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What the Salary Cap Tells Us About the NFL’s Most Extreme Teams

For some squads, salary cap allocation can provide a peek at their team-building philosophy

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It might sound strange, but the salary cap is one of the biggest reasons I love—and am endlessly fascinated by—the NFL. For starters, the cap fosters parity; sure, it’s risen substantially over the past few years to create a league-wide surplus in spending power, but unlike teams in, say, Major League Baseball, a given franchise’s market size (or the depth of its owners’ pockets) has little bearing on the amount of cash it can shell out to retain its best players or land premier free agents. That level monetary playing field gives long-suffering fans of bad teams legitimate reason to believe that even their franchise can quickly put together a winner. (Hello, Jacksonville.) But more than that, the cap makes roster-building a complex chess match of resource allocation. Decision-makers must weigh short- and long-term factors in deciding how and when to best wield their regulated allotment of cap space each year. The strategies therein vary wildly and constantly evolve.

The starting point for every team is at quarterback—and the amount of cap space each club has tied up in that position affects how they approach every other spot. A good quarterback who’s still on his cheap rookie contract is perhaps the most valuable thing in sports, and that player affords his team the ability to spend big to fill out the roster around him. But elite rookie-contract signal-callers are rare, and the teams that can’t lean on that enormous advantage must decide: How much is a top-tier veteran quarterback worth? Is it true that defense wins championships? Is the ability to score points all that really matters? Or is balance between the two sides of the ball the only true way to win consistently?

With free agency and the draft in the books, the bulk of team rosters are more or less set for the season. How each club has chosen to distribute its available cap space for this year reveals plenty about organizational philosophies and desired schematic identities; the cap numbers help us glean where some teams are strongest, where they’re weakest, and on which positions they place the most value. By reading between the lines of Spotrac’s roster spending charts, here’s what current active roster salary cap numbers tell us about what a few teams are thinking.

(Note: All numbers reflect the cap hits for each full 90-man roster. As teams cut down to 53 players in September, some highly paid players could get cut, which would affect these rankings.)

The 49ers: It’s Not About This Year

With newly inked franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo under center, an intriguing draft class set to hit the field, plus a handful of key free-agency additions (cornerback Richard Sherman, running back Jerick McKinnon, center Weston Richburg) now in the fold, the 49ers look like a challenger in the NFC West. But the way in which the team has constructed its most recent contracts and utilized the approximately $100 million in cap space it started the offseason with says, more or less, that what happens this year doesn’t matter. At least, it doesn’t matter as much as the flexibility and potential spending power they’re going to gain in 2019, 2020, and beyond.

GM John Lynch called San Francisco’s strategy “aggressively prudent” after the team signed Garoppolo to a massive five-year, $137.5 million contract. That contract front-loaded a huge portion of the signal-caller’s signing bonus to 2018, giving Garoppolo an NFL-high $37 million cap hit this year. (That’s over $10 million more than second-ranked Matt Stafford’s $26.5 million cap hit this season, by the way.) The 49ers did the same type of front-loading in McKinnon’s deal—he’ll count $10.5 million against the cap this year and then just $4.5 million in 2019—and then abstained from spending the $37 million and change in cap space the team had left over after all that free-agency action. Instead, they’ll roll that excess cap money into the 2019 offseason.

In other words, the 49ers brass doesn’t likely see the team as a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2018. That might be obvious, but it’s important nonetheless: Instead of spending major free-agency dollars on a handful more big-name free agents with the goal of putting the team over the proverbial top—which San Francisco had the money to do—the 49ers decided instead to play the long game. By eating a big chunk of Garoppolo’s signing bonus in Year 1, they sacrifice some of their championship potential in 2018 but give themselves a better chance to field a competitive team around him in the long term, at least in theory.

The Rams: It Is About This Year

Los Angeles, on the other hand, seem to realize that its best bet for a Super Bowl is to take advantage of the quickly closing championship window that Jared Goff’s cheap rookie contract affords it. The team has gone all in on this season, trading for Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters, and Aqib Talib while signing Ndamukong Suh. Essentially, the Rams are saying “We’re just going to worry about the future at a later date, thank you,” to the rest of the league.

Suh is set to count $14 million toward the cap in 2018; Talib, $11 million; Cooks, $8.5 million; and recently re-signed center John Sullivan, $6.3 million. Add in a franchise tag for safety Lamarcus Joyner ($11.3 million) and L.A. is projected to have just over $4.7 million in cap space going into this year, fifth-lowest in the league—and that’s before adding in a potential monster deal the team may (read: should) give Aaron Donald over the next couple of months.

The team’s current nucleus of stars is set to be a short-term swing for the fences, and then the franchise will have some choices to make. In addition to Donald, new contracts will be due to Joyner, Cooks, Suh, Peters, Talib, Goff, and Todd Gurley over the next two years. L.A. should have plenty of cap flexibility in 2019 (with a projected $60 million-plus in space) to pick and choose which high-impact players to try to retain. But right now, they’re not in a slow, deliberate build-for-the-future mode like San Francisco; they’re in it to win it all in 2018.

The Raiders: Experience Matters

Thanks to Garoppolo’s aforementioned front-loaded contract, the 49ers are set to field the most expensive offense (by cap dollars) in the league next year. Coming in a close second, though, are the rapidly aging Oakland Raiders with an offensive unit that currently accounts for $113.3 million of the team’s 90-man salary cap—dwarfing the $71.7 million its defense is eating up.

