Ten-million dollar club

Jason Cole
1. Cleveland $22 million
2. Buffalo $21 million
3. Minnesota $20 million
4. Jacksonville $16.5 million
5. Kansas City $16.2 million
6. Green Bay $16 million
7. Tennessee $15.3 million
8. Dallas $13.8 million
9. Oakland $12.5 million
10. Philadelphia $11.5 million
11. St. Louis $11.5 million
12. New Orleans $11.2 million
13. Seattle $10.5 million
14. N.Y. Jets $10 million
Source: NFLPA

One of the biggest offseason free-agent spending sprees still wasn't enough to eat up much of the NFL's available salary-cap space. As a result, the league could be in for another significant rise in player salaries this year and next.

Fourteen of the NFL's 32 teams have not used at least $10 million of the $109-million salary cap, according to figures from the NFL Players Association. And of those 14, seven have at least $15 million in cap space.

That means contracts for average players will continue to rise as they did at the start of free agency this year when offensive linemen such as Derrick Dockery and Eric Steinbach received deals that averaged $7 million a year.

"There's no way to eat up all the money that's out there this year," said one agent. "Teams are going to do everything they can to sign their young guys to long-term deals, but it still isn't going to be enough. When teams start to roll over money to next year, it's going to be unreal what some guys are going to get."

The Cleveland Browns lead the league with $22 million in available cap space followed by the Buffalo Bills ($21 million) and Minnesota Vikings ($20 million). The Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers each have at least $16 million, followed closely by the Tennessee Titans with $15.3 million.

The New York Jets, who are in the middle of a contract dispute with guard Pete Kendall over a $1 million raise, rounded out the group with $10 million in space. The San Francisco 49ers, who already have locked up starting running back Frank Gore to a contract extension and spent heavily on free-agent cornerback Nate Clements, just missed the $10-million club at $9.8 million.

The New England Patriots, who are in difficult negotiations with cornerback Asante Samuel over a long-term deal, have $8.4 million in cap space. The Patriots could actually increase to more than $10 million free if they agree to a long-term deal with Samuel, who counts for $7.8 million against the cap this season after being franchised in February.

Although teams have to account for unsigned draft picks (no first- or second-round picks have signed), that won't have an overwhelming impact on cap space. The average rookie cap for each team is only $4.27 million this season.

Likewise, teams generally average about $4 million in incentives and other bonus payments earned during a season.

In other words, even if the Buffalo Bills use all of their rookie cap money and their players earn around $5 million in bonuses, they would still have more than $12 million in cap space remaining and could roll that into their 2008 allowance.

As one NFLPA executive said: "I'd say it's going to be another good year for players next year."