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Do the Redskins have the cap space needed to sign Tre Boston to a free agent contract?

The Redskins seem to have a roster hole at safety; Tre Boston is looking for a job. Why not imagine the team and the player getting together?

Arizona Cardinals v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Introducing the hypothetical

Let me start right here: I have not heard a single report from anyone, anywhere that suggests that the Redskins are looking at signing Tre Boston or any other veteran free agent safety this off season.

Let’s think of this as simply a thought-exercise... a “what if” kind of thing.

The Redskins seem to have a roster hole at safety; Tre Boston is looking for a job. Why not imagine the team and the player getting together?

The key idea is to figure out if the Redskins can still use veteran free agency as a roster tool in 2019, or whether they are too hobbled by lack of cap space. Tre Boston is really just a proxy for any free agent the Redskins might hope to sign this late in the off-season.

Topics for discussion

I want to discuss 5 things in this article:

  1. The proposed timing of my hypothetical signing of Tre Boston.
  2. The estimated current cap space (before accounting for draft picks) per OverTheCap
  3. Estimating the amount of cap space required to sign the ten drafted rookies
  4. Setting aside a “contingency” fund
  5. Whether a Tre Boston contract could fit into the remaining cap space

Whether the Redskins use some available cap space to sign a veteran free agent ahead of training camp or not, I think there’s value in the exercise.

Topic One: Timing

Why would the Redskins sign Tre Boston now? After all, veteran free agency opened up in mid-March. After two months of non-action, why would the franchise suddenly sign a veteran safety?

Of course, one factor could be the draft. In other words, the team didn’t see a safety it liked at any of its draft positions, so now, with an apparent hole in the depth chart, they have to scramble and do a bit of back-filling.

But if that’s the case, why didn’t they jump on this on Sunday or Monday, right after the draft ended? Why wasn’t there a sense of urgency?

The answer to this question has been discussed a few times in the comments section of Hogs Haven, but in case you missed that discussion, the answer lies with the way compensatory picks are calculated.

The first rule of compensatory picks is that you have to lose more qualifying compensatory free agents than you sign. The clock starts running on the first day of the new league year, and, these days, it stops running on the second Tuesday after the draft.

What that means is that any qualifying compensatory free agent (QCFA) gained or lost by a team between the start of free agency and ten days after the draft counts in the formula. Any QCFA signed after that does not count.

If you’re a team like, say, the Detroit Lions, that has already signed 6 QCFAs without losing any, this isn’t a consideration, as signing another one won’t affect their position; they aren’t going to be awarded any compensatory picks in 2020, no matter what.

The Redskins are in a very different position. According to calculations done by OverTheCap, the Redskins have lost four QCFAs while signing three, and are currently in line to receive a 4th round compensatory pick in 2020.

If they signed a QCFA before the 8th of May, then, with four lost and four gained, the expected 2020 pick awarded as compensation for Jamison Crowder would be forfeit.

By waiting until after 7 May to sign a player who would be a QCFA if signed today — which Tre Boston would be — the Redskins keep open the opportunity of preserving the expected free draft pick.

Other teams that may be motivated to wait until Wednesday to sign veteran free agents include the Patriots, Dolphins, Ravens, Steelers, Texans, Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers, Giants, Eagles, Bears, Rams, and Seahawks. You might add the Panthers to that list, although they seem to only have a single 7th round pick at risk.

The point is that — while about half the league is in a position to sign QCFAs anytime without risking the loss of a potential compensatory draft pick — the Redskins are in the half of the league that has motivation to wait a few more days. With only one pick expected, and it being a relatively valuable 4th round pick, the Redskins may be among the teams with the strongest motivation to wait.

Next week there should be a small flurry of signings as teams that have been holding off try to fill out their rosters with veteran free agents without adverse impact to their 2020 compensatory draft pick situation.

If the Redskins plan to sign Tre Boston (or any other potential QCFA), they should do it on 8 May or later.

Topic Two: Estimated current cap space for the Redskins

Cap space can be a difficult number to pin down. It is a number that has to be estimated by making a number of assumptions about dozens of contracts, so there is often a difference between sources. I have looked carefully in the past and found that one site might still be counting a player who’s been cut, or not yet added a player recently signed. One site may account for practice squad players (as they should), while another site may not.

