NFLTR Review: Five Teams In Cap Jail In 2021 & How They’ll Bust Out

     

Happy Friday! There may not have been a Thursday Night Football game to grouch about last night, but we’ve still got a killer issue of NFLTR Review for you today. 

  • What sacrifices will the Eagles, Saints and Falcons need to make to get under the 2021 cap? 
  • Around the potential trade block for Sam Darnold
  • A look at the current 2021 NFL Draft opt-outs

The Big Picture: Breaking These Five Teams Out Of Cap Jail

Every NFL team will face the challenge of abiding by a lower salary cap in 2021 that will drop for the first time in about a decade after years of huge gains. There’s hope the final number could be propped up slightly if the NFL’s revenue loss due to the pandemic is less severe than projections, but the league gave teams a floor of $175 million to plan around. 

Some teams are better equipped to handle this than others. And a small number of teams will have to get quite creative with their accounting to get under the cap in 2021. Here are the five NFL teams with the least amount of projected cap space according to Over The Cap*

32) Saints: -$78,199,622

31) Eagles: -$68,037,130

30) Falcons: -$24,942,484

29) Rams: -$19,286,256

28) Steelers: -$17,112,571

*this includes current rollover cap space

Despite the other teams on this list being dwarfed by the Saints and Eagles, all of them will face serious restrictions on how flexible and aggressive they can be next offseason. Here’s a roadmap for how each of these teams could find their way out of cap jail. 

Steelers

In comparison, finding a little over $17 million to get under the cap isn’t the biggest challenge for the Steelers. They can get there with an extension for QB Ben Roethlisberger that uses some creative accounting with roster bonuses to push cap hits to future years without affecting his guaranteed money. Finding enough money to be flexible with the laundry list of free agents they have coming up is another deal entirely. Right now Pittsburgh is slated to lose 21 free agents including these starters: 

Odds are players like Dupree and Smith-Schuster are off to greener cash pastures no matter what. When it comes to re-signing some of the middle tier guys, though, there aren’t a lot of obvious salary cuts for the Steelers to make room. There’s TE Vance McDonald to save a little over $5 million. Maybe TE Eric Ebron or LB Vince Williams to save $6 million and $4 million respectively, though Ebron might be worth too much to the offense and Williams carries a $3 million dead money charge. 

The same is true for restructures. Pittsburgh can pick up $4 million or so by reworking DL Stephon Tuitt’s deal and that’s a relatively simple call given he’s still just 27. Restructuring 31-year-old DL Cameron Heyward’s new deal, though, makes it difficult to cut him until 2024 when he’ll be 35. 

What the Steelers likely will need to do to maximize their space is also work out extensions for players like CB Steven Nelson, G David DeCastro, C Maurkice Pouncey and CB Joe Haden. All will be entering the final year of their deals and have cap hits in the $14-$15 million range that can be lowered by converting base salaries to signing bonuses in the new deals. 

That should be a relative slam dunk for Nelson, who’s still in his prime. But the question Pittsburgh will need to ask is if extensions for older players like Pouncey, DeCastro, Villanueva and Haden will leave them stuck if the expiration date passes by. As long as Roethlisberger plays, Pittsburgh’s window is open. But the team will still need to find the right balance to strike between retooling and competing.  

Rams

Despite having what appears to be a slightly bigger hole to dig out of when it comes to the cap, the Rams are actually in a much better position. And that’s because they have multiple easy restructures to free up cap space in franchise cornerstones QB Jared Goff and DT Aaron Donald. Restructuring Goff more than wipes out Los Angeles’ current deficit by adding $20 million in space and makes sense given the Rams are fully bought in on Goff as their franchise quarterback — whether they should be is an entirely different conversation. Restructuring Donald gets Los Angeles all the way up to $15 million in space and is another relatively low-risk, no-brainer type move. 

The team once again doesn’t have a first-round pick next year so free agency will be the primary vehicle for the Rams to improve in 2021. If the Rams decide to continue to be aggressive, they could add another $21 million or so in cap space by restructuring WRs Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and TE Tyler Higbee. And while LT Andrew Whitworth retiring would leave a massive hole on the blindside, the Rams could get as much as $7 million to help fill it with Whitworth off the books. 

All told, the Rams could go from the bottom five to the top 8-10 teams in cap space next offseason. And with few pressing priorities of their own to re-sign, the most notable being S John Johnson who can be kept on the $11 million franchise tag, the Rams should be able to make some moves. 

Falcons

Whoever the Falcons hire to be their next general manager is going to find an incredibly top-heavy roster. The duo of QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones alone account for 36 percent of the team’s projected cap in 2021. Add in the cap hits for DT Grady Jarrett, LT Jake Matthews, DE Dante Fowler and LB Deion Jones and that’s $136 million out of the allotted $175 million. The other 26 players on the books for the Falcons in 2021 count $67 million against the cap, so the Falcons need to shed tens of millions just to be able to field a full roster. 

