The Confusing Truth About NFL Salary-Cap Space

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 27, 2015

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On the surface, the idea of a salary cap in the NFL seems so simple, but the key numbers we see in reports regarding cap space are often quite deceiving. 

Over the Cap does a tremendous job tracking payrolls for all 32 NFL teams. And if you were to take a moment right now and look at the raw team-by-team salary-cap numbers provided by that website on the cusp of free agency, you'd notice some astonishingly high totals in the "cap space" category for teams such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and New York Jets. 

See, Over the Cap correctly notes that those four teams have—at the momenta combined $224 million worth of salary-cap space.

Six teams with the most cap space right now
TeamProjected space
Jacksonville Jaguars$68,197,511
Oakland Raiders$55,427,735
Cleveland Browns$53,740,896
New York Jets$51,448,474
Indianapolis Colts$45,189,186
Tennessee Titans$44,413,630

A reasonable initial view from someone who might not follow the ins and outs of the game: How on earth will four teams be capable of spending a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in one offseason? 

But there's more to it than that, and the reality is those teams probably won't spend any more than half of that money on outside free agents. Factors to consider: 


1. You've gotta take care of your own

The Raiders have over $50 million in cap space but 19 players slated to become free agents, including five—defensive tackle Pat Sims, running back Darren McFadden, center Stefen Wisniewski and defensive backs Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brownwho could be viewed as starters. 

The Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts both have over $40 million worth of cap space, ranking fifth and sixth, respectively, but only the Baltimore Ravens have more impending free agents than those two teams. Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services has identified a combined 12 potential unrestricted free agents from those two teams as starters. 

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said of impending free-agent defensive tackle Haloti Ngata's situation, via Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, "That's [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome's] job to negotiate the nuances of those contracts that allow us to get some cap relief and give Haloti a chance to stay here."

But that doesn't always work out, and if guys like Ngata get away, franchises will be forced to find replacements. Replacements can be upgrades, but the net gain shrinks when you account for the departed player. 

Last year at this time, the Raiders, Jaguars, Browns and Colts had the most "money to spend," according to Spotrac, but Oakland and Indianapolis had a combined 36 unrestricted free agents to take care of. The Raiders used $10.3 million in 2014 salary-cap space to bring back McFadden, Sims, Khalif Barnes, Charles Woodson and Usama Young, while the Colts spent $17.9 million on their own guys. 

Most teams will release players in order to soften those blows, but remember that every roster needs 53 players, and a replacement will have to be found. Signing a player with just one year of NFL experience at the league-mandated minimum salary will still cost you $510,000. If he's a vested veteran, it'll be at least $745,000. 

Yes, most offseason rosters contain more than 53 signed players, but only the top 51 count against the cap. So every time you hear that a team has saved money by cutting a player, subtract at least a half-million bucks from that number. 

Every team in the league has at least 10 free agents every year. This year, teams have an average of 18 each. So even if they're only re-signing half of those guys at veteran minimums, it's fair to conclude that teams spend at least $7 million on renewals for their own players, with most actually spending a lot more than that. 


2. You've gotta pay your draft picks

So you've cut a few guys, you've lost some free agents and maybe a couple of guys have retired. You've probably lost more 53-man roster-caliber players than you've gained, unless you were tearing it up on the free-agent market. 

The majority of teams, though, find at least a handful of their permanent roster members in the draft. NFL teams had an average of 10.7 rookies participate in at least a game in 2014, and now that the collective bargaining agreement has a simple slotting system for entry-level salaries, we can estimate just how much each team will likely have to commit toward their draft picks. 

The guys at Spotrac have done the math for us and have determined that only the Buccaneers will have to spend more money on draft picks than four of the top six teams we keep mentioning for having so much cap space. 

Most money estimated for 2015 draft pools
TeamCost of draft poolSalary cap space rank
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers$8,112,9828th
2. Cleveland Browns$7,895,3573rd
3. Tennessee Titans$7,490,5356th
4. Jacksonville Jaguars$7,331,2481st
5. Oakland Raiders$7,216,7842nd

According to Spotrac, the average team will spend about $5.4 million on draft picks this season. And every undrafted free agent costs $435,000. 


3. You've gotta save for a rainy day

When a player gets hurt, he must be replaced. And his salary doesn't just disappear. NFL teams lost an average of 11.4 players each to injured reserve in 2014, costing them an average of $17.9 million apiece. Replacements usually came from the practice squad or the waiver wire and would usually cost a prorated amount of the minimum salary (or at least something within that range).  

Simply having to sign 11.4 players for a quarter of a season each at the rookie minimum (excluding the playoffs) would cost $2.5 million. Teams tight against the cap get creative to find room for these replacements, while teams with space can absorb the expected hit. 


4. You'd be smart to roll cash over

Between 2013 and 2017, teams are required by the CBA to spend at least 89 percent of the cap. Some years, they can fall short of that number, so long as they make up for it later. That's why they're given the ability to "roll over" unused cap space from year to year. 

And the reality is that if you have a massive surplus right now, you'd be smart to save some of your money in order to create extra cap space for 2016 and 2017. Usually that's because you're presumably rebuilding. Among the five teams that rolled over more than $10 million this year (the Jags, Browns, Eagles, Jets and Titans), all but the Eagles are doing exactly that. 

The notion that might be tough for impatient fans to swallow is that it's prudent to save cap space for when you've become competitive with the players you're currently grooming, a) to add reinforcements and b) to re-sign said groomed players. 

Every team except the St. Louis Rams rolled some money over this year, and most will do it again headed into 2016. It's the kind of thing that'll help the Colts when it comes time to pay Andrew Luck big bucks, or the Miami Dolphins with Ryan Tannehill.

Only those six teams cited at the top have more cap space than the Cincinnati Bengals, but they'll keep money in the coffers as they prepare for a massive in-house free-agent class of 2016 that is slated to include A.J. Green, Leon Hall, Andrew Whitworth, Andre Smith, Reggie Nelson, Robert Geathers, Dre Kirkpatrick, Adam Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Kevin Zeitler. 

So don't expect your cap-rich team to spend every dime it has. Based on the four points we just reviewed, it's probably safe to look at your team's estimated cap surplus entering 2015 and subtract $15 million-$25 million in order to arrive at the dollar figure it'll look to spend on outside free agents. 

Of course, there's room for creativity, but that only levels the playing field...


5. Almost everyone has space 

Last year at around this time, the New Orleans Saints had approximately $7 million in cap space. And yet when free agency arrived, the Saints were able to remain under the cap despite devoting $7 million to Jimmy Graham's temporary non-exclusive franchise tag while also signing one of the top free agents on the market, safety Jairus Byrd, to a six-year, $54 million contract with $26.3 million guaranteed. 

They also re-signed eight in-house free agents and brought in Jonathan Goodwin, Brandon Deaderick and Champ Bailey for $2.5 million in total before signing their lot of rookies. Sure, they cut a few veterans to save cash as well, but it's still hard to believe the Saints found a way to bring in an elite free agent despite the perception they were strapped for cap space. 

They were, but they got creative. Byrd, an All-Pro, counted only $3.5 million against the cap according to Spotrac

Of course, those types of shenanigans only lead to headaches later, which is what the Saints are learning now as they deal with the most severe cap quandary in the league. But the point is if a team wants to sign a guy badly enough, it can usually compete for him by applying the Lloyd Braun philosophy: Serenity now, insanity later

So even if it feels like your team should be capable of bullying others out of the way, thanks to its edge in terms of cap space, the reality is the advantage isn't as large as it appears. 


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.