Over the years, I have personally become most comfortable with OverTheCap. In fact, I have become so comfortable with the site and its authors’ overall views on ‘capology’ that, this week, I splurged the US$9.99 necessary to buy their book, Crunching Numbers, which I plan to read during my summer vacation, which started about three hours ago.

At the time of writing, only the Redskins’ final draft pick, Jordan Brailford has been signed, and this is what the cap estimate from OverTheCap looks like for the Washington Redskins:

The “pre-draft” cap space for the Redskins is estimated to be about $12m.

For the purposes of this article (and generally, for anything I write about salary cap) the source of all my numerical estimates is OverTheCap (OTC).

Topic Three: Estimating how much cap space will be required to sign the ten drafted rookies

There is probably nothing in the NFL salary cap arcana that causes more confusion than the rookie draft pool — that is, the amount of cap space teams need to set aside in order to sign the young players they just drafted.

A common sense thought is that the number should be easy to figure out — jus add up the value of the rookie contracts to figure out how much you need.

It’s true that this approach works fine when you want to figure out how much cash you need to take to the supermarket to buy everything on your grocery list, but the special rules that apply to NFL salary cap — and especially the special rules that apply to the off-season — make it a much less straightforward exercise for salary cap purposes.

I wrote about this in a dedicated article just a few weeks ago.

[T]he CBA establishes the “Rule of 51” that applies to every NFL offseason roster. The rule is very simple:

Throughout the off-season, only the players with the 51 largest cap hits for the season will be counted toward the salary cap.

This is significant because, when a player is signed to a contract, we don’t just account for his cap hit, we also have to account for the cap hit of the player he pushes out of the top 51.

Step One of the calculation is simply to identify the team’s draft picks, and the expected contract value of each of those picks. Fortunately, the people at OverTheCap do all that work every season for us, and it’s as simple as clicking the link to the Rookie Pool page at OverTheCap.

Unfortunately, because OTC hasn’t yet updated their chart to account for trades made during the draft, a little work is required right now to figure out the estimated cost of each Redskins draft pick. It’s not as easy as just clicking on the usual link.

I spent a bit of time and got the 2019 cap hit estimates from OverTheCap for the ten actual picks made by the Redskins:

  • #15 $2,621,200
  • #26 $2,116,592
  • #76 $745,805
  • #112 $683,583
  • #131 $657,700
  • #153 $572,708
  • #173 $553,719
  • #206 $526,958
  • #227 $519,473
  • #253 $513,645

Remember, these aren’t ‘written in stone’ numbers, and they don’t represent cash or average contract value. Rather, they are estimated first-year cap hits for slotted draft positions. The estimates are made by OTC based on past data projected for 2019. There may be some variance in the final numbers, but my experience with OTC suggests that their numbers are usually pretty close to the mark.

When you add them up, the total is $9.511m of cap space that should be consumed by the Redskins’ ten drafted rookies.

But that’s not the end of the calculation!

Remember that the Rule of 51 means that we’re only counting the 51 highest cap hits for 2019. We won’t actually need to allow the full $9.5m for signing the rookies. In fact, we won’t need to allow even half that much!

Let’s look down near the bottom part of the Redskins roster when it is ordered for 2019 salary cap hit, from highest to lowest:

Notice that in this pre-draft list, the top-51 cutoff has Trey Quinn as the last player included in the Redskins roster for salary cap purposes, with a 2019 cap hit of $587,268.

Danny Johnson, with a cap hit of $573,333, falls below the 51-player limit and simply isn’t counted on the roster for salary cap purposes in the off-season.

When we add ten drafted players to the roster, they will displace ten spaces in this calculation. That means that, when we add, for example, Dwayne Haskins to the roster with his estimated cap hit of $2,621,200, he will push Trey Quinn below the 51-player cutoff, so the net cap hit is only $2,033,932 ($2,621,200-$587,268).

When we account for all 10 draft picks in this way, this is the result:

The top 5 draft picks (Haskins, Sweat, McLaurin, Love, Martin) will push Quinn, Stroman, Hamilton, Alexander and Settle below the 51 player cutoff, so we need to subtract the cap hits for the 5 veterans from those of the 5 highest-drafted rookies. The net cap space used is $3,794,357.

The remaining 5 rookies, all drafted in the 5th round or later, do not have cap hits high enough to put them in the top-51 salaries on the roster, so these 5 players have zero impact on the off-season salary cap, due to the Rule of 51.

So, the Redskins need to allow approximately $3.8m in off-season cap space to sign the rookie draft class.

