Looking at a Potential Extension for Aaron Donald

The Los Angeles Rams suffered a rough homecoming on the field in 2016, finishing up the season with a 4-12 record.  That being said, the team has a few key building blocks, starting with stud defensive tackle Aaron Donald.  The two-time NFL All Pro selection has not only achieved league-wide consensus as the top defensive tackle in the NFL, but Donald also garners consideration as the overall top football player in the league.  To that point, respected football site Pro Football Focus ranked Donald as its #1 overall player for 2017.  So it’s fair to assert that the Rams will not allow Donald to leave anytime soon, and the team will be rewarding him with a lucrative extension.  Donald skipped the OTA’s this year, sending a clear message to the Rams’ brass that he desires a contract extension prior to the start of the 2017 season.  The Rams want to keep their franchise player happy, and it’s a strong bet that he will receive said extension prior to week 1.

As a former first round pick entering his fourth year in 2017, Donald’s contract is subject to a fifth year team option for 2018.  In a move that surprised no one, the Rams have already picked up his fifth year option, which will pay Donald $6.892 million in 2018 (guaranteed for injury only).  So Donald’s salaries are set for the next two years, but both the team and the player can benefit here by entering into a long term extension that will tie Donald to the Rams for years to come.

Before we move forward with constructing a contract extension for Aaron Donald, note that we have precedent with respect to the Rams extending their first round draft picks prior to the start of their fourth year, and doing so on lucrative terms.  First, defensive end (now outside linebacker) Robert Quinn signed a four year, $57 million extension with the team in 2014, just as he was about to play his fourth season with the team.  More recently, gadget receiver Tavon Austin signed a four year, $42 million extension with the Rams in 2016, also entering into his fourth season.  Both contracts were viewed around the league as overpays, albeit Austin’s contract substantially more so than Quinn’s deal.  The takeaways here – the Rams have a history of entering into extensions during a first round pick’s fourth year with the team, and they pay towards the top of the market.  Remember this as we move forward.

Now let’s return to the task at hand.  When projecting a new contract for a quarterback, you need to look at the contracts of other comparable quarterbacks as the point of reference, and the same deal with wide receivers, cornerbacks, etc.  So the next step here is to review recent contracts for top defensive tackles and use those deals as the starting point for Donald – with one caveat.  With a generational talent such as Donald, merely looking at the top defensive tackle contracts doesn’t by itself provide you with the information necessary to reach a deal. In this case, Donald’s proper comps are the deals for the top defensive lineman, with the inclusion of the league’s highest paid non-lineman defensive player (Von Miller) as well, since we’re talking about potentially the league’s best player in Donald.  Certainly Donald’s negotiating team will take this approach, and it’s not an unfair position.  With that said, we’ll take a look at the contracts for the following three defensive linemen – Ndamukong Suh, JJ Watt and Fletcher Cox – and the aforementioned linebacker Von Miller.  The key terms of the contracts for each player are as follows:

PlayerContractAdditional Details
Ndamukong Suh, Miami Dolphins defensive tackle

6 years, $114.375M signed in 2015

AAV: $19.0625

2015 Salary cap: $143.28M

% of cap: 13.30%

$59.995 million fully guaranteed upon signing, including a $25.5 million signing bonus and his base salaries from 2015 through 2017 guaranteed.
JJ Watt, Houston Texans defensive end

6 years, $100M extension signed in 2014 (kicked in for 2016)

AAV: $16.67M

2014 Salary cap: $133M

% of cap: 12.53%

$20.876 million fully guaranteed, including a $10 million signing bonus and guaranteed salaries in 2014 and 2015. Also at time of signing, was expected to achieve (1) $10 million roster bonus and (2) 2016 and 2017 base salaries becoming fully guaranteed
Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle

6 years, $102.6M extension signed in 2016 (kicked in for 2017)

AAV: $17.1M

2016 Salary cap: $155.27

% of cap: $9.08%

$36.299 million fully guaranteed, including $26 million signing bonus and $6 million option bonus; $63.299 million is guaranteed for injury

Von Miller, Denver Broncos outside linebacker (3-4)

6 years, $114.5M signed in 2016

AAV: $19.08M

2016 Salary cap: $155.27M

% of cap: 12.29%

$36.5 million fully guaranteed, including $17.5 million signing bonus, $6 million roster bonus, and base salaries in 2016 and 2017; up to $70 million total guarantees

Looking at the key terms of the contracts above, we have Ndamukong Suh and Von Miller setting the goal posts with AAVs of just over $19M per season, with Suh’s contract also setting the mark with the highest percentage of cap at time of signing (13.30%).  JJ Watt’s deal comes in a bit lower than Suh and Miller, but it’s important to note that Watt never hit free agent status, unlike Suh, nor did he complete his contract as Miller did (albeit with Miller receiving the franchise tag prior to negotiating his new deal). Watt entering into an extension prior to hitting free agency explains why his contract numbers are lower, despite universally being considered the league’s best defensive player as recently as two years ago.  Fletcher Cox is an outstanding player in his own right, but he trails a bit in league standing in comparison to the other three players here.  This, plus the fact that he also entered into an extension, explains why Cox’s contract lags behind the rest of the group.

