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What is the salary cap doing to NFC East rosters?

It’s tough sledding for two teams

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Giants Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

Over the past decade, I have spent a lot of time looking at the salary cap in the offseasons. I graduated from university when computers still took up entire rooms instead of a just space on your desk, but my degree was in business administration and management. Before moving to Bangkok and semi-retiring as a university teacher 17 years ago, I spent most of my adult life managing businesses, including 11 years spent in the finance industry in Australia. I mention this to highlight that I have a keen interest in and extensive experience with business budgeting and financial planning, which I think gives me a different view of salary cap planning than people with different backgrounds might have. That is to say, I find both the broad strokes and the nuances of salary cap management very interesting.

That doesn’t make me an expert; rather, I am a hobbyist, interested in salary cap, but reliant on others for a lot of the knowledge that informs my interest.

Related articles:

NFL salary cap set at $208.2 million; Washington has $33.38 million in cap space heading into free agency

Washington Commanders expected to release Landon Collins after he wouldn’t take a pay cut

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

That said, I often write things on the Hogs Haven about salary cap, some of which people don’t agree with. The most common point of disagreement is over the issue of “dead cap” hits. The general habit of fans and sportswriters is to say, for example, that a team “can’t afford the dead cap” that would be incurred if they were to cut a given player. If the dead cap they are talking about is from unallocated signing bonus, then it is not a question of whether the team can afford it — the dead cap will be charged to the team whether the player is cut or retained because the money has already been spent. The pertinent question is the value of the cap savings if the player were to be released or traded.

Let me use that as an introduction to today’s topic of what the salary cap is doing to NFC East rosters. I’d like to start by giving you an example from the Dallas Cowboys.

What’s happening in Dallas?

The Dallas Cowboys are currently tying to trade away their starting right tackle, La’el Collins, presumably in an effort to save cap dollars — but...not really.

See, La’el Collins has a cap hit of $15.25m this season, but by by trading him or cutting him, the Cowboys would improve their cap position by only $1.3m due to the dead cap on his contract (part of which is from a conversion of $7m of his 2021 base salary into bonus to lower his cap hit last season).

It seems unlikely that the Cowboys would cut Collins to save $1.3m because they can’t replace him with a talented right tackle for that kind of money. But, reportedly, they are interested in trading him.

Jerry & Stephen Jones seem ready to move on from Collins because, well, he hasn’t been good value since he hasn’t played very much lately. Collins spent the entire 2020 season on injured reserve ($5m cap hit) and was suspended for 5 games in 2021 ($6.3m cap hit). The Jones boys have decided to cut bait if they can by selling Collins for draft picks. Any team that trades for him will get a quality right tackle a the cost of exactly $10m per year for the next three seasons.

However, in my view at least, if Dallas can’t get the deal that they want for Collins, then they can just keep him, pay him, and play him in 2022.

The question isn’t whether they can afford the $14m cap hit for releasing him — that money is already gone. The question is whether they can replace him with the $1.3m savings (they can’t) or whether they can sell his contract for a good enough package of draft picks to make it worthwhile (we’ll see). Dallas already has 8 draft picks (3 of them in the 5th round), so, with good compensation in a Collins trade, they would likely have enough capital to trade up to get a rookie replacement for the veteran right tackle if the right guy is there in the 2nd or 3rd round.

Despite the flexibility the Cowboys front office has in deciding how to handle the La’el Collins contract for 2022, Dallas does have real salary cap issues this year that they have already been addressing.

Remember, every team needs to be salary cap compliant by Wednesday at 4 p.m.

The cap issues that Dallas faces are largely a result of Jerry Jones believing that he was building a super bowl team in 2021 and doing things like converting $7m of La’el Collins’ salary into bonus. Jerry has been kicking the can down the road on multiple contracts for years with these kinds of restructures, and the bills have come due in 2022.

Amari Cooper trade
The Jones’s just traded away Amari Cooper to the Browns yesterday (the deal becomes official on Wednesday). The trade unloaded $20m in salary cap per year in 2022, 2023, and 2024.

The Cowboys were praised by some and laughed at by others when they traded the #27 pick in the 2019 draft to acquire Cooper in the middle of the ‘18 season.

Jerry Jones seemed to think that the trade for Cooper as a stroke of brilliance, and when the Cowboys won the NFC East in 2018, it seemed to have paid off. But despite having a top-5 contract in the NFL, Cooper was not even the leading receiver on his own team in 2021, with just 865 yards and 8 touchdowns in 15 games.

In the end, the Cowboys gave up a 1st round draft pick and paid $54.3m in return for 54 games, 3,893 yards and 27 touchdowns — production that is not much different from what Washington has gotten from Terry McLaurin, who cost the team a 3rd round pick and $2.8m in cap space for 3 seasons of play.