Topic Four: Setting aside a contingency fund

As every Redskins fan is aware, injuries happen during the preseason and regular season. When they do, players need to be replaced, which means adding to the salary cap burden.

The ‘good’ news is that replacement players signed during the season don’t usually command big contracts. Also, the salary cap hit is pro-rated for the number of weeks they are on the roster, so, as a simplistic example, a player who signs, say, a $1m per year contract, but who plays only 14 of the season, would carry a salary cap hit of only $250,000.

Each team’s front office has to enter the season with a ‘contingency’ plan for signing players when injuries bite. Usually, the plan is simply to maintain some available cap space, but it could also involve having an agreement in place with a highly paid player or two, allowing the team to restructure the players’ contracts by converting salary to signing bonus. A number of teams do this every year; it is considered standard practice in NFL salary cap management.

By way of example, using a contract every Redskins fan would be familiar with, Alex Smith is due a $15m salary in 2019, and his contract runs through 2022. If the Redskins wanted to create instant cap space, they could, for instance, convert $13m of his salary to signing bonus. The full $15m would still be paid to Alex in 2019 ($13m bonus + $2m salary), but the $13m bonus would be pro-rated into $3.25m per year for 4 years.

This doesn’t hurt Alex Smith — in fact, it accelerates his cash flow — so he should be happy to sign the adjustment.

For the Redskins, at the stroke of a pen, they would create $9.75m in cap space. The year-by-year cash flows haven’t changed at all, and the overall cap hit of Alex Smith’s contract hasn’t changed either. If, as expected, the Redskins release him at the end of 2020, they end up in exactly the same place as they would have been if they hadn’t done the restructure. It’s merely a bookkeeping entry, changing a one-year expense for salary into a 4-year accrual for signing bonus.

It’s smoke and mirrors, but if the team needed cap space, this would be a no-risk move that gives them flexibility to sign injury replacement players so they can field a 53-man squad without even changing the cash flows.

Using a different example, the Redskins would likely create an additional $3m or so in cap space, for exactly the same reason that an Alex Smith restructure would create space, by signing Brandon Scherff, currently on his 5th year option, to a long-term contract with a substantial signing bonus.

Of course, cutting players with significant salaries (frequently discussed players include Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis, Mason Foster and Josh Norman) also clears cap space, though the players obviously need to be replaced. at some cost.

Every team has these opportunities.

Some teams that currently face severe cap space restrictions, like the Buccaneers, Vikings, Falcons, and Steelers — all of whom need to clear cap space just to be able to sign their draft picks — will almost certainly need to rely on contract restructures, roster cuts or carefully structured trades to ‘create’ cap space. Additionally, the Rams, Saints and Panthers all may need to do some creative roster or contract restructuring ahead of the regular season in order to have sufficient space to sign injury replacements as needed.

This is why front office personnel like Eric Schaffer are employed. It’s Schaffer’s job to look after the cap health of the Redskins.

One of the things that I admire about Schaffer is that, even with the 2012-13 cap penalties and the rash of 2017-18 injuries, he has steered the Redskins clear of the rocky shoals of cap space problems that force restructures and ‘cap cuts’.

In Washington’s case, the team has enough 2019 surplus cap that no contract restructures are necessary.

When it comes to having cap space available at the start of the regular season, the typical number that is bandied about is around $4.5 to $5m in cap space as a contingency for signing injury replacement players during the season.

Topic Five: Can a Tre Boston contract fit into the remaining cap space?

There are two elements to this question:

  • First, how much cap space will the Redskins actually have available come Wednesday?
  • Second, what would a Tre Boston contract look like?

Cap space available to sign a free agent this week

This question should be fairly easy to answer now.

  • Pre-draft available cap space: $12m
  • Rookie draft pool required: $3.8m
  • Injury replacement contingency: $4.7m (say)
  • 2019 cap space available for signing veteran free agents: $3.5m

If the Redskins want to sign Tre Boston (or any other free agent) this week, they have $3.5m cap space available to do so without making any cuts or restructures. Remember, though, that at the stroke of a pen, they could open up more than $9m in additional cap space, if they needed it, without affecting the roster, the cash flows or the team’s cap liability exposure.

Structure of a Tre Boston contract

Tre Boston will be 27 years old next month; he has played 5 seasons in the NFL, and his best contract year was 2018 when he earned $2.5m as a free agent.

What would be a reasonable contract for him, now that the bulk free agency has passed and teams have drafted college players to fill out their rosters?