Now assuming Donald enters into an extension this year, we know that he will not be hitting free agency at the time he receives his second contract, as he has (i) the last base year of his rookie contract in 2017, (ii) the team option in 2018 and (iii) the franchise tag hovering over him for 2019.  This means that Donald’s bargaining power, while powerful, is not unlimited.  We’ll take a closer look at what exactly this means in the next paragraph.  On the flip side, Donald has no less cache than Suh, Watt and Miller had when signing their deals, so it’s safe to expect that his numbers will comfortably surpass Cox’s contract and slot in closer to Suh and Miller.  Donald’s contract status most closely resembles Watt’s, and as such, Watt’s contract remains highly relevant with respect to the cap percentage and deal structure, just with a slightly outdated AAV with the extension having been signed three years ago.

Let’s take a close look at the one key piece of leverage for the Rams – who need whatever leverage they have to keep extension terms within the stratosphere. Donald remains subject to his rookie contract, and thereby under Rams control, for at least the next three years per the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.  Specifically, Donald’s subject to the following salaries:

2017 salary:               $1,802,250
2018 salary:               $6,892,000 (fifth year team option)
2019 salary (est.):     $16,000,000 (estimated defensive tackle franchise tag value for 2019)*

The Rams could actually control Donald’s salary for 2020 as well by slapping the franchise tag on him for a second year in a row, which would come at 120% of the 2019 value.  However, for purposes of this article, we’ll keep it simple and consider Donald’s contract subject to Rams’ control for the next three years.  What this means is that the Rams can hardwire Donald’s cost for the next three years at a total fixed amount equaling roughly $24 million.  This point likely will, or at least should, keep Donald from eclipsing Ndamukong Suh’s numbers, even though Donald is by most accounts considered the superior player.

Having considered the Rams’ period of contractual control, along with Donald’s comps around the league and his status as a generational player, let’s move ahead and work out an extension for Donald.  Factoring in the collective points, reasonable terms for Donald’s extension would be as follows:

Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams

5 years, $100M extension; to be signed in 2017 and kick in for 2019

AAV: $20.0M

2017 Salary cap: $167M

% of cap: 12.57%

$41 million fully guaranteed, comprising of $10 million signing bonus, $2 million 2017 roster bonus, $12 million 2018 roster bonus and $17 million in base salary, all guaranteed; $4 million March roster bonus for 2021 (not guaranteed); $70 million guaranteed for injury

Donald’s proposed numbers don’t match the cap percentage or fully guaranteed dollars for Suh, but as explained above, that’s to be expected since Donald is years away from free agency.  However, his AAV exceeds that of Suh, since the cap has gone up substantially since Suh signed his deal.  Donald’s deal compares closely to that of Von Miller, slightly ahead on AAV and cap percentage. Cox’s deals is left in the rear view mirror by Donald’s extension terms, which is to be expected – no disrespect to Cox.  We’ll explore how Donald’s contract compares to JJ Watt momentarily.

First, Donald’s cash flow through 2023, with his existing deal plus the proposed contract extension in hand would be as follows:

YearBase Salary (Gtd.)SBRBCapDeadSavedRunning Cash



$3,423,000$2,000,000 ($2,000,000)****$7,225,250$44,225,250-$37,000,000$13,802,250
2018$6,892,000$2,000,000$12,000,000 ($12,000,000)****$20,892,000$37,000,000-$16,108,000$34,694,250







* Fully guaranteed base salary from rookie contract

** Fully guaranteed base salary from contract extension

*** Full 2021 base salary and $14 million of 2022 base salary guaranteed for injury

**** Full 2017 and 2018 roster bonuses guaranteed

This deal puts $12 million into Donald’s bank account immediately via the signing bonus ($10 million) and roster bonus ($2 million), and the extension portion of the contract elevates him to the throne for highest non-QB AAV.  Note that with respect to 2017, the prorated signing bonus from the extension ($2 million) has been added to the carryover signing bonus amount from Donald’s rookie deal.  In addition, be aware that the signing bonus can only be prorated a maximum of five years, so 2022 and 2013 won’t be subject to signing bonus proration.  Donald’s base salaries from 2017 and 2018 remain intact, but with a running cash flow of more than $30 million even before the extension years kick in.  Both the base salary guarantees and the resulting dead money charges make this a de facto guaranteed contract through 2020, and then a pay-as-you-go structure for the last three years.  The $2 million roster bonus in 2021, in this case to be due in March, should cause the Rams to make an early decision on whether or not to keep Donald for the 2021 season.  This helps protect Donald from having to look for another team post-free agency, when most teams have already spent their cap allotments.

