Every year we look at salary cap space as the barometer for who is expected to be the big spenders in free agency but today I wanted to take a different look at things and instead look at cash budgeting. While cap space certainly makes it easier to fit contracts under the salary cap under team friendly structures it is nothing more than an accounting tool. For the most part anyone can make the salary cap dance in a given year or two to fit players in, but actual cash is generally tighter and what should drive spending in the NFL.
For each team I examined their last four years of spending (or at least the spending we estimate on OTC) as a percentage of the salary cap. Why as a percentage of the cap? The cap is the closest way we have to get an idea of the revenue growth in the NFL and thus as the cap rises spending should rise accordingly. I then averaged out those years to get one baseline number as to an estimate of spending. Some teams are relatively steady in this regard (the Redskins for example never less than 101% or more than 109% of the cap) while others show great variance (the Lions have been as low as 80% and as high as 122% of the cap).
The variance of course can be caused by many things. Strategic shifts see teams punt on a season. Dreams of the playoffs can lead to a big spending season. A QB extension can cause a massive increase one year and likely decrease in one of the years around it depending on how well a team planned for it. Sometimes teams do save for a run. Sometimes its just haphazard decision making.
To take that somewhat into account what I did was also calculate what a team would have to spend this year to hit the same four year average from 2014 to 2018 from 2015 to 2019. A third number was taken by simply eliminating the minimum and maximum spending from the four year bucket. Averaging out the three numbers I came up with an expected cash budget for each team.
To come up with our final spending estimates we subtract out a team’s current estimated cash payroll as well as their expected expenditure on rookies. I then compared this with a teams cap space to see what teams need to make moves if they are to hit their expected numbers. Remember cash for spending would include tenders, franchise tags, and extensions so its not just free agent signings. With that in mind here are a few thoughts on some teams that stood out to me.
Money, Money, Money
The Bills top the list of expected spenders with what should be close to $89 million to spend on free agents. The team has $78 million in cap room so they have no issues cramming that kind of number into the cap. It is worth noting that the Bills have been one of those high variance teams (they have been in the ballpark of 90% the last two years after peaking at nearly 119% in the Rex Ryan years) and they could decide to just be a lower spender. Still that should leave them with over $70 million to spend which can add a ton of talent.
Number 2 on the list is the Jets with about $88 million on $90 million of cap space. That could indicate that the Jets could go to an all cash budget if they wanted to this year, though I doubt they will. Only once in the last four years have the Jets been low spenders- they dropped all the way down to 85% of the cap after the Fitzpatrick extension year fiasco- with the other three years between a rock steady 108 and 110% of the cap, so if anything this may be a conservative estimate. It will likely depend on if the GM decides that this is an “all in” year or wants to save some added reserves for 2020.
The Seahawks come in third with what should be an additional $75 million to spend on contracts this offseason. Their situation is a bit different than others as they will need to set aside some money for a Russell Wilson extension. The last go around Wilson got around a $30 million raise in the year he signed the contract and Id expect at least that much here. So their effective free agent spending number should be closer to $40 million. They have around $50 million in cap room so they should be able to fit those numbers without reworking deals besides the Wilson one.
The fourth team on the list is the Panthers and this is a really intriguing one. In a normal year we would expect Carolina to have around $70 million to spend on new deals. They have generally been way over the cap in their spending in almost every year except one and in that year they flatlined with under 85% spending. The Panthers project to have just $13 million in cap room and even with Marty Hurney contract magic you are not fitting $70 million of new deals into $13 million of cap space. So either they are going to go crazy with contract restructures (always possible with Carolina) or go into a spending shell which would leave room for about $25 million in new deals. That is reasonable with the cap space they have. These numbers do not include Eric Reid’s new contract but I would imagine that will take away $10 million of their cash budget and $4 million in cap space.
