“Busy season” doesn’t solely apply to the accounting industry. The NFL’s busy season -- the weeks leading up to the start of the league year -- is the time that teams scramble to get their finances in order. Player cuts and restructured contracts become commonplace, as each team not only has an obligation to comply with the salary cap, but must also put itself in the best position for free agency.
The 2014 league year begins Tuesday at 4pm EST. Before I take a look at the salary cap situation of each team, here are a few of the most important components associated with the salary cap that impact offseason decision-making.
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Teams can now carry over cap dollars.
An addition implemented in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, teams can now roll over unused cap space from one year to the next.
Teams must adjust their books based on past player performance.
NFL contracts include Likely To Be Earned (LTBE) bonuses as well as Not Likely To Be Earned (NLTBE) bonuses. LTBE bonuses count against the cap for a given league year; NLTBE bonuses don’t. If a LTBE is not earned, teams are credited cap space for the next year. If a NLTBE bonus is earned, cap space is subtracted.
2013 was the beginning of the newly implemented “minimum spending requirement.”
Another addition to the most recent CBA, the minimum spending requirement says that the amount of cash that teams spend must be at least 89% of the total salary cap from 2013-2016. Teams can spend less than 89% in one given season, but the cumulative spending from 2013-2016 must be at least 89%.
Now let's examine where each NFL team stands as free agency begins, ranked in order of available salary cap room.
Last updated at 6:50 pm ET on 3/10/14
1. Oakland Raiders
Available Cap Space — $63,783,470
A model of inefficiency, the Raiders’ 2013 cash expenditure totaled just $88.5 million —approximately 72% of the $123,000,000 salary cap. They also had $56,077,873 in 2013 dead money hits. In other words, 46% of the Raiders’ allowable spending money for 2013 was occupied by players who weren’t even on their roster. This explains why the Raiders now have $64,329,470 of available cap space – an unprecedented amount — despite a carryover figure of only $2.2 million. It also explains the talent deficiency on their roster.
Oakland hasn’t had a winning season since its 2002 Super Bowl appearance. With their lack of talent as well as their obligation to fulfill the minimum spending requirements, look for the Raiders to throw around serious money once free agency begins.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Available Cap Space — $51,873,848
Like the Raiders, Jacksonville has a staggering amount of cap space. But in contrast to the situation in Oakland, much of the Jaguars’ cap space is a result of cap carryover (their nearly $20 million of carryover is second only to Cleveland). Jacksonville’s healthy cap situation has provided the flexibility to absorb a $2.189 million dead money hit with the release of guard Uche Nwaneri. It also allowed them to sign Chad Henne to a team-friendly deal. (Henne will account for no dead money if released after 2014.) Note that Saturday’s acquisition of run-stopper Red Bryant is not accounted for here, as we are still waiting for specifics on the structure of Bryant's contract.
3. Cleveland Browns
Available Cap Space — $49,218,350
Sensing he may already be on owner Jimmy Haslam’s hotseat, Ray Farmer has had an active first month as Browns GM. After freeing up $5.2 million of cap room with the release of D’Qwell Jackson, Farmer placed the transition tag on center Alex Mack (a $10,039,000 figure, both cash and cap). However, Cleveland’s almost $50 million of cap space may not directly correlate to their activity in free agency. With two first-round draft picks and 10 picks overall, the Browns may try to build from within. Coming to terms with Mack and extending 2015 free agent Joe Haden should be Farmer’s top priorities.
4. Minnesota Vikings
Available Cap Space — $41,250,093
Minnesota’s available cap room is actually less than the listed $41,250,093; this number has not yet been adjusted for the signings of Everson Griffen and Matt Cassel. While we await specifics of Cassel’s new deal, the Vikings likely lost some cap room by granting Cassel an option in the two-year, $7.4 million contract he signed last March. However, this won’t end up being an issue for Minnesota; their already fortunate cap situation was aided with the post-Super Bowl releases of Erin Henderson, John Carlson and Letroy Guion. This will allow GM Rick Spielman to pay above market value for free agents -- a necessary ploy in attempting to lure guys to an unattractive situation in the Twin Cities.