JJ Watt’s contract is the most relevant comparison to Donald’s pact, as the extension would come at the same juncture of Donald’s career with respect to the collective bargaining agreement (fourth year to be played, fifth year team option to be applied, etc.), and Watt carried the moniker or “best defensive player in NFL” during negotiation time, as Donald does now.  Under this proposed deal, the cap percentage for the players’ deals are nearly identical, with Watt’s deal at 12.53% and Donald’s at 12.57%.  And as you can see below with the cash flow, strictly with respect to money from the extensions (i.e. no carryover from the first NFL contracts), Watt and Donald get paid as follows:

PlayerYear 0*Year 1Year 2Year 3Year 4Year 5Year 6
JJ Watt$22,000,000$32,500,000$43,000,000$54,000,000$67,000,000$82,500,000$100,000,000
Aaron Donald$24,000,000$34,000,000$46,000,000$63,000,000$81,000,000$100,000,000

*In each case, encompasses the two years prior to the start of the extensions.

Comparing the cash numbers, Watts actually has the more favorable numbers up through Year 2, once you factor in the difference in cap percentage from 2014 versus 2017.  Donald’s payout wins from Year 3 on, and especially so if he gets to see the last two years of his deal.  This deal actually works out nicely for both Donald and the Rams – Donald can rightly claim that his yearly payout exceeded that of Watt, while the team can take solace in the fact that they’re paying less from a cap percentage standpoint to Donald in the early years, with the ability to cut Donald with minimal problems in the last three years of the deal.

One quick but important point to note with long term extensions such as this one is the necessity to comply with the final league year rule.  The relevant provision in the CBA essentially states that for any player under contract in the final league year (in this case 2020) and whose contract extends beyond that season, the player cannot earn a salary increase of more than 30% of his 2020 salary.  This especially becomes a factor with superstar players such as Donald, where the deals stretch out for several years, and the last few years of such deals often contain large salaries.  Looking at the proposed terms above, this contract is in compliance with the final league year rule, since 1) Donald’s 2021 salary of $15 million is within 30% of his 2020 salary of $12 million, 2) Donald’s 2022 salary of $18 million is within 30% of his 2021 salary, and 3) Donald’s 2023 salary of $19 million is within 30% of his 2022 salary.  This provision does make it much harder to backload salaries in the last few years of the deal (where in many cases it’s not expected for the player to earn such salaries).  The final league year rule is an important side issue to be aware of with NFL contracts, and in this case the proposed terms are compliant with the rule.

There you have it – this deal represents a fair pact for both Donald and the Rams.  Donald will be set for life with top of the market terms, which is great considering he’s still years away before he can hit unrestricted free agency.  For the Rams, the team receives cost certainty and pays out on a fair contract that also accounts for the team’s control of Donald’s contract through the next three years.  Also, .  As the Rams prepare to rebuild their fan base in Los Angeles before moving into the new Inglewood palace in 2020, it’s imperative that Donald’s tenure be set with the team for years to come.  This extension benefits all parties involved.

Examining the Marginal Value Implied in Player Contracts

There are a number of ways to look at roster construction in the NFL, and Nick recently did a great job with his roster texture charts(which you should read if you haven’t already), but today I wanted to look to see how teams really derive their value when they build a roster. Normally when we look at a roster we look at two basic numbers- salary cap charges and contract annual value- and then compare franchises across the board. But I got to thinking, wouldn’t it be a much more accurate portrayal if we put those numbers in perspective by seeing how much marginal value a team is really assigning to their highest paid players?  For example Peyton Manning makes more than Darrelle Revis, but Manning plays a position where the average salary for a starter is over $12 million. Tehnically the Jets are giving up more by having Revis as the highest paid player on the team, even if Manning has a higher stated salary. So we can best define value by determining the cost above average a team spends on their top players on the team. Continue reading Examining the Marginal Value Implied in Player Contracts »

Rams 2015 Salary Cap Outlook

Estimated 2015 Cap Space: -$125,000 ($140M cap limit)

Roster Overview

Players Under Contract: 56
Pro Bowlers: 2
Unrestricted Free Agents: 8(4 with 50%+ playtime)
Draft Selection: 10

Salary Cap Breakdown

Rams 2015 Salary Cap

Rams 2015 Salary Cap

Rams 2015 Salary Cap

Free Agents to Re-sign

Right tackle Joe Barksdale has been a good find for the Rams and should help hold down an important position for the next few years.  The going rate for young players at the position with upside is right around $6 million a season and with Austin Howard receiving $6M from Oakland last year I would think that is his asking price. The Rams could opt to let him try free agency and keep their fingers crossed there is limited interest, which would drive the price down for them ala Sebastian Vollmer with New England…the Rams need a quarterback so keeping Shaun Hill, at least as a backup option, for around $2 million a season would seem to be a smart move…Kenny Britt fills a void and certainly had his moments last season. Britt is inconsistent and a question mark will always surround him, but he should have a place in the organization. I can’t see him earning more than a low tier veteran contract, at least in base value, which could make him a value signing.

