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Could the CBA rules lead Buffalo to trade for Alex Smith this off-season? Point-Counterpoint

Offseason speculation

Detroit Lions v Washington Redskins Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Okay, I admit that the headline is a bit click-baitish, but it’s hard to get people interested in the minutiae of the CBA and salary cap. I apologize if you feel cheated.

But there really is an interesting bit of salary cap stuff here — it just doesn’t naturally apply to the Redskins without a bit of creative thinking.

“I’ve got an idea!”

Bill-in-Bangkok puts on his thinking cap and tries to get creative

Enter Bill-in-Bangkok’s hypothetical world, where I spitball an idea that really isn’t likely, but may point to some of the realities team front offices face in managing the business of the NFL in 2020.

My flight of fancy started when I read an article on OverTheCap about a week ago.

One of the provisions of the 2011 CBA has to do with teams having to meet a minimum spending threshold; the rule was designed to force teams to actually pay the salary cap to players — avoiding the possibility of having a salary cap that sets an upper limit but fails to put a floor.

Teams have to pay out most of the allotted salary cap, or it will be given to the players anyway.

I wrote about this in April last year, inspired by yet another OTC article. Here’s an excerpt from that April 2019 article:

There are two cash requirements in the current CBA.

  • The first is a league wide spending requirement of 95% of the NFL salary cap over two four year periods (2013-2016 and 2017-2020).
  • The second is that each team must spend to a minimum of at least 89% of the salary cap to make certain that the 95% number is not being met by a minority of teams.

If you want a lot more detail on the concept of minimum spend, click on the link for the April article and read it... it has some good info.

What I want to focus on right now is the fact that the minimum spending requirement for the league and for individual teams is calculated in two four-year periods. The first of those periods was from 2013-16, and it passed with no minimum spending problems arising — for either the league or any individual teams.

This year, 2020, marks the 4th and final year of the second period. There is no danger that the league will fail to meet its obligation to pay out at least 95% of the allotted salary cap, but each team must do a calculation to insure that it will be in compliance with the 89% minimum.

The Redskins have no concerns. The minimum for Washington will be easily met and exceeded.

However, OverTheCap, in the article linked in the tweet above, calculated the position for each team and identified a number of teams that, to quote the OTC article, “may have little choice but to spend in free agency this year.”

Here are the teams that OTC identifies as being most “at risk” of not meeting the 89% of cap spending floor, along with a brief comment from OTC about the team’s situation:

Colts ($43m under)

Indianapolis will likely make up half of their shortage in the draft but they will most likely have to finally go out and spend at least a bit in free agency this year especially if they do not keep tackle Anthony Castonzo. The Colts may not want to get tied down to anyone for too long so this may wind up being the landing spot for “rehab” projects that take a one year deal in the hope of improving their stock.

Cowboys ($45m under)

They should hit this number with two tags this year on Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. Even if Cooper signs elsewhere just the tag for Prescott should be enough since they have other free agents to sign plus $14 million in draft pick bonuses to pay out. So I would not expect them to be forced into anything in free agency.

Ravens ($47m under)

The Ravens did increase payroll last year (they went from being close to the lowest spending team in the NFL for 17 and 18 to around 20th in 2019) and did sign Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram but if there was a year for this team to be even more active in free agency this is probably the year. This is probably a logical spot for some veteran players to chase a ring.

Chargers ($48m under)

The team will spend $25 million on their first two draft picks alone so its around $20 million they need to spend. I could see this going one of two ways. Either the team signs a few veterans and someone like Marcus Mariota to just hit the minimum spending number or they try to make a splash for their move and go after either Tom Brady or Drew Brees (I personally can’t see Brees leaving the Saints but you never know) , tag tight end Hunter Henry, and actually spend quite a bit in free agency to compete. I see this as one of the more fascinating teams in free agency this year that could stun some people with their decisions.

Bills ($53m under)

The team will only cover around $16M in draft pick spending so the Bills look to be a [hot] destination for free agents. The team has a huge surplus in cap space so they can probably structure a number of contracts favorably to maintain flexibility after 2021. Buffalo hasn’t signed a notable free agent in ages and I could see that changing this year. While I don’t think anyone is sold on Josh Allen as the guy, this is the window to take advantage of his contract so if there is a time to take more risks its 2020 for Buffalo.

Here’s where my hypothetical example puts on its wings for its flight of fancy to “what if” land.

The Bills have the most difficult situation in the NFL with regard to the salary cap “floor”; they have to spend at least $53m more in cash against the salary cap this season to comply with the CBA. Let’s say that the draft takes care of around $16m of that... the team still has to spend about $37m more.

That’s a lot of cash to be forced to spend if you don’t have specific players you want to give it to. (If you’re wondering, if the team doesn’t pay it out, the CBA allows for the unpaid money to be distributed to Bills players who were on the team in the four year period in question through an automatic mechanism beyond the control of the franchise’s owners).

Here’s where I start spitballing.

The Redskins have an aging quarterback with a dud leg who will account for $21m in cash payments in 2020. Think of Alex Smith as a great big salary cap sponge, and the Bills as a team that has a big puddle of salary cap dollars spilled on the floor needing to be soaked up.

