Behind the scenes: How NFL teams fit roster under salary cap
When the Packers gave Brett Favre the NFL’s first $100 million contract in 2001 — well, first ”$100 million contract,” because, like so many deals in the league, it wasn’t ultimately worth the advertised amount — the team structured it to create extra space under the salary cap for other signings.
So other players’ signings were put on hold by the Packers until Favre’s could be finalized.
Easier said than done.
“He was tough to reach. When he’s off in the woods, hunting or fishing, it’s hard to find him,” recalled Andrew Brandt, who managed Green Bay’s cap then as a team VP. “And we had all these other guys lined up, and I couldn’t do their deals until we found him. So that was a very stressful time.”
Such behind-the-scenes machinations take place all the time in the NFL, where the salary cap, which grew to $167 million per club for the coming season, factors into every roster-shaping decision. As free agents search for deals, the amount of money they’re able to obtain is dependent on several variables, of course. None is as crucial as how the cap would be affected.
Before spending season began, front offices studied their own players and finances to figure out their needs. They also examined how other teams handle cap space.
They looked at who they have, who they wanted to keep, who they would need to release, how contracts might be restructured to free up money, what veterans might be available from elsewhere, what the draft (and its cheaper contracts) might offer.
“I’m not a believer in doing things on the fly. I can sleep at night once I have every scenario covered. ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry’ is kind of the mantra,” former Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey said. “Yes, we had a plan, but we all needed to know it may not go perfect and we needed to know what to do if it didn’t go our way.”
A look at how cap management works:
DECIDE WHERE YOU STAND
“Are you a playoff team? Then maybe you just have to make a few tweaks,” former Broncos GM Ted Sundquist said. “If you missed the playoffs, you have to decide: Are we too young or too old? Do I have some young guys that we can wait on and hope they develop? Or are we on the other side of the hill and we have to make hard decisions with some aging veterans?”
There is another category, of course.
“The bottom-feeders,” Sundquist called them. “Constant changing of coaches, coordinators. Never finding progress.”
DETERMINE WHAT YOU HAVE
As teams assess rosters, Hickey said, “The starting point is your quarterback situation: Do you have a franchise guy? An OK veteran? An unproven youngster?”
Teams look at the full roster, applying a calculus of contributions versus contract.
“You listen to your scouts and your coaches, independently of each other,” Sundquist said. “But you also have to cover your ears and block out noise, people in the organization — it can be the owner, but I didn’t have that problem in Denver — saying, ‘Well, so-and-so, who’s a Hall of Famer, said this on ESPN the other day.’”
HOW AND WHEN TO SPEND
It’s not just about having room under the cap. It’s also about having cash available.
“Fans don’t necessarily get this one — and I don’t think the media always does, either. You have rich teams and poor teams. Everybody’s playing with ‘Monopoly money,’ so to speak, but it matters when the cash arrives,” Sundquist said. “Maybe we offer $20 million in the first year, but it’s a $10 million payment right away, $5 million in November, another $5 million in February, when there are season-ticket renewals and money is coming from other sources. And then the agent says, ‘This other team will give us $20 million right now in March.’”
Other keys include spacing out when certain deals expire, and figuring out how to divvy up spending by position.
“You would not want Aaron Rodgers or Clay Matthews coming up the same year,” Brandt said. “You’d want to stagger your big salaries.”
CHECKING OTHER CLUBS
Researching how other teams spend cap money, Brandt noticed better clubs tended to spend evenly on offense and defense.
Sundquist picked up on trends, too.
“I’m paying attention to the Steelers, Giants, Patriots, Packers — teams consistently competing for a Super Bowl,” he said. “Should we spend more at defensive end than at safety, for example, based on other teams’ success? And I would say, ‘Coach, we’re not spending enough on the offensive line.’ Or ‘Coach, I got to tell you, we’re not spending enough at wide receiver.’”
Free agency philosophies get copied.
The Steelers generally are less interested in other teams’ veterans, preferring what GM Kevin Colbert described as a “draft, develop, keep-our-own” approach.
As clubs follow that model, Colbert said, “you’re seeing less and less quality free agents. There’s an inherent danger in that, because some of the players who are hitting the market, with the number of dollars that are available, might not be quite worth what they’re going to get paid because of the supply and demand.”
Some veterans are asked to give up money to keep a job. Others are let go.
“Is a player producing at the level you anticipated? Is he going to maintain or improve upon that? Do you see value in that player but you think you need to renegotiate? Is it a player you can approach about changing his deal? Is it an agent you can approach?” Sundquist said. “It’s a big thing to ask: ‘We’re in the fourth year of a five-year deal and we can’t carry that. Would you be willing to renegotiate to help the club?’ There’s a pride factor there.”
Brandt remembers being told by Packers GM Ron Wolf to shave millions because they were up against the cap.
Brandt needed to “go to a lot of Packer Hall of Fame players, whether it be LeRoy Butler, Dorsey Levens, Gilbert Brown, Santana Dotson, and sort of get money back. ... You’re talking about reductions, not just restructures. Everyone sort of equates those two. But restructures are just moving cap around; reductions are actually taking away money.”
WHERE DID THINGS GO WRONG?
Another calculation: How did THAT happen?
“You’ve got to look back at your evaluation process,” Sundquist said, “and say, ‘OK, what broke down? Why were we willing to give that guy so much money?’ Look at the Brock Osweiler situation, and you say: ‘Oh, my gosh. Something broke down in ... their understanding of what Brock was bringing.’ That seems to happen quite a bit at the quarterback spot.”
Look at the Brock Osweiler situation: ‘Oh, my gosh. Something broke down in ... their understanding of what Brock was bringing.’ That seems to happen quite a bit at the quarterback spot.”
AP Pro Football Writers Dave Campbell and Arnie Stapleton contributed to this report.
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