Free Agents to Let Walk

Davin Joseph’s best days are behind him and the team should be able to find a better player with more upside next year to play guard…I like the idea of keeping Lance Kendricks, but with Jared Cook on the team I don’t believe he will want to re-sign with the Rams unless it was for a price that is above his expected contribution level. There could be a change that he takes the Martellus Bennett path and signs a low cost one year deal like Bennett did with the Giants a few years back…Alex Carrington registered one tackle in 2014. That tackle earned him $1.5 million. The Rams should not pay him a penny for another one.

Contracts to Modify

My first inclination is to release QB Sam Bradford outright, but knowing how poor the Rams QB situation is I have to give more consideration towards keeping him and hoping I can get anything out of him next season. The injuries and inconsistencies have likely made him the worst value in the NFL- Bradford has earned over $61 million while passing for just 7,553 yards in the last four seasons. Whenever anyone complains about the rookie wage scale now in place the counter has become “Sam Bradford” and any argument ends. Bradford’s deal should have been redone last season but the Rams hoped he would stay healthy off the 14 td/4 int start to his 2013 season.

I’ve said last season the Rams should look at the Chad Pennington model from 2006 as a starting point for Bradford and that still holds, though with a lower cost. Essentially you are making a contract that pays the player a fraction of his salary with the potential to earn some/most of it back in incentives. For Bradford this needs to be almost all performance incentives. It’s not an easy negotiation because they have to determine what his worth is on the open market, but with Mark Sanchez receiving just a base value of $2.25 million with the ability to earn $4 million total, I would say you have some very solid baseline numbers to work off of. Bradford will earn $12.985 million if his contract is untouched so they should easily save $8 million with him….

If the team needs cap room expect a portion of Chris Long’s $7 million base salary to be converted to a signing bonus…DE Robert Quinn has a large roster bonus that the team should and likely will allow to remain intact to maintain their future flexibility.

Players to Consider Releasing

Jake Long was given an opportunity to remain healthy and he simply can not do it. Long was a tremendous talent and plays well but his body can’t hold up and the Rams would be better off finding a long term solution. While some might argue about renegotiating to a team friendly deal, unless he takes something close to the minimum I just can’t see the point. He doesn’t have the upside anymore to make it worth holding onto him and you know at some point he is going to go down. They already have Greg Robinson to potentially put in his place. Cutting Long will save $8 million in cap space essentially eliminating the Rams salary cap crunch…Kendall Langford’s importance to the team has diminished and he has gone from a 800 snap a year starter to a 500 snap a year reserve. His $7 million cap hit is the 7th highest on the team and they can save $6 million by cutting him.

Offseason Plan

The Rams of the first of our teams that we have previewed that technically sit over the salary cap, though once adjustments are made to offset Cortland Finnegan’s salary guarantee they should be right at the limit. Even that number is misleading, though, because over $27 million is tied up in Bradford and J. Long and neither will be playing anywhere near that figure, so we are probably at an effective cap space of $16-20 million by the time they get done trimming the roster. That’s middle of the road in terms of money.

Right now the Rams are stuck in a groundhog day scenario with a story that seems to play out the same way every season. Come in with expectations, start sort of slow, face some major adversity with injuries, spark a mid season 0.500 streak, upset a few big teams, put up a fight down the stretch, lose some tough games to good teams and end up with 6 or 7 wins. Expectations come back and the cycle begins again. They need to find a way to break that streak.

Part of it is the QB position, but part of it also seems to be learning to eliminate inconsistency and how to win those tight games that too often become acceptable moral victories.  Fixing that probably won’t come from a draft or big name free agent acquisitions.  Part of it comes from experience and this team should now have enough veterans to begin to provide the leadership. But some of it comes from outside and I think when it comes to free agency the Rams should be targeting some low/mid-cost veteran players that come from winning organizations. They already have many players in place but I think that would help improve the development of those players and maybe help with that leadership aspect.

The Rams will certainly be linked to a number of QB’s throughout the offseason- Sanchez, Jay Cutler, RGIII, etc… and its their biggest need but my guess is they will wind up focusing on the draft. They can probably find another runner in the offseason whether a Frank Gore type as a part timer or a younger player with more upside in free agency rather than the draft.

The Rams were quiet last year in free agency but in the past they have had their moments targeting some bigger priced players and I would not be stunned if they jumped in on a wide receiver or a cornerback this year. I would guess if Michael Roos still wants to play he would be worth a look as a low cost left tackle if Long is released. A player like Roos can play for a season and tutor Robinson, giving the Rams the ability to play Rodger Saffold at right guard while Robinson plays left guard for the year. Though Roos was injured last season he had only missed one game in the prior nine years.

I would expect most of their improvements to come from the draft. In a perfect world they could use, besides a quarterback, a cornerbackor two, center/guard, and wide receiver in those first four rounds of the draft. There is a foundation in place with the Rams but they need to find that right mix and keep a quarterback healthy to take that next step and get out of the 6 and 7 win rut they are currently in.

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Sam Bradford was the last #1 pick to truly hit the lottery.  2010s #1 overall selection, his 6-year/$78 million contract included $50 million in guaranteed money.

Unfortunately for the NFL Draft’s subsequent top selections, the 2011 CBA included the implementation of rookie wage scale. Both the owners and veteran players had been fed up with unproven rookies making such absurd amounts of money.

Four years into Sam Bradford’s career (his 2013 campaign ended when he tore his ACL in November), and he’s one of many poster children for why a rookie wage scale makes sense.  Although injuries, poor offensive-line play and a lack of talented skill position players have all played their role, Bradford remains unproven.

A 2-14 2011 season gave the Rams the #2 overall selection in the 2012 draft, as well as the opportunity to take QB Robert Griffin III.  But cutting bait on Bradford was never really an option at that point for St. Louis.  They had just drafted him two years earlier, which not only meant that the jury remained out on him, but also that they still owed him a lot of money—his 2012 & 2013 salaries were both fully guaranteed.

Sam Bradford (QB) 11/8/87 (26 years old)–Contract Details


So the Rams held on to Bradford while accumulating a heap of draft picks in their draft day trade with the Redskins. And somehow, two years later, they find themselves in a jarringly similar position.

The Rams own Washington’s 2014 first round pick, which is currently the 2nd overall selection with three weeks left in the regular season.  The difference this time around is that cutting ties with Bradford would only result in about $7 million in dead money, whereas doing so two years ago would have amounted to almost $33 million in dead money.  Moreover, Bradford wasn’t rehabbing a torn ACL at this point two years ago. And while more and more players are showing remarkable recovery ability from this type of injury, it’s of course no sure thing.

Bradford’s current contract stipulates $1.75 million of both his 2014 & 2015 salaries are guaranteed, while his cap hits for ’14 & ’15 are $17,610,000 and $16,580,000, respectively. And one thing is certain—St. Louis cannot afford to have an unproven quarterback rehabbing a torn ACL take up $17.6 million of next year’s salary cap space.

Trusted Rams reporter Jim Thomas of the St Louis Post-Dispatch doesn’t think that the Rams will use one of their 2014 first-round picks on a quarterback. However that could change in the next 3 weeks.

Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, the top quarterback prospect in the country, is the heavy favorite to be the first quarterback taken in April’s draft.  If Houston—the current owner of the #1 pick and a franchise in dire need of a quarterback—continues to lose (@IND, vs.DEN, @TEN), then Bridgewater will almost certainly be a Texan.

But if the Texans can pull off an upset or two while the Redskins (@ATL, vs.DAL, @NYG) continue to lose, then the Rams will own the #1 pick as well as the rights to Bridgewater.  Looking at the Texans and Redskins remaining schedules, this may seem unlikely.  However if you watched any football this past Sunday, you know it’s certainly not impossible.

Ultimately, Sam Bradford’s NFL future may rest on the outcomes of the last 3 Texans and Redskins games.  Otherwise, he will likely remain a Ram in 2014, while being forced to restructure his contract or take a pay cut.

Andrew Cohen

What Lies Ahead for Rams QB Sam Bradford


Injuries in the NFL are an ugly and often costly event. In some cases teams overlook injuries when the body of work is so strong that a team believes an injury will have no material impact on a players’ performance level. Such was the case with Peyton Manning when  he signed with Denver in 2012. But in most cases players do not have that kind of body of work to fall back on. Such is the case of Sam Bradford.

Bradford tore his ACL during the loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday and is lost for the season. The injury comes at a critical junction of his career as Bradford was headed into the first portion of his contract where he can become expendable for salary cap purposes. Bradford, the final number one pick of the 2006 CBA, was given a financial windfall due to his draft status. His contract was worth $78 million over 6 seasons and $51 million was guaranteed. The following years’ number one pick would only receive a contract worth about $22 million.