Was it worth it? The Cowboys won two division titles during Cooper’s tenure, but couldn’t convert that into playoff success. Now the Browns will try to turn the receiver’s skills into wins on the football field.

Zuerlein & Jarwin cut
While the Cooper trade was the big move, Dallas has been forced to look under the sofa cushions for cap space as well. The team just released its kicker, Greg Zuerlein to save $2.25m. They also released tight end Blake Jarwin, saving cap space of $3.8m, though, since he was released with an injury designation, Jarwin has a chance to recoup some of his lost earnings, which would reduce the Cowboys’ cap savings.

Given that someone has to be paid to replace these guys on the roster, the savings here is pretty small beans.

Prescott & Martin restructured
Of course, Jerry Jones would never deal with salary cap issues only by trading or releasing players. Earlier this week, the Cowboys restructured two contracts — those of QB Dak Prescott and RG Zach Martin — for a combined “savings” of $22m. Of course that savings is just money pushed into later years of the two players’ contracts.

The effect of Dak’s restructure was to push Prescott’s cap hits up to $48m and $52m in 2023 & 2024, with another $21.8m buried in two void years on Prescott’s contract. In other words, after the end of the 2022 season, the Cowboys will owe Prescott $121.8m with 2 years remaining on his contract. This was the same game that Jerry Jones played for years with Tony Romo until one day #9 broke his back one time too many and called it quits.

Of course, Dallas will extend Prescott soon and spread that money out over the next contract, but imagine the kind of leverage Dak Prescott now has over the Dallas front office! Can you imagine what havoc he could cause with their salary cap if he just refused to extend in 2025 and left for another team? He has Jerry and Stephen Jones by the proverbial short and curlies.

By contrast, what the Jones’ have done with Zack Martin’s contract in an effort to stay cap compliant looks positively benign.

Remember how incensed many Washington fans were that All Pro Brandon Scherff got $18m to play right guard last season? Well, the cap charges for 32-year-od right guard Zack Martin are $19.9m and $20.4m over the next two seasons, with another $4m “surprise” buried in two void seasons.

In other words, after the end of the ‘22 season, the Cowboys will face cap charges of $44m for the final 2 years of Martin’s contract. Unlike Prescott, the Cowboys can actually afford to cut Martin for a cap savings of $9.9m after the 2023 season, assuming they don’t restructure him again next year.

What about Zeke?
No discussion of Dallas cap space would be complete without some mention of running back Ezekiel Elliott. It seems like the 7th year running back has a contract that is negatively correlated to his productivity. After averaging 5.1 yards per carry as a rookie with a $5.4m cap hit, Elliott’s on-field productivity has declined steadily. He barely broke 1,000 rushing yards while averaging just 4.2 yards per carry in 2021. His teammate Tony Pollard, meanwhile, averaged 5.5 yards per carry last year.

You’d think that the Cowboys might consider promoting Pollard ahead of Elliott, or replacing Elliott on the roster, but that’s not possible. Elliott has an $18.2m cap hit (that’s not a typo — Elliott, who ran for fewer yards and had fewer yards from scrimmage than Antonio Gibson in 2021 is slated for an $18.2m cap hit in 2022), with a fully guaranteed salary of $12.4m.

If Dallas were to cut Elliott, the team would lose $11.8m in cap space. They could basically break even on a trade, but what team would trade for a running back with a $12.4m base salary (that rises to $16.6m in 2026)?

Of all the truly bad salary cap decisions that Jerry Jones has made over the years, his man-crush on Ezekiel Elliott has probably been the stupidist and possibly the costliest of them all. Jerry and Stephen are stuck with Zeke for one more season before they can try to repair the mistake they made with Zeke’s 6-year, $90m contract extension signed in 2019.

Let’s recap
So, the Cowboys have pushed $22m into the next two year with restructures of Prescott & Martin, and they’ve cleared $20m by trading away Amari Cooper for... checks notes...a 5th round pick. They’ve cut their kicker and a tight end, saving around $5m (less the cost to replace them), and now they’re shopping their starting right tackle in hopes of clearing $1.3m in cap space and getting enough draft capital in return to acquire his replacement. Finally, the coaches are forced to play Zeke Elliott no matter what because the owner/GM committed the team to an $18m cap charge for him this year.

No wonder Jerry Jones was so incensed that his team was one & done in the playoffs last season! He didn’t leave himself with enough money to rebuild an all-star starting lineup for the 2022 season. Jones is going to have to rely on the remaining returning players and 8 draft picks to try to get better than the iteration of his team that lost in the wildcard round two months ago, and that’s not very likely.

What’s happening with the Giants?

New GM Joe Schoen inherited a mess when former GM Dave Gettleman “retired”, with a roster that was shot full of holes and a salary cap situation that required immediate repair.