5. Indianapolis Colts
Available Cap Space — $37,514,024
Free agency began early for the Colts; they scooped up the aforementioned D’Qwell Jackson after his release from Cleveland last week. Jackson’s $4.75 million 2014 cap figure was mostly negated by the $4 million Indianapolis saved with the release of starting center Samson Satele. The Colts' fortuitous cap situation provided flexibility when structuring Jackson’s contract. His $1 million signing bonus means they’ll be able to cut ties with him after 2015 with just $500,000 of dead money attached.
6. Miami Dolphins
Available Cap Space — $33,948,273
Despite a 2013 free agent spending spree that included overpaying Mike Wallace, Miami is loaded with cap room for the 2014 league year. This permitted new GM Dennis Hickey to lock up cornerback Brent Grimes -- ranked 8th on the Rotoworld top 150 free agent list -- to a favorably structured contract. The dead money associated with Grimes’ contract decreases from $12,025,000 in 2015 to $3,000,000 in 2016. A similar methodology was used in the negotiations of Wallace last year, whose dead money hit goes from $23,800,000 in 2014 to $6,600,000 in 2015.
Updated at 6:35 pm ET on 3/10/14: Dimitri Patterson's release saves the Dolphins $5.3 million against the 2014 cap. The Dolphins, who don't absorb any dead money with the move, currently have close to $40 million of available cap space.
7. New York Jets
Available Cap Space — $31,775,558
The Jets’ $31,775,558 in cap space is actually misleading. Gang Green, who just cleared $9.5 million off the books with the release of Antonio Cromartie, will clear more than $16 million when they inevitably cut Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes. Look for GM John Idzik to make these moves in the coming days. In the meantime, expect the Jets to evaluate the wide receiver market, which is their biggest position of need.
Updated at 3:35 pm ET on 3/10/14: Holmes, officially released today, propels the Jets into the top five of "available cap space." They now have $39,185,558 to work with in free agency.
8. Green Bay Packers
Available Cap Space -- $29,338,930
Commend GM Ted Thompson for locking up Sam Shields before he hit the open market. While the Packers still have almost $30 million in cap space, Thompson’s history and salary-cap savvy suggest he's unlikely to go on a spending spree. He’d prefer to lock up the talent he drafted. Both Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson are entering the final years of their deals.
9. Cincinnati Bengals
Available Cap Space — $26,850,957
Cincinnati’s estimated $26,850,957 is actually slightly less; we are waiting on the specifics of guard Mike Pollak’s three-year, $5 million extension, which was agreed to on Thursday. Coming off of a loss in the Wild Card round for the third straight year, the Bengals would be wise to spend some of their cap space. If free agent pass-rusher Michael Johnson bolts to the highest bidder, a less expensive replacement is likely. But most importantly, they need to lock up A.J. Green.
10. Denver Broncos
Available Cap Space — $24,988,429
John Elway’s decision to release future Hall of Fame corner Champ Bailey leaves the Broncos in a favorable cap position. Bailey’s release freed up $10 million of cap space, placing Denver approximately $25 million under the cap.
Still, Elway may have the toughest decision-making process of any GM this offseason. Many of Denver’s key contributors -- Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno, Zane Beadles and Shaun Phillips -- are set to hit the open market. Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas are both entering the final year of their deals. Some very tough decisions lie ahead.
11. Baltimore Ravens
Available Cap Space — $24,425,100
The salary cap’s $10 million increase and the report of a potential $150 million cap by 2016 is great news for all teams. But it’s especially important for Baltimore due to the way franchise QB Joe Flacco's contract is structured. Forward-thinking GM Ozzie Newsome, who has already saved approximately $5 million in cap room this offseason with the releases of Jameel McClain and Vonta Leach, can now more confidently use his available cap space to fill current roster holes.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Available Cap Space — $23,675,539
New GM Jason Licht saved $6 million in cap space with the release of guard Davin Joseph, as well as another $1.5 million with the release of defensive tackle Derek Landri. This leaves the Bucs with $23,675,539 of cap space in spite of Darrelle Revis’ above market cap figure. One of the more active teams in free agency’s recent years, Tampa Bay certainly has flexibility to add pieces. They are reportedly interested in top free agent defensive end Michael Johnson, but he won’t come cheaply.