Bradford has had a pretty rocky start to his NFL career. He played well as a rookie in 2010 and looked poised to be a quality starter in the NFL. By the end of 2011 there were questions about if Bradford could succeed at this level and the Rams actually faced a decision to potentially trade away Bradford and select Robert Griffin III as his replacement in 2012. The Rams chose to stick with Bradford, who showed improvements under a new coaching staff but failed to ever create the feeling that he was definitely the guy for the job. Bradford seemed to be more Mark Sanchez than Eli Manning with the prevailing notion being that he needed more parts on offense to be properly evaluated.

After 7 games in 2013 the same questions remain about whether or not Bradford could succeed with a better team or if he would just continue to be a caretaker of an offense. Bradford’s salary cap figure in 2014 is $17,610,000, an unreasonable figure for a team with a number of high priced contracts. He would earn just upwards of $14 million in cash if he made the team. A good season and he was likely in line for a short term 3 year extension that would fall somewhere between the Sanchez and Matt Stafford extensions given for salary cap relief purposes, meaning more guaranteed money in return for cap flexibility for the Rams.

Bradford now faces a difficult road ahead. The ACL injury marks his second injury in the NFL in just four years that will cause him to miss significant time. There was also the college injury that sidelined him for nearly a full season. From this point forward I think he has to carry the injury prone label that have hurt many other players in the NFL.  His dead money charge is down to a more manageable $7.19 million if released, a number that could be split across two seasons if the Rams were to wait until after June 1 to unload him.

What makes it more difficult for Bradford is that he has little to fall back on. The Rams were not a good team before his injury. Pro Football Focus had rated him as the 30th QB in the NFL, which was actually worse than their grade on him the year before. This was after bringing in a left tackle and tight end to help him. In addition the Rams not only are on pace to finish the year with a losing record, but they also own the first round draft pick of the Washington Redskins, who currently have two wins on the season. The ammunition will be there to draft a QB.

Whenever I think of injuries to a QB I am always reminded of Chad Pennington of the New York Jets many years ago. Pennington was a former first round draft selection who rode the bench for two years before taking over the job and leading the Jets to an improbable division title and playoff run in 2002. Pennington would get injured in 2003, but between the draft status and 2002 efforts the Jets rewarded him with a lucrative $64 million dollar extension in 2004 with an $18 million dollar signing bonus.

Pennington would go on to injure his shoulder in both 2004 and 2005 with the Jets having paid him $22 million dollars for a total of 16 regular season games.  They were prepared to move on in 2006 rather than to throw more money at what looked like an average QB that could not play an entire season. His cap charge and dead money was an equal $12 million and the Jets would save $9 million in cash by parting ways.

Pennington had no recourse but to take a $6 million dollar paycut in 2006 to have a chance to remain with the Jets. At that point he knew his career was damaged badly by the injuries and general mediocre play and that his best chance to resurrect his career was with the Jets. The Jets would give him opportunities to earn the $6 million back through playtime incentives and to earn other lost salaries in future years back through playtime escalators. The Jets still traded for Patrick Ramsey and drafted Kellen Clemens in the 2nd round knowing that Pennington would not be handed the starting job. To Pennington’s credit he played 16 games in 2006 to earn his money back. He would subsequently suffer a small ankle injury in 2007 with the Jets and then major injuries in 2009 and 2010 as a member of the Miami Dolphins.

Though Bradford’s latest injury is different than Pennington’s  there has to be concerns with a player who has given the team 33 games in 3 years with a record of 11-21. In that timeframe the Rams have paid Bradford nearly $48 million dollars. The Rams have to take a pessimistic view of his future just as the Jets did with Pennington and not sink more money after a bad investment.

Bradford’s only real quality at this point is his draft status. If he was a second round pick this would not even be a discussion. But teams will feel there is something there that deserves a second chance, a chance almost every first rounder with a pulse receives.  But like Pennington he’ll need to take a significant paycut from the $14 million he would have earned in 2014 prior to  the injury and like Pennington his best chance to keep a job may come by staying with his team provided they are not in a position to draft a QB in round 1.

Pennington was asked to covert two thirds of his salary back in 2006 to an incentive. Pennington had been to the playoffs twice in his career when that occurred with a 21-16 record as a starter. But he also did not have the same physical tools as Bradford and had an injury that impaired his passing more than it should hamper Bradford’s. Another more recent point of reference would be that of Mike Vick, another often injured QB. Vick had over 50% of his salary cut from his contract in 2013.  Vick received $3.5 million guaranteed while Pennington received $2.45 million guaranteed. Vick is older than Bradford but also a more electric player with much more history behind him.

