The NFL salary cap situation beyond 2020 is a series of educated guesses. Agents, cap experts, and front office execs alike have given their perspective on what could be in store, with projections of the decrease in the 2021 cap ceiling ranging from $30-$100M. Nothing is certain besides the upcoming reality that the league and the union will have to sit down and collectively bargain a solution to the upcoming and unprecedented cap hell.
With that said, the hypothetical solutions will, at best, serve as salves over unsolvable problems. The league can’t print money; the players can’t void all of their contracts. There will be sacrifices made as teams fight to get under the cap for upcoming seasons, including proposed plans like raising teams’ debt ceilings (as has already been done) and borrowing off of future cap years, and rosters and individual players alike will take a hit.
Here are the three teams I’m most worried about for the 2021 season and beyond, as their cap situations are not built for surviving the inevitable hit coming as a result of COVID-19. Everyone’s in trouble, but it could be the worst for these three franchises.
This isn’t news to anyone who has followed the NFL since… well, since Howie Roseman took over the Eagles’ roster-building, but the Eagles don’t have a ton of cap space in the future. They never do, and that’s usually okay. With COVID limitations on the upcoming years of salary cap extending into future seasons, Roseman may finally have spent himself into a corner.
The Eagles sit with over $22M in 2020 cap, which is seventh-best in the NFL—but in 2021, 2022, and 2023 apiece, they have the lowest amount of cap space on current projections. Even in the event that the NFL tries to defray the hit in 2021 by borrowing off of future years, the Eagles will still be quite firmly screwed.
The Eagles have appropriately halted all spending in an effort to carry as much cap in 2021 as possible. Despite losing starting guard Brandon Brooks to season-long Achilles rehab, they haven’t made a move for Pro Bowl free agent Larry Warford; despite having public interest in veteran running backs like Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy, they’ve yet to make a signing. As the Eagles are a stunning $63M over the cap in 2021, rolling over that extra space was already going to be critical, before the projected losses to the cap ceiling in 2021.
The plan for the Eagles to get under the 2021 bar has been in place for a bit. The Eagles want to get out of Alshon Jeffery’s contract, and will likely also lose one or both of DeSean Jackson or Marquise Goodwin’s contracts, saving another $5.8M in space. Three of their biggest nine contracts on the Eagles’ 2021 books belong to defensive tackles. They can restructure Fletcher Cox’s deal to open some cap space, but given the structure of void years that Roseman likes to employ, cutting one of Malik Jackson or Javon Hargrave could get dicey. The same restructuring can be done to both Carson Wentz and Zach Ertz, who figure to be franchise players long-term. Of course, restructuring to open space in 2021 only adds to the 2022 and 2023 caps, which figure to be affected as well—but if the biggest issue is in 2021, it’s a worthy move. The last change likely regards Derek Barnett’s 2020 cap hit, which is currently over $10M on his fifth-year option, yet to be guaranteed.
All of these moves, plus the rollover space, can get the Eagles under the current 2021 ceiling as it is. If it drops anywhere between the $30-$80M that Schefter projects, they won’t have many recources at all.
The Falcons are in a similar bucket to the Eagles. They’re below the 2021 cap, though only by about $20M to the Eagles’ 60M hole. While the Eagles have 12 contracts in 2021 that count for at least eight figures, a league-high, the Falcons have four that account for more than $20M: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett, and Jake Matthews, with Dante Fowler Jr. ($18.6M) and Deion Jones ($12.6M) also filling out hefty parts of their 2021 cap. None of those contracts can be easily shed, and again, while there can be restructures to alleviate the 2021 weight of those deals, that restructuring hits 2022 and 2023, where the Falcons are just about as low as the Eagles in future cap space.
What makes this Falcons situation different from Philadelphia’s is that their roster isn’t as top-heavy, and as such, there’s a strong middle class of contracts on the Falcons roster. Those are the contracts that figure to suffer the most in years of cap attrition, as teams scramble to retain their top players, and then pepper the bottom of the roster with rookie contracts to slide in under the cap ceiling. Players like Ricardo Allen, Jamon Brown, James Carpenter, and Allen Bailey can all be cut for immediate cap relief in 2021, and to keep their top players under contract, they very well may be.
This is both good and bad news for the Falcons. They have more flexibility to deal with a huge hit in 2021, while the Eagles will need a life vest, but they also are more likely to gut their roster to respond to a deteriorating cap situation. If the Falcons don’t deliver in 2020, there’s a good chance that Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff end up on the hot seat, and ownership could pivot to a full rebuild that would welcome the gutting of veteran contracts. This COVID cap hit could force a Falcons rebuild.
The Cowboys are not nearly in the bad position that the Falcons or the Eagles are in. They have more than $20M in space for 2021 as it currently stands, which is below average but still tenable; in both 2022 and 2023, they drop to bottom-five in the league. But unlike both Philadelphia and Atlanta, the Cowboys don’t have something that’s critical to the calculation: a big-money QB contract.
As the Cowboys have failed to extend Dak Prescott over the past offseason, they have tethered him to the franchise tag, which under the current CBA, locks him into a certain value for a 2021 tag, even in the event of a flat or depreciated cap in 2021. If Prescott signs his franchise tag in 2020, he’ll be paid at least $31.4M this season—and to get tagged in consecutive seasons, the second-year tag must be 120% of the first-year tag. In Prescott’s case, that’s $37.7M.
So the Cowboys have three options: extend Prescott long-term, let Prescott walk, or tag Prescott. Two of those are expensive, and one of those costs the Cowboys a tremendous young quarterback. Extending Prescott can be cheap in 2021, to keep things under the dropped 2021 cap ceiling—but remember, the Cowboys are already in a tricky spot for 2022 and 2023. That’s without Prescott signed, but also without either of their current starting corners or starting safeties signed beyond 2020, and Connor Williams and Michael Gallup free agents after 2021.
Things look survivable now, but the lack of a Prescott contract is lying about the long-term security of the Cowboys cap, unless he decides to take an extremely team-friendly deal—which is tough to imagine giving the contract fallout to this point. Unless a collectively-bargained agreement helps the Cowboys out with a lower second tag or another way of stringing out Prescott’s extension, they’re going to have to lose free agents to keep enough space to retain their franchise quarterback.