In 2021, the NFL salary cap is slated to go down by nearly $25M or 12.5% due to the revenue losses occurring in the 2020 season. From loss of ticket sales to merchandise sales, the league’s shared revenue system will not be able to justify an increase in salaries for the first time since 2011, the season where a lockout occurred. This will create a trickle down effect that will force teams into making moves they didn’t want to make. It will allow teams that are not in cap trouble to be allowed to reset the market for some positions, knowing that they aren’t bidding against the full field. It will make teams closer to the $176M estimated cap number to lean heavy on their draft pool as well as undrafted free agents. Last but not least, it hurts veteran free agents in the upcoming free agency pool, due mainly to the fact that even veteran minimum contracts typically start at double that of an undrafted free agent’s salary.
In this article I will try to make sense of what teams are over, close to, and under to well under the upcoming cap. I will also speculate as to whom I believe may be getting the chop as a result(and I’m not talking about their foreskin either), and of those players where some of them may end up via free agency. As of now there are currently 11 teams that are over the estimated cap of $176M. There are currently 6 teams that are less than $20M under the cap without taking into consideration that they, like all the other teams, are going to need to sign the rookies they draft. The rookies each team drafts this April already have predetermined price tags due to a thing called the rookie wage scale(more on that later). There are 9 teams that have between $20M and $40M in cap space. Then we have 5 teams who will be in a position to really add some talent to their teams if they so choose, who all have well over $40M in cap space for the upcoming year.
There are few teams across the league that tend to manage the cap to perfection while remaining consistantly competitive year in and year out. In my opinion the New England Patriots have been the best at it the last decade. Part of the reason is that they have had their franchise quarterback(Tom Brady) for the entire run. Because of this they were always able to bring in mid range salaries for depth and never had go for the “win now” mentality. Typically when a team goes all in to win a title it comes with the addition of high dollar free agents who’s salaries balloon near the end of the supposed “championship window”. Other teams either draft and or develope incorrectly at the quarterback position. In the process they build around him with players they draft or bring in from elsewhere that no longer fit the mold the moment they decide to move on from said quarterback… by that time they’re tied up too tight to the cap to make an immediate reload and it becomes a rebuild.
There are many other factors but those are the ones that stick out to me. Last factor is consistency among the team’s front office and coaching staff typically leads to a team having an identity on a regular basis. Take the Baltimore Ravens for example. They’ve built around defense and a strong offensive line since I can remember starting with drafting Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis both in the first round of the 1996 draft. Also you don’t need to look far but right across the division to see that the Pittsburgh Steelers lean heavy on line play while emphasizing a system on defense. They ensure those they bring in, however they do, fit the scheme. It’s very rare that the Steelers break the bank for players outside their organization and are typically exceptional at keeping the smart money in house. Basically the teams that do well on both ends are those that build around a system and not neccessarily a group of individuals.
The first group we look at will be the teams that are in the cap purgatory across the league. We start with the bottom 11 beginning with the teams in the absolute worst shape. The charts are self explanatory as they show the cap hit(cap number by that player for the 2021 season), dead money number(penalty for releasing that player that will reflect on said teams 2022 cap), and position ranking(per pro football focus).
The Saints are currently over the cap by $94M+. Not only do they have to purge their roster, but they’ll have to figure out what they are doing with Michael Thomas and Drew Brees, as both players combine for $54M in cap hit for 2021(Brees retiring would save the team a little over $36M alone, and he might since he already has signed a deal to jump in the booth for broadcasting). Cutting the following players only relieves them of about $82M in cap space.
Up next are the Philadelphia Eagles who are about $70.7M over. They also have a conundrum at the quarterback position but might be able to more easily find a buyer willing to eat the dead cap money than the Saints can if they so desire to go that direction. Cutting the following would get the team right about on the nose with a little more work to do before the draft, let alone free agency.
Coming in at 3rd worst is the Atlanta Falcons at a tick above $24M over. Not as quite as terrible as the previous two teams but over nonetheless. Clipping these two guys would get them close. Unlike New Orleans and Philly, Atlanta is likely to have an entire new front office and coaching staff so it’s not quite clear how they’ll proceed.
The Packers are an Interesting team sitting $21M over the cap. There are a couple players that are underachievers and then you have Aaron Rodgers… big decision there. Making these cuts gets $8M under the cap for 2021.
It’s unusual to see Pittsburgh in this perdicament but they can get out of it relatively easily. Neither Ebron or McDonald justify their pay IMO and as much as I like the DC area native Joe Haden, he isn’t worth $15M. They save nearly $32M making these moves as they are 21 over.
The Rams are interesting as I think they’ll be in purgatory for the next few years. By then, I feel Sean McVay will have moved on, but for now they need to make some adjustments on the fly. I think the team and Whitworth will reach an injury retirement settlement and I believe Brockers and Havenstein have justified the offseason move. They’ll get $29M relief just with these three.
Well look who it is! That’s right, it’s the reigning Super Bowl champs. Coming in at $13.8M over the cap. They can easily get themselves out of trouble. Tyrann Mathieu is the defensive version of Brandin Cooks. A talented player that just can’t seem to stay on the same roster two seasons in a row. He’ll learn that if he wants to stay on a team long term he’s going to need to adjust his financial expectations. I can’t see the team keeping him at his current number of $19.7M+. As much as they love Fisher, I believe he’ll be a casualty as well. They could save over $36M with just a few moves.
