There’s a belief that you can determine an NFL team’s roster flexibility to a degree based on three key salary-cap numbers: how much money they’re allotting toward the quarterback and running back (fullbacks included) positions, along with how much “dead money” they have weighing them down.
In turn, that flexibility — also relative to how much cap space they have — can give you an idea for how well each team manages its cap and can fill up the roster with talent at other positions.
Each number means something different in context. In the table below, we’ve shown where each team stands relative to the $177.2 million cap. (All numbers are courtesy of Spotrac and are rounded to the closest $100K.)
For quarterbacks, that’s typically the position teams are forced to spend the most at. But in the cases of teams such as the Seattle Seahawks in the early part of this decade (when Russell Wilson was on his rookie deal), last year’s Philadelphia Eagles (same with Carson Wentz) and this year’s Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Bears (Jared Goff and Mitch Trubisky, respectively), having smaller-than-average numbers committed to QB salary opens a rare window into short-term cap freedom that many teams are not fortunate to experience.
All numbers are courtesy of Spotrac and are rounded to the closest $100K.
For the RB position, spending isn’t necessarily bad, per se, but it’s a spot that previously has been depressed financially. Of course, that appears to be changing with five backs drafted in the top 10 picks the past four drafts (after only two were taken that high in the drafts from 2009 to 2014) and Todd Gurley receiving his banner extension this offseason. But it's still a position where some teams have had success with lower draft picks (and hence lower money) and have been able to save at versus the cap.
Dead money is almost always an anchor for progress. It’s defined as money counting against the cap for players who are no longer on the roster. Teams that can limit that figure are not weighed down by bad contracts and thus can spend more freely elsewhere. The league average per team is $12.7 million in dead money, but that average is also skewed by more than $1 million by the Buffalo Bills’ shockingly bad cap management.
Consider this: At a whopping $53.5 million in dead money, the Bills have more than $30 million more sunk into useless salary than any other team save for the Dallas Cowboys, who are second at $27.8 million. That’s 30.2 percent of the Bills cap committed to players not on their roster. Four players alone count for $41.2 million of that dead money in 2018, or almost a quarter of their cap this year: DT Marcell Dareus ($13.6M, traded to Jaguars last year), C Eric Wood ($10.4M, retired this offseason), OT Cordy Glenn ($9.6M, traded to Bengals this offseason) and QB Tyrod Taylor ($7.6M, traded to the Browns this offseason).
Almost all of that money will disappear from the Bills’ 2019 books, but for this year it’s clear that they’re weighed down significantly with all that dead weight. It’s not stunning then that many believe the Bills are in full rebuild even after making the playoffs a year ago.
That’s even with QBs Josh Allen and Nathan Peterman combining for less than $4.5 million this season. It turns out that the A.J. McCarron signing did them no favors, though, as he counts for $2.1 million in dead money this year and another $2 million next year. They also took a big hit in trading for WR Corey Coleman and his $3.5 million cap hit — and then releasing him a few weeks later.
On the other end of the spectrum, consider the work done by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Oh sure, this is a team that might not be ideally structured in terms of total roster talent, and there’s the problem with their starting quarterback, Jameis Winston, suspended for their first three games. But no team has trimmed its roster fat better than the Bucs for this season.
General manager Jason Licht and the Glazer family deserve praise for the way they’ve minimized their dead money — a league-low $2.1 million. No single player let go is currently counting for more than $600,000 against their roster, and that type of thriftiness is the envy of front offices around the league.
With relatively little money committed to their quarterbacks and running backs, and with just under $6.4 million in cap space now, the Bucs in theory have the most bang for their roster buck than any other NFL team — by a long shot. That’s about $150 million in salary committed to the other positions on the roster this year, although that also accounts for a shade over $6 million in players on the injured reserve.
As mentioned above, the teams with quarterbacks on their rookie deals have an advantage that other teams can dream of. So in this regard, no team should be better positions to load up elsewhere than the Cowboys.
With QBs Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush and Mike White tallying a minuscule one percent of the team’s cap, Dallas should in theory be open to spending wildly in the short term to bolster their roster elsewhere. But with $27.8 million tied up in dead money — about one-sixth of their cap — that significant advantage has been almost wholly negated.
Tony Romo and Dez Bryant currently combine to count for $16.9M against Dallas’ 2018 cap. (On the bright side, both are wiped from the books in 2019.) The Cowboys for years have kicked the can down the road with restructuring their monster contracts they’ve signed their own players to, and it’s continually bit them in the tails because of it. Scary thought: Imagine where they might be had Prescott not emerged as a fourth-round rookie … although maybe Romo would still be playing?
You certainly can understand why the 49ers would front-load the extension for QB Jimmy Garoppolo and the free-agent deal for RB Jerick McKinnon, which skews their numbers a bit. There’s no way we are going to argue that they have mismanaged their cap in the way that Dallas has. But it hurts that McKinnon is still counting for 4.5 percent of this year’s cap even after he landed on injured reserve prior to Week 1. Only the Bills have more money tied up in QB/RB/dead money than the 49ers, and only the Browns have more unused resources if you count those totals plus salary-cap space in 2018.
These numbers are all relative, of course. No one of sane mind is going to suggest that the Saints ($29.6M committed to QBs Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill) are “doing it wrong,” for instance. Brees is a future Hall of Fame QB, Bridgewater is a terrific insurance policy who likely could start for multiple teams and Hill is the rare QB3 who contributes on a weekly basis (on special teams).
Nor can you say that the Steelers have “botched their cap” with an NFL-high $17.4 sunk into the RB position, with the bulk of that committed to the franchise tender for current holdout Le’Veon Bell. You can have the argument of whether Bell is worth that much or if Bell should have accepted the team’s long-term offer at slightly less annually than what he’s making this season. That’s an entirely different debate and can’t be viewed through a one-year prism.
But on the whole, these numbers do tell a pretty interesting story about how teams structure their salary caps — and why they have so little or so much flexibility elsewhere. “How do they have the money?” is a common question that pops up during free agency, and this table gives a pretty good idea why some teams can add more talent and re-sign their own players so readily while others are more handcuffed in those efforts.
That the Rams have been able to extend so many of their own players and add outside players to big-money deals, even accounting for having Goff on a rookie contract, is a testament to the balancing act that GM Les Snead, executive vice president of football operations/COO Kevin Demoff and vice president of football & business administration Tony Pastoors have been able to pull off in the short term.
Will the Rams eventually run into the trouble that the Cowboys and Bills are currently experiencing? Or will they be regarded in a few years — even after Goff signs an extension — as the type of savvy bookkeeping team that the Eagles, Chargers, Falcons, Vikings and other contending teams with big-money quarterbacks have become?
That could be the difference between them being contenders for the next several seasons and seeing their Super Bowl window snap shut in the blink of an eye. And that’s another reason why the NFL is a game of parity: Talent is the bottom line, sure, but there still are not enough teams that do a good enough job of managing their finances to allow that talent to thrive properly.