Core Players: Keeping A Team Identity Together With The Salary Cap Isn’t As Easy As It Looks

John Turner

photo credit: Roto Street Journal

In the salary cap era of the NFL, we have seen teams have complete makeovers and rebuilds in under five years. Investing too much in the wrong player can be disasterous for a franchise. Missing on too many picks in the first three rounds or missing on a high dollar free agent pick up can also sink a team from establishing and maintaining a competitive balance. We see multiple teams scrambling each year to restructure the contracts of players in order to make way for new potential free agents. We’ve also seen some teams restructure and or release players just to have enough cap space to simply sign their rookie draft picks. This article will attempt to break down exactly what teams are doing a pretty good job of keeping the identity of their team together by maintaining a balance of core players and and rotating depth around them.

photo credit: Saints

Typically if a player is making 5% or more of a team’s salary cap in any given season, it’s pretty safe to say said player could be identified as a core player. As I’ve glanced through all the active contracts across the entire league the pattern turns out to be that each team can afford roughly six of these “core players”. As the salary cap is typically raising around 12.5% any given year, in a normal season it would put the cap around $225 million for 2021. Unfortunately for teams this year, due to lost revenue caused by the pandemic the cap actually dropped around that same amount for this season. The losses will be rippled through the next two seasons as agreed upon between the player’s association and the owners group, however normally that 5% number would have a half dozen players making around $10 million per year. That’s a crazy gap between the star paychecks and everyone else if you think about it. 12% of a team’s players making around 40%(sometimes more) of a team’s cap space, leaving a team to sign 47 torso other players with the remaining. Even with the cap going up from year to year, teams usually back load these deals to the point to where they balloon out of manageability.

photo credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

There’s a few teams that seem to consistently get it right. There’s a few teams who can make it for what is considered the “window” of time it takes to make a run at a championship(typically three to four years). Then there are some teams that seem to always be in rough shape cap wise and are always having to let there home grown talent land elsewhere come contract time because they overspent on outside talent via free agency previously. The Steelers, Patriots, Ravens, Packers, and Washington have been able to make through most seasons with little adjustments to current salaries in order to not only retain core players but bring in a few free agents as need be to round off their team. It also helps if you draft well and resign players you identify as key guys early before their price tags go way up. Another thing that tends to be a pattern is that teams that have more consistency in the front office and coaching staff tend to be a bit better at team building and maintaining said identity. The Lions. Bengals, Cowboys, Rams, Seahawks, Texans, and Eagles are examples of teams that have tried to over pay for their window and it has ultimately costed them a rebuilding period and or a theme of tail chasing.

photo credit: Sky Sports

Matt Ryan and Julio Jones currently make up 25% of the Falcons cap. 5/6 of the top paid players on the Ravens are on defense with the one acceptation being left tackle… shocker, I know. Although that will likely change very soon as they’ll need to pay Lamar Jackson not long from now. The triplets in Big D, Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Ezekiel Elliott combine for a little over 30% of this years salary cap. Although Aaron Rodgers cap number is pretty top heavy, Devante Adams, Za’Darius Smith, David Bakhtiari, Preston Smith, and DT Kenny Clark make for a nicely rounded team. The Rams and Eagles decided to make drastic changes to their situation at quarterback after being dissatisfied with their 2020 results and the cap penalties they’ll receive as a result of doing so likely will impact them for at least this year as they’ll both carry a huge chunk of dead cap money for moving their guy. The Patriots were able to go on a spending spree this offseason because they have managed their cap situations well over the years. Lastly I’m sure Washington will probably be able to keep all four of its starting defensive linemen together along with resigning Terry McLaurin long term as they have done a decent job at drafting the last 5 years and not made many mistakes in free agency during that same stretch.

photo credit: Freemont Table Tennis Academy

Another factor is that each season the market for each position resets itself. As the cap goes up, so does the average salary at each position across the board. It seems like each season there’s a player or two who becomes the all time highest paid player at his position. How bout when a later round player breaks out and ends up being a steal? His estimated value goes from being somewhat of a liability to an asset you weren’t necessarily planning on throwing the big bucks to. When that does happen it usually comes with the sacrifice of a player a team was originally planning on keeping but has now been considered a casualty of the cap. There’s only so many Tom Bradys out there who have consistently signed team friendly deals that have allowed the franchise to have just enough in reserve to sign and or resign those two or three extra guys to help the team be that much better. More often than not, teams have to carry more veteran minimum guys and undrafted free agents to bridge the gap and that more than likely shows come game day.

photo credit: PFT

Teams that need to probably need to re evaluate their plans at a position of two are as follows: San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota, Houston, and Atlanta are all likely to be looking for a new quarterback by next offseason at the latest. Matt Ryan might be the acceptation if he continues to play well but will almost certainly have to restructure. We’re already hearing they’re taking calls about Julio Jones.I’d add the Rams to that list if they don’t go as deep into the post season as they hope they will. I can’t sincerely see the Saints keeping both Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill on the roster for too long. Although the team gave Hill a team friendly deal this offseason, if Winstom balls out he’s going to want to get paid well ASAP. That tends to happen with players taken number one overall. All in all as we can see across the league is that teams that make the wrong signing on one to three players can set themselves back for up to five seasons. Some teams recognize these mistakes, cut their losses and move on quickly, while others seem to repeat the trend over and over again.

photo credit: Daily Snark

Does your team have an identity through a group of core players or are they still soul searching? Is your team one of the few that are “in the window”? Is your team one or two core pieces away? Or is your team one of those that just can’t seem to be able to keep enough consistency around to ever establish an identity? Either way, the draft is around the corner so more core players are coming to a city near you… It’s A Football World, we’re all just passing through.

feature photo: Ed Sheahin