Tracking Potential Cap Casualties: NFL Veterans Who Need a Big 2018 Season

by Andrew Moss

Every year as free agency starts, NFL teams make cuts that come seemingly as a surprise. They are often cited as “cap casualties,” or players whose contracts outweigh their impact on the team. A lot of times, these cap casualties are seen as surprise cuts, but in reality, they are predicated by two important numbers, cap hit and dead money. When a player is cut before a season, the team does not have to pay the player’s base salary that year. However, they may have either already paid the player a bonus that constitutes part of the cap hit that year or owe them money that was guaranteed to them when they signed the contract. This article sorts out what motivates a team to cut a player, how their contract dictates when they can do so and who is on red alert this season.

The Formula
When an NFL player signs a new contract, the two most important figures are the yearly cap hits and the total guaranteed money. The cap savings of cutting a player equals the player’s cap hit minus the dead money leveraged against the cap. The formula for calculating cap savings is as follows:

Current cap hit - remaining prorated money (signing bonus) - unpaid guarantees remaining

When thinking of the difference between total money paid to a player and accumulated cap hit, think of signing bonuses. For example, if a player signs a four-year contract with a signing bonus of $12 million, the bonus will be prorated for $3 million each year over the four years of the deal. However, the player will have actually received all $12 million when he initially signed the contract. Because this money has already been paid out to the player, it is “dead” and cannot be recovered by the team that cuts him.

The other part of the equation involves starting with the total guarantee and subtracting each year’s cap hit. As a result, one of the reasons that players late in their contracts are easier to cut is because they have had more years to eat at initial guarantees and their prorated signing bonus.  This is also one of the reasons that frontloading a contract gives teams more flexibility earlier in the deal; The guarantees and signing bonus are amortized earlier, so the penalty for cutting the player in years two and three is less than if the cap hits were the same throughout each year of the contract.  However, an exception to this rule is with roster bonuses that kick in after a player has been on a contract for a couple of years. By activating these bonuses, the dead money figure can increase from year to year if the size of the bonus is larger than the cap hit, which is the prorated part of the bonus plus the year’s base salary.

The Potential Casualties
The process of identifying cap casualties for the 2019 season has the following three criteria: Identifying players not on rookie contracts; those whose dead money is less than the cap hit (savings) for the year he would be cut; and finally a feasible replacement who is either on the roster, could be signed with the cap room opened up by cutting the player, or can be selected the following NFL draft. In essence, players who fit this mold as we enter the 2018 regular season are considered to be "replaceable" at their projected cost in 2019, meaning they need to act as if this season is a "contract year. Below I’ve listed some of the players that could be potentially cap casualties in 2019 if they don’t live up to their contract (or maybe even if they do).

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Jerick McKinnon, RB, San Francisco 49ers: The San Francisco 49ers are in a unique situation where they want to front-load contracts to eat cap on a roster with few veterans. McKinnon's deal leaves him with only $1.5 million in dead money next season. Basically, he signed what amounted to be a one-year contract with team options. Unfortunately, missing the one promised year on his deal due to an ACL tear could have a drastic impact on his 2019 projection.

Michael Brockers, DL, Los Angeles Rams: With Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh likely being the Los Angeles Rams' top interior defensive linemen in nickel looks, Brockers is likely on the way out soon. With less than $1 million dollars in dead money left on his deal, the Rams will save $10 million by cutting him before the 2019 season.

DeSean Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: After the 2018 season, Jackson has zero dead money left on his deal. This may be the cut forecast I have the most confidence in, especially as Chris Godwin continues to mature and fill the other outside receiver slot next to Mike Evans.

Jermaine Gresham, TE, Arizona Cardinals: Similar to DeSean Jackson, he seems to be already surpassed by a younger player in Ricky Seals-Jones. Unfortunately, he would give the Cardinals negative cap relief if they cut him this year, so it is more likely they will cut him in after this season. Cutting Gresham before 2019 saves the Cardinals 2.5 million dollars in cap room.  

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Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals: The 2019 and 2020 years in Dalton’s contract are essentially club options because he can be cut with zero dead money while the Bengals could free up north of $15 million in cap space with his release. These next two years could also allow Dalton to serve as a bridge while the Bengals look for their QB of the future if they choose to do so. This works nicely for the Bengals because they can keep Dalton below the market rate for a veteran QB but still release him as soon as the rookie is ready.

Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings: This contract may depend on performance more than any of the others. The Vikings could cut Rudolph now and save over $6 million, but the GM and coaching staff seem to see him as an important security blanket for new quarterback Kirk Cousins. However, if he gets injured or regresses this year, they could cut him in the 2019 offseason for zero dead money and cap savings over $7.5 million

Jason Peters, OT, Philadelphia Eagles: Because the Eagles drastically backloaded a lot of the contracts for important players on the team, some players are going to be squeezed out. While cutting Peters would predicate Lane Johnson moving to left tackle, they would save $8 million by not picking up his 2019 club option.

Donald Penn, OT, Oakland Raiders: The Raiders can save almost $6 million by cutting Penn after this year. After the drafting of tackle Kolton Miller with the 15th overall pick, that option could be more likely than most realize.

Vinny Curry, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The emergence of Noah Spence or William Gholston would make Curry a very easy 2019 cap casualty. After this year, Curry has no dead money left on his contract and the Buccaneers would save $8 million releasing him next offseason.

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Denver's Receivers: Collectively, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are slated for a cap hit of over $30 million next year. At the same time, they have a combined dead cap of less than $5 million, meaning that the team could save more than $25 million in cap space by releasing the pair of receivers in the 2019 offseason. The Broncos' strategy of spending high draft picks on the likes of receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton makes more sense in this context.