“Busy season” doesn’t solely apply to the accounting industry. The NFL’s busy season -- the weeks leading up to the start of the league year -- is the time that teams scramble to get their finances in order. Player cuts and restructured contracts become commonplace, as each team not only has an obligation to comply with the salary cap, but must also put itself in the best position for free agency.
The 2014 league year begins Tuesday at 4pm EST. Before I take a look at the salary cap situation of each team, here are a few of the most important components associated with the salary cap that impact offseason decision-making.
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Teams can now carry over cap dollars.
An addition implemented in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, teams can now roll over unused cap space from one year to the next.
Teams must adjust their books based on past player performance.
NFL contracts include Likely To Be Earned (LTBE) bonuses as well as Not Likely To Be Earned (NLTBE) bonuses. LTBE bonuses count against the cap for a given league year; NLTBE bonuses don’t. If a LTBE is not earned, teams are credited cap space for the next year. If a NLTBE bonus is earned, cap space is subtracted.
2013 was the beginning of the newly implemented “minimum spending requirement.”
Another addition to the most recent CBA, the minimum spending requirement says that the amount of cash that teams spend must be at least 89% of the total salary cap from 2013-2016. Teams can spend less than 89% in one given season, but the cumulative spending from 2013-2016 must be at least 89%.
Now let's examine where each NFL team stands as free agency begins, ranked in order of available salary cap room.
Last updated at 6:50 pm ET on 3/10/14
1. Oakland Raiders
Available Cap Space — $63,783,470
A model of inefficiency, the Raiders’ 2013 cash expenditure totaled just $88.5 million —approximately 72% of the $123,000,000 salary cap. They also had $56,077,873 in 2013 dead money hits. In other words, 46% of the Raiders’ allowable spending money for 2013 was occupied by players who weren’t even on their roster. This explains why the Raiders now have $64,329,470 of available cap space – an unprecedented amount — despite a carryover figure of only $2.2 million. It also explains the talent deficiency on their roster.
Oakland hasn’t had a winning season since its 2002 Super Bowl appearance. With their lack of talent as well as their obligation to fulfill the minimum spending requirements, look for the Raiders to throw around serious money once free agency begins.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Available Cap Space — $51,873,848
Like the Raiders, Jacksonville has a staggering amount of cap space. But in contrast to the situation in Oakland, much of the Jaguars’ cap space is a result of cap carryover (their nearly $20 million of carryover is second only to Cleveland). Jacksonville’s healthy cap situation has provided the flexibility to absorb a $2.189 million dead money hit with the release of guard Uche Nwaneri. It also allowed them to sign Chad Henne to a team-friendly deal. (Henne will account for no dead money if released after 2014.) Note that Saturday’s acquisition of run-stopper Red Bryant is not accounted for here, as we are still waiting for specifics on the structure of Bryant's contract.
3. Cleveland Browns
Available Cap Space — $49,218,350
Sensing he may already be on owner Jimmy Haslam’s hotseat, Ray Farmer has had an active first month as Browns GM. After freeing up $5.2 million of cap room with the release of D’Qwell Jackson, Farmer placed the transition tag on center Alex Mack (a $10,039,000 figure, both cash and cap). However, Cleveland’s almost $50 million of cap space may not directly correlate to their activity in free agency. With two first-round draft picks and 10 picks overall, the Browns may try to build from within. Coming to terms with Mack and extending 2015 free agent Joe Haden should be Farmer’s top priorities.
4. Minnesota Vikings
Available Cap Space — $41,250,093
Minnesota’s available cap room is actually less than the listed $41,250,093; this number has not yet been adjusted for the signings of Everson Griffen and Matt Cassel. While we await specifics of Cassel’s new deal, the Vikings likely lost some cap room by granting Cassel an option in the two-year, $7.4 million contract he signed last March. However, this won’t end up being an issue for Minnesota; their already fortunate cap situation was aided with the post-Super Bowl releases of Erin Henderson, John Carlson and Letroy Guion. This will allow GM Rick Spielman to pay above market value for free agents -- a necessary ploy in attempting to lure guys to an unattractive situation in the Twin Cities.
