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The Washington Commanders will have a lot of cap space this offseason — but not as much as many people think

salary cap and the CBA...sweet!

Washington Commanders v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I keep reading and hearing people — Washington fans — mentioning $100m in available cap space that the new GM will have available for free agency.

That figure is misleading.

Per Over the Cap, the Commanders will have less than $80m in estimated 2024 available cap space

There are two sources popularly used for cap space projections — Over the Cap (OTC) and Spotrac. Both are good at what they do, but over the years I have found OTC to be more consistently accurate and reliable. For example, in late-December, there was a variance of about $2.8m in current payroll reported between the two sources (Spotrac and OTC). When I analyzed the numbers, it turned out that Spotrac had not included the team’s 3 most-recent (at that time) roster additions: Jalen Harris, Kyu Blu Kelly, and Joshua Pryor. When I have done these sorts of deep dives into the source numbers over the years, I have found OTC consistently more reliable; for this reason, it is Over the Cap that I rely on for NFL salary cap projections.

Earlier in the 2023 season, both OTC and Spotrac were projecting the Commanders to have over $90m in available cap space at the end of the 2023 season, but things have changed a lot since September.

Currently, OTC projects the Commanders to have $78.8m in available cap space at the end of the ‘23 season.

What happened to all the cap space?

The first thing to remember is that future available cap space is an estimation based on some known facts and some assumptions.

The second thing to remember is that the estimation changes every time there is a roster change (e.g., when a player goes onto injured reserve and another player is signed to replace him on the roster).

A changed assumption
In September and October, both OTC and Spotrac were basing 2024 salary cap estimates on an assumed league salary cap figure of $255m. In mid-December, the NFL announced that the ‘24 league salary cap would probably be around $242m — a drop of $13m that affects all 32 teams. This number isn’t yet final, but OTC and Spotrac adjusted their models and published new estimates.

Changed roster
Roster changes have pushed the estimates for all 32 teams up and down since that time. For example, when long snapper Camaron Cheeseman was released the same week as the tweet above, the Commanders’ estimated 2024 available cap space number increased by the amount of Cheeseman’s remaining ‘23 cap hit and his ‘24 cap hit. By December 24th, just 4 days after the tweet above, OTC was estimating $81.7m for the Commanders.

Since that time, a bunch of Washington players have gone onto IR (injured reserve), and for each one that did, a new player was added to the 53-man roster, chipping away at the team’s available cap space. It now stands at $78.8m.

How does $78.8m in cap space compare to the rest of the league?

According to OTC, the Commanders are currently projected to have the most available cap space of any team in the league. The Titans are 2nd at $77.2m; the Saints are 32nd, currently projected to be $72.3m over the cap.

With the ‘23 regular season about to end in a matter of hours, these numbers should stay stable for a while (money paid to players in the playoffs is paid by the league and does not affect salary cap).

There will be some significant changes to projections some time around late-February when adjustments are processed (bonuses earned or missed, etc).

We are all aware that the big changes in cap space will come when teams release or trade players in February and March. Of course, with each player released to increase cap space, another roster spot is opened up that needs to be filled, which will require at least some of that cap savings to be used up. We’ll look at the impact of those decisions in another month or two; for now, the scope of this article is to discuss only the projected salary cap at the end of the season, and how much is available for free agency.

Current projected cap space isn’t the same as ‘money available for free agency’

Both OTC and Spotrac use the same method for calculating projected cap space for the 2024 offseason; the reason you read different numbers from the two sources is that their inputs are not always identical (such as the example of I gave above of Spotrac’s estimate in December missing 3 players who were on the roster at that time).

The calculation looks like this:

These number are for illustration only; they were mostly correct in mid-December, but no longer.

To project available cap space for a future year, you:

  • start with the payroll for all players under contract
  • add any dead cap
  • adjust for unused cap rolled over from the prior season

The difference between the total of these three numbers and the projected league cap number is the projected cap space.

But that isn’t the amount that the team has available for veteran free agency

Notice that this estimate does not include the money that will be paid to players selected in the draft. Because veteran free agency happens in March while the draft takes place at the end of April, teams need to estimate the amount of cap space they will need to sign the draft picks.

Rookie Pool
Fortunately, since 2011, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) has determined how much these rookies will be paid, depending on the point at which they are selected in the draft. OTC has a very useful page that imperfectly estimates the amount of money each team needs to reserve for its Rookie Pool.

Because Washington has so many high-value draft picks this year (6 picks in the top-102), OTC estimates that the Commanders will need to set aside $10.2m in cap space to sign the 2024 draft class. For the purposes of this article, we will use that estimate, which is likely to be pretty close to the correct number.

Injury Contingency
In addition, every NFL team needs to retain a ‘contingency fund’ that can be used to sign players to the roster as others are lost to injury. This contingency fund is typically about $5m or $6m. There is no set amount for a team, and any team that doesn’t have enough cap space available when it’s needed will simply restructure a contract mid-season (as the Commanders did with Charles Leno’s in September) to get the cap dollars they require.

We do a fairly short calculation to estimate how much the Commanders will have available for veteran free agency (before accounting for any players released or traded):

Based on this calculation, the next GM of the Washington Commanders will have about $63m in cap space available for veteran free agency shopping in March.

It’s a lot of cap space — among the most in the league — but it’s not $100m.

Available cap space is a moving target. When the team signs players to future contracts next week, the estimated available cap will fall. When players are released or traded before the start of the new league year in mid-March, the estimated available cap space will change again — probably increasing.

The point is that, as fans, we can’t latch onto a cap space number that gets mentioned in a Tweet or on a podcast and assume that it is both accurate and unchanging. Estimated available cap space is a highly fluid number that changes with every new input.

If you want to be an off-season GM who enjoys roster building exercises like mock drafts paired with plans for veteran free agency, make sure you keep up with the available cap space estimates with the same fervor use to stay current with the team’s projected draft position. Right now, you’ve got the #2 overall pick and about $63m in cap space to build your roster — but each of those can change quickly.