INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (March 30, 2016) – It isn’t that difficult to manipulate the NFL’s salary cap for short-term benefits.
Bonuses are prorated to spread the impact of a player’s initial payout over the life of a contract. Existing salaries occasionally are converted into bonuses that lessen a player’s immediate cost against the cap by pushing money into the future.
But while teams, including the Indianapolis Colts, have gotten adept at maximizing the “soft’’ nature of the cap, there’s one undeniable catch.
As former Colts executive Bill Polian used to preach, the salary cap never forgets and never forgives.
Make a mistake while building the roster, and you’ll pay.
It’s called “dead money,’’ and it reflects bonuses and guaranteed money already given to a player but not yet counted against the salary cap when that player is released.
According to the NFLPA and overthecap.com, the Colts have about $17.5 million in cap space after signing cornerback Patrick Robinson to a three-year, $13.5 million contract. That puts them at the bottom end of the top 10 in terms of available cap space. Still flush with space are San Francisco ($53.8 million) and Jacksonville ($52.8 million).
But back to the topic of the day.
Included in the Colts’ budget with their adjusted cap of $160 million is approximately $10 million in dead money from players no longer on the roster. Offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus, released prior to the 2015 season, counts $5.8 million. Wide receiver Andre Johnson and linebacker Bjoern Werner, both released earlier this month, count $2.5 million and $1 million, respectively.
While the $10 million might seem extreme, it’s more than reasonable. It only reflects 6 percent of their overall cap.
The New Orleans Saints are carrying $31.3 million in dead money, which means 20 percent of their cap is eaten up by players no longer with the team. Linebacker Junior Galette, now with Washington, remains on the Saints’ books for $12.1 million. Atlanta has $25.6 million in dead money and Philadelphia has $15.1 million.
The “leaders’’ over the past few seasons: the Saints again last season ($34.18 million), Dallas in ’14 ($27.45 million) and the Oakland Raiders in ’13 ($55.8 million, which accounted for a staggering 43.7 percent of their budget).
The Colts carried a league-high $34.187 million in dead money in 2012 when they transitioned from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck and essentially hit the reset button to address a roster that was aging and included too many older players dealing with injury issues. Their dead money included Manning ($10.4 million), Dallas Clark ($6.9 million), Joseph Addai ($3.7 million), Gary Brackett ($2.4 million) and Melvin Bullitt ($2.4 million).
But since ’12, the Colts essentially have gotten their house in order. Their recent dead money: $10.8 million in ’13 (8.6 percent of the cap), $5.9 million in ’14 (4 percent) and $14.3 million last season (9 percent).
While there have been several costly mistakes when acquiring veteran free agents – LaRon Landy and Andre Johnson come to mind – the salary-cap damage largely has been contained.
It’s tough enough to compete for a division and conference title on a level playing field. Doing so with a high percentage of your salary cap going to discarded players is exponentially more difficult.