Friday, February 7, 2014

Cutting Through The BS: Seahawks 2014 Cap Casualties


The NFL salary cap is complex. There are very few people who understand it, even within the NFL. The people who have educated opinions on the financial workings of it outside NFL front offices are even fewer. We are lucky to have people like Davis Hsu among Seahawks fans who has applied his financial expertise to Seahawks football. There are also great references like OverTheCap.com. It is a part of football that I have paid more and more attention to over the years because it has helped me to brace for players leaving the team that I cared about. That, combined with an unhealthy obsession with analyzing team play on the field and personnel strengths, has allowed me to predict the departures of Lofa Tatupu, Michael Robinson, and Lawyer Milloy (among others) when those were unpopular and dismissed concepts. There are some predictable patterns to help project who will be the next person out the door. I will share those here, as well as my current expectations about cuts and restructures.


One thing many people misunderstand about creating cap space is when a player is restructured. They see a player making more money than his play may warrant, or see him as a great team guy who would be willing to take one for the team, and assume that makes him a candidate for restructuring. People also assume the front office wants to restructure deals. Let's start there.

Contracts are not structured independent of one another. When John Idzik (now with the Jets) and John Schneider signed people to contracts, it was with every other contract in mind in the coming years. One player may get a balloon payment in one year of their deal because the front office want to take the hit that year, and need more space for another player or players in other years. Typical contracts climb each year like stairs. Some, like Zach Miller's, are more like a pyramid that climbs to a high point in the middle, and then decreases after you reach the peak. Miller is set to make less money next season than he made this season. When you restructure a deal, it usually just pushes money around. It is more rare for it to decrease a player's total income. Consider long-snapper Clint Gresham, who was set to make $1.5M in 2013. The team restructured his deal because that is huge single-season salary for that position, and essentially paid him $750K for 2013 and extended him into 2014 for the same salary, equaling what he would have made in one year. Why would Gresham agree to do this? Because the team had another long snapper on the roster and were prepared to move on. Gresham's chances of finding a $1.5M, even over two years, for another team late into training camp was almost zero. The team had all the leverage. Keep in mind, though, that Gresham winds up with the same amount of money. Deals where a player restructures a deal and winds up with less total money are far less common.

Restructuring Clues (No Salary Reduction)

  • Player is expendable (team has to be ready to move forward without the player)
  • Player has a cap number that is higher than their market value (player cannot get comparable money elsewhere)
  • Player has a cap number that is markedly higher than their value to the team
  • Player is near the end of their deal
  • Team has drafted or recently signed a promising younger player at the position


Restructuring Clues (Salary Reduction)

An actual salary reduction can happen when some/all of the above criteria are true, and some of the following:
  • Club is prepared to send a message to other players, both current and ones that may sign later, that they may not honor a contract. Note, some clubs are unwilling to ever do these for this reason.
  • Moments of extreme club leverage (e.g., player nearing retirement, negligible value to other teams)
  • Injury/legal issues significantly reduce player value


Player Cut Clues

Some of the factors that go into deciding when to cut a player are the same as restructuring. Any or all of the items listed above could lead to a player being a cut. The following are some nuances that can lead to a cut instead of a restructure:
  • Player declined to restructure their deal
  • Team wants to move onto a younger and cheaper option at the position
  • Team wants to move onto a better player at the position
  • Money the team would have to pay the player if cut (called Dead Money) is low. A good rule of thumb is dead money at least 60% less than scheduled salary. Getting closer to 80% less greatly increases the chances. You can see every Seahawk player's dead money number here.
  • The draft or free agency have great options at the position
  • Player performance has dropped precipitously or there is reason to believe it will soon
  • Player has become an off-field problem (locker room cancer, legal issues, drugs, disciplinary issues, etc.)


The Seahawks 2014 Candidates


Red Bryant
Current Expectation: Released
The team would save $5.5M if they moved on from Bryant this year, $5M next year and $7M in 2016. He will be 30 this season, and as fantastic of a person and player as he is, there are better options at the position. Specifically, Michael Bennett is a terrific 5-technique defensive end for this defense. He is a great run defender as an end, and a far superior pass rusher. The team is better when he is on the field, and making him a starter there would increase his snaps. It also makes them less vulnerable to no-huddle offenses that would try to trap certain personnel on the field. People want to believe the team will restructure here, but Bryant can get a healthy deal somewhere else and I do not think the front office would disrespect him by asking him to take less money. The best thing for him is probably to let him move on.

Brandon Mebane
Current Expectation: No change
Mebane was one of the best defensive tackles in football last year. You do not restructure players like that. If they wanted to extend him past 2015, when his current deal ends, they might shift money around, but there is not enough reason to do so. He is 29 next season, so I think they will want to see performance the next two years before deciding whether to extend him.

Earl Thomas
Current Expectation: Extension, possible cap acceleration
Signing Thomas to an extension has to be the team's top priority. He is arguably the most valuable defender in the NFL. He is due $4.6M in 2014. It is not out of the question that the extension includes a re-structuring of his current deal to take a bigger cap hit in 2014. so they have more space for Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson in future years.

Richard Sherman
Current Expectation: No change
Sherman can talk extension this year, but I expect he will want to continue to increase his leverage over the season. My bet is we are headed toward a franchise tag situation with Sherman, and I don't think that will go too well, but we can deal with that when we get there.

Sidney Rice
Current Expectation: Released
Letting Rice go would clear $7.3M. He is a great guy, and only 28, but his body does not appear to be holding up. He was already battling a knee issue before going down with a torn ACL. He was a non-factor when playing, and the team just does not pass the ball that much. They will part ways and wish him well.

Chris Clemons
Current Expectation: Released
Releasing Clemons will clear $7.5M in cape space, and at 33 next year, it is probably time to move on. There is some chance he could be a very late free agent signing, but he probably finds money somewhere else. His play in the Super Bowl likely earned him more than the veteran minimum somewhere.

Zach Miller
Current Expectation: No change
Miller made $11M this year, and will make $7M next year. He continues to be one of the least understood players on the roster. Hugh Millen nearly burst on the radio yesterday when it was suggested Miller would stay on the roster at his current salary. Everyone is assuming he will either be restructured or cut. I don't see it happening this year. Miller is a vital part of the offense. Yes, the team could add Anthony McCoy back and elevate Luke Willson. Yes, the team could draft another tight end. Miller is a unique talent, who almost never leaves the field. He is one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, and in case people forgot, this is a run-first offense. I believe the coaching staff values Miller at the level of his salary. Fans and pundits want to see Jimmy Graham receiving numbers for a big salary, but that is not what this offense values. There is also not enough need to clear his cap number with other candidates mentioned above, and the impact of Wilson, Thomas and Sherman contracts probably won't start until next year anyway. That is when Miller will be at risk. For now, do not believe popular opinion.

James Carpenter
Current Expectation: No change, but it is very close
The team could save $1.4M by cutting Carpenter. I don't expect Carpenter will ever be a starter again. Michael Bowie and Alvin Bailey will be more reliable and better players by next season. The team could decide to move on now. It really just depends on whether they need that cap room.

More To Come

We will learn a lot more in the coming weeks as the draft prospects start to sort themselves out a bit more and free agency comes into greater focus. For now, I am expecting the team to clear $20.3M in cap space by parting ways with Bryant, Rice and Clemons. I don't see any restructuring, other than possibly accelerating someone like Thomas into this season. It is possible the team could ask someone like Jon Ryan ($1.4M) to do something like Gresham did, but that is unlikely. Restructuring is not the panacea so many fans want it to be. In most cases, it is better to either honor the current contract or move on from the player. We will see that play out again this off-season.



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