Although I’ve learned plenty about the salary cap and NFL contracts in general over the years, there are several times where I still have difficulty understanding how these rules shape the rosters. How many big contracts can a team hold in a given year? Can your favorite team afford to re-sign that player you really like? Can a team be a serious player for a high profile free agent, or do they have to focus on the draft and the bargain bin?
To help clarify some of these questions, I’ve decided to investigate what I’ll refer to as the texture of an NFL roster. I will classify contracts and cap figures into several tiers, look at how each team balanced the cap numbers of their players into those tiers from last year, and then evaluate what sort of requirements and limitations teams face in order to build a roster that’s not only compliant with the salary cap, but able to be competitive against the rest of the league.
- The dollar figures you will see all represent cap numbers. Players may enter higher, lower, or different levels of tiers depending on how a team chooses to manipulate his contract against the cap.
- These classifications have no bearing on the actual talent level of the player—as we all know, players get overpaid and underpaid all the time. And although there will be a relation to the total value of the contract, in any given year that relation may not be a perfect reflection due again to contract manipulation.
- For purposes of this exercise, “veteran” contracts will mean any player with four or more accrued seasons, while “rookie” contracts will refer to those with three or less.
- Players on injured reserve are included, as their cap figures still count even if they were unable to complete the season.
- Related to the above, when it comes to roster texture (a tally of the players in each tier), all players that accrued some sort of cap liability other than dead money will be included. For this reason, the total number of players will exceed 53, and teams that suffered more injuries than others will have more players. The average for 2014 was 64, which means that if that year was any indication, a team should expect to lose about 11 players to IR each year.
- For purposes of introducing the concept of texture, I will use numbers from last season (2014) for now. We won’t be able to get a fully accurate feel for the 2015 rosters until the final cutdown to 53 takes place, as we don’t yet know facts such as how many rookies will displace veterans, or how much dead money will be added when the final cuts come in. Come September, however, I plan to do a more robust analysis before the regular season gets underway to see how textures have changed from 2014 to 2015.
The Six Classes Of Texture
- Elite Veteran: These are the players with the 32 highest veteran cap numbers in the league. Think of this as the equivalent of the highest paid player on each team—though of course, a few teams will have no elite contracts while a few others will have multiple. Also take special note that almost half of the players in the Elite category are quarterbacks. There is certainly a very high premium to retain a starting quarterback on a veteran contract.
- High Veteran: Represents the 33rd to 160th highest veteran cap numbers, based roughly on the 2nd-5th highest cap numbers per team.
- Middle Veteran: Represents the 161st to 320th highest veteran cap numbers, based roughly on the 6th-10th highest cap numbers per team.
- Low Veteran: Represents all veterans with cap numbers below the top 320.
- Rookie Contracts: Any player with less than four accrued seasons will fall into this category, unless their contract was extended before the 2014 season. Most of these players will be on drafted or UDFA deals, but several will also be on much shorter deals as they hop from one team to another trying to prove themselves. Almost all of these cap numbers would fall in the Low category if they were considered veterans
- Dead Money: Although all teams want to minimize this as much as possible, some amount of dead money is inevitable as a consequence of acquiring and releasing players. Therefore, teams must always account for some proportion of their cap to contain dead money.
Here are the ranges for the four veteran categories for 2014:
|Low||321 and lower||$3,200,000||$635,000|
The Average Texture For 2014 – By Cap Numbers And By Roster Members
To take away context from texture, it’s important to compare and contrast the cap dollars spent on each category to how many players actually reside in those categories. As you might imagine, just a few players are responsible for an oversized amount of the cap space taken up in any given year. To illustrate this fact, let’s take a look at the average texture for NFL teams in 2014, represented both by cap numbers and by players on the roster:
As you can see, the six slices of the pie are relatively close to each other in proportion when it comes to cap spending. However, while the three highest paid categories (Elite, High, and Middle veteran players) make up only 10 roster spots on average (about 1/6th of the roster), they typically account for half of all cap expenditures. Similarly, and as you’d expect, while players on Rookie contracts constitute about 5/8ths of a roster, they only take up about a quarter of the spending.
These are the numbers that I’m thinking should be kept in mind when one considers what the future of their players could be. For example, say you have one player (usually a quarterback) that will be incurring Elite cap charges for the foreseeable future. If you need to push another player to the Elite level, does that mean that you have to cut back on signing veterans in the High to Middle range? Does that mean you have to restructure your current Elite player’s contract to reduce his cap number—at the risk of having it higher later?
This is a concept that’s very much in development, so it’s always good to have more eyes on it, and if you have anything to add, please do so in the comments. In this article, here’s where I take a look at 2014 textures for all 32 NFL teams so we can take a look at some real-time examples.