Using those numbers as a guide Bradford is probably looking at a salary shift from $14 million to somewhere in the ballpark of $5.5 million.  If they guaranteed $3 million of that figure they could get his cap hit down from $17 million to a manageable $7.595 million, which is essentially the cost of releasing him and replacing him with a minimum salaried player. I would imagine if the sides agreed to that he would get the 2015 year in the contract to void, similar to the Vick contract. The Rams have done this type of contract with other players including T Jason Smith, a bust drafted with the second overall pick in 2009, so it would seem to fit with their cap philosophies.



Nine Teams Need to Make Cap Related Moves


The NFL salary cap is a major concern for teams at two times every season. The first is the most talked about time, which is the month of February when teams are ripping apart rosters to become salary cap compliant for the new League Year and to create the maximum possible cap room for free agency. Once free agency ends the overall importance of the cap is low because only the top 51 contracts plus dead money charges count towards the salary cap.

The second most important time for the cap is right now.  By 4 PM on September 4 the cap valuations change. For salary cap purposes rosters expand to include everyone under contract. At a minimum that pushes the roster to 53 players plus a Practice Squad, which every team fields. The cost of two players adds at least $810,000 to the roster and a PS costs a team another $816,000.  For teams that have players on Reserve lists such as PUP or IR the salary for the players who are replacing them will now count. For some teams that can be an additional 4 to 5 players that will now be accounted for. It quickly adds up and it all adds up by Wednesday.

While most teams want to carry upwards of $5 million in season salary cap space for emergencies, I just want to focus on the teams that will be around the $3 million mark come Wednesday based on how things stand right now. Based on the top 51 cap room as of the morning of the 29th , nine teams will have  less than $3 million in cap space on Wednesday. Of those nine, four will not be cap compliant unless players inside the top 51 are released.  Those four are, in order, the Rams, Chiefs, Texans, and Redskins. The other five teams are the Vikings, Seahawks, Chargers, Giants, and Bears.

With that in mind I wanted to look at these teams and moves they may need to make cap space.

Rams– The Rams are projected to about $1.2 million over the salary cap based on their current roster construction. I would not expect the Rams to release anyone of note but instead restructuring deals for cap relief. The most likely candidates are Cortland Finnegan ($9 million base salary), Sam Bradford ($9 million base salary), and Chris Long ($7.25 million base salary).  Long already restructured once so its less likely they would go to him again. With questions marks surrounding Bradford and already over $10 million in dead money on the books in 2014, Finnegan is the guy to watch. Converting $7 million of his base into a signing bonus will save the team $5.5 million in cap room and increase his 2015 dead money from $2 million to $5.5 million, which could be considered acceptable.

Chiefs– The Chiefs will be around $500,000 over the cap if moves are not made in their top 51. There are minimal avenues for savings for the team, due to high offseason spending and the fact that they retained Branden Albert on the Franchise tag rather than extending or trading him. There is no one of note that could be released or even threatened with release to really help them. The logical solution would seem to be having Tamba Hali restructure his contract. He carries a $12.25 million dollar base salary and just cutting and prorating the difference would save the team about $4 million in cap room.

If they fail to reach an agreement the other candidate is Alex Smith, and for long term cap planning probably makes more sense to approach than Hali. Smith earns $7.5 million this season and next season. Because the contract only has two years remaining proration is limited over two years, but that could be enough to easily save at least $3 million in cap this season by converting $6 million of salary to a bonus. That would make his cap charge just $10.5 million in 2014, still a bargain for a starting QB. Though neither side will want to extend that deal they could also go the void year route for proration purposes if they wanted.

Texans– Houston will only be about $300,000 over the cap, though that number does not include the replacement body they likely need to carry to cover Antonio Smith’s one game suspension, which would increase the cap to $700,000 over. They could carry 52 players for the week for cap purposes if necessary. The Texans are an older team so extensions to players like Wade Smith are not really a possibility. Jonathan Joseph makes $7.5 million this season and might be a person they look at for a bonus conversion, though that will put the last two seasons of his contract very high in terms of cap charges. This could be a team that also ends up releasing some of the veteran players close to minimum salaries to pick up small amounts of cap.

Redskins– Washington will be right up against the cap and don’t really have much in the way of high salaries to reduce as their situation is compromised by the cap penalties more than expensive contracts. LB London Fletcher is the one player who should be given a pay cut from his $5.5 million base, but that seems unlikely at this point. His contract already contains numerous void years for proration purposes so it’s possible they could simply defer the cap charges to next season. The other person to watch out for would be WR Santana Moss.  Releasing Moss will clear $2.25 million from the books. The team could also consider asking Chris Baker, playing on a non-guaranteed $1.323 million tender to reduce his salary by a few hundred thousand.

