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Are the Redskins really in “Salary Cap Hell”?

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Fans seem to think that the Redskins are broke from a salary cap point of view, but that may not necessarily be the case.

NFL: Houston Texans at Washington Redskins Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

I keep reading, on Hogs Haven, comments to the effect that the Redskins are “in cap Hell”, or something similar.

I am often surprised by this notion, as the Redskins salary cap structure isn’t in any particular strife.

The Jaguars are projected to be over the cap; the Eagles have about $2m in cap space — not enough to sign their draft picks — and have a large number of key players entering free agency next month. These are situations that require a lot of management.

The Redskins sit in the bottom third of teams with available cap space, but the cap position isn’t really dire.

OverTheCap currently estimates that 10 NFL teams have less 2019 cap space than do the Redskins. That might not sound encouraging, but let me review a few salient points one at a time in an effort to put some perspective on the challenge that the front office currently faces.

1. The Redskins have 66 players under contract - the most in the NFL

As everyone knows, NFL rosters in the regular season are made up of 53 roster players and 10 practice squad players. Even before the start of free agency, or the draft, the Redskins are already 3 players over the regular season combined roster size of 63 players. Click here to see the roster in order of descending 2019 salary cap hit

No other team in the NFL has more than 62 players under contract.

The Jets, who appear at first blush to be awash in cap space, being ranked 2nd in the league with an estimated $102m available, have only 39 players under contract. In other words, they need to sign 14 guys just to get up to the standard 53-man regular season roster. That is likely to gobble up a ton of cap room very quickly on a team that is starved for playmakers and big name talent.

Of course, right now, and all the way up until final roster cuts following the final preseason game, every team counts only its 51 highest contracts towards salary cap. That means that the cheapest 15 players on the Redskins roster are ignored right now, and will continue to be until just a few days prior to opening day.

Still, six of the teams that currently have more estimated cap room than the Redskins have 50 or fewer players under contract. The point isn’t that the Redskins will improve their salary cap situation when they reduce the roster (they probably won’t), but that many teams ahead of them will see their available cap space shrink as they add needed players to the roster.

This, does, however lead us neatly to the second item.

2. The Redskins can create a lot of cap room by cutting or trading just a few players, or by renegotiating or restructuring one or two contracts

I have frequently printed the top-10 list of potential savings this off-season. I will paste it in here one more time for handy reference.

Here are the top-ten Redskins players who would have a significant effect on salary cap:

  1. Alex Smith - Restructure of contract could reduce 2019 cap hit by an estimated $9m by shifting cap dollars to the remaining 3 years of the contract. This is not a cap savings, but a mere deferral to allow more flexibility in roster construction in the short term. This idea was discussed in some detail in an article published in early December.
  2. Trent Williams - Trading Williams could reduce the 2019 cap hit by $9.34m, with and additional $12.75m reduction in 2020.
  3. Josh Norman - Trading Norman could reduce the 2019 cap hit by $8.5m, with an additional $12.5m reduction in 2020.
  4. Ryan Kerrigan - Trading Kerrigan could reduce the 2019 cap hit by $10.75m, with an additional $11.75m reduction in 2020.
  5. Jordan Reed - Cutting or Trading Jordan Reed could reduce the 2019 cap hit by $6.07m, with an additional $17.5m reduction in the remaining years of his contract (‘20 & ‘21). Alternatively, renegotiating Reed’s contract could probably create an estimated savings of $2m to $3m per season, while keeping Reed on the roster.
  6. Zach Brown - Cutting or Trading Zach Brown could reduce the 2019 cap hit by $5.75m, with an additional $8m reduction in 2020.
  7. Vernon Davis - Cutting Vernon Davis would save reduce the 2019 cap hit by $5m.
  8. Stacy McGee - Cutting or Trading Stacy McGee would reduce the 2019 cap hit by $2.275m, with an additional $10.5m reduction in the remaining years of his contract (‘20 & ‘21). With a 2019 salary & roster bonus of just $4m, 3 years remaining and no guaranteed money, it’s not crazy to think that the Redskins might be able to trade McGee for a 6th or 7th round draft pick, or swapping picks to move higher in the draft order.
  9. Chris Thompson - Cutting or Trading Chris Thompson would reduce the 2019 cap hit by $3m.
  10. Mason Foster - Cutting Mason Foster would reduce the 2019 cap hit by $2m.

There are three cuts here that I think are likely to be almost automatic: Vernon Davis, Stacy McGee and Zach Brown. Those three cuts would improve the ‘19 cap space by roughly $13m, with an additional $19.5m added back to the ‘20 and ‘21 situations.

3. The 2019 February cap space isn’t really very different from the 2017 & 2018 February cap space

Let’s see where we are right now.

OverTheCap estimates that the Redskins have $17.7m in cap space. By shedding the contracts of Davis, Brown and McGee the Redskins would have roughly $30.7m in available cap space, with 63 players under contract.

Where were the Redskins in February 2018 and February 2017?

2018

In February 2018, the world already knew about the Kendall Fuller/Alex Smith trade between the Redskins and Chiefs, but it didn’t become official until 14 March. This means that we have to adjust the available cap space number to compare apples-to-apples, since 2019 doesn’t have any pending transactions that we are aware of.


Click here to read the February 2018 Hogs Haven review of pre-free agency salary cap


Without adjustment for Alex Smith & Kendall Fullers’s contracts: $49.1m available

After accounting for Smith & Fuller’s contract: $27.4m available

The Redskins, aside from the trade, didn’t really make any big-money decisions in February last year.

The final “apples-to-apples” cap space number from 2018: $27.4m

2017

Similarly, in 2017, the Redskins placed the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins, though he waited a week before signing it. The tag number was known and was never in doubt. The cap space available, once the franchise tag was accounted for, is the number we are interested in.

