Welcome to the Salary Cap Inferno, the bad place where teams are punished for their financial sins of the past.
NFL free agency is fast approaching, and while some teams are getting ready for a spending spree, others find themselves in financial H-E Double Hockey Sticks. Instead of bidding on big names and hoping to get better, they'll be forced to let their own free agents go, release or restructure the contracts of some of their starters and hope the austerity program doesn't make them significantly worse.
There's more to the Cap Inferno than just being low on cap space. Teams that have lots of budding superstars under contract, are a heartbeat away from the Super Bowl or know they are preparing for a full-scale rebuild don't qualify. The rings of the Cap Inferno are reserved for teams guilty of overspending, bad planning, wishful thinking or living the high life for too long, plus some minor venial sins like inking a few too many regrettable contracts.
So abandon all hope, ye who enter here: It's time for a truly hellish journey through the realm of salary-cap nightmares.
First Ring of the Cap Inferno: New England Patriots (Cap space: $41.7 million)
Mortal sin: Striving for immortality
If you remember reading (or skimming, or staying awake while the teacher explained) Dante's Inferno, you know that the first ring wasn't all that bad. It was like an extended-stay airport hotel for nice folks who didn't follow Dante's preferred religion, with no demons or pitchforks or such. Well, the first ring of the Cap Inferno isn't so bad, either. The Patriots get to polish their Lombardi Trophies while pondering the consequences of trying to make their dynasty last forever.
A huge chunk of that $41.7 million in paper cap space—let's estimate about $30 million—is probably earmarked for Tom Brady. The rest must be distributed among starters and contributors like safety Devin McCourty, guard Joe Thuney, defenders Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy and a host of others. The Patriots must also try to find a way to significantly upgrade their wide receiver and tight end corps, because Brady now needs a supporting cast to elevate his play instead of the other way around.
Of course, the Patriots could let Brady walk and start over, which would solve their cap problem by replacing it with several much larger problems.
The Patriots are sentenced to discover what every other team has gone through in the offseason for 20 years. They'll have to draft for immediate needs instead of looking three years down the road. They may be forced to part with players they want to keep. They won't be hailed as geniuses for signing 33-year-old slot receivers or defensive cast-offs.
Maybe they can figure it all out and remain in the playoff picture. But it's been a long time since the Patriots have been forced to figure out ways to merely remain in the playoff picture.
Second Ring of the Cap Inferno: Los Angeles Rams (Cap space: $14.7 million)
Mortal sin: Building a tiny Super Bowl window
The Rams assembled their roster and their budget around winning in 2018 or 2019, and they almost pulled it off. But they now must pay the price. Their ledger is top-heavy with massive cap numbers, a few of which are worth the money (Aaron Donald at $25 million), many of which are not (Jared Goff at $36 million), and at least one of which needs to be renegotiated pronto (Jalen Ramsey at $13.7 million in the final year of his rookie contract).
The Rams also traded away their first-round picks until 2022 for Ramsey, leaving them with neither an easy way to get better nor an exit strategy for moving on from pricey veterans.
Venial sin: Seduced by rushing stats.
The Rams are reportedly working on ways to extract themselves from the clutches of the extension they gave Todd Gurley II in 2018, which runs through 2023 and will cost $17.25 million in cap space this season for near-replacement-level running back performance.
The Rams are sentenced to tread water at the wild-card level for the foreseeable future. They may be forced to spend a chunk of their little available cap space this offseason retaining 38-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth so the whole offensive line doesn't crumble, taking Goff and Gurley with it. Deals like that will only result in the roster getting older and more expensive before it gets better. But the Rams have so much invested in Goff and others and so little draft capital that they couldn't rebuild even if they wanted to.
Third Ring of the Cap Inferno: Minnesota Vikings (Cap space: Minus-$11.2 million)
Mortal sin: Trying to go 10-6 for all eternity
The Vikings started building their current playoff nucleus circa 2015 and have done everything to keep it together for as long as possible. That's an admirable goal, but recent deals with veterans like tight end Kyle Rudolph (he'll cost $8.8 million in cap space this year thanks to last summer's extension) and linebacker Anthony Barr ($12.7 million in cap space after last year's dalliance with the Jets) are starting to yield diminishing returns, with the Vikings paying premium prices for good-not-great performances by players near the ends of their peaks at too many positions.
Venial sin: Overpaying an ordinary quarterback
Yes, Kirk Cousins (who will eat $31 million in cap space this season) played at an All-Pro level for much of last season. And yes, that was as good as he will ever get, and he still played poorly when the Vikings lost to a similarly constructed 49ers team in the postseason.
