Top Heavy Spending in the NFL


With contract restructuring and termination season just about a week away I wanted to look at the teams’ that have significant salary cap investments in a limited number of players. For each team I calculated the top three, four, and five salary cap hits on the team to compare and see just which teams are incredibly top heavy and which are not.

No team spends more on their top three players than the Detroit Lions who spend nearly $51.3 million on Ndamukong Suh, Matt Stafford, and Calvin Johnson. They are the only team that is over $50 million and it’s representative of what a poor job the Detroit Lions have done managing their salary cap, in particular the constant restructuring of Suh, a top level player but at a position that is not premier salary position. Suh’s $22.4 million cap figure is nearly $7 million higher than the next closest Defensive Tackle, Gerald McCoy of the Buccaneers. Suh has incredible contract leverage that is likely going to force the Lions into an extension that will dwarf that of Geno Atkins $10.665 million per year deal to bring this top three number down to a reasonable figure. It is doubtful that Suh or Johnson can ever do enough to live up to the contracts both will have.

Dallas’ top 3 of Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, and Brandon Carr come in just under $50 million. Romo’s contract is designed to be restructured and Ware should be forced to take a paycut. The Bears are nearly tied with the Cowboys due to the high cap figures of Jay Cutler and Julius Peppers. Peppers will be released and Cutler may be restructured for cap flexibility.  The Steelers and Buccaneers round out the top 5, both coming in at just over $44 million. The Steelers have limited ways to change their number without a number of restructures, but the Buccaneers could restructure the deal of Darrelle Revis and/or extend Gerald McCoy.

The average spend on the top 3 is $35.19 million. The teams with the least invested are the Raiders, Jaguars, Colts, 49ers, and Bengals. Most of those names are no surprise except the 49ers. The 49ers have one of the more unique rosters in the NFL in that they have a large number of mid cap players but no large cap players. That will change when Colin Kaepernick is extended, but that will still be just one of 53. The 49ers dedication to extending early and using their poor years to pre-pay charges for their star Patrick Willis has allowed them to build the deepest roster in the NFL.

When we move to the top 5 contracts the Steelers and Cowboys both leapfrog the Lions for the top two slots. The Steelers have $67.1 million tied up in just 5 players and they have players right outside the top 5 that also have pretty large cap charges. The team will need to make decisions on Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, and Heath Miller(who ranks 6th), all older veterans in the final year of their contract. This may also be the season Ben Roethlisberger gets an extension.  Dallas is at $66.6 million and we touched on them above. Their number five salary, Miles Austin, will be cut, but his replacement, Sean Lee makes close to the same salary. Lee’s contract will likely be restructured. The Lions, Bears, and Ravens make up the top five while the Buccaneers and Rams are both over $60 million.

What is interesting to note is that none of the seven top heavy spenders was a playoff team in 2013 and none had a winning record. The Saints are the only team in the top 10 to have made the playoffs last season or had a winning record. These are teams that need changes not large investments in the same group of players and they all need to keep that in mind when giving up more future flexibility to keep a mediocre team together.

Average spending on the top 5 players is about $50 million. That just lends more proof to the fact that the NFL is an extremely top heavy league when it comes to spending. This was predicted when the new CBA was signed and QB salaries began to skyrocket. $50 million represents 39.6% of the projected unadjusted salary cap.  With average dead money in a league year usually around $10 million that means the average team will spend 47% of the cap on 5 players and a number of individuals no longer employed by the organization.

3 of the bottom 5 allocations made the playoffs not just in 2013 but also in 2012. These are the Colts, 49ers and Bengals. The Colts are as much a byproduct of a bad division than anything else, but the other two teams have been put together quite carefully. The teams that are in the middle of the league were the most successful last season. From number 11 through 20 we have eight playoff teams and nine teams with a winning record. The Seahawks, Broncos, Packers, and Patriots have been successful for at least two years.

Perhaps not surprisingly since the balance of power has shifted to the NFC so has the spending. 7 of the top 10 in top 5 player cap spending come from the NFC. The four NFC divisions all spend in total more on their top players than any division in the AFC except the AFC North. The North leads the way with over $221 million among the four teams committed to their top 5 cap charges. The South is second at $215 million followed by the East at $211 and West at $208 million.  The AFC North tops $215 million in spending and the next closest division is the AFC East with just under $198 million. That number will plummet in the AFC East when the Jets begin cutting players from their team. The AFC South only allocated $154 million in cap to the top 5 for each team, which indicated both the youth of the division as well as the lack of talent in it.

2014 Top Player Cap Charges Per Team

TeamTop 3
Cap Charges
Top 4
Cap Charges
Top 5
Cap Charges