I’ve got to believe Boston wants to play. He got a cold slap in the face last season when he signed a one-year ‘prove it’ deal. It would appear that he didn’t prove as much as he’d expected since he is still on the market.

I don’t think he has a prayer of getting paid like a top-tier free agent right now, but I would think he may be willing to take a contract comparable to a player with similar skills who recently signed — especially if it is a big step up from last year’s $2.5m.

I’m gonna suggest 27 year old Kenny Vaccarro as a proxy. Let’s see what OverTheCap reports about Vaccaro’s deal:

Kenny Vaccaro signed a 4 year contract with the Tennessee Titans, in the heat of free agent frenzy, on March 15, 2019. The contract is worth $24 million with $7.25 million guaranteed at signing with a total guarantee of $11.5 million. Vaccaro received a $6 million signing bonus. Vaccaro’s 2019 salary is fully guaranteed, and 2020 base salary is guaranteed for injury only at signing.

In my opinion, at this point in the off-season, Tre Boston would be lucky to get a deal that matches this Vaccaro contract that was signed “in the heat of free agent frenzy”. I would expect a deal between Boston and the Redskins to be more of the type that they did with Swearinger — say, 3 years, $15m.

But let’s assume that a couple of teams try to sign Boston, and that he swindles Bruce Allen, who decides to match the Kenny Vaccaro contract. Do the Redskins have the necessary cap space for this deal?

This Vaccaro contract with the Titans is a pretty standard NFL contract — pretty much plain vanilla — with an APY of $6m per year. Notice that the 2019 cap hit of $3.156m fits neatly into the $3.5m the Redskins have available without having to get a shoehorn and get creative.

This would be an easy deal for the Redskins to do. It wouldn’t strain their salary cap capacity at all.

If Boston wants a richer contract than this, I’d suggest the Redskins just say ‘no’ and look at other options to enhance the safety depth chart, but since this is just a thought exercise anyway, let’s see if a guy like Eric Schaffer could get the shoehorn out and create an even richer contract for Tre Boston.

Let’s see if the Redskins could match the $9m per year that Green Bay just gave to 26-year-old Adrian Amos.

Here’s a look at the Packers’ contract with Amos:


His cap number is $5.9m in 2019, which the Redskins can’t afford.

But the CBA allows for lots of creative accounting in salary cap. Eric Schaffer has lots of tools at his disposal, and I know a few of the standard techniques.

Can I give Boston a contract that is roughly comparable to the Amos deal, but fit it into the $3.5m that the Redskins have available this year?

  • The Amos contract will pay out $36m over 4 years. My structure would not pay anything in Year 5 (voided year), so Boston would receive the same $36m over 4 years.
  • The Amos contract will pay him just over $14m in cash in 2019 and about $20.8m over the first two years. Boston would receive $11m in 2019, and $20m over the first two years.
  • The Amos contract has $12m guaranteed at signing. Boston also gets $12m guaranteed at signing.

I’m not trying to say this is the best possible structure for the hypothetical Boston contract; I’m simply trying to illustrate that nearly anything is possible with NFL contract structures if you know what you are trying to achieve. Eric Schaffer did a lot more magic than this when he signed Landon Collins to a $14m per year deal with a 2019 cap hit of $4m.

The contract structure presented here for a hypothetical Tre Boston contract for 4 years, $36m, with a Year 1 cap hit under $3.5m took me about 6 minutes to put together.

Eric Schaffer is a lot smarter than I am, and he’s had two months to work out the details.

If the Redskins want to sign Tre Boston — even to an above-market deal — the salary cap should not be an impediment.

Bottom line

The Redskins have about $3.5m in 2019 cap space available to throw at a veteran free agent, and, in my mind, the most glaring roster hole they have at the moment is at safety.

There are several players available, but the one that I’m focused on right now is Tre Boston.

I asked the question in the title: Do the Redskins have the cap space needed to sign Tre Boston to a free agent contract?

The answer is: yes, absolutely.

The recent Kenny Vaccaro contract provides a pretty standard template that the Redskins can afford without having to exercise any real creativity in structuring the contract, but hopefully the spreadsheet comparison I made with the Adrian Amos contract shows that, really, anything is possible.

I’ve got no idea if the Redskins are planning to sign a free agent safety next week, but if they want to, cap space won’t be an issue.


Should the Redskins try to sign a veteran free agent safety this off-season?

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