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Solving the Commanders’ salary cap issue created by the Carson Wentz trade

Smoke and mirrors? No, it’s just accrual accounting.

Indianapolis Colts v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

You will have heard by now; Commander Carson is the newest starting quarterback in a parade that dates back to Captain Kirk’s departure at the end of the 2017 season. Let’s hope Wentz’s tenure is more successful than those of Alex Smith, Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez, Josh Johnson, Case Keenum, Dwayne Haskins, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Of that list, Smith is the only one to have enjoyed any success, and that came at the cost of a life-threatening and life-altering injury.

Are we still drafting a rookie QB?

The move to acquire Wentz effectively scraps the “draft a rookie, too” plan, in my opinion. Wentz’s meltdown in Philly was reportedly due in part to the fact that Howie Roseman drafted Jalen Hurts right after giving Wentz a fat long-term extension that committed the Eagles to him for half a decade. Can you imagine this guy performing at peak levels with no future guaranteed money and Malik Willis on the bench?

No. The right move here will be to tender Kyle Allen as restricted free agent for a year, putting him and Heinicke both on one-year deals. (Deadline for RFA tenders is Wednesday 16 March. Cost to tender Allen: $3.99m for 2nd round tender; $2.43m for right-of-first-refusal tender)

Wentz will be the man for the next 3 years. Unless he stinks up the joint. If that happens, the Commanders can hit the ‘eject’ button and start fresh in 2023 with a drafted rookie from, hopefully, a stronger draft class, and a ton of cap space. If that happens, whoever is running the show in 2023 will be poised for a total re-boot.

That means that Ron Rivera and Martin Mayhew can use that #11 pick in April to grab the best player available (or even trade back) to upgrade the roster. I’ve heard that the team lacks talent and depth at the free safety, linebacker and wide receiver positions, among others.

What does this do to the 2022 salary cap?

While the Wentz trade frees up that first-round draft pick to be used on a position other than quarterback, it limits flexibility in another area — veteran free agency. One upshot of the trade to acquire Wentz and his $28.2m 2022 cap hit is that Washington’s cap position — which looked pretty good all offseason — suddenly doesn’t look so healthy.

The roughly $54m in cap space in January was always illusory; it was for a roster with only 35 players and only one quarterback. It was always going to disappear fast. By the time Washington had extended Charles Leno ($8.5m) and added 16 backup players on futures contracts and minimum salary deals, the cap space had shrunk to around $33m. That’s a pretty healthy number if you already have a quarterback on your roster, but it was always gonna disappear if the Commanders front office traded for a veteran quarterback.

Related articles:

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After accounting for the Carson Wentz trade, OverTheCap estimates Washington’s remaining 2022 cap space at $5.9m. That number includes Deshazor Everett. Whether Everett ends up being cut, remains on the NFI list, or moves to the Commissioner’s Exempt List, I don’t see him counting against the Comz’ cap space this season, so I’m gonna add some money back and say the “adjusted” current cap space is around $7.3m.

Paying for the 2022 draft picks

Now, $7.3m in cap space is enough if you’re about to play your Week 1 game on Sunday, but it isn’t enough to pay for the draft class and be active in the free agent market. Over The Cap estimates that the Commanders’ 6 draft picks will eat up around $4.4m in cap space.

Clearly, Washington’s front office needs to do something to free up cap dollars for free agency, which kicks off in 6 days.

Flowers & Collins

We’ve heard reports over the past few weeks of the front office trying to rework Landon Collins’ deal or extend Ereck Flowers to create cap space, and there’s no reason for those efforts to stop. But the Commanders front office can do something else that can free up a lot of cap dollars instantly.

$13m in cap space at the press of a button

I know how the team can add $13m in cap space immediately without having to negotiate with anybody — and $13m in 2022 cap space would allow the team to do something meaningful to upgrade the roster in free agency next week.

Without having to ask anyone, the Commanders front office can decide unilaterally to convert part of Carson Wentz’s 2022 base salary into signing bonus. Wentz gets the same money paid to him this year, so he’s happy. And it frees up immediate cap space that can be used to build the roster this season.

Let’s look at what I’m talking about.

You can see that Carson Wentz has a cap hit this season of about $28.3m, with cap hits in the following two years at a bit over $26m and $27m. Those numbers are attractive if Wentz plays like a top-10 NFL quarterback, and ugly if he plays like a bottom-10 quarterback.

Because the contract has no guaranteed money beyond 2022, this is effectively a one-year deal (2022) with team options for the following two seasons (2023-24) at fixed prices. This is similar to the money the Broncos will be paying to Russell Wilson, but Washington has 3 years of control instead of just the two years that Denver traded for. Let’s hope that third year of control looks like a good thing when we get to 2024.

All of these numbers can change in an instant if the Commanders’ decision-makers use the option that is available to them under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. They can create $13m in 2022 cap space by converting $19.5m of Wentz’s base salary into signing bonus, and they don’t need his permission.

You can see that, with this one simple move, Wentz’s 2022 cap hit drops from $28.29m to $15.29m, creating $13m in new cap space.

I can hear the shouts of alarm already — “But look at the dead cap hit in 2023! We won’t be able to afford to cut hm!”

This is flawed logic based on years of lazy reporting about dead cap hits from the sports media.

Let’s say that Carson Wentz suffers the fate of Ryan Fitzpatrick and has a career-ending injury in the first half of the Week 1 game.

  • Under his current contract, the Commanders would pay him $28.29m for no real return, and the money will all be charged to the 2022 cap year.
  • Under the restructured contract, the Commanders would pay him $28.29m for no real return, but they would have had use of $13m in 2022 to help build the roster.

Let’s look at the optimal outcome — let’s assume that Wentz stays healthy and plays well for 3 years:

  • Under his current contract, the Commanders would pay him $81.7m for 3 years of play.
  • Under the restructured contract, the Commanders would pay him $81.7m for 3 years of play.

Making this simple change to Wentz’s contract doesn’t stop the team from cutting him at the end of the season if he doesn’t perform. “Dead money” from signing bonus is different than dead money from future guarantees. It’s an irrelevant consideration, because the money has already been spent.

All this would do is create an accounting entry that moves $13m of 2022 cap money into 2023 (and 2024, assuming Wentz plays out his contract), which allows Washington to go out and sign playmakers next week, rather than having to wait until next year to do so. In fact, this is basically the structure of most veteran free agent signings, with a low Year 1 cap hit and an easy ‘get out’ after that.

The front office can still extend Ereck Flowers and redo Landon Collins’ deal. More cap space would be welcome. The team can spend it in an effort to bulk up the roster immediately, or the cap savings, if unspent, can be rolled over and used next year.

Cap space isn’t an unsolvable issue for the Commanders. With the $7m available after adjusting for Deshazor Everett and $13m from a simple restructure of our new starting quarterback’s salary, the team could enter free agency with $20m in available cap space, which wouldn’t be so bad.

Per Over The Cap: