Flat salary cap will force NFL teams to restructure rosters

Associated Press
Houston gave Arian Foster (left) a five-year, $43.5 million deal in March, which could make Ben Tate expendable.


 

A few months ago, I was listening to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban discuss his team's championship season of 2010-11, as well as his thought process for the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement. Cuban's main objective for this year was to be deliberate and patient with each move so he could completely understand the fine print of the new CBA. He wanted to really understand the long-range implications of any move his team might make, and his need to repeat as champion was not as great as his need to be sound in overall planning for the future.

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The NFL's new CBA is just one year old and there are many new quirks executives must work through. But the main issue that all teams must deal with in the coming years is that the salary cap is not going to significantly increase. The cap pretty much stayed the same this year -- going from $120.375 million in 2011 to $120.6 million -- and there are indications it will remain flat next year. Therefore, if organizations have executed contracts with hefty increases for many players, there is no way they can keep the team together.

For example, the Philadelphia Eagles have a $3 million increase in Michael Vick's contract from 2012 to 2013. That one increase will likely be greater than the entire cap increase, leaving Philly with decisions to make regarding which players to keep, release or restructure. Even though the Eagles have done a marvelous job managing salaries, they will not be immune to the consequences of a flat cap.

So what can teams do right now to prepare? The first order of business requires that a team correctly breaks down its roster into three categories of players:

1. The Irreplaceables: The obvious stars who are uniquely talented with incredibly bright futures.

2. The Replaceables: Players who have good talent, but could be replaced by younger, cheaper options who can play at a similar level.

3. The Projects: Young, backup players who are worthy of development and have economically friendly contracts.

Now that minicamps are over, teams should have a relatively clear indication of the role they would like each player to have for the upcoming season. With the Houston Texans, we all know that Arian Foster is the main running back and will play a huge role this year and for many years to come. However, the Texans have another quality runner in Ben Tate. Since Foster is the bona fide star (with a fat new contract to prove it), Tate does not have a long-term future in Houston. Most executives in the league know Tate is a quality player and has a modest second-round contract, making him extremely valuable for another team in need of a full-time running back.

Houston could wait for Tate to become a free agent -- eventually collecting a compensatory pick (assuming they do not sign any players in that free-agent period) -- while knowing that in the mean time they have a great backup runner if something unfortunate were to happen to Foster. Or they could make him available right now and parlay Tate into a future asset, which might be the best way to stay ahead of the flat cap.

In Cleveland, the Colt McCoy era is about to end. It's clear the Browns don't see the third-year pro as their present-day or future quarterback. Don't buy the rhetoric about McCoy competing for the starting job; the Browns invested a first-round pick on 28-year-old Brandon Weeden -- he's their man. McCoy is replaceable, but unlike Tate, he does not carry high trade value. Thus, the Browns will take anything -- even a conditional pick.

In both situations, though, it's the right move to part ways with a player who does not have a short- or long-term future with the franchise.

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In Pittsburgh, the Mike Wallace case is easy to solve. He will not be traded, no matter how flat the cap stays. The Steelers must have Wallace on the roster -- he is an irreplaceable player. Pittsburgh would have a hard time finding another player who could bring his level of talent to the field. Therefore, the Steelers will build their team around the Wallace contract, whenever it gets done.

For fans, it's hard to see players come and go. But for executives, this is a part of the job. With the cap remaining flat, it's critical for personnel departments to constantly replenish the talent pool and for coaches to fully emphasize player development. Change is a part of the new NFL, and constant change is the result of a cap that does not increase.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi