Moves NFL's Cash-Strapped Teams Can Make to Sign Free Agents in 2021
The new NFL league year—which begins on March 17—is still two weeks away, but teams are already gearing up for the free-agency frenzy by addressing their salary-cap issues. This year will be an interesting one for players on the open market, given that revenue plummeted and caused the projected cap to drop to $180.5 million for the 2021 NFL season, down almost $18 million from last year.
It is not only the first time the cap has fallen since an uncapped 2010 campaign, but also the first time in the last eight years that it has failed to grow by at least $10 million. This drastic reduction has left several teams in a financial bind as they must now make moves that will get them cap-compliant.
Fortunately, there are a couple of ways that even the clubs egregiously over the projected cap can shed salary for 2021, freeing up room to sign free agents this spring. Teams have the option to extend or restructure a contract—spreading out base salary or signing bonuses over the life of the deal—or they can outright release players to make space.
These and other, more creative methods are expected to be employed liberally by many teams over the next few weeks to create the cap flexibility needed to improve their rosters in free agency. Here is a look at some of the most cash-strapped franchises and what they can do to free up money.
Las Vegas Raiders: Trade Marcus Mariota
The Las Vegas Raiders are one of 11 teams currently over the projected salary cap, but they have arguably the simplest move of any to get out of the red. The team has $33 million tied up in quarterbacks, including a backup in Marcus Mariota who will account for a $10.7 million cap hit this season in the final year of a two-year, $17.6 million contract he signed last winter.
Mariota was expected to push starter Derek Carr for the QB1 role on the Raiders, but the incumbent still wound up starting every game last season. Mariota did perform admirably in his lone 2020 appearance, completing 17 of 28 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown while adding another 88 yards and a score on the ground. It was a performance that proved he could still serve as a productive signal-caller in the league—just not as a member of the Raiders.
Expect the Raiders to move on this quickly, whether via trade with a starter-needy, money-flush organization like the Patriots or by simply releasing Mariota. None of Mariota's salary is guaranteed for 2021, so the club can cut the quarterback to get him off the books without penalty.
If available, the Raiders would be wise to scoop up second- or third-day draft capital in exchange for the six-year veteran, as doing so would not only give Vegas some money to throw around in free agency but also potentially add draft selections that the franchise can make use of in a variety of ways.
Minnesota Vikings: Release Anthony Barr
The Minnesota Vikings are another team that won't be able to make any free-agency moves until they deal with their financial situation, as the club needs to shed a bit over $11 million to get under the cap for 2021. The Vikings can make a relatively simple move to free up that money by releasing linebacker Anthony Barr—who accounts for a big $15.1 million cap hit this year—before another $7.1 million becomes guaranteed on March 19.
Barr has been with the Vikings since becoming a first-round pick in 2014, but the UCLA product has struggled to stay on the field and produce at an elite level recently. He made the Pro Bowl four consecutive seasons from 2015 through 2018, but Barr appeared in just two games during the 2020 campaign because of a torn pectoral muscle. Barr's pressure rate on blitzes plummeted from the best in the league in 2018 to No. 32 in 2019, and his start to the 2020 season wasn't spectacular, either.
With Barr reportedly against restructuring his contract, per The Scoop podcast, the Vikings may have no choice but to part ways with their longtime defensive stalwart. With fellow linebacker Eric Wilson also hitting the open market, the Vikings would be better served putting money toward the younger, healthier player if they wind up choosing between the two.
Los Angeles Rams: Restructure Big Contracts
The Los Angeles Rams have some unsightly salary-cap issues to deal with, but it may be easier than it appears to shed $35.8 million off the books. The club just took on a then-record $22.2 million in dead money via the reported Jared Goff-Matthew Stafford trade, so now the Rams must restructure several of their larger contracts to spread out some cap hits over the life of the deals.
Los Angeles can start by adding a void year to its new quarterback's deal, with Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap pointing out that adding one to Stafford's contract would reduce his 2021 cap hit by $15.1 million. The Rams can also dole out an extension to Stafford to free up some short-term cash, although NFL Network's Ian Rapoport initially reported that the Stafford trade was made without the intent to grant him a raise or extension.
Once Stafford's void year is tacked on, the Rams can restructure Aaron Donald's contract to save an additional $14.2 million, per Over The Cap. This roster is built to be a Super Bowl contender right now but still needs to shore up a few weak spots via free-agency signings, so having a few more dollars available will be key this offseason.
To make this happen, L.A. can restructure cornerback Jalen Ramsey's deal to get another $13.2 million to work with in 2021. This is exactly the kind of financial flexibility the organization needs to secure depth on the open market.
Philadelphia Eagles: Trade Zach Ertz
The Philadelphia Eagles will be busy these next few weeks cutting through the $50.2 million by which the team is currently over the cap. The club just shattered the record for a dead cap hit when it reportedly agreed to trade Carson Wentz to the Colts—taking on $33.8 million in dead money—and will have to make some drastic, cash-saving moves to get compliant this offseason.
Some of that work has already begun, as the organization recently parted ways with veteran receiver DeSean Jackson to save $4.8 million. The team also restructured the deals of both wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and defensive tackle Malik Jackson, dropping their pay to $2 million each for the upcoming campaign and setting them up to be released with post-June 1 designations once the new league year begins.
The next domino to fall will likely be dealing longtime tight end Zach Ertz, whose value could not be lower after he had arguably his worst season as a pro in 2020 (36 catches for 335 yards and a touchdown in 11 games. It would still be a surprise if Philly can't find an organization with a hole to fill at tight end willing to kick the tires on Ertz, who is only a year removed from the last of his three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances.
Although the Eagles aren't likely to receive much in exchange for Ertz, dealing him immediately frees up another $4.7 million, making it a no-brainer for this cash-strapped organization.
New Orleans Saints: Release Multiple Veterans
The New Orleans Saints are a whopping $72.1 million over the cap heading into 2021. General manager Mickey Loomis has a herculean task ahead to get New Orleans in a position to make free-agency signings this spring, but it won't be downright impossible for this club to solve its cap woes, either.
The Saints must part with a myriad of veterans over the next couple of weeks, starting with Kwon Alexander. The linebacker was a pedestrian performer in the seven games he played last season before tearing his Achilles, and releasing him will save the organization $13.5 million.
Even if cutting him would sting, it's hard to envision a scenario in which New Orleans can avoid cap problems and keep Janoris Jenkins.
The veteran cornerback started 13 games in 2020 and has played in 15 contests since the organization claimed him off waivers in December 2019. Although the 32-year-old has performed admirably, the Saints could save $7 million by releasing him.
Malcom Brown is also likely to be deemed expendable, even after a campaign in which the defensive tackle served as a consistent lane-clogger and run-stuffer for one of the top rushing defenses in the NFL. Brown only played 390 snaps last year, and releasing him saves $4.9 million, which means it's time to say goodbye.
There is still nearly $50 million left to address, but this trio of cuts gets New Orleans well on its way to becoming at least a minor player in this year's free-agency market.
Contract info courtesy of Spotrac unless otherwise noted.