NFL cap-onomics isn't like elementary school algebra. It is quite complex.
It can make a pretty good, big-name player like the Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson a candidate to get cut. It can also cripple a team's ability to get better—see the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints, the two most cap-strapped teams in football, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required).
Before teams officially can sign free agents on March 11, many will need to get creative with their ledgers. We break down each NFL team's toughest contract decision going into the new league year in this packed, 32-part slideshow.
It is no secret the Arizona Cardinals need a left tackle, particularly playing in a division with the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and the St. Louis Rams. The latter might be the toughest on a left tackle of all. The two others are just Super Bowl favorites, that's all.
The question with offering Branden Albert huge money is how much is he worth? Left tackles tend to be one of the most important positions on the field, but if Albert was so good, why did the Chiefs draft Eric Fisher to groom him to be their future left tackle?
If the Chiefs don't sign an Albert or Eugene Monroe, they will be drafting that position early this May.
Osi Umenyiora was a free agent last season and signed with the Atlanta Falcons, but his current contract is arguably the biggest hot-button issue for them in 2014. They might need to shed his deal one year after sealing it, because he wound up being a situational pass-rusher by season's end.
ESPN's Vaughn McClure reports that releasing Umenyiora would save $3.5 million against the cap. The problem is that Atlanta needs more pass rush, not less, regardless of how many full-time snaps the veteran can take over the course of a season.
To say that money is not a lot would be crazy because that's a lot of money, period. But if you look at it strictly in football terms and what the top-tier defensive ends are getting paid. ... Mario Williams, who is making like, what, $16 million per year? It's tough for me to answer that [money] question because it all depends on what my perceived value to the team is.
We will find out in the coming months, if not weeks.
Is being a situational pass rusher something I want to do this upcoming season? I really don’t know. This coming season might be a totally different season.
We might start off on fire. We might be leading teams by two touchdowns every game and then I just really get a chance to pin my ears back and do what I do best. I don't know how it’s going to play out.
But do I want to see myself as just as situational pass rusher? I would rather not. But whatever they tell me they want me to do, that's what I'll do.
Michael Oher of The Blind Side fame gets all of the publicity because of the bestselling book and Academy Award-winning movie—and he's a free agent, too, albeit out of the right tackle position now—but The Tennessean's Nate Davis calls midseason transplant Eugene Monroe the fourth-best free agent on the market.
"He's one of the more underrated blind-side bodyguards in the league and quite an asset given the priority on protecting quarterbacks with nine-figure contracts (like Joe Flacco)," Davis wrote.
How much it costs to retain Monroe will determine just how rigorous the Ravens can be elsewhere in free agency to repair a broken offensive line. They need a right tackle and some interior help as well, most urgently at center.
Since Jairus Byrd already played under the franchise tag last season, it would make more fiscal sense for the Buffalo Bills to sign him to a long-term contract rather than a franchise tag tender that requires a significant raise.
The two parties have been trying to get something done for a year already, so if something doesn't come together in the next few weeks, it could be time for Byrd to fly the coop.
You would think the Carolina Panthers are just scratching the surface with their defense and starting to compete with the NFL's biggest boys. That would make bringing back defensive end Greg Hardy a must, right?
Well, when you make signing Cam Newton to a long-term contract extension your No. 1 priority, it puts some stress on the budget.
Hardy sounded like a player who is prepared to move on, telling the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person:
It's a reality of football. It's a reality of business. They've got the ball in their court right now. If that's what they choose to do, nothing but respect and love. Carolina's my home. But I've got to go back to work. I'd rather be here if I can. But if not, it's just business.
When you are under contract for $13.9 million and play defense on a unit that struggled, you are squarely on the decision block. That is Julius Peppers with the Chicago Bears.
It isn't just the actual dollars either. The Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs reports Peppers has a cap figure of $18.183 million. Cutting him would save them anywhere from $9.8 to $14 million in room this year, but then they would be out their best defensive player in a market that is weak on pass-rushers.
This looks like a prime time to restructure, so the Bears will have to get creative in order to help other parts of an aged defense.
The Cincinnati Bengals, with one of the more manageable cap situations in football, has just two starters headed for free agency: defensive end Michael Johnson and left tackle Anthony Collins.