Who knows who’s going to take over for the Texans next year on the sidelines and in the front office(Edit: Nick Caserio was hired Tuesday), but we know there’s going to be changes. The four moves I recommend not only give them some major needed breathing room cap-wise but also help change the fabric for the new boss quickly. At $10.1M over the cap, these moves save them $31M, and thats huge considering they’ve already traded away their top two picks for 2021. They will have to be very thorough in research in 2021 in drafting and free agency.
The Vikings should be looking at any way possible to get out of the Kirk Cousins business, but they won’t. By what their defense showed us against the Saints this last week it’s more likely that Captain check down will likely out live Coach Zimmer in Minneapolis at this point. That said they’re only $8M over the cap for 2021 and with two moves they can be well under it. Both players are on the wrong side of 30 for their positions and have minimal dead cap penalties associated with them. They could very well end up with $16M in space by pulling the trigger here by letting these two guys go.
The Raiders… Is there a more confusing team in the league? Honestly I feel they would’ve been a playoff team if this weren’t 2020, with no fans in the stands and so forth, but here we are. They’re only $7.6M over the upcoming cap and if they cut the following they’ll be well under it with no penalty.
Da Bears! That’s right, the little monsters of midway are a tad over the spending limit at a whopping $90K. No biggie. Not sure what they plan on doing long or short term at the quarterback position, but if they shed a little weight and make a couple other good decisions, they’ll be in good shape. I think it’s safe to say at this point Jimmy Graham isn’t returning to his former form…
Group two is made up of a cluster of squads that need to make a few simple moves to stay satisfactory. Nothing outrageous but minor tweaking.
The Seahawks have the easiest path to stay relevant. They could very well put themselves in a position to make a splash this offseason.
Giants and Panthers are under new leadership and appear to be a year or two away. Neither is strapped but if they want to bring in any starters via free agency they’ll need to make a couple moves.
Titans seem to have a Super Bowl window that’s covenient for the type of team and cap situation they have. No need to sell the farm.
Bills just need to not make any rash decisions IMO. Both them and Tennessee should be highly competitive for a while.
As for the Lions, they need to figure out what kind of team they want to be. If I were in charge, I’d build a running based team that could lean on one possession receiver and a solid tight end, while providing a solid speed rush emphasized defense.
Group 3 brings about a cluster of teams that seem to be well on their way to turning the corner. What better way to enter the conversation as one of the most relevant teams in the league, but to be one already on the up. These teams are in position to make a bunch of noise in free agency and have a wide open window run?
49ers had the year of injuries no team should ever be cursed with. You might be able to say the same for the Broncos but they need to also be capable of adding pressure to the opposing quarterbacks in their division.
The Cardinals need to figure out what they are on defense as the offenses in the west don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. The Browns believe it or not should stay the course and get rid of OBJ in the process.
Dem Boys need to get Dak in the house long term. I feel they have the coach and with Dak, a little tweaking to the staff, and a smart draft or two this division is theirs.
Ravens are another team that should be in the mix as long as they don’t make any decisions off the field that sabotage themselves.
Touchdown Tommy, Tommy Six Rings, Tom Terrific… he should have two years left… any other questions regarding the Bucs?
Bosa won’t stay in LA without killing their cap. Neither will James. The road to success in the AFC west for the Chargers is through their young offense. Herbert, Ekeler, and Henry are what they need to build on.
I love what Miami is doing. Shed the fat and continue with hungry youth.
Then there’s the Bengals. Oh I hope Joe Burrow isn’t another stud can’t miss quarterback to land on a franchise with a notoriously cheap owner just to have his career ruined before it can get started. The thought makes me cringe. Build a line. Get a tight end and primary wide receiver. Build a hybrid multi front defense that’s physical. When you’ve established those pieces… keep them.
Then we have our final group. The Group of 5! Yes these teams are plush with cap space and can sign 2-3 players that should be instant starters for at least three years if thy do their homework right. They should also get them at a discount due to the fact that 2021 will not be a player friendly year in free agency. 3/5 of these teams I feel are already in good position management wise to make a run. The other two are in rebuild mode… Ironically they draft 1&2 overall… So they got that working for them… which is nice.
The Washington Football Team is in as good of shape as any if not more in the Group of 5 for a couple reasons. They will be bringing back their entire front four and likely the productive part of their secondary. Offensive line help would drastically help this team. That, and keeping their young weapons on offense. Yes, they need a quarterback of the future but they don’t need to reach for one.(Edit: They’ve cut Dwayne Haskins resulting in $8.5M in dead cap space for 2021, dropping their available cap to $41.5M from $50M.)
Cam isn’t the one. Bill Belichick will find a way to plug the dike on defense and build a stable of weapons for the new developmental field general to play with.
Colts will be buyers and not sellers this offseason. Not sure if they bring Rivers back or not but they’ll be in great shape to lure a few guys into the building to add to what they already have… which is pretty good.
Justin Fields… Join me as I google… “How to build around Justin Fields”.
Fabio AKA Trevor Lawerence…Join me as I google… “How to build around Trevor Lawerence”.
Next up I’ll be looking at the free agents(and potential free agents) for 2021 as well as draft prospects. Who would be a fit where and in what system. Lots of moving parts are expected this offseason. Let’s see if I get any of them right… Stay tuned!!! I’m you know who, It’s A Football World… We’re all just passing through.
Photo credit: TexansWire