Atlanta likely will take the path of many other teams and purge all middle class veterans, in this case S Ricardo Allen, DL Allen Bailey and G James Carpenter. Bailey and Carpenter would have been cap casualties in normal years. Restructuring Deion Jones and Fowler gets the Falcons out of the hole and into the black, albeit with just 29 players under contract. At 25 and 26, both figure to remain core players under the new regime. Matthews and Jarrett also probably fit as core players at 28 and 27 respectively and under contract for three and two more years respectively. Restructuring their deals would add another $14 million. 

That’s about where the easy decisions end for Atlanta. The Falcons could — and should — trade C Alex Mack to save what’s left of his base salary to roll into next year, which at this point is about $6 million. The 34-year-old is in the final year of his deal, is unlikely to be back and could still be valuable to a contender. Outside of that, the only other way to create cap space is by changing Ryan and Julio Jones’ contracts. 

There are a few options here. Atlanta could go into full-on fire sale, everything-must-go mode and trade Jones and/or Ryan before the deadline on November 3. It would primarily be about getting picks and clearing future salary off the books. Moving Ryan now would incur almost $18 million in dead money, while it would be $9 million and change in dead cap for Jones but with a fairly big chunk of his $11.2 million base salary saved. However, ownership has already said any major personnel moves in 2020 are unlikely. 

That takes us to next offseason. Cutting or trading either player would be almost impossible with how much dead money they’re due: $44 million for Ryan and $23 million for Jones. For Jones, that leaves restructuring as the other option to move his money around and that would add another $9.5 million to the Falcons’ 2021 cap. Ryan could be restructured as well if necessary to add up to $14.6 million to Atlanta’s 2021 cap. That would essentially represent the Falcons tripling down on their current core and betting on better coaching getting more out of a group that’s underperforming. If it doesn’t pay off, they’re in nearly as bad a situation again in 2022. 

The only other possible scenario that could play out for Ryan is his salary coming off the books in some kind of June 1 move. That’s about the only way Atlanta can move on from him, as it lowers his dead cap while increasing the cap savings in 2021 to $17.5 million. However, Atlanta wouldn’t see that space until the offseason was all but done, making it useless during team-building season when it’s really needed. If the hints floating around about Ryan considering retirement crystallize into more substantial action, however, the Falcons hand will be forced and this is how they’ll soften the blow like the division rival Panthers did with LB Luke Kuechly

Eagles

Eagles GM Howie Roseman has earned a reputation as a cap wizard but 2021 will be his greatest test yet as he has $68 million worth of ground to make up to get in the black, let alone reposition Philadelphia to contend for a Super Bowl. It’s almost a guarantee the makeover of the Eagles’ receiving corps continues in 2021 with Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Marquise Goodwin all getting the axe for a combined savings of $19 million. As long as the team still believes in Carson Wentz as its franchise quarterback, restructuring him for a total of $18.3 million in savings also is a fairly obvious move. 

An extension for DT Fletcher Cox could cut his current cap hit in half and add another $11 million. Eagles RT Lane Johnson is another solid candidate to be restructured, which would come out to about $7 million in savings. Recent free-agent addition DTs Javon Hargrave and Malik Jackson also have voidable years on their contracts that can be leveraged in a restructure to add almost $16 million in space. 

Those moves put the Eagles in positive cap figures. From this point, the decisions get tougher. For as much as TE Zach Ertz has been a key player for the Eagles, a trade seems more and more likely given his contract request and Philadelphia’s situation. If he’s moved this offseason, the Eagles free up $4.7 million in cap space.

The other position in line for a shakeup is the defensive line. Former first-round DE Derek Barnett will be entering his fifth-year option at a little over $10 million a year. The Eagles are still waiting on Barnett to live up to his draft status. If he can over the rest of this season, an extension to lower his cap hit is likely in the works. Otherwise expect the Eagles to cut him and save the entirety of the option. 

There are other avenues the Eagles can take to create additional flexibility but they don’t come without risk. They could restructure contracts for G Brandon Brooks or CB Darius Slay, but those players are at an age where kicking the can down the road could come back to bite the team again like it did for Jeffery. They could trade S Rodney McLeod for about $2.8 million in cap savings if they find a partner but it would further destabilize a weak position. Thirty-two-year-old DE Brandon Graham has an astronomical cap hit at almost $18 million but the only thing Philadelphia can do about that is designate him a June 1 release and that money won’t help them until after that date when the market is usually pecked through. The same is true if C Jason Kelce retires, as the potential $5.5 million in savings wouldn’t be realized until after June 1. 

