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Should NFL Teams be Allowed to Trade Salary Cap Space?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 03:  Alicia Keys performs the National Anthem during Super Bowl XLVII between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 3, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Gary DavenportNFL AnalystDecember 28, 2016

It's that time of year when the salary cap becomes the dominant topic of conversation in the National Football League.

Some teams are way over the cap, and already releasing players in an effort to get under this year's projected cap of $121 million.

Other teams are swimming in salary cap space, with others taking advantage of a clause in the new collective bargaining agreement that allows teams to "carry over" 2012 cap space into 2013.

With some NFL clubs scrambling because they spent too much, while others seem inclined to spend as little as possible, at least one sportswriter has proposed a bold solution.

Why not allow NFL teams to trade salary cap space just as they do players and draft picks?

That's the proposal of Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, who voiced his thoughts in a column on Thursday.

"Adopted two decades ago as a way to achieve competitive balance, the salary cap gives every team a commodity, no different than draft picks or players.  With more teams desperately needing cap space and plenty of teams having more than they care to spend, why shouldn’t teams be allowed to trade that commodity to another team in exchange for a player or a draft pick or both?"

Granted, on its surface Florio's idea would seem to have some merit.

Especially when you consider how the NFL's "salary floor" works.

As the Tampa Bay Times reports, beginning in 2013 teams must spend at least 89 percent of this season's salary cap on payroll, which this year would amount to about $108 million.

Per a Pro Football Talk report from last September, at the time a full quarter of the league had less than that committed to payroll, including two teams that ended up making the playoffs (the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks).

Now that number isn't necessarily a 100 percent accurate accounting of exactly what each team had wrapped up in player salaries, "dead money" and all the other loveliness that keeps "capologists" on NFL payrolls.

It does indicate, however, that there are teams who aren't inclined to break the bank. They won't have to either, as that $89 million "floor" is calculated in four-year increments.

In other words, those teams can keep right on being cheap, at least for a while. They only have to average that amount in salaries from 2013-2016.

However, if they could trade that cap space to a team that desperately needs it, say for a badly needed veteran or a nice draft pick, maybe those teams would do so and everyone would be happy.

As Florio puts it, it's a "free-market approach, giving teams the power to try to get better—and the ability to risk doing worse."

It's that very free-market approach that makes this a nice idea in theory, but a terrible one in practice.

There's already a sport with a free-market approach to salaries. It's called baseball.

The salary cap was created to improve competitive balance, to insure that teams like the Dallas Cowboys or Washington Redskins don't field teams with exponentially higher payrolls than the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars.

You know, like in baseball.

The ability to trade cap space would simply circumvent the cap altogether. Teams with the biggest revenue streams would simply buy up cap space from teams looking to cut costs in exchange for draft picks.

You know, like in baseball.

Sure, some of those draft picks will help bad teams become mediocre, and some of those big-spenders will see poor decisions blow up in their faces, but the reality of the situation is that the gap between the "have" and "have not" teams will only get wider.

You know, like in baseball.

Also, which team's "floor" would the traded cap space belong to? If it's the "seller," then you're allowing the thrifty teams to spend even less.

A few shrewd general managers may be able to build a competitive team that way. Most would build bargain-basement bottom-feeders.

I applaud Florio for floating the idea out there, because as flawed as it may be, at least he's offering ideas on how to improve a salary cap in the NFL that has flaws on its own.

However, for all those flaws, the NFL's salary cap is still the best of the four "major" sports from a competitive standpoint, and it's created a level of parity that has made football a more exciting sport to follow.

You know, not like baseball.

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