13. Philadelphia Eagles
Available Cap Space — $23,532,737
GM Howie Roseman has been a busy man. He extended both tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce, re-signed impending UFAs Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, and cut loose veteran receiver Jason Avant. When looking at these moves solely in terms of 2014 cap room, the net of these five transactions was about -$4 million. The Eagles still have money to spend -- the benefit of having a starting quarterback (Nick Foles) with a meager $770,880 cap number.
14. Buffalo Bills
Available Cap Space — $22,446,638
Although the Bills cut ties with Ryan Fitzpatrick last March, they designated him as a June 1st cut, meaning he’ll still count for $7 million against Buffalo’s 2014 salary cap. Their $12,070,113 in total 2014 dead money ranks fourth most in the league. Combined with Mario Williams’ $18,800,000 cap hit for 2014, the result is a middle-of-the-pack $22,446,638 of available space. While the Bills still have money to spend, top free agent safety Jairus Byrd will likely get more money elsewhere.
15. Washington Redskins
Available Cap Space — $21,938,568
Owner Dan Snyder must be licking his chops. Washington’s $89,403,841 in 2013 cash expenditures was just 72.7% of 2013’s $123 million salary cap. Even with the $11,455,000 cash and cap spend used to franchise tag Brian Orakpo, dissecting their active books shows an even lower 2014 cash spend. This means Washington has more incentive to spend free agency dollars -- Snyder's favorite pastime. If Washington can lock up Orakpo long-term, his 2014 cap number should decrease, leaving Washington with an even greater amount of spending money than what’s listed.
16. Atlanta Falcons
Available Cap Space —$18,037,399
This $18,037,399 figure accounts for the almost $8 million Atlanta saved with the offseason cuts of cornerback Asante Samuel, linebacker Stephen Nicholas and guard Garrett Reynolds. It also takes into account Jason Snelling’s retirement, as well as the Falcons' March 4 re-signing of defensive tackle Corey Peters. However, this figure does not include the $7 million cap savings that would be associated with Tony Gonzalez’s retirement (he has not officially signed his retirement papers). Even in the unlikely scenario of a Gonzalez return, expect the Falcons to be active once free agency begins.
17. New York Giants
Available Cap Space —$17,581,183
Eli Manning’s 2014 cap figure is $20.4 million, but GM Jerry Reese still has some spending money for the first time in a few years. The listed figure will increase if and when aging guard Chris Snee -- who also happens to be Tom Coughlin’s son-in-law -- agrees to a pay cut. With a long list of free agents including Hakeem Nicks, Linval Joseph, Justin Tuck and Andre Brown, Reese will have some tough decisions in the coming weeks.
Updated at 6:45 pm ET on 3/10/14: The Giants parted ways with oft-injured center David Baas. Baas' $8.2 million cap number was a result of restructuring his contract in each of the past two offseasons. The Giants absorb $6.45 million in dead money and save about $1.8 against the 2014 cap. Look for Big Blue to strike a deal with either Brian De La Puente or Evan Dietrich-Smith once free agency begins tomorrow.
18. Arizona Cardinals
Available Cap Space — $17,062,087
While last month’s restructure of Larry Fitzgerald’s contract provided Arizona with some cap room in the present, it’s a dangerous move that may cause future distress. However, it saved the Cardinals $9.4 million for the 2014 league year. Add in the $2 million of cap room saved with the release of linebacker Jasper Brinkley, and Arizona now has some legitimate room to work with. This should help in their quest to bring back linebacker Karlos Dansby, a top offseason priority.
