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Putting some salary cap numbers to the task of keeping the Defensive Line together

2021 could be a season like no other to come

Cincinnati Bengals v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

It’s almost unbelievable to think that the Washington Football team is able to line up four starters on the defensive line that were each selected in the first round of the draft and taken in consecutive years.

  • Jonathan Allen was selected 17th overall in 2017.
  • Daron Payne was picked 13th overall in 2018.
  • Washington used two second-round picks to trade into the first round and take Montez Sweat with the 26th pick of the 2019 draft.
  • In 2020, with the #2 overall pick in the draft, Washington drafted a generational talent in Chase Young.

Collectively, the four make up a young dynamic defensive front that led the WFT defense to finish the 2020 season ranked 5th overall in yards allowed and 6th overall in points allowed. It has to be scary for opposing offenses to have to game plan for this incredible defensive front.

Related content: Should Washington trade Daron Payne?


But in today’s salary cap league, it simply can’t last.

A quick check of the salaries for the top defensive tackles in the league shows players like DeForest Buckner, Chris Jones, Kenny Clark and Grady Jarrett earning between $17m and $21m per year.

Meanwhile, edge rushers like Joey Bosa, Myles Garret, Demarcus Lawrence and Frank Clark all earn over $20m per year.

Washington’s front four is worth roughly $80m per year, based on what comparable veteran players are earning. That’s roughly 44% of the league’s current salary cap. Incredibly, because of the way rookie contracts are structured, Washington is actually paying these four 1st round picks a collective $25.4m – which is less than Chase Young, all by himself, would be worth on a free agent contract.

As we look to the future, the cost of signing these players will go up annually, but so will the salary cap. That’s part of how the NFL works. However, it simply won’t be possible to re-sign all four of them and keep the group together over the coming four seasons that would see each of them in turn finish his rookie deal and sign a veteran contract. There simply isn’t enough money to go around. Jonathan Allen will play on the 5th year option this season. There’s every reason to believe that each of these players in turn will have their 5th year option exercised. But it will get very expensive very fast. Something will have to give eventually.

Here’s a back-of-the-envelope look at what the cost is likely to be (with everything frozen in 2020 cap/contract context). That is, I’m making no attempt to project increases in salary cap or player salaries — just keeping it simple and assuming that every year is basically the same as 2020, which everyone is familiar with.

  • white = current contract
  • blue = estimated 5th year option amount
  • brown = projected veteran contract

I want to stress a few of things (some already stated):

  1. These are just rough estimates of what these players might cost in terms of cap space as they reach their 5th year options then sign veteran contracts, based on what similar veteran players are averaging on current contracts signed before the 2020 season.
  2. I’m holding everything steady at “2020 dollars”; that is, the option & contract amounts are roughly what they would be if the players reached these milestones in 2020, and these numbers, individually and in aggregate, should be considered in light of a league salary cap set at just under $200m per year. This is just to keep things simple.
  3. I have not used APY for the veteran cap projections, but have assumed that each vet contract would have a low Year 1 cap hit, followed by steadily increasing cap numbers through the life of the contract.
  4. I have assumed only a 3-year extension for Ioannidis, who is not projected to play for WFT beyond 2025 in this model.
  5. I have not included Tim Settle, for reasons I will discuss below. He is in the final year of his rookie contract in 2021.
  6. Allen’s 5th yr option amount is known; Payne’s 5th yr option number is based on OTC estimate; Sweat & Young 5th yr option numbers broadly estimated based on similar players.

It should be clear to see that, while the cost of this group is manageable in 2021 and even 2022, it nearly doubles from ‘21 to ‘23, and really becomes untenable in 2024 and beyond.

This is not news, but I’m hoping that the numbers, rough as they are, allow us to collectively frame the discussion of cap and roster management rationally.

Charting the path forward

Given that, by 2024, keeping this group together becomes unaffordable, having invested heavily in each player in terms of draft capital, the Washington front office should be looking to get something back when one or more of the players eventually leaves. There is always the possibility of receiving a compensatory pick in return for a player leaving in free agency, but counting on comp picks is a dicey business and the best any team can hope for is a late third round pick.

It seems as if the brains trust of Rivera, Mayhew and Hurney should be planning to trade one or more of these players after this year or next, hopefully for a 1st or 2nd round pick. But who should they try to move?

Front office priorities

Many fans see it as the highest priority for the front office to keep this young defensive line together for as long as possible, seeing it as the heart of the team. The fact is, however, that the NFL is a sport where teams are remade every year, and rosters are highly volatile even from the beginning of a season to its end as injuries bite.

We’ve just seen what happened to the Eagles when the general manager tried to hold the 2017 super bowl winning roster together for too long. The roster got too old and too expensive very quickly. The NFL is a young man’s game (Tom Brady, of course, being the exception).

The priority of the front office needs to be to maximize resources (draft picks and cap space) to field the best team possible every year. The rules of the game – draft, salary cap, rookie salaries, free agency, comp picks, and the like – force General Managers and coaching staffs to make difficult value decisions all the time. It’s a tough balancing act, and talented players these days rarely stay with a team as long as fans want them to.

It’s possible that the 2021 season will be the last time we ever see this amazing front-four of Allen, Payne, Sweat and Young together on the field wearing the same-colored jerseys. Let’s enjoy it and then see how long it lasts.