammer home this concept if this is their new strategy they want to go with as a way to manage the salary cap.

Dolphins- 15.7%

Miami went through some bad salary cap times not that long ago and have adjusted accordingly by moving away from the messes that were the Ndamukong Suh and Ryan Tannehill style deals and instead doing a more focused approach to the contracts. They are not as low as the Jets but have been cautious with the signing bonus on their recent signings using numbers of $10.5 million for Byron Jones and $7 million for Xavien Howard. I would lean toward Miami having one of the more balanced approaches to maximizing salary cap space in the present without abusing the future.

Chiefs- 16.0%

The number for Kansas City is a bit misleading. Their $86 million in prorated money ranks 14th in the NFL but their ability to avoid ridiculous sums of bonuses on Patrick Mahomes drives their percentage way down since his contract is so large. I would not expect this to change much in the future unless the Chiefs have to restructure Mahomes in 2023 and 2024. That contract really gives the Chiefs so much leeway with the cap. It’s really the most team friendly contract in the NFL all things considered.

Titans- 16.4%

Tennessee has always done a fair job of managing their contracts and finding a good balance between bonuses and non-bonuses. They have a few big money deals on the books now and are continuing that approach which can be difficult to do. I would be interested in seeing what happens to Tennessee if they have another year where they are a 2nd round type playoff exit and if that leads them to move in a different direction ala the Bucs in an attempt to really just go for it with this group of players.

Here are the numbers for all the teams in the league.

TeamYearly SalarySunk Salary% Sunk
Eagles$221,695,054$151,066,98640.5%
Steelers$96,194,531$57,703,62037.5%
Falcons$175,727,906$103,653,76837.1%
Saints$263,020,952$144,796,13535.5%
Seahawks$137,070,805$64,109,10531.9%
Buccaneers$214,601,283$96,014,07430.9%
Panthers$157,371,584$68,537,22630.3%
Cardinals$204,418,281$88,783,80330.3%
Packers$275,063,199$119,166,84430.2%
Ravens$230,061,184$94,915,12029.2%
Browns$252,470,918$104,038,46529.2%
Bears$244,098,101$100,563,49029.2%
Giants$233,124,304$86,894,75027.2%
Cowboys$457,861,192$155,276,02125.3%
Football Team$193,598,864$65,488,05725.3%
Vikings$245,483,047$81,369,17224.9%
Patriots$243,468,949$79,117,32224.5%
Lions$269,116,797$85,917,93124.2%
Bengals$199,704,576$62,819,99023.9%
49ers$329,296,653$100,809,32023.4%
Broncos$230,815,181$65,149,78722.0%
Jaguars$228,001,295$63,629,45121.8%
Raiders$126,098,324$35,117,74521.8%
Bills$244,391,604$67,897,18721.7%
Rams$372,769,720$93,692,08320.1%
Chargers$283,907,330$68,942,76119.5%
Texans$314,213,980$68,833,81318.0%
Titans$281,692,763$55,239,60616.4%
Chiefs$450,802,814$86,159,95416.0%
Dolphins$239,477,089$44,682,15315.7%
Jets$187,604,801$25,733,91312.1%
Colts$237,476,216$10,553,9944.3%
NFL Avg.$245,021,853$81,146,05125.0%

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @Jason_OTC