Last year, NFL owners felt the pinch when they played games in empty stadiums and missed out on a few billion dollars in revenue.
This spring, it’s the players’ turn. The salary cap, which had been steadily growing by $10 million-$12 million each year, will instead decrease from $198 million to $180 million-$185 million in 2021. There are currently nine teams that have to get under the salary cap before the new league year begins March 17, and six more teams that have less than $7 million in cap space.
“There are going to be a bunch of surprises for people here in a few weeks when everybody has to get under the cap and free agency starts,” Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said. “And I see a big shift, seismic shift, in terms of the talent moving around.”
Let’s take a look at the potential moves across the league (numbers as of Friday morning, via the NFL Players Association and OverTheCap.com):
▪ Saints ($62 million over the cap) — The Saints have taken a “laissez le bon temps rouler” attitude toward the cap for years, and now find themselves in a huge mess. Their number even accounts for Drew Brees already creating $24 million in cap space, and they will only save $1 million more when he retires.
Linebacker Kwon Alexander, with $13.16 million in cap savings and no dead money, seems a likely cut. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins can save them $7 million in cap space with a release before June 1, and $10 million afterward. Former Patriot Malcom Brown is likely in trouble ($4.9 million in cap savings), and receiver Emmanuel Sanders would save $4 million or $6 million before or after June 1.
▪ Rams ($35.1 million over the cap) — The Rams still view themselves as Super Bowl contenders, so expect restructures instead of releases. Matthew Stafford has a $20 million cap hit and no dead money, making him an obvious restructure candidate. Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp all have large salaries that can be converted to signing bonuses. Defensive end Michael Brockers would create $6.5 million in cap space if he is a post-June 1 release.
▪ Eagles ($33.9 million over the cap) — The Eagles got started Friday morning by reportedly restructuring cornerback Darius Slay, center Jason Kelce, and right tackle Lane Johnson. Tight end Zach Ertz is squarely on the hot seat, and would create $8.25 million in cap savings with a post-June 1 release. Receiver Marquise Goodwin has no dead money and can save them $4.28 million with a release.
Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox are also ones to watch, but only as pay cuts or post-June 1 releases. Graham would create $13 million in space, while Cox could free up $16 million. The Eagles could also convert Cox’s $16 million salary into a signing bonus.
▪ Chiefs ($22.8 million over the cap) — They won’t have to release their stars but will be busy with restructures. Several top veterans have high salaries that can be converted to signing bonuses: safety Tyrann Mathieu, left tackle Eric Fisher, pass rusher Frank Clark, receiver Tyreek Hill, and tight end Travis Kelce. One release candidate may be right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who would save them $6 million.
▪ Falcons ($19.6 million over the cap) — Expect a purge as the Arthur Smith/Terry Fontenot era begins. The biggest albatross is Matt Ryan, but it would cost more for the Falcons to cut ($49.9 million) or trade Ryan ($44.4 million) before June 1 than to keep him ($40.9 million). The only move that makes sense, but probably isn’t realistic, is to trade Ryan after June 1, creating $23 million in cap savings.
Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett ($13.5 million), left tackle Jake Matthews ($13 million), defensive end Dante Fowler ($13 million), and linebacker Deion Jones ($8.5 million) all are restructure or release candidates.
▪ Packers ($11.4 million over the cap) — Their first order of business should be a contract extension for receiver Davante Adams, who is in the last year of his deal and can create about $9 million in cap space. Pass rusher Preston Smith would free up $8 million in space with a pre-June 1 release and $12 million afterward. The Packers can also create up to $21 million in space by restructuring Aaron Rodgers and pass rusher Za’Darius Smith.
▪ Bears ($7 million over the cap) — The Bears can create up to $28 million in space by restructuring pass rushers Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn, and cornerback Kyle Fuller. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks would free up $10.5 million in cap space with a release, and releasing tight end Jimmy Graham would create $7 million in space.
▪ Lions ($6.8 million over the cap) — They are reportedly about to release cornerback Desmond Trufant, which will free up $6.1875 million in space. Two former Patriots are on the hot seat — cornerback Justin Coleman would free up $9 million with a post-June 1 release, and defensive tackle Danny Shelton would free up $4 million with a release any time.