With Johnson subjectively rated at just a 20 percent of returning by Paul Dehner Jr. of Cincinnati.com, Collins becomes the most important man to watch before free agency begins next month.
He only allowed one quarterback pressure and no sacks after he took over left tackle, according to Dehner Jr. Yeah, he sounds like a player whom they must bring back.
When you have two stars like center Alex Mack and strong safety T.J. Ward as free agents, it is good to have the third-most salary-cap space in football, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required).
The Browns weren't a very good team last year. It will be hard to get better without bringing those two stalwarts back.
We chose Mack as the most important of the two because of the needs around the rest of the league. More teams are desperate for a signal-caller on the offensive live than a run-stuffing safety like Ward.
The Dallas Cowboys have their work cut out for them by being more than an estimated $24 million over the cap, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required). So, forget about seeking free agents or retaining the likes of free agents Anthony Spencer or Jason Hatcher.
The Cowboys need to cut people just to operate next year.
Put Austin on the June 1 chopping block first. The Cowboys stand to save $5.5 million against the cap this year by releasing him after that date, according to Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News.
Now, who's next? Maybe that's the best question. This purge will require far more than cutting just Austin.
The Denver Broncos had the most prolific passing offense in NFL history, but they will have to pay to keep it together. Knowshon Moreno and Eric Decker are both heading to the free market.
Consider Decker the one who is more likely to stay, but at what cost?
He clearly deserves more money than Wes Welker (two years, $12 million) or Danny Amendola (five years, $28.5 million) got last year. Is Decker—a candidate for 100 catches, 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns annually in the right system—worth $10 million per year over the next five? Perhaps.
He has a cap figure of more than $24.4 million. That is way too big of a chunk for even a quarterback to take up.
He has a voidable year in 2015 and currently stands to be a free agent thereafter. Signing him to a long-term deal now would save millions in cap space for the Lions while making Suh arguably the highest-paid defensive player in football.
The Green Bay Packers have a lot of cap space, but the franchise is notoriously frugal. It will be interesting to see how they operate this winter, particularly in beefing up a defense that has tended to lag behind the production of the Aaron Rodgers-led offense.
Wide receiver James Jones and defensive tackle B.J. Raji are more popular names to the masses, but cornerback Sam Shields is a free agent at a position of bigger need. If they lose Shields, they will need to sign multiple defensive backs in free agency or use their entire draft on the position.
Expect re-signing him to be a part of the solution.
We wrote in an earlier slide Ndamukong Suh might arguably become the game's highest-paid defensive player. If the Houston Texans give J.J. Watt a contract extension this winter, forget about that.
Watt's rookie contract expires after 2014. Signing him to the right deal now after a modest year by his lofty standards might be the wisest decision the Texans make. They have a far more stressful one looming with whatever quarterback they decide on with the No. 1 overall pick.
The next life-altering call Vontae Davis makes to his grandmother will be a lot more cheery. Coming off a career year, he is a free agent at precisely the right time.
He is just 25 years old, productive, healthy and at a keystone position. As good as it is to be Davis, it's also good to be his grandmother.
NFL draft contracts are determined by your position—in the draft and on the field—so whomever the Jacksonville Jaguars select to be their next quarterback of the future will be their most important contract decision...even if the contract is relatively predetermined.
The Jags have the second-most salary-cap space in football, according to Spotrac.com (subscription), but they have far too many holes on their team to fix all of their issues in free agency. They need to finally hit on a quarterback, whether it is Central Florida's Blake Bortles (pictured above) or not.
Alex Smith managed Andy Reid's offense so well this past season, the Kansas City Chiefs want to lock him into that job for a number of years now.
Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt told ESPN's Adam Teicher: "When we made the trade for him a year ago, that was part of the thinking. I don't think that thinking has changed. He came in and did a nice job. We're glad to have him as a part of the Kansas City Chiefs and we hope it's longer than a two-year stay."
Smith would be an unrestricted free agent after next season without a contract extension. Quarterbacks just don't hit free agency often, so expect him to get well-structured contract that helps the Chiefs afford some of their other premium free agents this winter.
Count the Miami Dolphins all in on the Branden Albert bidding war, perhaps with the Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens. Those are arguably the three most needy line teams, and each requires a franchise left tackle.