Overpaying for a Cousins-type is the NFL's original sin: the sin of pride. General managers and coaches think they can turn sturdy quarterbacks into champions, and they end up with sturdy results instead of championships.
The Vikings are sentenced to more years of Cousins. The best way for them to get out of cap debt and create a bit of breathing room will be to extend Cousins' contract so they can prorate money into future years. In the meantime, they will almost surely lose safety Anthony Harris, one of the NFL's best young defenders. The Vikings worked hard in the past to keep players like Harris, but the money they would like to use to pay him is now going to older guys like Rudolph and Barr.
In other words, the Vikings are destined for more seasons of paying big bucks for wild-card berths. It's a road they paved with the best of intentions.
Fourth Ring of the Cap Inferno: Chicago Bears (Cap space: $5.5 million)
Mortal sin: Trying to "win now" when the team was not ready to win
Khalil Mack will cost the Bears $26.6 million in cap space this season thanks to prorated bonuses from the extension he signed when the Bears traded for him in 2018. Mack is a great player, but that's a franchise-quarterback-sized cap hit, and the Bears are a team without a franchise quarterback.
Venial sin: Overspending and overcompensating on offense
Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel and Cordarelle Patterson are set to eat up $20.3 million in combined 2020 cap space to be a versatile-but-unspectacular tight end, your average speedy slot guy and a gadget-play specialist/kickoff returner, respectively. That's a lot of money invested in trying to cosplay the Chiefs offense. The Bears are also paying their offensive line a ton of money for some very humdrum results.
The Bears could do some cap-cutting here, but that would just leave Mitchell Trubisky with fewer weapons and weaker protection, and the Bears offense is barely functional with what he has now.
The Bears will slowly drown, dragged down into the murky depths by Trubisky's performance, Mack's cap number and the front office's refusal to admit that either are a problem. Before they finally disappear beneath the waves, look for them to part ways with expensive-but-useful veterans in the secondary like safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (a free agent) and cornerback Prince Amukamara (a likely cap casualty) as well as offensive luxuries like Patterson, like a sinking ship throwing food and provisions overboard.
Fifth Ring of the Cap Inferno: Jacksonville Jaguars (Cap space: Minus-$3.4 million)
Mortal sin: Utter mismanagement
So, your humble author was reacquainting himself with the Jaguars roster and cap situation when I came across the fact that someone named Jake Ryan has a cap figure of $6.2 million for 2020. My first thought was "Who on earth is Jake Ryan?" I don't pretend to know every 53-man roster in the league by heart the way Sean McVay does, but if a player is slated to earn $6.2 million, I usually know, like, what position he plays, where he went to college or what he did to receive a contract of that size.
Well, Ryan is a special teams gunner whom the Jaguars signed away from the Packers after he missed the 2018 season with an ACL tear. The deal included a $5.5 million option in the second year. That's right: The Jaguars were adding $5.5 million options to the contracts of special teamers coming off ACL tears, and they were doing so after finishing 5-11 in 2018.
What were the Jaguars thinking? Also, what were they thinking when they signed aging defensive lineman Marcell Dareus to a contract with a $22.5 million option in 2020? Or slot cornerback D.J. Hayden to a deal that will cost them nearly $8 million in cap space this year?
If a team was trying to waste money on purpose, Brewster's Millions-style, it probably could not do a better job than the Jaguars. And we still have not gotten to the most notorious example yet.
Venial sin: Overpaying an ordinary quarterback
The Jaguars responded to their brief blip of 2017 success by spending $88 million on Nick Foles in 2019. What happened to 2018? Who knows? Time works differently in Jacksonville. Anyway, Foles will earn $21.8 million to back up Gardner Minshew II in 2020, and he would be more expensive to cut than to keep due to the bonuses in his contract.
Signing Foles for $88 million makes what the Vikings did with Kirk Cousins look like investing in Microsoft stock in 1977.
The Jaguars can clear a lot of cap space in a hurry by cutting loose Dareus, Ryan and others and then doing their best to rebuild around Minshew. There are only a few problems: a) Minshew was fun to watch at times last year, but he ain't exactly Patrick Mahomes; b) there will be very little talent left to help Minshew develop if they stage a salary purge; and c) the same decision-makers who got the Jaguars into this predicament will be the ones in charge of the rebuild if it even happens.
In other words, the Jaguars are permanently sentenced to remain the Jaguars and wander in the wilderness without hope.
All cap figures courtesy of OverTheCap.com.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.