However, what could help Philadelphia in this situation is the large number of mid-level veterans who are expected to feel the pinch of next year’s salary drop. There might be more talented players than usual available once the summer rolls around, and Roseman is known for being one of the most active general managers year-round. 

Saints

For the better part of the past decade, the Saints have had one of the most aggressive salary cap strategies in the league. Taking advantage of steep cap increases year after year, the Saints were aggressive with restructures and void years to maximize their window each year with QB Drew Brees and kick the salary can down the road. Many observers and experts in the field of NFL salary cap economics derided the gambit as one that would catch up with New Orleans eventually but it took a global pandemic for the Saints’ bet on the NFL’s rising revenues to bust. 

Now the Saints have an astonishing $78 million shortfall in 2021, which seems to finally have proven all the naysayers right about their cap strategy. There’s also a strong chance this is Brees’ final season, so surely it makes sense for the Saints to take their lumps in 2021, reset and finally pay off the bill they’ve been deferring? 

Not so fast. Why change up what’s been working so well? Particularly if NFL revenues rebound and are juiced even more by gambling revenue and new TV deals like many experts project in the next few years. Not to mention Saints HC Sean Payton is one of the most confident (arrogant) coaches in the entire league and laying down is not in his DNA. To his credit, the Saints have a pretty good team even without Brees as they showed last year when Teddy Bridgewater went undefeated in his short stint as a starter. 

So instead of blowing it up, could the Saints quintuple down and try to weather the budget shortfall for a year or two until revenues start to pick back up? It’s definitely possible. If Brees retires, that accelerates all of his void years for a $22.65 million dead money charge. It also frees up $13.5 million in cap space and the Saints can add another $13.6 million by cutting G Nick Easton, DT Malcolm Brown and TE Josh Hill

New Orleans can also lower its 2021 cap commitments by doing extensions for RT Ryan Ramczyk and CB Marshon Lattimore, both slated to be on the fifth-year option at around $10 million each. The Saints can drop those cap commitments down by converting the base into a signing bonus to save a total of about $14 million. That gets us halfway there. 

Now for the restructures. If the Saints max out their base salary and roster bonus conversion for DE Cameron Jordan, WR Michael Thomas, LT Terron Armstead, CB Janoris Jenkins, G Andrus Peat, WR Emmanuel Sanders, DT David Onyemata, K Wil Lutz and P Thomas Morstead, that gives them a little over $10 million in the budget for 2021. Jordan, Jenkins and Sanders are at the age where restructures are riskier bets but the Saints have lived life by the mantra “you gotta pay the cost to be the boss” for years now. No sense in stopping now. 

This Week In Football

  • We’re barely halfway through October and already two head coaches have bitten the dust, as the Falcons fired HC Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff following Sunday’s loss to the Panthers that dropped Atlanta to 0-5 on the season. Quinn’s 1-7 start last year burnt up any margin for error he had and a defensive head coach can’t have a defense playing as poorly as Atlanta’s right now. Still, 11 games is a long time to play out the string. It’ll be interesting to see if the Falcons change their minds and become sellers at the deadline again. 
  • One other tidbit from Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s press conference announcing the move is the way he talked about QB Matt Ryan. Blank did not commit to Ryan as the team’s franchise quarterback going forward and it’s not hard to see this as the beginning of the end for Ryan in Atlanta. Blank left Ryan’s fate up to the new general manager and even hinted that the 35-year-old Ryan could walk away from the game. Regardless, Ryan represents a huge fork in the road for this franchise coming up in 2021. 
  • The relationship between the Jets and RB Le’Veon Bell that was rocky from the very start finally ended this week as New York cut Bell after failed attempts to trade him. He promptly went from the worst team in the NFL to the current Super Bowl favorite after signing with the Chiefs. What a week. 
  • Injuries are by the far the worst part of the game, and this week they claimed Cowboys QB Dak Prescott to a graphic, season-ending broken ankle. Prescott was on pace to obliterate the passing yards record and challenge for 6,000 yards, which would have put him in prime position to cash in as a pending free agent this offseason. Fortunately for Prescott, the prevailing opinion seems to be he’ll heal with no serious after-effects from this injury and he’s a strong candidate for the franchise tag in 2021 like he was before the injury. 
  • After being benched this past weekend, the situation between Washington and QB Dwayne Haskins appears to be deteriorating fast. Haskins has fallen all the way to third string and some of the glimpses behind the scenes aren’t pretty. A trade seems inevitable and the only thing arguably holding it back right now is Haskins’ lack of trade value. 
  • We’re a long way from Houston being able to replace Bill O’Brien, but there’s an early leader: Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy. He’s already one of the top candidates on the market after being the bridesmaid instead of the bride the past few seasons and has the stamp of approval from QB Deshaun Watson.
  • The 49ers elected to bench QB Jimmy Garoppolo after an awful first half against the Dolphins. Afterward, HC Kyle Shanahan said it was done for Garoppolo’s protection and it was clear the high ankle sprain he’d been battling was still affecting him. Non-story, right? Maybe. It’s worth mentioning Garoppolo was deemed healthy enough to start, the team flirted with the idea of going after Tom Brady this past spring and Garoppolo has no guaranteed money left on his contract. If Garoppolo’s poor play continues, San Francisco isn’t tied to him in 2021.

