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The Chris Carson cap conundrum

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Okay, so it’s not really a conundrum the Seattle Seahawks face in regards to the upcoming decision on Chris Carson’s status, but it sounded cool so that’s the title for the day.

In any case, there has been a lot of talk about whether or not the Seahawks will keep Carson, or whether he could be released after June 1, freeing up some 2022 cap space for the Hawks. In particular, the questions have centered around whether or not the neck injury which ended Carson’s 2021 season will have any impact on the ability of the team to release Carson, and if he is released, what impact that could potentially have on the cap for the team.

First things first, should the team wish to move on from Carson, it may absolutely do so. This question grows out of the confusing rules the NFL uses regarding the release of injured players, something which is typically precluded by league rules. However, the restriction on releasing an injured player only applies to players in the league year in which they are injured. Thus, since Carson suffered the neck injury in question in the fall of 2021 and a new NFL league year started in March of 2022, the Seahawks are now allowed to release Carson should they so wish.

Now, the next step is to determine the specifics of the release, which would depend upon whether or not Carson has passed a physical and been cleared for full activity. If Carson has passed a physical and cleared to play, the team can release him without any further thought, and the $3M of his signing bonus which remains unamortized would be charged against the cap in the amount of $1.5M in 2022 and $1.5M in 2023.

On the flip side, if he does not pass the physical and is unable to gain clearance to play, then any release would come with a failed physical designation. When a player is released with a failed physical designation it makes the player eligible for injury protection payments under Article 45 of the collective bargaining agreement. What that means is that under the 2020 CBA, if Carson is released with a failed physical designation and then remains unsigned this season, he would be entitled to collect a portion of his salary under the injury guarantees that are included in all multi-year contracts as laid out by the CBA.

Without jumping too deep into the details, if he qualified for an injury protection payment, Carson would be entitled to 100% of his base salary, up to a maximum of $2M, with $1.2M counting against the salary cap. That amount is not something that the team would necessarily need to have space available to cover during the 2022 season, as it would simply be included in the end of the league year adjustment to the cap next spring. That’s a complicated way of saying it would effectively be taken out of whatever amount of cap space the team rolls into 2023 would be. (Author’s Note: For those wondering what happens if the team were to finish the season with less than $1.2M in cap space, meaning there is not enough rollover to cover the $1.2M injury protection payment charge, the team would simply roll over a negative amount, reducing its available cap space for 2023.)

Thus, should Carson be released with a failed physical designation and then remain unsigned for the 2022 season, the result would effectively be for the team to take $4.2M in dead cap charges over the next two seasons. This $4.2M would, obviously, be made up of the $3M of unamortized signing bonus and the $1.2M of injury protection payment.

So, long story short, the cap implications if Carson is released are as follows:

  • Released with failed physical: Likely $4.2M in combined dead cap charges for 2022 and 2023
  • Released after passing physical: $3M dead cap charges in equal amounts of $1.5M in 2022 and 2023

That, of course, brings things back to the question of whether they will release him if he’s healthy enough that he’s cleared to play. It’s no secret that Pete Carroll loves Carson and his physical running style, and while a $6.1M cap charge is not ideal for a situational back, it would not be a surprise if the Seahawks kept a healthy Carson around for use in short yardage and goal line situations where his size and power could contribute. In any case, it’s a situation that bears watching, and the most important piece of information will be coming from Carson’s doctors.