19. Seattle Seahawks
Available Cap Space — $13,687,531
The one downside of playoff success is the increased market value of the successful team’s contributing players. Seattle’s cap situation forced them to release Sidney Rice (clearing $7.3 million) and Red Bryant ($5.5 million). While the Seahawks now have some room to work with, they could create more by cutting ties with veteran tight end Zach Miller ($7 million 2014 cap number) as well as defensive end Chris Clemons ($9,666,668). With just $76 million in 2015 cap obligations, Seattle should be able to extend the contracts of nucleus players Russell Wilson, Russell Okung, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.
20. New England Patriots
Available Cap Space — $12,199,254
In terms of the cap, things could be worse for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick & Co. The Patriots saved almost $3 million cap dollars when they released safety Steve Gregory, and their estimated $1,517,170 of cap space that will be required to lock up their rookie class is affordable. With the $10 million salary cap increase, it seems the Patriots have a realistic chance of re-signing either Aqib Talib or Julian Edelman.
Updated at 6:45 pm ET on 3/10/14: I have just received notice that the Patriots will gain around $2.87 million of 2014 cap room resulting from the treatment of Brandon Lloyd's option as well as their settlement with Jon Fanene. They now have over $15 million of available cap space.
21. Detroit Lions
Available Cap Space — $10,891,130
Unfortunately for the Lions, their troubled cap situation is largely a result of the old CBA. The unreasonable contracts given to first-round picks before the implementation of a rookie wage scale weakened the leverage that the Lions had when negotiating contracts for Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, and now Ndamukong Suh. GM Martin Mayhew has already been forced to part ways with wide receiever Nate Burleson, safety Louis Delmas, and guard Leroy Harris this offseason. Extending Suh, and in turn reducing his $22,412,500 2014 cap number would provide the Lions with some flexibility in the present. But even if a Suh extension isn’t completed, Mayhew’s lack of job security means he needs to win now. I’d look for the Lions to pursue a free agent wide receiver to play across from Megatron.
22. Tennessee Titans
Available Cap Space — $10,013,952
Currently about $10 million under the cap, the Titans would create an additional $6 million with the release of Chris Johnson. (Johnson has a $10 million 2014 cap number, and his release would cost the Tennessee $4 million in dead money.) Another $4.8 million could be created (with no dead money attached) with the release of wideout Nate Washington, who turns 31 in August. Washington is overpaid, but may be needed, as Damian Williams and troubled Kenny Britt are both unrestricted free agents. Ultimately, the Titans' cap situation is undesirable. Their top free agent -- cornerback Alterraun Verner -- will almost certainly be playing elsewhere in 2014.
23. Kansas City Chiefs
Available Cap Space — $9,936,444
After the release of cornerback Dunta Robinson, the Chiefs have just under $10 million of cap room. They currently have $115,889,966 in 2015 cap obligations, the fourth highest number of any team. Kansas City’s cap scenario will prevent them from being heavily involved in 2014 free agency. However, they don’t have many holes to fill.
24. San Francisco 49ers
Available Cap Space — $8,424,776
San Francisco’s situation is similar to Kansas City’s. Like the Chiefs, the 49ers have a roster loaded with talent but don’t have much money to spend. Carlos Rogers, a prime candidate for release, would save the Niners $5,105,468. Yet this money saved would be used to lock up their current talent (an extension for Colin Kaepernick is imminent), not on open market difference-makers.
Updated at 4:45 pm ET on 3/10/14: The 49ers officially parted ways with Carlos Rogers. We've also received information that the contract of the recently re-signed Anquan Boldin includes 3 voidable years, lowering his 2014 cap hit to $2,364,000. San Francisco now has $14,893,744 of available cap space.
25. Houston Texans
Available Cap Space — $8,325,377
Andre Johnson’s wildly successful 2013 actually hurt the Texans. His 2014 cap hit -- which now stands at $15,644,583 -- has increased due to contract escalators. Houston will get a boost in cap room if it releases Matt Schaub ($14,125,000 2014 cap hit), but the $10,500,000 of dead money associated with Schaub equals cap savings of only $3,625,000. Finding a franchise quarterback is far and away the Texans' most important offseason task.