Just yesterday, it became public that two players, LB Blake Martines and WR Sterling Shepard had agreed to pay cuts that are estimated to save the Giants around $10m in 2022 cap space.

But the restructures of these two players are just the latest in a series of moves by Schoen, who has to get his roster cap-compliant by Wednesday.

Tight ends Kyle Rudolph & Kaden Smith
TE Kyle Rudolph was a cap casualty in Minnesota a year ago, and ended up signing a 2-year contract with the Giants in 2021. Rudolph was released last week, saving the Giants $5m and leaving them with only Even Engram at tight end, since they also waived tight end Kaden Smith, saving $2.54m.

Punter Riley Dixon
It’s a bad time to be a punter or kicker in the NFC East. The Giants dumped Dixon, whom they got in trade from the Broncos in 2018, saving $2.8m.

RB Devontae Booker
New York signed Booker to a 2-year contract in last year’s free agency period when the team was unsure about Saquon Barkley’s return from injury.

Booker saw a lot of action in Weeks 5-9, and ended up rushing the ball for 593 yards in 17 games at just 4.0 yards per carry. This may not be as bad as it sounds. Saquon Barkley also rushed for 593 yards last year, but averaged just 3.7 yards per carry behind the same offensive line. Schoen gave Booker his walking papers, saving the Giants $2.13m in 2022 cap space.

Because the numbers on Martinez and Shepard are still a bit fuzzy, it’s hard to know exactly how much total cap space the Giants have cleared so far, but it looks to be +/- $23m.

That’s not enough, however. Schoen inherited a team that was well over the $208m allowed by the 2022 cap, and his cuts to date should see the team with about $7m to work with, but according to OverTheCap, with two first-round picks in hand, the Giants will need $12.55m of available space just to sign their rookie class.

Of course, every team needs some cap space in reserve going into the season to deal with injuries, so, even if the Giants sit on the sidelines during free agency, they need find at least another $10m - $15m in cap space this offseason.

That’s why their top cornerback will be moving on soon.

James Bradberry
For the moment, James Bradberry remains a Giant, but, the cornerback, in the final year of his contract, has almost no chance of making it to training camp with the Giants. He probably won’t make it to Wednesday. He may not make it to the time that this article publishes.

The Giants have to find another $10m+ in cap space; they don’t have any other choice (aside from maybe trading away their first round draft picks), and, after renegotiating the contracts of Martinez and Shepard, they have nowhere to cut aside from Bradberry.

Color him gone. Cutting or trading Bradberry will save the Giants $12.1m.

Of course they’ll prefer to trade him, but they’ll be dealing from a position of weakness. Other GMs know that it’s trade or cut with Bradberry.

Any team that trades for the veteran corner acquires a fairly reasonable $13.4m base salary, but it comes with an unpleasant ‘surprise’ in the form of another $1.3m tucked into a void year, raising Bradberry’s cost to ‘$14.7m + a draft pick.

Let’s recap
New GM Joe Shoen came from Buffalo and immediately hired the Bills OC, Brian Daboll. But his work wasn’t done. Schoen was forced by Gettleman’s atrocious salary cap management to take a scalpel and a machete to an undermanned roster in an effort to “find” about $40m in cap savings. So far, he’s cut four players and negotiated pay cuts with two others to save around $23m, but he’ll be forced to part ways with one of the league’s best cornerbacks because there just isn’t enough cap space to keep him.

The grim work that needs to be done by Schoen this week is a precursor to the opportunity he has to make his mark on the franchise in April’s draft. The Giants have ten total picks, including 5 picks in the top-81, so Schoen can at least look forward to putting the ugly work of cap rehabilitation behind him and then move on to he excitement of adding 10 drafted rookies to his ailing roster in late April.

What’s happening with the Eagles?

The Eagles have no real salary cap issues. Over the Cap estimates that they have over $17m in available cap space for 2022. Furthermore, they have a proven quarterback under contract in Jalen Hurts, and a fairly complete roster aside from being thin in the defensive secondary.

If Roseman wants to be active in free agency, he has the opportunity to make some moves; most likely, he could restructure the deals for Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and others to clear some cap space if he needs it.

But, with 10 draft picks in hand, including 3 first-round picks and a total of 5 selections in the top-83, Philly may be the NFC East team that is best-poised to improve its roster from 2021 to 2022, even if they don’t do a lot in veteran free agency this month. At this juncture, I’m inclined to think that the Eagles are best poised to put together a division-winning roster for the coming season. They are the team with the best combination of roster, draft picks, cap space and flexibility.

The “legal tampering” period starts tomorrow, so get ready for a flood of free agency news about signings from around the league (but maybe not so much from the NFC East).