Yesterday Mike Tannenbaum of the Miami Dolphins told ESPN that restructuring the contract of Ndamukong Suh would be a possibility to gain cap space to help improve the team. The Dolphins currently are one of just a handful of teams we project to be over the cap so they will need to make some moves, but should this be one of them is the real question. So let’s look at his contract and what a restructure could look like for the Dolphins.
I discussed Suh’s contract last year in detail last season because of how monumental the contract was and how absurd it seemed to place this value on him. Suh earned about $6 million year more than the next highest paid defensive tackle, received a massive signing bonus to deflate his 2015 cap number, and earned a $60 million guarantee that not even the best quarterbacks receive. Not surprisingly he was a disappointment last year, not necessarily because he played poorly but because the expectation was Superman and quite frankly there is no possible way to be Superman as an interior defensive lineman.
When you restructure a contract for cap relief the player is not giving the team a discounted price. Often this is a misconception that is fueled by agents who tell their players to say in interviews that “they are open to restructuring their contract for the good of the team”. In reality a restructure is a simple conversion of base salary or a roster bonus that counts in full against the cap into a prorated bonus that is spread out over five years. The pay is the same to the player either way and in some cases is paid sooner than originally planned.
In addition the player receives huge contract protection because that bonus payment helps act as a future barrier to a player’s release. When you cut a player there is usually a salary cap charge associated with the release. This is what we call “dead money”, a charge for a player no longer on the team. That dead money can lock a player into their contract because the alternative is worse financially for a team. If a player has a cap charge of $14 million but a $15 million charge if released there is a good chance the team is not going to cut the player to lose $1 million in cap room and have to replace the player on the roster. I usually call years like that “virtually guaranteed”.
When we look at Suh’s current contract the first three contract years (2015-2017) were actually guarateed on paper. That thrid year of guarantees upon signing if very rare, but if you look at the contract structure, which would have called for a $15.1M cap hit vs a $15.3M dead money charge without the written guaratee, 2017 was virtually guaranteed. Rather than haggle over details ( and Im sure loving the idea of making a big splash Miami just put the guarantee in the contract). Beyond that Suh would be become cuttable. In 2018 his cap charge is $22.1 million and the cost on the cap to release is $10.2 million. Thats a huge gain in cap room and actual cash for the year. He has to play at a very high level to earn that money.
If you restructure the contract that can change. 2018 very likely can turn from not guarteed to virtually guaranteed with the stroke of a pen. Here would be some of the possible scenarios for Miami:
1. Max Restructure: Create $18 million in cap room in 2016
In this restructure Miami would convert almost all of Suh’s salary to a signing bonus. It would clearly lock him in at a massive charge in 2018 and leave them with a massive charge when cut in 2019. It would really give them little leverage and possibly require more restructures later on. This would, in my opinion, be a very bad option for Miami.
2. $15M Restructure: Save $12 million cap in 2016
This is a better alternative as you could at least make an argument that you could cut Suh in 2018, though more likely you would look to reduce his salary because I cant picture a team taking a near $20M dead cap charge for 1 player.
3. $10M Restructure: Save $8 million cap in 2016
Here Miami doesn’t get the cap relief needed to go crazy in free agency, but it would open room to function without doing much else with the team. While it would hurt to cut him in 2018 under this scenario he is far less locked in than the other two. I dont think Miami would do less than this number if they were really considering the move, but you can guesstimate pretty quickly what those changes would look like.
This contract was always going to be a problem for Miami because of both the cost and the way they structured the deal. In my opinion there is no reason for them to restructure this contract. The way they originally structured this contract left them two windows to compete ad they should simply honor that. One year, 2015, was already a bust but a $15.1M cap charge in 2017 is at least reasonable as is the cost of releasing him in 2018 at $10.2 million if it all fails and you start over again.
More or less any restructure puts Miami in “2016 or bust” mode. Considering the team is coming off a 6-10 record I’m not sure that is really where they need to go especially when there are other options for cap relief. If all goes well and they have Suh at an affordable number in 2017 then they can try to make something big happen. But their only protection is going to come from just leaving the deal as is and working around what everyone in that front office should consider a fixed and not a variable cost for the next two years.