Around The Trade Block: Sam Darnold

As we sit here halfway through October, there remains an excellent chance the Jets win the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. New York is one of three 0-5 teams alongside the Giants and Falcons but the Jets have not even looked competitive except in a Thursday night tussle with the Broncos that still ended in a two-score loss. Word around the team is that HC Adam Gase might not last another month.

If the Jets do win the Lawrence derby, it means the No. 3 overall pick in 2018, Jets QB Sam Darnold, will become the latest high-profile young quarterback to be usurped before the end of his rookie contract. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reached out to executives to gauge what the Jets could salvage for Darnold, and most thought a first-round pick was wishful thinking. A second or third could be in play, though, depending on how Darnold finishes out the season. 

Schefter also outlined what a potential destination for Darnold would look like. It stands to reason any potential trade partner likely would have had a high grade on Darnold in 2018, needs a quarterback of the future and likely won’t be in a position to reliably secure one in the 2021 draft. Schefter highlighted the Bears, Colts and Saints as teams that fit that description.

The Bears are 4-1 despite instability at quarterback, switching from their own highly-picked QB Mitchell Trubisky to veteran QB Nick Foles. Trubisky will be searching for a new home in free agency this offseason while Foles has the rest of the year to make his case to be Chicago’s starter in 2021. Bears HC Matt Nagy‘s background with the Chiefs offense could draw him to Darnold, who has flashed similar sandlot-style playmaking ability in much smaller glimpses than the Chiefs quarterback. 

The Colts also went after a veteran quarterback this offseason and have not been entirely blown away with the results. Philip Rivers is not a long-term solution regardless, and whereas Darnold has had very little support around him with the Jets, that would change with the Colts’ offensive line, coaching staff, running game and even pass-catching corps. 

Finally the Saints round out the group, and Payton has become known for taking chances on once-highly regarded passers and working to repair their image. While Payton appears to view Taysom Hill as the heir to Drew Brees, Hill has thrown exactly 15 career passing attempts. Current backup QB Jameis Winston is also slated to be a free agent and Darnold could step into that role to learn and perhaps step in if Hill falters. 

All three of those teams are firmly in the playoff picture right now, although there’s plenty of season left for that to change. And Schefter’s inclusion implies all three viewed Darnold favorably coming out of the draft in a class that included Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson.

Depending on how they viewed Darnold, the Steelers could also fit in that group, as they have a potential long-term need at quarterback once Roethlisberger retires and don’t figure to be picking near the top of the draft for some time. The Buccaneers with Tom Brady also fit that description despite already having Josh Rosen on the practice squad.

Nickels & Dimes

Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL landscape…

Worth reiterating as we go further into the season: per the new CBA, Section 7, paragraph g, subsection (v), starting this coming offseason with the class of 2018, fifth-year options are fully-guaranteed upon being exercised. Previously, they weren’t guaranteed until the start of the following league year, leaving a window for teams to cut players with no penalty if year 4 went poorly…

The Steelers’ excellent draft history with wideouts deserves attention, but let’s look at the full picture here lest we forget Sammie Coates or even Limas Sweed to throw it back a little…

Part I…

Part II…

Think of this as a training wheels guide, highlighting the most conservative offenses with the quarterbacks who are trusted the least to make plays. Some of these make sense, like the Jets, Browns, Vikings and Chargers. The Rams and Colts playing it safe with Goff and Rivers tracks, too. But the Steelers, Lions and Falcons keeping the training wheels on Roethlisberger, Stafford and Ryan and their 11 combined Pro Bowls? Looks fishy…

Prescott’s injury was one of the most brutal and tragic things I’ve seen on a football field in quite some time. But in the midst of all of that, this moment was something special…

Check This Out

  • Five games into the season and Seahawks QB Russell Wilson is absolutely cooking. The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin goes in-depth on Wilson’s breakout and why we all should have seen it coming.  
  • Curious about the history of the phrase — Let Russ Cook — that’s sweeping the nation? Allow me to present an etymology by the Athletic’s Michael-Shawn Dugar
  • I will be honest, it has been hard to keep track of who has opted in, opted out and opted back in for the college football season this year. This handy-dandy tracker shows which prospects you can go ahead and start digging into for your favorite team.
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