What if the Bills could solve their problem, and the Redskins could free up some 2020 salary cap space that could be spent this season to enhance the roster? In other words, what if the Redskins could “sell” the Alex Smith sponge to the Bills? This would be a little bit similar to the salary cap-driven trade of Brock Osweiler to the Browns in 2017.

Here’s a precis of that trade from Wikipedia:

On March 9, 2017, Osweiler was traded to the Cleveland Browns along with the Texans’ 2017 sixth-round pick and 2018 second-round pick in exchange for the Browns’ 2017 fourth-round compensatory pick. This trade was termed by ESPN’s Adam Schefter as possibly the most creative trade in NFL history. The move allowed Cleveland to absorb some of Osweiler’s cap from Houston in exchange for draft picks, one of the first trades of its kind.

Imagine a trade where the Redskins send Alex Smith and their 2021 third-round pick to Buffalo in exchange for Buffalo’s 2020 7th round draft pick.

  • The Redskins get an extra 2020 late round draft pick + $21m in cap space.
  • The Bills get a 2021 3rd round pick + wipe out $21m of their existing $37m salary cap problem.

The specifics of the draft picks would be subject to negotiation, but at the cost of, say, a 3rd round pick (in my example), the Redskins could have $21m in cap space available to help patch their roster with some veteran free agents right away. The Bills get much closer to being able to solve their minimum spending issue and receive a good draft pick next year as compensation — the Redskins get much-needed salary cap space that will allow them to fill several roster holes this year! We can use cap dollars instead of trading back for extra picks; that means that the ‘Skins can draft Chase Young, and still sign veteran free agents at Guard, Tight End and Linebacker, without taking any steps backward from the current salary cap situation. The Rivera-era would be off to a flying start! This is the very definition of a win-win.

In my scenario, I have no expectation that Alex Smith will play for the Bills. This would be a matter of a transaction in which the Redskins are effectively “selling” a 2021 draft pick in exchange for 2020 cap space dollars. I expect that Smith will retire without ever playing another down in the NFL.

A wildcard I don’t know the answer to is the structure of the Alex Smith $12m insurance policy, and what happens with that payout if he is traded this off-season. If the payment followed Alex to Buffalo, that would dramatically change the value proposition of such a trade, at least for Washington, and maybe for the Bills as well, depending on the timing of the payout.

Still, with a new cap manager taking over in DC, there may now be room for this sort of creative cap & contract management. Who knows? Maybe Adam Schefter would pronounce it the new “Most creative trade in NFL history”, replacing the Osweiler deal.

“Bill, you ignorant slut.”

Counterpoint by KyleSmithforGM

On a young team, already hamstrung in the upcoming draft by having traded away its 2020 second round pick last year, the prospect of trading additional draft capital to offload Alex Smith early just adds insult to injury. Let’s go back to the Brock Osweiler trade, which is a perfect analog for the situation described. While the Browns absorbed the cap hit without issue, do you know what they did with the second round pick (#35) that they received from the Texans to take Osweiler? They used it to draft Nick Chubb, the guy who just finished second in the NFL with 1,494 rushing yards and 278 reception yards.

The reality is, the Redskins need draft capital more than they need cap space at this point. In 2020, with the likely cuts of Josh Norman and Jordan Reed, the Redskins will have around $60M in cap space, even with Alex’s albatross of a salary. That number could jump significantly higher if Trent Williams and/or Ryan Kerrigan are traded away. I would argue that 2020 is, in fact, a reasonable time to consider accelerating Alex’s cap hit of around $32M, to clear the slate for 2021. Even that would allow the Redskins about $49M in cap space to sign free agents or extend their own players this year. For the sake of this exercise, however, let’s assume they don’t take the entire hit this year.

If they allocate $15M to sign draft picks, $14M to sign a guard, $5M to sign a tight end, and $5M to sign a free safety, that’s $39M, leaving us with $21M in cap space to potentially do something at linebacker and/or cornerback and have a little bit left over. The two players who could potentially be given 5th year options, Jon Allen and Rueben Foster, should be passed over this year, as neither is playing at a level that would merit what the 5th year option would pay them. Other players whom we may well look to extend, like Quinton Dunbar, aren’t making enough that we would want to draw out their cap hit into future years.

The reality is, 2020 is the perfect year to try to accumulate additional draft capital, through an early round trade back or two, to continue laying the foundation of the team, and to use free agency judiciously, and, ideally without much comp pick impact, to shore up some of the glaring weaknesses on the team for the next year or two.

Though the Bills would surely love your proposed draft capital giveaway, I’d advise that we dropkick it off the turnbuckle and through the folding table in the parking lot of New Era Field.


If the Bills were willing to agree to the deal outlined in this article, would you be willing to to make the trade (Smith + WAS 2021 3rd pick for BUF 2020 7th round and $21m in cap savings)?

This poll is closed

  • 41%
    Yes, absolutely
    (373 votes)
  • 42%
    (379 votes)
  • 15%
    This just makes my head hurt
    (143 votes)
895 votes total Vote Now


Which view do you agree with more?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    Bill-in-Bangkok came up with an insightful and creative idea. We should think this way more often.
    (216 votes)
  • 46%
    KyleSmithforGM totally shredded the stupid notion of trading away draft picks just to create unneeded cap space.
    (330 votes)
  • 22%
    This just makes my head hurt.
    (160 votes)
706 votes total Vote Now