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Commanders cap space reportedly now under $3 million

Does the front office need to do something before the draft?

Washington Commanders v Houston Texans Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The salary breakdown for the last of the Commanders’ reported free agency signings has been posted on Over the Cap, along with an update on the team’s estimated salary cap position.

Abdullah Anderson’s contract details

Defensive tackle Abdullah Anderson got a modest contract, but it’s a fair bit more than the vet minimum deal that I was expecting. Per Over the Cap, Anderson will be paid a base salary of $1.5m on his one-year deal, and with signing bonus, will count $1.7m against the 2023 cap space.

Current estimated 2023 cap space

With total guaranteed money of $300k, the 4th year player is not a roster lock, but his contract adds enough to Washington’s payroll to push the team below $3m in available cap space, with OTC estimating that the Commanders now have $2.955m in available cap space.

Is this enough?

This cap space reduction is significant but still not urgent, because the team will need $2.49m in space to sign the 2023 draft class at the end of April, and it still has enough to meet those obligations.

Now, the front office may want to do something to ‘create’ cap space before the draft, but with a cushion of around a half-million dollars at the moment, it appears that they will only be forced to do so if they sign another veteran free agent. There are signs that the team continues to be active in free agency, with former Browns linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. having visited team headquarters on Tuesday (though he reportedly left without a deal).

Why does the team need only $2.49m in cap space to sign 8 draft picks?

The “Rule of 51”

From the roster cutdown deadline following the end of preseason to the final game of week 18 (and into post season as well), teams are required to stay within the annual salary cap with their 53-man roster.

But during the offseason, with expanded rosters, this simply isn’t feasible.

Because of this, the CBA established the “Rule of 51” that applies to every NFL offseason roster. The rule is very simple:

Throughout the offseason, 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 as Abdullah Anderson was last week, 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.

Let’s look at the bottom of the Commanders roster as it stands today (the date that I’m writing the article). Information is courtesy of OverTheCap

  • You can see that cornerback Rachad Wildgoose is NOT counted in the top 51 contracts.
  • But before Abdullah Anderson was signed to his contract, with its $1.7m cap hit, Wildgoose was in the top-51.
  • So, when we calculate the impact of Anderson’s contract on the Commanders’ off season cap space, it isn’t his individual cap number of $1.7m, but $760K, which is Anderson’s cap hit, minus that of Wildgoose, who is no longer counted against the cap under the Rule of 51.

Cole Turner
Currently, the last player included in the top-51 is Cole Turner, who has a $954,720 cap hit. The next player contract to be added to the Washington roster during free agency will push Turner off the top-51 list.

Dax Milne
The next player signed in free agency after that (if there is one) will push Dax Milne and his $959,316 cap hit off the list, and so on.

This is one reason why free agent signings never seem to use up as much of the available cap space as you expect them to.

Rookie Pool estimates

One thing that every team needs to account for is the money needed to sign the drafted players that will be joining the team at the end of April.

With the current CBA and its “slotting” of draft picks, teams can project with a great deal of accuracy the cost of each drafted player.

Absent any trades, even as fans, it’s easy for us to know how much the Commanders are going to need for their draft class before the draft even starts.

Again, though, the Rule of 51 makes the calculation less straighforward than it seems.

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.

Because of this handy tool, we can see at a glance that the 8 contracts for the incoming draft class are projected to total $9.53m.

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 2023.

To run the example, I’m going to assume that the Commanders will sign 2 more veteran free agents between now (22 March 2023) and the draft, pushing two players (Cole Turner and Dax Milne) out of the top 51. So, let’s revisit the bottom of that list:

Notice that the two hypothetical veteran free agents we signed hypothetically pushed 2 actual players off of the top-51 list. Now, the lowest paid player on the list is starting quarterback Sam Howell, a 2022 5th round draft pick.

