The monetary landscape for players and teams has changed a fair bit since the lockout a few seasons ago. The uncapped year created opportunities for some, and problems for others—even later on down the road. When the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was reached, the salary cap was kept low for the first few years.
It was only with this season that the cap began to climb as it was projected years ago, coming in at $10 million higher than the salary cap that the 2013 season was played under.
But we remain in a transitional period, writes Albert Breer. And there are lessons that teams have learned through this period about how to navigate some of the new realities of the salary cap.
Part of the transitional period is that we still have yet to hit the second contracts of the first class of rookies drafted under the new CBA, which included slotted salaries for rookies that stopped paying the first overall pick nine-figure salaries before touching a jersey.
The new CBA makes it not only easier, but more pertinent, to get the most out of superstar players in their first contract before they cash in. Although not a first-round pick and thus not the greatest example, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks were able to put together a championship roster in part because they didn’t have to pay a $20 million a year quarterback—yet.
But that time will come, and we’ll see if the Seahawks can sustain that roster when the time does come. We’ve already seen them lose some pieces or conscientiously part with others this offseason. The Baltimore Ravens certainly felt that much harder after their championship when they had to pay up for Joe Flacco.
In order to keep the ship sailing, teams have to plan in advance for the encroaching salary demands of their now-inexpensive young talent. Part of that includes more contracts such as the one that Alex Mack signed, which feature pay-as-you-go stipulations.
With the salary cap rising, it allows teams to put out more cap space up front and take it season by season, rather than offer up enormous signing bonus that force the year-by-year cap hit to drastically climb.
The latter is the model that the Steelers continue to operate under, as they still find themselves harder up against the cap than just about any team. See the deal signed by Mike Mitchell this offseason.
All of this places greater emphasis on the draft than there was even just a few seasons ago. The draft is the source of inexpensive labor. While veteran-minimum discounts help in keeping some veterans on board, this doesn’t apply to what Breer calls the ‘middle-class’ veteran players, who more frequently find themselves in jeopardy of being released.
Stockpiling draft picks enables teams to more quickly turn over a position filled with aging, expensive veterans with cheaper options, which allows them to keep the keystone players of a potential championship roster together while target rebuilding.
These are at least some initial observations from the early stages of the new financial landscape in the NFL. More and more money will be entering the system over the next few years to spread around, and that too will force tactics to evolve.