▪ Vikings ($4 million over the cap) — They just saved $4.3 million with the release of Kyle Rudolph but still have work to do. They can extend or release safety Harrison Smith, who has a $10.25 million cap number with no dead money. Right tackle Riley Reiff would free up $11.75 million in cap space with a release. Linebacker Anthony Barr is a candidate to be cut, with $7.26 million in savings before June 1 and $12.46 million afterward. Kirk Cousins can also turn some of his $21 million salary into signing bonus.
▪ Bills ($1.9 million under the cap) — The Bills will have to make a few moves while keeping their core together. Receiver John Brown is probably in trouble, with $7.9 million in cap savings and only $1.6 million in dead money if released. Receiver Stefon Diggs is ripe for an extension, with $13 million in salary and only $1.35 million in dead money. There are probably going to be several restructures and maybe a surprise release among Mario Addison, Jerry Hughes, Vernon Butler, Jordan Poyer, and Micah Hyde, who each have significant cap numbers with not much dead money.
▪ Steelers ($3.6 million under the cap) — They got the big order of business out of the way Thursday, agreeing to a pay cut with Ben Roethlisberger that dropped his cap number from $41.25 million to $25.91 million. But more releases are potentially coming — tight end Eric Ebron would free up $6 million, cornerback Joe Haden would free up $7 million, and guard David DeCastro would create $8.75 million in savings. An extension for T.J. Watt on his $10.089 million fifth-year option is likely.
Other potential releases — Raiders RT Trent Brown ($14 million savings); Raiders QB Marcus Mariota ($11.35 million); Seahawks DE Carlos Dunlap ($14 million); Seahawks LT Duane Brown ($11.35 million); Giants G Kevin Zeitler ($12 million); Giants LT Nate Solder ($10 million post-June 1); Titans CB Malcolm Butler ($10.2 million); Bengals DT Geno Atkins ($9.5 million); Browns DT Sheldon Richardson ($11.5 million); Browns TE David Njoku ($6.013 million); Texans WR Brandin Cooks ($12 million); Texans CB Bradley Roby ($8.25 million); Texans WR Randall Cobb ($6.484 million); Patriots RT Marcus Cannon ($7 million); Broncos OLB Von Miller ($18 million); Chargers WR Mike Williams ($15.68 million); and 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo ($23.6 million).
Steelers cash in on Roethlisberger
Speaking of Ben Roethlisberger, he must really want to play football in 2021, because the contract offer from the Steelers was a little insulting.
They forced Roethlisberger, their 39-year-old franchise quarterback of 18 seasons who won two Super Bowls and went to a third, to take a legitimate pay cut, from $19 million to $14 million. Roethlisberger would have been the 12th-highest-paid quarterback next season, and now is 14th. He will make half of Jared Goff’s salary ($28.15 million) and is ahead of only Taysom Hill ($12.2 million), Marcus Mariota ($10.725 million), and Deshaun Watson ($10.54 million) among veteran starting quarterbacks.
The main reason for doing this was for the salary cap — the Steelers were well over the cap and Roethlisberger was on the books for an unwieldy $41.25 million. The Steelers were able to lower Roethlisberger’s cap hit to $25.91 million, and pushed $10.34 million of dead money into 2022.
But the Steelers didn’t necessarily need Roethlisberger to take a pay cut. If they had kept him at $19 million, it would have only increased his cap number by $1 million this year and by $4 million next year. Roethlisberger has made more than $250 million in his career and certainly isn’t hurting over $5 million. But it’s a little surprising that the Steelers nickel-and-dimed him.
Cardinals move closer with J.J. Watt
It seems that many people were taken aback by J.J. Watt choosing the Arizona Cardinals as his destination. For a guy who seemingly wants to win a Super Bowl, why go to Arizona, which was 8-8 last year and plays in arguably the NFL’s toughest division, the NFC West?
But the Cardinals really aren’t that far off from being a contender. Kyler Murray is entering his third season, he has an elite receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, and the Cardinals now have a ferocious pass rush with Watt and Chandler Jones, who only had one sack in five games last season but had 49 sacks in the three previous seasons. The Cardinals’ schedule next season is not too daunting, with non-division games at Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Jacksonville, and Tennessee.
Watt has a lot of wear and tear on his soon-to-be 32-year-old body, but he played in all 16 games and over 90 percent of snaps last season and still has good football left.