26. Chicago Bears
Available Cap Space — $8,253,726
In actuality, this $8 million dollar figure will almost certainly be closer to $18 million. Julius Peppers is set to count $18,183,333 against the cap, and the $8 million-plus in dead money that the Bears would have to eat via cutting Peppers isn’t a big enough deterrent. Free agent defensive tackle Henry Melton is going to test the open market, and the fact that Chicago has not yet locked him up does not bode well for his return. Expect GM Phil Emery, who should be commended on his structuring of Jay Cutler’s extension -- his $22,500,000 cap hit in 2014 means the Bears can cut him with no questions asked after next season -- to be active in free agency.
27. Carolina Panthers
Available Cap Space — $6,604,214
Second-year GM Dave Gettleman made a risky move when he slapped the $13.1 million franchise tag on star pass-rusher Greg Hardy. Unless Hardy’s 2014 cap number is decreased via a long-term deal, Carolina’s two starting defensive ends will have a combined 2014 cap hit of almost $30 million. With Cam Newton entering the final year of his rookie deal and the contract of reigning DPOY Luke Kuechly expiring after 2015, Gettleman and the Panthers have some tough decisions in the future.
28. St. Louis Rams
Available Cap Space — $6,396,233
Like Detroit, St. Louis’ poor cap situation is not entirely their own fault. Sam Bradford and his $17,610,000 2014 cap number -- a byproduct of the pre-rookie-scale CBA -- has put the Rams' organization in a bind. Their $6,396,233 of available cap room will increase to over $10 million when Cortland Finnegan officially becomes cut. Even so, their financial situation likely prohibits them from being big players in free agency.
29. San Diego Chargers
Available Cap Space -- $3,274,080
The Chargers’ have had an active pre-free agency period. After cutting Derek Cox and Le'Ron McClain, veteran wideout Eddie Royal has agreed to restructure his contract. The specifics have not yet been determined, but the Chargers should gain some room via converting his base salary into earnable incentives.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers
Available Cap Space — $3,034,434
The Steelers have pulled some strings to get under the 2014 salary cap. Cutting trade bust Levi Brown cleared $6 million off the books (with no dead money hit). After surprisingly placing the transition tag on Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh was forced to restructure the deals of Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown. It’s imperative that GM Kevin Colbert has a successful draft, as the Steelers' tight cap situation and aging roster are undesirable.
Updated at 2:45 pm ET on 3/10/14: Pittsburgh's dedignation of Lamar Woodley as a June 1st cut will not help them once free agency begins tomorrow. While this does spread out his dead money, the transaction won't kick in until June 2nd -- he still carries his current $13.59 million 2014 cap hit until then. On June 2nd the Steelers will clear $10.6 million in cap space (his 2014 base salary + 2014 signing bonus proration), and will carry a $8.58 million cap hit for Woodley in 2015.
31. New Orleans Saints
Available Cap Space — $2,154,240
For New Orleans, actions speak louder than words. By cutting Will Smith, Jabari Greer, Lance Moore, Roman Harper (and possibly Darren Sproles) loose, the Saints are letting everybody know that locking up Jimmy Graham is their primary task. The Saints should be able to devote all of their attention to the Graham situation, as their lack of cap space means they won’t be too busy in free agency.
32. Dallas Cowboys
Available Cap Space — $639,057
Jerry Jones’ cap problems have been well documented, to say the least. The Cowboys got under the cap just in time for the new league year, but not by much. Dallas has $134,119,523 in cap obligations for 2015, which includes Tony Romo’s monstrous $28 million cap number. With the contracts of Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith and DeMarco Murray all set to expire after the season, the franchise could be in some trouble if the salary cap doesn’t significantly rise again next year. Step one would be to release DeMarcus Ware in the coming days.
Updated at 4:45 pm ET on 3/10/14:Cowboys guard Mackenzy Bernadeau agreed to a $2.9 million paycut, saving Dallas $1.15 million against the 2014 cap. The Cowboys available cap space now sits at $1,639,057.