After accounting for Cousins’ franchise tag: $30.55m available


Click here to read the February 2017 Hogs Haven review of pre-free agency salary cap


At that time, the key expected cuts were DeAngelo Hall, Shawn Lauvao and Niles Paul. Only two of those eventuated, adding about $6.5m back to the available cap space.

On the other hand, the Redskins had a much smaller roster in Feb ‘17, so they spent a lot of this space re-signing a number of their own players: Vernon Davis, Nick Sundberg, Junior Galette, Will Compton, Ty Nsekhe, and Vinston Painter.

This cost about $11m.

The final “apples-to-apples” cap space number from 2017: (30.55+6.5-11) = $26.05m

Apples to apples

In my view, we should be comparing the late February situations for the three seasons, ‘17, ‘18, and ‘19:

  • Key cuts made:

‘17 - Hall & Paul (which we know, retrospectively, happened)

‘18 - none

‘19 - Davis, Brown, McGee (projected)

  • QBs under contract, regardless of tag, trade or injury status:

‘17 - Kirk & Colt

‘18 - Alex & Colt

‘19 - Smith & Colt

The ‘apples to apples’ comparison of available cap space is:

  • 2017 - $26.05m
  • 2018 - $27.4m
  • 2019 - $30.7m

From each of these amounts, the team needs to subtract about $7.5m for draft picks and injury replacement during the regular season, but that is true of every team, every year.

In the end, if the Redskins part ways with Vernon Davis, Zach Brown and Stacy McGee prior to the start of free agency, which is about 2 1/2 weeks away, then, after setting aside money for draft picks and injury contingency, they should have around $23m in 2019 available cap space to spend — enough to sign 3 or 4 veteran free agents, if that’s what they want to do.

The Redskins don’t have a salary cap problem, they have a roster problem

Right now, the Redskins have a few holes in the starting roster that need to be plugged:

  • Offensive Left Guard
  • Tight end
  • Outside Linebacker
  • Wide receiver
  • Safety x 2
  • Quarterback

It’s not unusual for an NFL team to be looking for 7 starters + roster depth at this point in the season. Most teams will hope to fill 2 or 3 spots in the draft and the rest in free agency.

With 4 draft picks in the first three rounds, the ‘Skins front office has the chance to find multiple starters from among its rookie class.

The Redskins situation, where the team will likely enter free agency with enough cap space to sign 3 or 4 veteran free agents, isn’t dire; it simply means that the front office needs to be sensible in its free agent activity, making well-considered decisions.

The problem is at quarterback

If Alex Smith wasn’t out for the season, the salary cap position would look pretty much okay — very ‘normal’ for an NFL team.

The issue is that the Redskins are a team without a starting quarterback, and teams in that position are few and far between.

Without a starting signal caller, a team should expect to have at least $50m in available cap space.

When we talk about the challenges to the salary cap situation in 2019, it doesn’t mean that the Redskins are in ‘Cap Hell’, unable to sign any veteran free agents, it means that the Redskins are in a quarterback conundrum, unable to pay the price for a free agent starting QB.

The problem is that the team needs a starting QB this year, and remains a bit hog-tied by the fact that Alex Smith could still show up at camp, expecting to be (and getting paid to be) the starting quarterback in 2020.

It creates a tightrope situation, seemingly without a net.

The Redskins have cap room, but not enough to sign a proven, healthy veteran quarterback to play this season... not with Alex Smith’s salary on the books.

The Redskins have 8 draft picks, but the first one is 15th overall — a spot that is not notorious for offering a good selection of future stars at the QB position — in a draft year that is widely believed to offer no better than an average group of passers.

Theories abound over what the Redskins front office will do:

  • Sign a veteran with questions, like Teddy Bridgewater
  • Trade for an unproven veteran, like A.J. McCarron
  • Start Colt McCoy and back him up with Josh Johnson
  • Draft a QB with the 15th overall pick
  • Trade up in an effort to select a franchise signal caller for this year and the future
  • Wait until the 3rd round and pick a backup quarterback; use the draft to build a young team for 2021 and beyond
  • and the list of possibilities goes on

Ultimately, the only real problem the Redskins have with their salary cap in 2019 is that — with Alex Smith’s contract burning a $20.4m hole in the cap space with no return on investment in terms of on-field play — there isn’t enough money to pay for a proven NFL starter to replace him.

The realistic options are pretty limited:

  • Roll with Colt
  • Sign or trade for a veteran signal caller who is very cheap
  • Draft a quarterback and try put enough talent around him to survive 2019

The Redskins aren’t really in Cap Hell; they are in a place that should feel very familiar to Redskins fans — Quarterback Purgatory.

Poll

What’s the best solution to the question: Who should be the Redskins starting quarterback in 2019?

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    Colt - he’s reliable and he’s under contract
    (405 votes)
  • 5%
    Josh Johnson - he’s available, cheap, and mobile enough to stay alive. Besides, he earned it with his 2018 bail out job.
    (78 votes)
  • 25%
    Bridgewater - latent talent that should be affordable
    (356 votes)
  • 7%
    Ryan Fitzpatrick - old quarterbacks never die...
    (110 votes)
  • 8%
    Cheap & young - McCarron, Mullens, someone like that
    (117 votes)
  • 24%
    Draft pick - Lock, Haskins, Jones... someone like that
    (350 votes)
1416 votes total Vote Now

Poll

With needs at LG, TE, WR, S, OLB and QB, how many veteran free agents should the Redskins sign in March?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    0
    (32 votes)
  • 4%
    1
    (53 votes)
  • 30%
    2
    (338 votes)
  • 48%
    3
    (532 votes)
  • 13%
    4 or more
    (153 votes)
1108 votes total Vote Now