The NFL’s salary cap has, for a decade, swelled year over year to accommodate inflation of player salaries and helped some teams retool and rebuild rosters quickly and efficiently. For others, the temptation of free agency and salary cap space has been a siren’s song that has led teams into a never-ending cycle of chasing their tails to mediocrity. But the trend of salary cap inflation was cut down by a global pandemic, and for the first time in a decade, the salary cap figure was reduced for the 2021 season.
However, that previous trend appears to be well aligned to restart once again in 2022 with the news on Wednesday that NFL owners and the NFLPA have agreed on a new salary cap ceiling for the coming year.
At $208.2M, the potential cap is certainly much loftier than this year’s $182.5M figure. And even if the actual cap, which will be finalized in February, doesn’t reach the highwater mark of $208.2M, the fact that the league has built that much escalation into the cap over a one-year jump serves as a promising development to see regardless.
And that’s good news for everyone. It’s good for the teams, it’s good for the young top talents looking to get paid, and it’s good for the middle class of NFL talent that has taken a hit this season due to a lack of available funds to give fair market value to. But which of the young talents looking to cash in on a big deal will be the biggest winners of a major jump in the cap?
Here are my top three picks entering the 2021 season:
RB Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
No one may be a bigger winner than Chubb. Teams appear willing to pay out big-money second contracts to running backs, but only if they are incumbents on their current team and the deal is struck as an extension versus a free agency addition.
For Chubb, he’s become a centerpiece of a Browns offense rooted in the ground game. He’s logged more than 3,500 rushing yards in his first three seasons and accounted for 30 total touchdowns. If any back is going to deserve a second contract, it’s Chubb.
But the Browns must also weigh out the presence of Kareem Hunt in the backfield as another option and decide if paying Chubb outweighs saving money and transitioning to Hunt, who is clearly talented but has troubles in his past off the field. The major leap in projected cap space affords the Browns with more wiggle room and would allow them to have a much easier time maneuvering a big contract to a back amid their “win now” window.
TE Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins may or may not have put Gesicki on red alert when the team opted to draft tight end Hunter Long in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The Dolphins, who already had Gesicki, Adam Shaheen, Durham Smythe, and 2021 free agent signing Cethan Carter on the roster at tight end, prioritized the position despite some other key needs, particularly at the running back position. So needless to say, long-term change is coming to the Dolphins’ tight end room. But now the financial implications are marginalized and Miami can simply make a decision rooted in their best fits for what the offense is aspiring to look like.
Forecasting tight end contracts right now can be tricky business, as the league has rapidly accelerated the spending ceiling for top-of-market players thanks to the new contracts of Travis Kelce and George Kittle last summer. Tack on big-money deals for Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry via the New England Patriots and a second contract for Gesicki can clock in anywhere from $10-14M per season based on his play this upcoming year.
The Dolphins are currently projected to own a top-five amount of cap space next season, so there’s no reason why a tight budget will be an excuse not to find a deal, presuming one is in the cards. And if it isn’t and Gesicki hits the open market, even better for him. He’s an ascending receiver who topped 700 yards receiving last season in his third year—and the Dolphins have more threats around him in 2021 that will keep him drawing safeties and linebackers frequently in coverage. There’s a big payday coming, either from the Dolphins or someone else.
LB Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
Speaking of big paydays, Warner might well be the best three-down linebacker in all of football right now. And, accordingly, you’re going to see him paid handsomely for his services one way or another.
The 49ers have enjoyed stellar play from the 70th overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft and his impact on the 49ers’ defense cannot be understated. He’s good in coverage and in his run fits alike and showcases dynamic range to make plays all over the field.
Looking at the financials of the position, there’s currently a large gap to be bridged, too. C.J. Mosely averages $17M per season on his current deal with the New York Jets and Bobby Wagner takes home the top spot with an $18M annual average. But no other linebacker exceeds Zach Cunningham’s $14.5M per season. Warner doesn’t just deserve to bridge the gap, he deserves to challenge Wagner’s title as the highest-paid linebacker in football—especially considering he’s been playing the last three seasons on a third-round rookie contract.
San Francisco doesn’t have a ton of projected cap space as things currently stand for 2022 with the ceiling at $208.2M, but they have more than $14M in current availability with plenty of wiggle room thanks to the elephant in the room that is Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract. The 49ers can clear him and save more than $25M going into next season.
The boosted cap plus the looming departure of Garoppolo gives the 49ers all the cap space they need to lock in Warner with a fair deal, which at this point is a market reset contract at the position.