Impressively, the Cardinals signed Watt for $28 million over two years but got his 2021 cap number at $4.9 million, thanks to tacking on three void years on the back end. Getting Watt at a low number was imperative, as Jones’s number is $20.833 million in the last year of his deal. The Cardinals still have about $12.6 million in cap space, though much of that may go to free agent Larry Fitzgerald.
Of course, signing Watt has raised the stakes for coach Kliff Kingsbury and probably for GM Steve Keim. The Cardinals’ Super Bowl odds improved from 50-1 to 33-1 with Watt’s signing. A subpar showing in 2021 could be bad news for the coach and GM.
Ravens float overtime tweaks
The Ravens reportedly will be recommending two significant changes to the overtime rules at the annual league meetings at the end of March. Both rules are based on the concept of “spot and choose.”
Instead of having a coin toss to start overtime, one team gets to spot the ball anywhere on the field, and the other team gets to choose whether to start on offense or defense. One of the proposals would entail sudden death, and the other proposal would entail a guaranteed 10-minute overtime period, which according to Pro Football Talk has the support of Bill Belichick.
With all due respect to the Ravens and Belichick, I have a hard time seeing this concept passing a vote of 24 of 32 NFL owners, who are notoriously stodgy and averse to making significant changes. The coin toss may not be perfect, but “spot and choose” seems a little gimmicky. And the 10-minute overtime period is almost certain not to pass, because the NFL is trying to reduce overtime as much as possible because of the increased risk of injury because of fatigue.
There’s holes in Patriots’ reasoning
The Patriots won in court this past week when Arkansas judge PK Holmes III ruled that the e-mails between Belichick and Robert Kraft discussing coaches’ compensation would be kept under a protective order in the Bret Bielema lawsuit with the University of Arkansas.
But that doesn’t mean Holmes was buying what the Patriots were selling, either. The Patriots’ arguments for keeping the e-mails private were certainly eye-rollers:
1. The Patriots’ competitors could “take advantage” of the salary information “to lure current or prospective coaches away” or “leverage this information in future negotiations” with the Patriots.
In reality, most NFL coaches are represented by a handful of agents, and everyone in the industry already has a pretty good idea of what the Patriots’ coaches are making. It’s only the public that doesn’t know, and that’s what the Patriots want to prevent.
2. The revelation of these private e-mails “is sure to distract the team from the difficult business of competing in the NFL to respond to queries about litigation in which NEP is not even a party.”
Yeah, the team that won Super Bowls through Aaron Hernandez and Deflategate and the Malcolm Butler drama is going to get derailed by a few e-mails between Belichick and Kraft getting published.
3. If the coaches’ salaries became public, it would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of those other individuals’ privacy and potentially subject them to annoyance or embarrassment.”
Funny, no one seems too concerned with annoyance or embarrassment when talking about player salaries. Coaching salaries should be treated with the same transparency.
Holmes wrote that he was “not convinced” that the injuries the Patriots claimed were “likely, or even plausible,” and said he could still make the e-mails public during the trial, which is scheduled to start in January 2022.
The Florida teams have shown an impressive commitment to diversity. The Jaguars have the NFL’s only non-white owner in Shad Khan, and one of just three women leading a team’s PR department in Amy Palcic. The Buccaneers have two full-time female coaches and four Black coordinators/assistant head coaches. And the Dolphins are the only team with a Black head coach and general manager (Brian Flores and Chris Grier), plus a woman leading the PR department after hiring Anne Noland from the Patriots . . . Speaking of Flores, watch your back around him. He fired old Patriots buddy Chad O’Shea after one year as offensive coordinator. He brought Chan Gailey out of retirement and fired him after one year. And Flores cut former Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy after finishing one year of a four-year deal . . . The NFL schedule won’t be released until mid-May, according to Sports Business Journal, about a month later than usual. The pandemic is a big reason for the delay, but the NFL is also smart to wait until after the NFL Draft to see where the blue-chip prospects land . . . The Buccaneers should host the NFL Kickoff Game this fall, and the top options include the Bills, Cowboys, Falcons, Dolphins, Giants, or Saints, depending on the Saints’ quarterback. I say the Bills or Falcons look like the best choices, with the Dolphins coming in third. The NFL will probably want to save Buccaneers-Cowboys for a 4:25 p.m. Sunday slot.