Three questions with founder of Over The Cap
I’ve gained a lot of respect for 39-year-old engineer (that’s his real job) Jason Fitzgerald and his site, Over The Cap, which catalogs NFL contracts and how teams are doing managing their salary caps. The site is two years old. As well as cataloging all player contracts, the New Jersey-based Fitzgerald interprets the data with smart articles. “I think we’re able to help people learn about an increasingly important part of the NFL that many feel is too difficult to understand,” Fitzgerald says. I asked him three questions over the weekend.
The MMQB: You wrote Thursday that the Ndamukong Suh contract in Miami is particularly onerous. What concerns you in the future about that deal for the Dolphins, and how will they handle it?
Fitzgerald: In order to fit Suh within their cap easily this season, the Dolphins opted for a structure that will see Suh count for only $6 million against the cap, despite the annual contract value of $19.1 million. That leaves Suh with an average cap charge for the 2016-2018 seasons of $21.9 million. Quite honestly I am not sure how you compete in the NFL for a championship with those figures, especially for a defensive tackle.
When you look throughout NFL history, the highest percentage of cap spent on one individual player by a Super Bowl winner is just 13.1 percent, which occurred in 1994, the first year of the salary cap. The average is under 10 percent. The only defensive tackle to have the highest percentage of cap allocation on a team was Warren Sapp, who was just under 10 percent. If we assume the cap continues to rise at a rate of $10 million a season, the only seasons where Suh is at an acceptable cap number are 2015, 2017, and 2020. That is really limiting what you can do during the effective term of his contract. The 2016 season in particular is worrisome. His $28.6 million cap charge is crippling, and the team will need to decide to restructure for cap relief, making his future cap charges even more difficult to handle, or bite the bullet and realize what a mistake they made. This is the same contract structure the Dolphins recently used with receiver Mike Wallace, who had a cap hit of $3.25 million in his first contract year and a $17.25 million hit in his second year.
At the end of the day I have a feeling that this contract may be looked at similar to Mike Ditka’s decision to trade an entire draft for Ricky Williams. It’s a situation where a team or a person gets it in their mind that they need a player to make an impact on an organization, and they lose sight of what they may be giving up to get that.
The MMQB: How much is the salary cap hamstringing the Saints? And who else could be a casualty to help them get out of cap jail?
Fitzgerald: The Saints are a fascinating team to watch right now, and I think it has caught many people who follow the league by surprise. These are problems that when you look closely, you can see shaping up two or three years before they become very noticeable. For the Saints, it began with the contract of Drew Brees, which was heavily backloaded and simply deferred problems until the 2014 season. You can deal with one contract like that, but in an attempt to continue to chase the Super Bowl, they made a number of short-sighted contract decisions with veteran players to allow them to keep adding players to the team while just pushing cap charges into the future. When they signed Jimmy Graham and Jairus Byrd last season, that was the final straw. It was a one-year window before the bubble would burst.
Last season the Saints began the year somewhere in the ballpark of $10 million over the cap, before they began deferring more cap charges to the future. That led to this past offseason, with the Saints somewhere around $25 million over the salary cap. They probably would have begun 2016 $35 million over the cap if they remained status quo. Even releasing the players with the worst contracts would have provided little relief. They were just a sinking ship taking on more water. The team really had no choice. The cap was going to ruin the franchise at some point, and they are at least able to turn some bad contracts into draft assets. Players like Thomas Morstead or Rafael Bush might be in danger of release at some point. I could see the team exploring a trade for Kenny Vaccaro if they can receive reasonable value for him this summer.
Moving forward, I would still be watching two big-name players closely in New Orleans. The immediate one is guard Jahri Evans, who has an $11 million cap hit. The second name is Drew Brees, not so much this year but in 2016. Brees will enter the final year of his contract in 2016 with a $27.6 million cap number. Brees will be 37. If the two sides cannot agree on a new deal by next year, I would anticipate that the Saints will be very open to trading Brees, who would likely still hold great value even in his late-30s. That would completely close the chapter on this era of Saints football, but it’s a move they should consider if it gets them the assets needed to turn over the organization. They won’t receive anything if they let him walk away.
The MMQB: You’ve been a cap-watcher for a while. What team, or which GM, handles the cap the best?
Fitzgerald: If I had to narrow my choices down to two teams I would select the 49ers and the Patriots. The 49ers I appreciate because everything is done on their terms. Almost every player on that team, even the stars, has large amounts of money tied into being healthy and productive, which is not common in the NFL. For instance last year Navorro Bowman missed out on $750,000 in salary because he was hurt.
But if there is one team that stands out head and shoulders above anyone else it’s New England. To have the kind of success that they have had in a salary cap era of football is incredible. While everyone deals in two- and three-year windows, this team operates in decades. What sets New England apart isn’t so much the financial acumen (the Patriots have had more than their fair share of bad deals), but their steadfast approach to valuation of a player. They don’t waver or allow themselves to be taken advantage of. They are cold as ice when it comes to their players. It goes back years, to the team cutting Lawyer Milloy on the eve of the season. No player is bigger than the organization. Whether it was Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Mike Vrabel, Deion Branch or a number of other players, the team either turned the players into draft picks or walked away without getting stuck in a bad contract. Just the fact that they would approach Tom Brady about accepting a contract that would pay him in the ballpark of $10 million a year is something to appreciate. The Patriots can also be very quietly generous with their players to build that trust with a player who performs. Last season the team reworked the contract of Sebastian Vollmer to give him a better chance of earning incentives in his contract that he missed the year before because of injury. Often they give even their practice squad players a boost in salary at the end of the year. When the time comes to ask players for a pay cut later on, I am sure that these things are remembered. They play a different game than anyone else in the NFL.