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How We Exploited the Salary Cap to Create the Ideal NFL Roster

Last week, we brought you the popular “Building the Ultimate 2021 NFL Roster (Under the Cap).” An exercise you’ll see across the internet, our piece was no different in searching for the best bargain-bin superstars to put together a coherent roster. Here, we’ll give you a deep dive into the tactics that we used to circumvent the NFL’s greatest tool of parity in order to show you how your favorite team may attempt to balance its books, as well as why squeezing a bunch of stars under the cap isn’t as easy as it seems.

We Mortgaged the Future for the Present

Our roster would have all-but-certainly won Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium. However, the celebrations would have ended quickly once the league year turned over and our shiny new roster rose to a whopping $126.27 million over the 2022 cap ceiling -- despite only 34 players being signed.

By comparison, the Green Bay Packers currently have the tightest fit to the 2022 salary cap (projected at $208.2 million), but they are “only” $34.573 million over with a total of 50 players signed. Why is our roster so much worse off the following year? In short, 25% of our roster was in the first or second year of a new (non-rookie) deal. Especially in a 2021 season that saw the first reduction in the salary cap in over a decade, teams decided to backload new contracts, pushing out cap hits so that they could squeeze these new signings onto their roster. We took heavy advantage of this tactic, capitalizing on the reduced charges of players like Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Ramsey, Kenny Golladay and Justin Simmons. As a result, there is no chance our roster would look remotely similar in 2022.

We Jumped on the Hot Trend of the 2021 Offseason

Although he barely missed out on a spot on our roster, Taysom Hill signed an enormous extension this summer for 4 years and $140 million that will keep him on the Saints roster through… 2021. Just as NFL teams like the Saints, Buccaneers and Giants found this offseason, we used voidable years that artificially kept 2021 cap hits lower. To keep it relatively simple, a typical NFL contract is allowed to split the signing bonus equally over (up to) the first five years of a deal for the purposes of the salary cap. This way, the signing bonus of a monster contract doesn’t require a vastly larger cap hit in the first season.

By adding void years onto a contract shorter than five years, NFL teams can still spread that signing bonus out over five years even if the contract itself is shorter than that. In the example of Hill, his one-year contract included four voidable years for this purpose. In terms of players that we employed under this strategy, the contracts of Marshon Lattimore, Lavonte David, Robert Tonyan and Jayon Brown each sent millions of dollars into the future using void years.

We Didn’t Pay for Our Trades

Although trading draft picks for veterans is typically accompanied by an extension for the acquired player, the remaining years before that deal kicks in typically involve a significantly lower cap hit for the acquiring team than what was prescribed in the player’s original contract. Why is this? It all comes back to the signing bonus (as well as several other kinds of bonuses) being split over several years. Players on long-term deals rarely see the end of those contracts, but that split-out money hasn’t yet been accounted for on the salary cap. When a player gets cut or traded, the remaining guaranteed bonuses immediately get put onto the trade-away team’s salary cap as “dead cap,” and the acquiring team can ignore that portion of the contract altogether.

Given that our ideal roster didn’t actually give up anything of value to get our players, we were able to capitalize on the reduced cap hit of these traded players. This was most helpful for DeAndre Hopkins, but also came in clutch for two of our offensive linemen in Rodney Hudson and Orlando Brown.

We Hit on Every UDFA (and Draft Pick)

Finally, we did account for the skewed nature of the NFL’s rookie wage scale by reducing the number of rookie contracts we were allowed to take on our team, but even these rules had no response for our simple overwhelming accuracy when doing so. Actual NFL teams will have multiple failed draft picks or even prove-it free agents on their roster at any one time, but we were able to select only the proven performers. With players like Jerome Robinson, Robert Tonyan, Deonte Harris and J.C. Jackson, we didn’t have to expend extra roster capital in case our selections didn’t work out, because every player has proven NFL performance. This is by far the most unrealistic part of this exercise but serves an important point to why teams put so much investment and thought into scouting – there is a huge opportunity for growth on every roster. In all, there are still lots of avenues to be creative in NFL contracts in order to move cap hits around and squeeze out every inch of production possible -- but even an ideal NFL roster shows that the buck always stops somewhere.