Dallas is our fifth team with about $66 million at it’s disposal. Dallas has been, in part because of cap space, a real low spender the last two years so the $66 million may be a conservative estimate. Dallas has about $45 million in cap room after rookies so its enough to fit that kind of first year cash on the cap without too much work. Dallas does have large extensions/tags looming (Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, and Demarcus Lawrence) so I would think most of the $66 million is going to those four players this summer with not a huge number spent in free agency.
At six is the Saints and this is basically an identical situation to the Panthers. $61 million to spend but around $10 million in cap space to fit it. That doesn’t work. Now the Saints we know will rework multiple contracts to make things happen but how much is the question. They have not been lower than 92% of the cap in spending so I would anticipate at worst they add $40 million to the team. That is still going to take some cap maneuvering.
The Colts lead the NFL with nearly $110 million in cap space but rank 7th here with a budget of around $60 million. This is likely lowballing the Colts who have not even tried the last two seasons spending about 85% and 81% of the cap which are both well under the CBA mandated spending minimums of 89% over a four year period. This spending would get them back on track to meet the threshold number but they have spent money in the past under Ryan Grigson so perhaps Chris Ballard has the greenlight to spend far more this year. They could be third overall.
Teams with Work to Do
The Buccaneers look like they are $20 million over their typical budget so either they are going to go to historic high levels of spending or will be cutting a good deal of players to bring their spending down closer to normal levels. The team also has just $2.2 million in cap space after rookies so they have a good deal of work to do for 2019.
Never discount the Jaguars from doing much but with a roster that already is at a second in the NFL $196 million they only project to spend an added $5 million on players. Look for them to save big on players like Malik Jackson, Marcell Dareus, and Blake Bortles so they can add players in free agency. The Jaguars are over the salary cap as well so they need to make moves to comply.
The Eagles are similar to the Jaguars in that they have a monstrous payroll already on the books. The big difference here is that the Eagles do have the Foles contract that can quickly go from $20M+ to $0. Move him, cut someone like a Timmy Jernigan, do a few restructures and the team will likely have something like $40 million to spend with $30 million in cap room. Their activity all lies on the Foles decision.
Minnesota’s spending spree was last year where they spent 117% of the cap so its natural to not expect much this season. We anticipate about $15 million to spend in free agency this year. They only have $4 million in cap space so 2019 may look a lot like 2018. They will likely bank on rookies to be the main improvement.
Possible Fool’s Gold
San Francisco has a pretty healthy $60 million in cap space but they may have peaked last year when they spent over 114% of the cap in salary. Prior to 2018 they had spent about 84%, 88%, and 100% of the cap. If they hit their averages they may only have about $20 million to work with despite all that cap room. To hit close to $60M they would need to basically match their level of spending at 114% in back to back years. That would be incredibly rare for a team.
Tennessee has around $42 million in cap space but may be limited to about $22 million in spending. Last year was their first season going over 100% of the cap in spending in the last four years and given that they may be saving money for signing Marcus Mariota to a contract next season my guess is you will not see too much activity out of them unless they feel the price is really right.
The Raiders have $70 million in cap room but likely wont have anywhere near that level of activity in free agency unless something dramatic causes a change. The Raiders have spent between 99 and 102% of the cap in the last three years so they will likely spend around $40 million this year, at least with the way the roster currently stands. They will create more room with releases of players like Donald Penn.
The Texans look to have a huge amount of cap room with about $75 million after rookies but they haven’t spent more than 94% of the cap in the last three seasons. If they maintain their norms this is probably a team with a $50 million budget. If they tag Clowney that likely drops to $33 million. Even If they matched their high they would be looking at around $60 million before the tag despite that big cap number.
Here is the breakdown for each team based on a $190 million salary cap. Please note that the numbers do not reflect transactions after Feb 11th, nor any rumored cuts or trades. If enough people have interest I can update these charts during the free agency period. If the teams hit the expected numbers than we should be looking at $1.4 billion being spent on new player deals this season.
|Team||Current Est. Payroll (After Rookies)||Avg. Spending (% of cap-15-18)||Estimated Cash to Spend||Cap Space (After Rookies)|
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.