During the Rams debacle last night I made mention of how much money they have tied up in the top players of their team, which was quite a lot. So with that in mind I decided to look at the entire NFL and see just how much each team has invested in salary cap dollars in 2020 just on the top 5 players on their roster. I also wanted to see how flexible teams are in that regard so to do that I wanted to look at how much teams could save by releasing any of those top players.
Now its important to remember that cap charges are always flexible. Based on rules in place it may be harder to manipulate those numbers next year than in a normal year if the CBA is not extended, but restructuring requires doubling or tripling down on a contract by pushing sunk cap costs into the future. In essence a short term solution. Teams could, in some cases, also open cap dollars via trades of these players, but for these purposes I didn’t include that because trades are still relatively uncommon and for many of these teams a trade is not a feasible cap option either due to sunk prorated costs.
So here is a graph that shows on the X axis just how much in salary cap in 2020 is tied up in the top 5 players on a team and on the Y axis we see how much a team can save with releases from this group of players. The release side of the equation only considers players that result in a gain in cap space if a player is cut, so for a player like Jared Goff who would cost millions above his cap number to cut he just gets a value of $0 because there are no savings since he likely would not be released for cap purposes. The average cap sunk into the top 5 is about $76.5 million and the average that can be saved is about $30.8 million.
The worst place to be in the chart is the bottom right quadrant. The bottom right are teams that are well above average in cap dollars committed to just 5 players and have generally no flexibility. At least for 2020 the same top players the team had in 2019 are likely going to be back in 2020. Generally these are the WYSIWYG teams. The Rams, Falcons, and Eagles stick out like a sore thumb.
The Rams have $108 million committed to Goff, Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, and Jalen Ramsey. They can only lop off $13.7M through cuts and that would simply be if they cut Ramsey which you know they are not doing. None of the others offer any savings. Atlanta and the Eagles we have talked about here for a few seasons now. Atlanta has always walked a tightrope with their cap while the Eagles have pushed more and more cap to the future for some time. Basically the year that Howie Roseman came back into power they made a number of decisions that were going to lock them into a core group and they have kept with that philosophy. The Eagles would be unable to save a dime cutting any of their top 5 while the Falcons would save a measly $4.95 million if they cut Desmond Trufant.
Each of these teams will have tough decisions as to whether or not they try to kick the can or just deal with it. None of them have good cap situations next year, all in the bottom third of the league in projected cap room and none look like real contenders at the moment.
You can argue about what is the next best spot. I’d probably lean top left though it depends on your roster construction. Generally these teams don’t have big numbers invested at the top and they have the flexibility to change up the mix. That’s great for bad teams like the Giants, Bengals, and Bucs that don’t have a good mix of players and great for the Ravens, Texans, and Colts who are all playoff contenders.
The top right means you have big money invested at the top but a lot of flexibility. So if you are a bad team it means you may have a chance to overhaul your roster and create some cap space in the process. However it also probably means you sunk a lot into 2019 and if it didn’t pay off its going to lead to two lost seasons. The Jaguars, Bears, Panthers, and to a lesser extent Redskins it that category. The most interesting team is the 49ers. Because they frontloaded certain contracts, in particular the one for Jimmy Garoppolo, and use late vesting guarantees they have a lot of flexibility with some pretty expensive players if things went south or they wanted to move on from one underperformer.
The bottom left has plusses and minuses. If you are a good team it’s a good place to be. It means while you don’t have much flexibility with this particular group of players you also don’t have a great deal invested in the top, so in theory you should have room to add more players or re-sign your own without issue. Now there are a few things to consider before patting yourself on the back if you are a Saints or a Patriots fan. The Saints have Drew Brees in the top 5 at an artificially low cost ($15.9M) and the Patriots don’t have Tom Brady at all ($6.75M). Both are free agents in 2020 but have millions upon millions in voidable year dead money they accrues if they are unsigned. Brees’ cap jumps to $21.3M if he isn’t retained or retires while Brady’s goes to $13.5 million. Both will get big salaries if they stay so in reality both should be more over to the right. Dallas should be in position to retain their players while the other teams are in position to push some of their top 5 down. Overall Id lean towards this being the second worst quadrant but again it depends on the status of the team.
Finally just a quick guide to see how these teams stack up in actual cap space I plotted the top 5 cap charges against the estimated cap space for each team once they reach 51 players through futures contracts. Not much surprising here other than it really shows you how most teams are teams of haves or have nots. Teams with a lot invested at the top don’t have much cap room. Those without big investments at the top don’t really invest anywhere and have huge cap room. This is more just a weird way with how the league has gone which is seeing more and more teams with either the “go for it” approach with little future consideration or “punt the season away” approach with all consideration toward the future.
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.