For GM Reggie McKenzie and head coach Jon Gruden, there’s apparently no substitute for experience, and the team is paying for its shortage of first-contract contributors on that side of the ball. Quarterback Derek Carr’s cap hit is $25 million in 2018, third-most among all players, and the team has invested a pretty penny in protecting him, too: Oakland is projected to field the third-most-expensive OL in the NFL next year, a unit led by guards Gabe Jackson and Kelechi Osemele (both with $10.5 million cap hits), tackle Donald Penn ($8.4 million), and center Rodney Hudson ($2.8 million).

Add in sizable veteran deals for 32-year-old receiver Jordy Nelson ($7.4 million), 32-year-old running back Marshawn Lynch ($4.5 million), 31-year-old tight end Jared Cook ($5.8 million)—plus depth players like tackle Breno Giacomini ($3.5 million), tight ends Lee Smith ($3.3 million) and Derek Carrier ($2.0 million), and running back Doug Martin ($1.5 million)—and what you get is a very expensive offense that, outside of Martavis Bryant and Amari Cooper, is not getting much help from its cost-controlled first-contract players.

The Falcons: We’re Going to Score More Points Than You

The Falcons have some exciting young players on their defense, but judging by the way the team spends its money, they know that their best bet for a championship comes through Matt Ryan’s arm. As it currently stands, Atlanta has $111.1 million in cap dollars dedicated to its offense (third-most), and with just $61.5 million of its cap committed to its defense (31st), has the second-largest disparity of any team in the league (behind only the Colts) between offensive and defensive spending ($49.5 million).

It’s not just that the Falcons recently gave the 33-year-old signal-caller a record five-year, $150 million contract extension. (Because of the way the Falcons structured it, Ryan comes into 2018 with an extremely reasonable $17.7 million cap hit, 16th among all quarterbacks.) But elsewhere, Atlanta’s dedicated significant cap space to giving its quarterback as much support as possible: He’s got the NFL’s second-most-expensive offensive line (by cap), with tackles Jake Matthews ($12.5 million) and Ryan Schraeder ($6.5 million), center Alex Mack ($11.1 million), and guard Andy Levitre ($5.7 million)—plus some combination of Brandon Fusco ($3 million), Ben Garland ($2.9 million), and Wes Schweitzer ($663,095). Ryan will be throwing to pass catchers Julio Jones ($12.9 million) and Mohamed Sanu ($7.5 million) and handing off to running back Devonta Freeman ($5 million).

In 2016, Atlanta led the league in scoring, averaging 33.8 points per game, and Ryan won MVP honors. Both Ryan and the rest of the offense fell back to earth under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian last year, and the team finished 15th in points per game (22.1)—but if you follow the money, the Falcons are banking on their offense returning to something resembling that 2016 squad.

The Jaguars: Defense Does Win Championships

The Jags clearly subscribe to the belief that a dominant defense can overpower even the best offense, and they’ve gone about using years of rolled-over salary cap space to put together the most expensive defense ever. As it stands now, Jacksonville’s defense accounts for $119.6 million against the cap—which is about $41.4 million more than they’ve got dedicated to their offense, for those of you keeping track at home.

Three players on that unit are set to count north of $15 million in 2018 (DE Calais Campbell, CB A.J. Bouye, and DT Malik Jackson), and DT Marcell Dareus accounts for another $10.2 million. Add in DE Dante Fowler ($7.4 million), safety Tashaun Gipson ($7.1 million), corner Jalen Ramsey ($6.3 million), LB Telvin Smith ($5.8 million) safety Barry Church ($5.0 million), and corner D.J. Hayden ($3.9 million), and this is a highly paid, very talented squad. After finishing first in defensive DVOA in 2017 and guiding the Jags to the AFC championship game, it’s a group that somehow looks primed to get even better.

The Seahawks: Balance Is Key

From 2013 through 2015, the Seahawks were incredibly efficient on both sides of the ball. The team’s offense under Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch could beat you both through the air and on the ground—and its defense was regularly among the league’s most complete. That balance has escaped Seattle: The Seahawks have been awful in the run game in each of the past two seasons, and the defense took a step back last year. The result? Head coach Pete Carroll fired almost the entire staff over the offseason and enacted what looks like an attempt to regain that missing equilibrium. On defense, they’ve gotten younger, and hopefully for Carroll, faster. On offense, the team’s moves in free agency (signing tight end Ed Dickson and guard D.J. Fluker) and the draft (taking running back Rashaad Penny in the first round) reflect a desire to get better in the run game.

Perhaps unsurprising, then, is the fact that as it stands now, Seattle features the most evenly distributed salary cap in the NFL. Just $301,760 separates the offensive and defensive cap numbers, with both units hovering right around $79 million. The Seahawks’ current spending clearly illustrates Carroll’s offseason goal of recapturing the Seahawks’ fading identity as a beat-you-in-every-facet type of team.

The Ravens: Special Teamers Are Football Players, Too

The Ravens value the third, and oft-overlooked phase of football: special teams. Baltimore has $10.7 million currently dedicated to that group—all-world kicker Justin Tucker is set to take up $5 million, with former Pro Bowl punter Sam Koch another $3.5 million. Longtime long-snapper Morgan Cox even breaks the seven-figure mark, set to count $1.14 million against the cap. Somehow I doubt you’re going to hear former special teams coach John Harbaugh complain about any of the salaries of his top-tier special-teamers.