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Report: 2021 salary cap could wind up in the $180M range

Seattle Seahawks v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Just three games remain in the 2020 NFL season, and that means that it is only a matter of time before fans begin to narrow in on the free agents and college players they would love to see added to their team for next season. It is little different than in years past, however, this year’s version of free agent dreams and draft hype come with the backdrop of a salary cap that is expected to decrease significantly from the $198.2M at which it was set for 2020.

Reports from December were optimistic that the salary cap could potentially remain in the $195M range for 2021, however, the same outlet has now changed its tune and is expecting the cap to be much closer to the $175M floor that was set in negotiations between the league and the union last year.

Whether the cap drops to $180M or to $175M, the majority of teams will need to make moves in order to come into compliance with the cap. How exactly they do that will depend upon both the structure of contracts on the roster and their expectation regarding how fast the cap could recover going forward. Teams which are optimistic the cap will bounce back in 2022 are more likely to simply kick the can down the road, while teams fearing a potentially longer term cap downturn would seem more likely to release or trade players.

The teams facing the biggest hurdles when it comes to the salary cap are predominantly in the NFC, with the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams projected to be the top five teams that are most over the cap. That said, just as the Kansas City Chiefs at one point had just $177.00 of 2021 cap space, a team’s cap pace in any season is a function of how willing a team is to borrow from future seasons, meaning the situation is important, but not dire, for those teams.

The cap issue many teams will have to address between now and the start of the new league year on March 17 has led many fans and pundits to believe the cap crunch will create a lot of very inexpensive free agents. While it’s certainly possible, probably even likely, that the middle class in the NFL will bear the brunt of the cap casualties in the coming weeks, that doesn’t mean those players will all then be available on veteran minimum contracts. As Brad Spielberger of PFF notes, it’s not difficult to sign a one-year contract that carries a $2M cap hit in the first year, it’s just a matter of a team’s willingness to borrow from future cap seasons.

The risk to teams in doing this is, of course, that if a team takes on multiple such contracts and the cap does not recover as hoped or expected in 2022, the $4M or so in dead money multiplied by multiple contracts could become a burden too heavy for teams to handle. That said, there are ways to mitigate that impact and allow teams to push some of that cap hit further into the future, but creative contract structures are a different topic for a different day.

In any case, as more time passes more clarity will be gained on where the salary cap stands for 2021 and what it will mean for the Seattle Seahawks and other teams. Until then, fans and observers will be left to hope that the cap decrease has a greater impact on rival teams than on their own.