Doing the Wrong Thing: Salary Cap Cramps

Just as teams can win the offseason, they can certainly lose it through a series of bad signings, trades, and cap mismanagement. David McCullough takes a look at how teams can do the wrong thing to create salary cap cramps.

The offseason is upon us and while you can’t win a Super Bowl in March, you can sign Darrelle Revis or Deion Sanders and sometimes that works out pretty well. But far more often the teams that win the offseason fail to win in the regular season (looking at you, Washington) and these mistakes can be costly in many ways down the road.

Every bad idea starts somewhere and there is no shortage of bad ideas circulating about what NFL teams should do with cap space, veteran players, or draft picks. It may be hard to accurately predict what will succeed, but some failures can be seen from miles away. Or, for that matter, from space (ahem, Jets). In this recurring series, we’ll look at some of the offseason’s dumbest ideas.

Arizona Cardinals: Trade Larry Fitzgerald

The 31-year-old highly esteemed veteran’s previous contract counted for a whopping $23.6M of the Cardinals 2015 salary cap, an unacceptably high number and one that was re-negotiated Wednesday. But to trade him under his previous deal, Arizona would take a dead money cap hit of $14.4M . That is extremely inadvisable.

So what should the Cardinals do? They stand more than $10M over the cap and Fitzgerald’s production is no longer worth $14.4M per season, let alone $23.6M. Although the exact terms of his new deal have not been released, initial reports indicate that he is guaranteed $22M over two seasons. A (hopefully healthy) quarterback Carson Palmer will benefit next season from this development,. And in 2016 the dead money is just over $7M, which is much less crippling to a team with playoff aspirations.

But if it couldn’t be worked out, Fitzgerald needed to be released, not traded, and designated as a post-June 1 cut. This would free up $16.25M in 2015 salary cap space while spreading the $14.4M in dead money over the next two seasons. Trading Fitzgerald would not allow for that accounting quirk and the cap savings would only be $9.2M. The return in trade would be at best a mid-round pick; The Cards would have been better off with the extra $7M in the free agent market.

Baltimore Ravens: Don’t Cut Haloti Ngata

The Ravens face an impending cap-pocalyse in 2016 when Joe Flacco’s cap number swells to $28.5M (with $25.5M dead money if cut), meaning an extension is a necessity next offseason for the soon to be 31-year old signal caller. Heading into this offseason, the Ravens are estimated to be more than $3M under the cap, with a roster in need of some pruning for the health of the cap both this season and next.

The trouble is, of Baltimore’s top five cap hits in 2015, three are uncuttable. Flacco and Eugene Monroe ($14.75M dead cap hit) are both integral parts of the offense, and while cornerback Lardarius Webb has declined because of age and injuries his $12M cap hit features a crippling $10M in dead money. Moreover, corner was an Achilles’ heel for the Ravens last season and Webb at least finished the season standing. Marshal Yanda will almost certainly get an extension.

Leaving Ngata and his $16M cap hit in 2015. He missed the final four games of the season because of a substance-abuse policy suspension and will be 32 years old next season. The Ravens could spread his $7.5M dead cap charge over the next two seasons by designating him as a post-June 1 cut and create more than $12M in cap space. Along with an extension for Yanda, the Ravens could go from $3M in cap space to nearly $20M. Even if Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams hadn’t proved themselves capable replacements in Ngata’s late-season absence – and they did – it would still be the right thing for the Ravens to cut the veteran defensive tackle.

San Francisco 49ers: Trade Patrick Willis

The former All-Pro finished 2015 on injured reserve, having undergone surgery for turf toe, an injury that nagged him for years. The 30 year old is due $8.2M on the cap and the 49ers stand a little over $1M under the cap next season. The emergence of Chris Borland after Willis’s injury and the tight cap situation has led to suggestions that Willis be traded.

Willis may be in line for an extension that adds another season or two (his deal expires after 2016), converting salary to a signing bonus and lowering the cap number to something in the $4-5M range. But a trade – coming off an injury – would not maximize the value of a player who was considered one of the finest middle linebackers of his generation just one season ago. The recovery and rehab from the toe injury should be complete and there is no reason to believe he’ll be anything but his old, dominant self. Unless the return is a first round pick – and it won’t be – why would the 49ers sacrifice one of their key pieces when cutting Stevie Johnson would create nearly as much cap space?

It doesn’t make sense. There are plenty of ways for the 49ers to create cap space – trading an All-Pro coming off an injury at the nadir of his value isn’t one of them.

Seattle Seahawks: Cut Marshawn Lynch, Sign DeMarco Murray

The Seahawks are about $23M under the cap for 2015 but will sacrifice much of that space working out an extension with Russell Wilson, upgrading their wide receivers, and possibly re-signing Byron Maxwell. Mercurial running back Marshawn Lynch held out last season and there has been rumbling that he is unhappy with his contract and even considering retirement due to chronic back problems. For a team that relies as heavily on the running game as Seattle, the situation at RB bears watching.

What doesn’t bear watching is the possibility that Seattle will replace Lynch – scheduled to make $8.5M in the final year of his contract – with another back making the same amount or more per season. DeMarco Murray will be seeking a big contract and, given the shelf life of running backs and his workload, he should be looking at this as his final payday. Teams like Jacksonville and Oakland have (on paper) a need at running back (and the box office), and more than $50M in cap space.

Robert Turbin and Christine Michael are a decent fallback plan if the Seahawks do choose to move on from Beast Mode this offseason. And the draft is deep in running back prospects. Signing Murray to a big money deal would be a poor decision by a front office with a good track record of avoiding such mistakes.

Follow David on Twitter @SoSH_davemc.

David R. McCullough is the Editor-in-Chief of Inside the Pylon. He also writes about the topics shaping the sport, examines the coaches and players, ruminates on football’s past, and explores the controversial issues facing the game.

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