If the war is to be won by money, the Dolphins are well-positioned. They have the fifth-most cap space, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required). The Cardinals and Ravens are closer to the middle of the pack.
The bad news is the Dolphins have the most holes to fill on both the offensive and defensive lines and have the arguably best cornerback in Brent Grimes on the free-agent market. Yes, the left tackle resolution is of prime importance to the Dolphins more than anyone.
Again, like the Jacksonville Jaguars, it is not the contract the Vikings need to sign from the first pick in this upcoming draft as much as who is the one signing it.
Minnesota missed on Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman. Now, it has to go back to the well to find its next quarterback of the future.
The Vikings' draft position at eighth overall might not be able to net a Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles or Teddy Bridgewater, but they have to try. Derek Carr might not be worth their first-round selection, but he could be off the board when they pick in Round 2.
Sure, the New England Patriots need to make a decision on their corner Aqib Talib and their own 100-catch free-agent wide receiver Julian Edelman, but wouldn't it be just like Bill Belichick to try to pry Eric Decker away from Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos?
Sure, the Patriots could go cheap at the position, hope Danny Amendola performs better and sign Edelman for far less than what Decker will get, but they already know that Amendola, Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce were not good enough this past season.
Decker is a potential game-changer. They would be better off allowing Edelman to leave and using that savings on a premium pass-catcher that Tom Brady deeply desires.
This might be the most obvious "toughest" decision of all. The difficulty doesn't come in the decision, though. That's the easy part.
The New Orleans Saints need to find a way to trim more than $12.5 million just to get down to the salary cap, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required). Then, they have to find even more room to afford a long-term deal for the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. Then, on top of that, they need to convince Jimmy Graham he has to be paid like a tight end and not a regular receiver.
Yeah, there are some levels to this negotiation. The Saints have a lot of work ahead of them.
The New York Giants have the most pending free agents in football, so that is a tough spot, but the silver lining is it will create a lot of roster flexibility. The Giants are overdue for a makeover, especially along the offensive line.
They can cut guard Chris Snee—who had hip and elbow surgery and might retire, according to ESPN's Dan Graziano—and center David Bass to free up even more room. The tough part then is how do they replace them?
Will Beatty and Justin Pugh will be back, but the Giants need to find two guards and a center via the draft and free agency. They have their work cut out for them there.
A guy like New Orleans Saints center Brian de la Puente can be a fit. ESPN's Mike Triplett reports he might be allowed to leave.
The New York Jets are already more than an estimated $22 million under the salary cap, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required). They could also release Mark Sanchez, Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie to put their cap situation among the best in the business.
The tough part is finding enough good pieces to make this team a contender, particularly in the way of offensive weapons. There just isn't much available in free agency.
Sanchez and Holmes are addition by subtraction, but Cromartie can be restructured or released and re-signed as an important part of the Jets secondary. The decision still looms.
Cromartie told ESPN's Rich Cimini:
I expect to retire as a Jet. If anything that comes about with [being released], it's going to be a situation of me trying to understand what there is to do, talk with my family, understand what we have to do if that situation ever came about. But I always considered myself a Jet and going to retire a Jet. Until I'm told otherwise, that's my feeling.
The Oakland Raiders are in a precarious position with Jared Veldheer, and not because they need to try to afford him. The question is: When do they give him a long-term deal?
The Raiders have the most cap space in football, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required), so they can afford to give him a long-term deal right now. But they can also tag him and only have to pay him one year, as ESPN's Paul Gutierrez writes.
Veldheer wants the long-term deal now, so Gutierrez expects one to get done. This doesn't figure to be an eventual left-tackle divorce like Branden Albert's case with the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Raiders have to tread with caution.
There is little doubt Jeremy Maclin is worthy of earning an elite wide receiver's salary once he's healthy. The problem comes in determining his 2014 worth coming off reconstructive knee surgery that knocked him out of 2013.
The Philadelphia Eagles should try to get something done quickly, because they don't want to allow a desperate New York Jets team, which has millions in cap space, to throw exorbitant dollars at Maclin to lure him away.
The good news is he is prepared for a one-year deal to prove he's healthy, as he told CSN Philadelphia's Derrick Gunn:
I understand it could be a possibility that [the ACL tear] may scare some teams off, or a team may want to do a one-year deal as opposed to a long-term contract. That's the game; that's the business. ...
Both sides have had talks. I respect [GM] Howie [Roseman]. I understand this is a business. I understand he has to look out for what's best for the organization, and that's what he's supposed to do. I have all the faith that he's going to do what's best for the organization, whether that's deciding to keep me there or moving in another direction. I'm a realist, I understand that's a possibility.
For a team that wants to give me a one-year deal, that's cool. I'll just go out there and ball out, do the things I think I can do. Hopefully get that type of deal I'm looking for. If a team wants to give me a long-term deal, I'll go out there and still do the same thing.
That works in Philly's favor.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have some cap issues to resolve, especially as it pertains to their aging defense, but their No. 1 priority remains retaining their quarterback beyond 2014 and 2015.
The Steelers might consider giving Big Ben a contract two years before free agency that would allow him to retire in Pittsburgh, as ESPN's Scott Brown reports.
If they can lower Big Ben's nearly $19 million cap hit, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required), they might avoid having to make LaMarr Woodley a June 1 cap casualty and Troy Polamalu a pre-March cut.
Like the Pittsburgh Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger, the San Diego Chargers can fix some of their cap problems and help improve the whole by extending or restructuring their largest contract. Like Big Ben, Philip Rivers has two years left on his deal.
He would like to get an extension now, especially after being named The Associated Press' comeback player of the year. The Chargers would like to reduce his estimated $13.776 million cap hit, so they can help bolster the receiving corps and the defensive secondary.
Donte Whitner once wanted to change the name on the back of his jersey to "Hitner," dropping the W. The question now is what name will be paying his next contract.
CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco reports it won't make sense for the San Francisco 49ers to use the franchise tag on their strong safety, since it would require paying him around $8 million next year. He made $11.4 over three years on his past contract.
He might hit the free-agent market like his former teammate Dashon Goldson did a year ago.
The Seattle Seahawks were able to afford a defense full of depth and specialists because they were paying their starting quarterback just $526,217. After winning the Super Bowl, they will eventually have to prepare to kiss those days goodbye.
Michael Bennett was a mere pass-rush specialist for the Seahawks, but he will be a full-time starter and a well-paid star elsewhere, perhaps. The team already has almost $20 million tied up in Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril and Red Bryant, according to Spotrac.com.
Bennett is likely a luxury the Seahawks can no longer afford.
The St. Louis Rams already have a lot of time and money invested into Sam Bradford as their franchise quarterback. They need to decide if they want to go in another direction, particularly with them holding the second and 13th picks in this upcoming draft.
ESPN's Nick Wagoner believes there is close to "zero" chance the Rams draft a quarterback with their first pick. Still, Bradford is their highest-paid player and an underwhelming performer relative to his contract.
What's worse is that he is coming off a torn ACL from Oct. 20. The decision has been made to stick with Bradford to date, but might they change gears in the coming weeks?
This isn't a contract decision as much as a scouting one: Is Mike Glennon the answer at quarterback?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have him signed through 2016 at a dirt-cheap rate for a quarterback. If he is truly the answer, it can create a lot of roster flexibility over the next three years. They can use their cap space on the supporting cast, unlike a lot of other teams that need to commit much larger chunks of their cap to a quarterback.
The Bucs will answer the question by whether they draft a quarterback in the first few rounds this May.
Chris Johnson might not be a great player, but we can all agree he is still pretty good. The problem is that the Tennessee Titans need him to perform closer to great to warrant his contract.
Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean fully expects him to be cut—not if, but when.
It might not be a popular move for a team that lacks star power outside of CJ2K, who griped to Wyatt that he hasn't been used properly by the Titans.
Here is the problem the Washington Redskins face with 3-4 linebacker Brian Orakpo, who is a free agent: When he missed most of 2012 due to injury, they were great, winning the division. With him for all of 2013, they were terrible.
It doesn't give him a great case to be an irreplaceable force for the Redskins.
Still, he will be paid like one—be it in Washington or elsewhere. He is one of the best 3-4 linebackers in football and one of the few who can play the pass or the run and be a productive pass-rusher, too.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.