5. Indianapolis Colts
Available Cap Space — $37,514,024
Free agency began early for the Colts; they scooped up the aforementioned D’Qwell Jackson after his release from Cleveland last week. Jackson’s $4.75 million 2014 cap figure was mostly negated by the $4 million Indianapolis saved with the release of starting center Samson Satele. The Colts' fortuitous cap situation provided flexibility when structuring Jackson’s contract. His $1 million signing bonus means they’ll be able to cut ties with him after 2015 with just $500,000 of dead money attached.
6. Miami Dolphins
Available Cap Space — $33,948,273
Despite a 2013 free agent spending spree that included overpaying Mike Wallace, Miami is loaded with cap room for the 2014 league year. This permitted new GM Dennis Hickey to lock up cornerback Brent Grimes -- ranked 8th on the Rotoworld top 150 free agent list -- to a favorably structured contract. The dead money associated with Grimes’ contract decreases from $12,025,000 in 2015 to $3,000,000 in 2016. A similar methodology was used in the negotiations of Wallace last year, whose dead money hit goes from $23,800,000 in 2014 to $6,600,000 in 2015.
Updated at 6:35 pm ET on 3/10/14: Dimitri Patterson's release saves the Dolphins $5.3 million against the 2014 cap. The Dolphins, who don't absorb any dead money with the move, currently have close to $40 million of available cap space.
7. New York Jets
Available Cap Space — $31,775,558
The Jets’ $31,775,558 in cap space is actually misleading. Gang Green, who just cleared $9.5 million off the books with the release of Antonio Cromartie, will clear more than $16 million when they inevitably cut Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes. Look for GM John Idzik to make these moves in the coming days. In the meantime, expect the Jets to evaluate the wide receiver market, which is their biggest position of need.
Updated at 3:35 pm ET on 3/10/14: Holmes, officially released today, propels the Jets into the top five of "available cap space." They now have $39,185,558 to work with in free agency.
8. Green Bay Packers
Available Cap Space -- $29,338,930
Commend GM Ted Thompson for locking up Sam Shields before he hit the open market. While the Packers still have almost $30 million in cap space, Thompson’s history and salary-cap savvy suggest he's unlikely to go on a spending spree. He’d prefer to lock up the talent he drafted. Both Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson are entering the final years of their deals.
9. Cincinnati Bengals
Available Cap Space — $26,850,957
Cincinnati’s estimated $26,850,957 is actually slightly less; we are waiting on the specifics of guard Mike Pollak’s three-year, $5 million extension, which was agreed to on Thursday. Coming off of a loss in the Wild Card round for the third straight year, the Bengals would be wise to spend some of their cap space. If free agent pass-rusher Michael Johnson bolts to the highest bidder, a less expensive replacement is likely. But most importantly, they need to lock up A.J. Green.
10. Denver Broncos
Available Cap Space — $24,988,429
John Elway’s decision to release future Hall of Fame corner Champ Bailey leaves the Broncos in a favorable cap position. Bailey’s release freed up $10 million of cap space, placing Denver approximately $25 million under the cap.
Still, Elway may have the toughest decision-making process of any GM this offseason. Many of Denver’s key contributors -- Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno, Zane Beadles and Shaun Phillips -- are set to hit the open market. Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas are both entering the final year of their deals. Some very tough decisions lie ahead.
11. Baltimore Ravens
Available Cap Space — $24,425,100
The salary cap’s $10 million increase and the report of a potential $150 million cap by 2016 is great news for all teams. But it’s especially important for Baltimore due to the way franchise QB Joe Flacco's contract is structured. Forward-thinking GM Ozzie Newsome, who has already saved approximately $5 million in cap room this offseason with the releases of Jameel McClain and Vonta Leach, can now more confidently use his available cap space to fill current roster holes.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Available Cap Space — $23,675,539
New GM Jason Licht saved $6 million in cap space with the release of guard Davin Joseph, as well as another $1.5 million with the release of defensive tackle Derek Landri. This leaves the Bucs with $23,675,539 of cap space in spite of Darrelle Revis’ above market cap figure. One of the more active teams in free agency’s recent years, Tampa Bay certainly has flexibility to add pieces. They are reportedly interested in top free agent defensive end Michael Johnson, but he won’t come cheaply.