NFL teams have long-term salary-cap plans, and they don't include contingencies for a pandemic.
Annual salary-cap numbers in the NFL either go up or stay about the same, and teams plan accordingly. That won't be the case in 2021.
An NFL memo said the 2021 cap will be at least $180 million, which is good news and bad news. The good news is it's more than the original $175 million projection. The bad news is it's still about a 9 percent drop from $198.1 million per team in 2020.
The exact salary cap figure for each team this year hasn't been determined yet and it could be higher than $180 million. But it's probably safe to assume, after revenues were down in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, that it won't be far off that number. Assuming the cap will be about $180 million, here are five teams that are going to have to scramble a bit.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints have been on the salary cap high wire for a while. According to Spotrac, the Saints have $254.7 million committed to their top 51 players. Their current salary cap number is $24 million higher than any other team.
The Saints have 13 players with a cap hit of at least $10 million. They have 10 players who would leave behind a dead cap hit of at least $9.6 million if they're released. Drew Brees took a pay cut that freed up $24 million in cap space and that seems to be the clearest sign he'll retire, which helped. But that was already factored into that $254 million figure.
Impulsive spending (Taysom Hill and his $16.16 million cap hit really stands out) was going to catch up to the Saints sooner or later. The drop in the salary cap accelerates that. This team is going to have to do some major surgery to the roster just to get to the cap.
The Eagles are the other team lapping the field with their negative figure for the 2021 cap. Spotrac has the Eagles with $249.3 million committed to their top 51 players.
The biggest cap hit is Carson Wentz, and he'll be playing with the Indianapolis Colts. The trade did not change Wentz's 2021 cap number much, because he leaves behind a staggering $33.8 million in dead money. That is a cap savings of less than $1 million this year. It gets him off the books beyond 2021 but there are still challenges for this year.
Players like Zach Ertz, Marquise Goodwin and DeSean Jackson seem to be obvious cut candidates. That's a start. Other deals will have to be restructured, and that becomes especially urgent due to the cap drop. The Eagles' depth could take a big hit.
Los Angeles Rams
Part of the reason teams cling tightly to draft picks is that players on their rookie deals are under cost control for four or five years. The Rams are notorious for trading away draft picks, and that is contributing to their cap issues.
Todd Gurley and Jared Goff are counting more than $30 million against the 2021 cap, and they don't play for the Rams anymore. There aren't a lot of obvious cuts, because many of the players who could be cut to provide cap relief are still valuable starters. There will be a lot of restructuring going on, and perhaps a few tough cuts in the upcoming weeks.
There's a reason there is a bit of a standoff between the team and Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers' cap situation isn't as dire as the Saints or Eagles, but there will be challenges in not just getting under the cap but retaining some of their key players.
Roethlisberger has a $41.25 million cap hit and the Steelers won't carry that. Roethlisberger has expressed that he's willing to work with the team on it, but it seems to be more complicated than a pay cut. When Roethlisberger's situation is figured out, the team can then work on how to retain some of its 18 unrestricted free agents, a list that includes pass rusher Bud Dupree and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Roethlisberger is the biggest piece of the offseason, and a smaller salary cap won't make figuring that out any easier.
Kansas City Chiefs
The back-to-back AFC champs have are 28th in the NFL in cap space, according to Spotrac. The Chiefs, like the other teams on this list, will have to make some cuts and restructure some deals to get under the projected cap.
It's not like the Chiefs have too many roster worries. They were 14-1 this past regular season in Patrick Mahomes' starts. They don't need a roster overhaul or anything. But the cap situation won't get better. Mahomes' cap hit this year is not even most on the Chiefs. He has a $24.8 million cap hit, about $1 million less than defensive end Frank Clark. His cap hit will be more than $42 million in two years.
For 2021, the biggest issue is figuring out ways to clear enough space to make a few improvements. Even though the Chiefs are very good, they don't want to stagnate. There are a few contracts that can be shed or reworked to clear plenty of space, but cutting the cap to about $180 million makes it harder to compete in free agency with other good AFC teams like the Browns and Ravens, who are in fairly good cap shape even with the drop.
A year ago, a smaller salary cap in 2021 wasn't on anyone's mind. Now teams have to figure out that situation on the fly.
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