A question asked the other day helped spawn these thoughts: Where are teams in the salary cap right now if there were a salary cap in this "uncapped" season?
The NFL no longer provides salary cap information as they once did on a daily basis when teams had to always be under the cap. There are a number of teams that will manage their finances as if there were a salary cap, and not throw money at players just because the restrictions have been lifted.
At this point in the business season, there have been close to 60 players switching teams, close to 50 players resigning with their respective teams, and nearly a dozen players getting traded. Sounds like a lot of action, but is it?
It may be more important to understand that the salary cap floor -- the minimum amount a team had to spend on players in a capped environment -- also no longer exists. For example, last year salary costs could not be under $111 million per team. That number forced teams to spend money on players whether they wanted to or not. This year, team owners don't have to abide by that number, and it also appears that many teams will be well under the old salary cap floor when the 2010 season kicks off in September.
Teams trimming player costs
When the free-agency signing period started on March 5, only four teams in the whole league had more than $100 million in total cash to players: the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins. Only the Redskins were over the $111 million minimum. New Redskins GM Bruce Allen promptly chopped more than $33 million off the team's ledger by releasing eight players and accepting the retirement of offensive tackle Chris Samuels. Within a day, the Redskins were under $100 million in total cash to players and might be even further along if some of the contracts written before Allen assumed general manager duties weren't guaranteed.
The Redskins are not alone in trimming player expenses from their books this offseason. The Cowboys and Vikings feel they are in good shape without doing much roster trimming at all. The Seahawks traded quarterback Seneca Wallace and dropped safety Deon Grant, which helped put the team down close to $100 million.
The Cleveland Browns, through terminations and trades, took $25 million off the books, while also acquiring quarterback Jake Delhomme and a few other decent contracts for veteran players. Keep in mind that the Browns started free agency with approximately $85 million in total cash to players before the $25 million was deducted.
The Carolina Panthers opened the free-agency signing period with close to $91 million in total cash to players. Even though the team still owes Delhomme close to $12 million this year, the Panthers removed close to $26 million from their books in player terminations.
The Oakland Raiders dropped just over $14 million by releasing defensive end Greg Ellis, running back Justin Fargas, receiver Javon Walker and defensive tackle Gerard Warren. The Raiders started the free-agency period at just under $90 million for players. Now, if the Raiders just pulled the plug on quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who has a salary of $9.5 million due this season, then they could start over at the quarterback position.
What is the point to all of these illustrations? Don't be fooled by the few big player signings such as Julius Peppers and Karlos Dansby. Right now, teams are saving more money than they are spending. Expect that trend to continue without a salary cap floor.
Why are big spenders so quiet?
I was asked about the Cowboys, and why they have been so quiet in this year's free-agency period. Well, the Cowboys did a great job of preparing for this year by getting many of their productive players under contract. The Cowboys also had the smarts to see that when restricted free agency was going to be extended -- from players with four years of service to those with six -- that the talent pool would be significantly drained.
The only player that the Cowboys put a high tender offer on was receiver Miles Austin, who comes with first- and third-round draft pick compensation. The Cowboys have 11 restricted free agents under a tag for about $15 million. So, with their veteran salaries and restricted tenders, the Cowboys have a talented team under contract for significantly less than the 2009 salary cap ceiling. The free-agent market is drying up significantly, but the Cowboys will be in great shape to grab a bargain player after the draft if they so desire.
It's a buyer's market
The Thomas Jones-LaDainian Tomlinson situation is also good to study at this point in the free-agent game. Both were under contract when free agency started and both were scheduled to make close to $6 million in compensation between salary and bonus. Both were released when there was no salary cap ramifications for doing so. Both signed two-year deals for about the same money they were scheduled to make in just one year.
Much like the real estate market around the country, it's a buyer's market right now in the NFL. Teams don't necessarily have to spend big money to get good players.
Trades are also up as teams don't need salary cap space to absorb accelerations or big contracts. Fans have seen close to a dozen players traded and that will continue right through the draft. With the draft set up in three stages this year -- with Round 1 taking place Thursday, April 22; Rounds 2-3 on Friday, April 23; and Rounds 4-7 taking place on Saturday, April 24 -- there could be a number of trades in the overnight between Round 1 and Rounds 2-3. Another wave of trades could occur in the overnight before the final four rounds.
Teams are in very good shape with their expenditures on player salaries at the moment, and when September rolls around the best 1,696 players will be under contract. However, I doubt half the teams will reach the 2009 salary cap floor with their veteran contracts, restricted tags and draft picks. On the top end, no more than one or two teams -- if any -- will be over the 2009 salary cap.