Though salary cap space will be at a record high in 2018, there are still more than a few teams that have to navigate some difficult salary cap situations and I wanted to share my thoughts on the teams that I feel are in the worst salary cap shape moving forward. This is not to say that these teams have the least cap space in the NFL just that they have limited cap room and some tough decisions moving forward that can really compromise their financial stability. Teams like the Steelers and Eagles, both of whom project to have the least cap space in the NFL, simply don’t have those decisions since their rosters are more or less set and are successful.
Ravens– Since winning the Super Bowl the Ravens have basically been bit by the same bug that has hurt the Saints year after year. They are never good enough to really contend but also never bad enough to take an offseason breather. Like the Saints they had one good year in that run that just made matters worse. The end result is by far the oldest group at the top of the roster in the NFL and they are generally lower cost players because they have to find ways to fit them in their salary cap. What keeps the Ravens from being ranked lower is the fact that they don’t have major free agents this year with their top free agent being a center. They will likely extend CJ Mosley and Terrell Suggs could also look for an extension, but neither should be a big cap negative for next year. They have just $12 million in cap room next season and some of the most leveraged contracts in the league, including the Joe Flacco contract that is the worst in the NFL. They can create some space releasing veterans but given the way they usually operate they probably won’t do that and will instead restructure contracts and continue kicking the can.
Dolphins– Miami made some of the biggest head scratching contract decisions last year ranging from the silly Reshad Jones extension to a trade for Julius Thomas. Miami was on the wrong side of the age investment curve and wont finish the year with a winning record. We estimate the Dolphins to have the 5th least cap space in the NFL, around $11.5 million next season, and Jarvis Landry, who will likely command $12+ million a year as a free agent. Their big decision probably centers around Ryan Tannehill. Mike Tannenbaum made the same type of investment in Tannehill as he did with Mark Sanchez when Tannenbaum worked with the Jets, and while Tannehill still has some potential after two injury riddled years the end result looks the same. They can try to restructure that deal, but Im not sure how much lower Tannehill can go in a QB starved league. The Dolphins other QBs- Jay Cutler and Matt Moore- are both free agents so its not like another option exists on the roster either. There will be some talk about cutting Ndamukong Suh, who is still one of the best interior defenders in the NFL but has simply not made the team impact needed to justify an obscene contract, but the Dolphins made such a mess of that deal any moving of Suh would incur a dead charge of $22.2 million, which barely creates any cap room. Expect them to cut Thomas and do something with James’ contract but beyond that it’s a bit messy. They wasted way too much cap room this season and that is going to hurt them next year and the year after.
Chiefs– The Chiefs remind me a lot of where the Cardinals were a few years back. The one thing that separates them from the Cardinals is that the Chiefs do have a potential QB of the future on the roster if they opt to make the move away from Alex Smith. The Chiefs could arguably have one more year with this specific group but with the team a projected $6.3 million over the cap it may be hard to do that. The Chiefs salary cap in large part has been compromised by dragging their feet on some massive contracts. The Chiefs have been a big proponent of using the franchise tag, but more often than not it has proven detrimental. Had those extensions been done earlier their cap would be healthier. All that said a few veteran moves and they will be at $14M in cap room which is at least functional. They do have free agents to deal with in Bennie Logan and Albert Wilson and could be in line to lose some depth on the team. The Chiefs need to take control of their cap this year by avoiding restructures and being more proactive on future extensions. If they make bad choices they could be compromised for the next few years.
Cardinals– The Cardinals lead the NFL for the second straight year in meaningful snaps that can be lost in free agency (about 34%) yet they rank just 10th in estimated salary cap space at $14 million. The Cardinals were already near the bottom of the age and salary curve with giant investments in old players and have continued that tradition with the recent extension for Larry Fitzgerald. The Cardinals are an example of a team that continued to invest heavily in a roster whose window closed and now they will finish no better than 0.500 for the second straight year. Though the team can save money by releasing Carson Palmer and some linemen (Mike Iupati, Jared Veldheer) who have outlived their usefulness they have no real plan of succession either. In recent years the Cardinals have signed some of the more questionable contracts (Jermaine Gresham and Tyrann Mathieu) and I would imagine that at some point Patrick Peterson will look for a new contract. Recent history will say that they will continue to push on older talent which can block them from a true reset that should happen in 2019 if they purge most of the older players or let their contracts expire. That is going to require them to show more restraint than they have the last two or three years.
Seahawks– I’m not sure that there is any team other than maybe the Eagles who is more aggressive and risky with their contract decisions than Seattle. The team is aggressive in all aspects of the game which is why they are always near the top of the salary rankings. In the past few months the team made some strange decisions. From an over the top extension for a 30+ Michael Bennett followed by the $7 million whopper for Luke Joeckel and then a crazy monster extension for Kam Chancellor the Seahawks were either going to look like geniuses or were going to see their cap get crunched. Going into 2017 the Seahawks were clearly at that point where if it didn’t happen this year then they probably need to be more cautious in 2018 given the age and contracts of their best players and its likely not happening this year. The team is going to be stuck on the Chancellor contract for the next two years and are going to have Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, KJ Wright and Duane Brown all looking for new contracts next year. They also have Paul Richardson, Jimmy Graham, Sheldon Richardson, and Joeckel as unrestricted free agents. Given the Seahawks recent contract history every player should ask for the moon. Their cap was so tight this year they had to wait to put Chancellor on IR and look to have just $12 million in cap room next year. They will open up some room by cutting Cliff Avril and restructuring contracts but they are in a real risky phase right now because if they re-invest in these same players they are going to be the oldest team in the NFL for the next few seasons and it’s a roster already trending down. Seattle’s great drafts at the start of their run bailed them out from bad contracts and they need another draft like that. The Seahawks run the risk of becoming a big salary cap mess if the decisions they make this offseason don’t work out.
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.