Let’s look at the expected 2023 cap hits for the 8 drafted rookies that the Commanders expect to sign:

  • Rd 1 $2.96m
  • Rd 2 $1.438m
  • Rd 3 $980,991
  • Rd 4 $953,229
  • Rd 5 $837,262
  • Rd 6 $797,867
  • Rd 6 $785,917
  • Rd 7 $777,011

The Round 1 pick will have a cap hit of $2.96m, but he will push Sam Howell and his $960,400 cap hit off the list. Net cap hit for Rd 1 pick = $1,999,940

The Round 2 pick will have a cap hit of $1.438m, but he will push Shaka Toney and his $963,238 cap hit off the list. Net cap hit for Rd 2 pick = $474,950

The Round 3 pick will have a cap hit of $980,991, but he will push Troy Apke and his $965,000 cap hit off the list. Net cap hit for Rd 3 pick = $15,991

Now the pattern breaks.

The lowest remaining salary on the top-51 is $965,000. The final 5 draft picks from Rounds 4, 5, 6 & 7 all are projected to have a cap hit of less than $965,000 in 2023, so these final five draft picks are not counted in the top 51, and have no impact at all on the off-season salary cap.

This means that the actual amount of available cap space that the Commanders need to reserve (in this example) is $2,490,881 (i.e., the net cap impact of the first three draft picks: $1,999,940 + $474,950 + $15,991).

The Commanders will need $2.49m to sign their 8 draft picks.

Different from the OTC estimate

An astute observer will notice that my calculated number is about a million dollars less than what Over the Cap says the team needs ($3.5m).

My calculation is more accurate than the OTC estimate.

The difference is that, while I used the actual cap hits for the actual players currently on the roster, Over the Cap uses a standard value of $750k for each player pushed off the roster, meaning that OTC is underestimating the impact of the displaced players.

The OTC estimate is the total amount needed ($9.53m) minus 8 draft picks at $750K each (8 x $750k = $6m):

$9,530,805 - 6,000,000 = $3,530,805 (OTC’s ‘rule of thumb’ estimate)

My number is actually the more accurate (based on OTC’s data).

Bottom Line
So long as Washington has more than $2.5m in cap space heading into the draft, they won’t be forced into taking any actions to ‘create’ new cap space.

Of course, any trades (up or down) will affect these numbers, but absent a big move in the first round, there will be very little change in the amount of money the Commanders will need to reserve for the rookie pool.

Just in case you were wondering, the player is charged against the team’s salary cap the moment he is drafted, regardless of when he actually signs his contract.

Still, cap space is tight, and, as mentioned, if the team wants to sign any more veteran free agents costing more than about $1m in 2023 cap space, then the front office may need to release one or more players, or engage in renegotiations or restructures.

Potential releases/renegotiations

Cap space can be ‘created’ by releasing players or renegotiating their contracts (asking them to take a pay cut).

Looking at the roster, the following players appear to be candidates for release or renegotiation (due to having a high salary combined with either inconsistent performance or significant injury history...or both):

  • RG Andrew Norwell ($2.28m savings if cut)
  • C Chase Roullier ($4.32m savings if cut)
  • LT Charles Leno ($4.25m savings if cut)
  • OT Cornelius Lucas ($3.45m savings if cut)
  • TE Logan Thomas ($5.18m savings if cut)
  • K Joey Slye ($1.85m savings if cut)

Potential Restructures

Cap space can also be ‘created’ by restructuring a player contract, which entails simply converting a portion of his base salary into signing bonus, which is then pro-rated over the remaining life of the contract, increasing cap space in the current year by decreasing it by an equal amount in future years.

When a player has a high base salary and future years on his contract (or good performance that can be rewarded with additional years on the contract) he is a candidate for a restructure.

  • Jonathan Allen ($14m base salary)
  • Curtis Samuel ($10.1m base salary)
  • Montez Sweat ($11.5m 5th year option)

As you can see, there is a lot of scope for cap savings. For example, Washington could create 2023 cap space, potentially meeting all the team’s cap space needs, through the simple expedient of some of Jonathan Allen’s base salary to signing bonus.

  • Converting $9m of Allen’s base salary would increase 2023 cap space by $6m
  • Converting $12m of Allen’s base salary would increase 2023 cap space by $8m

What the front office decides to do (releases, renegotiations, restructures) depends on the team’s cap space requirements.

At some point prior to the start of the season, the Commanders front office will need to “create” some additional cap space, but it is not yet truly urgent, and, depending on whether or not Ron Rivera wants to add a high-dollar free agent at some point between now and training camp, it may be that nothing is done to affect cap space before the regular season roster is finalized after the last preseason game.