The Other Five (Bears, Giants, Chargers, Seahawks, Vikings)

I lumped these four together since they should all be cap compliant even after the rosters expand but wanted to touch on them briefly

Chicago we have touched on many times before and just yesterday wrote about why moving WR Earl Bennett is a likely move. The Bears have multiple avenues for cap relief if they want it via extensions, but it seems as if they will weed out some of the lower cost players like Bennett that they feel will not make a contribution rather than extending players.

The Giants cap was dealt a big blow when they lost their starting Safety for the season, but they should be ok. Players in danger could be Bear Pascoe, Louis Murphy, Aaron Ross, etc…They could also work with Chris Snee or Antrell Rolle if needed for cap space….

The Chargers could be in trouble because they already have a massive list of players on IR and PUP. Releasing Max Starks would save the team over $2 million based on cap treatment of LTBE’s and releasing WR Eddie Royal would save $3 million. Royal might be asked to take a pay cut instead.

Seattle is not in terrible cap position, though they currently have a IR number that will eat into it a bit if settlements are not reached. I’d imagine they will continue to cut veterans for cap relief. Releasing special teamer Heath Farwell saves the team $1.5 million and looking at FB Michael Robinson could save $2.5 million. Both could also be asked to take paycuts.

The Vikings might look to simply cut ties with some projected backups making over the minimum (Desmond Bishop, Fred Evans, AJ Jefferson) if they felt they needed more cap space. They will gain some added cap room once Jerome Feltons suspension is official and considering they are right around $3 million in room may not see the need to make any moves.


Using Free Agency To Build a Team: The NFC Edition


As requested we will take our look at the NFC’s approach to using free agency to find starters in 2013. Just as a reminder we consider trades if the players traded signed new contracts with the acquiring team, which makes players such as Carson Palmer count as a free agent acquisition. The rosters are determined based on Ourlads current depth charts with the exception of the Seahawks where I did include Percy Harvin simply because he was expected to start.

The first thing that jumps out when looking at the data is the difference between the AFC and NFC in approaching free agency, which I think plays to the fact that the NFC is the more dominant conference with teams having less need to change their rosters. On average the AFC has 3.75 new starters per team while the NFC has just 2.44.  The NFC quality of free agent was considerably higher as teams were looking for at the approach of bringing in talent to complete the puzzle and help push the team over the top.

All told three NFC teams brought in no free agents to start for their club. Those teams were the Packers, Redskins, and 49’ers. The Vikings and Saints both brought in just one each. The Steelers and Bengals were the only AFC teams to have that low of a level of activity.

The team to do the largest overhaul of their roster was the Cardinals, who tied for most in the NFL with 8 free agents.  However their spending was moderate at just $20 million per year in new salaries and with no players signing for more than 3 years this was not the win now with big money spending approach of the Dolphins nor long term vision of the Colts. I tend to think this was a team desperately clinging to the amount of money invested in Larry Fitzgerald, Darnell Dockett, Darryl Washington, and Calais Campbell and trying to piece together a team around them that makes that spending result in wins. Their big pick up was Carson Palmer.

The Eagles spent more money than anyone else in the NFC and 3rd most in the NFL. Like the Cardinals most of the contracts were shorter term (five were 2 or 3 years) but on higher priced players. That plays to the fact that the Eagles did not have a great deal of talent to begin with as well as an approach to likely work in two and three year windows. This will be Phase I of Chip Kelley’s program and would represent places where perhaps the team would prefer to not invest in the draft.

The Bears were the only other team to add more than five new starters, but they were almost all short term moves to just get by on the 2013 season. Of their six FA starters only two are signed for more than just one season, one of whom is TE Martellus Bennett whose contract is structured in a way where there is a good chance he would be cut after the 2013 season.

The Buccaneers, Vikings, and Rams only added five free agent starters combined, but allocated major dollars on those players. Tampa committed over $24 million a year to Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson, far and away the most expensive per player spending in the NFL. Clearly they are expecting these players to be the missing pieces that push them from 7 wins to 9 wins.  Minnesota signed Greg Jennings at $9 million a year to improve their passing game while the Rams spent over $15 million on Jake Long and Jared Cook.

I don’t see people looking at any of the NFC teams the way that they will be watching the results for the Dolphins and Colts this year. The real stories in the NFC would seem to involve “impact” acquisitions, specifically of the three teams listed above. The Seahawks would also be in that mix, but with Harvin sidelined it is not fair to consider them.  I would think most neutral observers would say Revis, Goldson, and Cook were all overpriced with Jennings slightly overpriced. If the teams all improve it could potentially help some of the top of the market players to continue to find teams willing to go above and beyond for their services.

The following chart illustrates the cost, number and years given to Free Agent starters in the NFC.