With Julio Jones being traded this weekend, the Atlanta Falcons lost their second-largest 2021 salary cap hit. Jones’ cap charge for 2021 was set at $23.05 million. The Falcons will save $15.3 million this season against the cap with the trade as Jones’ bonuses are now dead money on the Falcons’ cap sheet ($7.75 million this year and $15.5 million next year in dead money).
This got us looking into how teams balance the top of their salary caps and how much value they place in the top of their rosters. Currently, teams are investing between $92.9 million (Cowboys) and $46.9 million (Panthers) in their top five most expensive players, cap-wise. This is a swing of 50.9% to 25.7% of a team’s total base salary cap for the season. The top 10 teams are all spending over $74.3 million on their top five cap hits, we will review the top 10 below:
Dallas Cowboys: Top 5 Cap Hits – $92,850,000
- Demarcus Lawrence – $25,000,000
- Dak Prescott – $22,200,000
- Amari Cooper – $22,000,000
- Ezekiel Elliott – $13,700,000
- Zack Martin – $9,950,000
The Cowboys are the only team with three players over $20 million (the Falcons were another before the Jones trade). One thing you’re looking to see when you analyze a team’s top 5 cap hit players is if a team has prioritized its producers. The Cowboys have a bit of worry when it comes to Lawrence and Elliott. You can see in the structure of Lawrence’s contract that the Cowboys expected him to be their defensive leader through 2023. The problem is that Lawrence has, production-wise, taken a step back since he started playing on his new contract. He has fewer sacks (11.5) and QB hits (26) in the first two years of his contract than he had in the two years prior (25 and 51, respectively). This is not the production the Cowboys need out of the league’s second highest non-QB cap hit. The Cowboys are also one of two teams in the NFL with a running back in their top 5 cap hits. Elliott posted career lows in yards, rushing touchdowns, first downs, yards per attempt, yards per game and yards per reception in 2020. The Cowboys are hoping a healthy Dak Prescott will rejuvenate Elliott’s production; if not. they have two worrisome contracts in their top 5.
Green Bay Packers: Top 5 Cap Hits – $88,308,396
- Aaron Rodgers – $37,202,000
- Davante Adams – $16,787,500
- Za’Darius Smith – $14,620,000
- David Bakhtiari – $10,966,543
- Preston Smith – $8,732,353
The Packers currently own the league’s No. 1 cap hit for 2021 with Aaron Rodgers’ contract. They also have the highest QB/WR combo when pairing the Rodgers and Adams contracts. Adams is the third-highest WR cap hit in the NFL. The Packers’ top 5, though expensive, are very well put together. Rodgers won MVP, Adams and Bakhtiari joined Rodgers as All-Pros, and those three joined Za’Darius Smith on the Pro Bowl roster. Preston Smith regressed production-wise after a great year 1 with Green Bay and might be a cap casualty in 2022 if he doesn’t rebound statistically this season.
Tennessee Titans: Top 5 Cap Hits – $86,923,971
- Ryan Tannehill – $29,500,000
- Julio Jones – $15,500,000
- Kevin Byard – $15,030,000
- Derrick Henry – $13,500,000
- Taylor Lewan – $13,393,971
Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry both had excellent years in 2020. Tannehill’s 33 TDs and 7 INTs are the best he has posted as a 16-game starter in his career. Henry is coming off two straight years of leading the NFL in yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per game. The addition of Jones should help the offense, which will also be returning Lewan, who missed the second half of last season with a torn ACL. Byard on the other hand had a down year in 2020. Byard went from intercepting 17 balls from 2017-2019 to only having one interception in 2020 in 16 games. If Byard can rebound, then this will be a very strong top 5 Cap hit team.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Top 5 Cap Hits – $80,812,250
- Ben Roethlisberger – $25,910,000
- Joe Haden – $15,575,000
- Stephon Tuitt – $14,940,750
- David DeCastro – $14,297,500
- T.J. Watt – $10,089,000
Ben Roethlisberger quietly had a very productive 2020. Posting the second-highest amount of touchdowns (33) of his career, paired with his lowest interception percentage since 2014 (1.6%). When looking at this top 5 as a whole, one thing jumps out: Four of these players are on the final year of their contract. Stephon Tuitt is the only player contracted to be on the Steelers past 2021, and his final season is 2022. According to OverTheCap.com, the Steelers have the second-most cap space of 2022 and seem to be a team ready to make a transition. While the age of Roethlisberger (39), Haden (32) and DeCastro (31) may concern you in terms of possible production reduction, the team is not on the hook going forward if that does happen.
Kansas City Chiefs: Top 5 Cap Hits – $80,586,750
- Frank Clark – $25,800,000
- Tyrann Mathieu – $19,733,334
- Tyreek Hill – $15,850,500
- Anthony Hitchens – $10,661,250
- Chris Jones – $8,541,666
The Chiefs’ top 5 cap hits include Frank Clark, who is the highest non-QB cap hit in the NFL, and Tyrann Mathieu, who has the highest cap hit for a defensive back by nearly $3 million. The Chiefs currently have the luxury of holding these cap charges as Patrick Mahomes is currently the 20th-ranked QB cap hit, but that will escalate to sixth next season and first the season after that. Mathieu has been a great producer for K.C. with two All-Pro seasons and 10 interceptions since joining the team in 2019. Clark is a bit more worrisome, as his first two seasons have been lower production-wise (14 sacks and 29 QB hits) than his final two in Seattle (21 sacks and 48 QB hits) though he and Chris Jones have both been selected to the Pro Bowl both years.
Seattle Seahawks: Top 5 Cap Hits – $80,336,470
- Russell Wilson – $32,000,000
- Bobby Wagner – $17,135,294
- Duane Brown – $13,291,176
- Jamal Adams – $9,860,000
- Tyler Lockett – $8,050,00
The Seahawks’ top 5 is filled with Pro Bowl and all-pro selections. Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner were also the leaders on their respective sides of the ball since winning the Super Bowl in 2013. Duane Brown has been a consistent player for the Seahawks but his age and being on the last year of his contract make it seem as though this is the final year for him. Jamal Adams is on his fifth-year option and holds incredible leverage over Seattle, as they traded two first-round picks, a third-round pick and a player for him. With this leverage, he should be able to receive the highest safety contract in NFL history, but Adams regressed coverage-wise for Seattle, which makes that a risky decision (though he was very effective as a pass rusher).
Atlanta Falcons: Top 5 Cap Hits – $79,788,719
- Matt Ryan – $26,912,500
- Grady Jarrett – $20,833,000
- Jake Matthews – $12,264,200
- Dante Fowler Jr. – $10,666,666
- Deion Jones – $9,112,353
The Falcons move down to No. 7 from No. 1 after trading Jones. Now the question is how much production will the Falcons lose without him and how much will they be able to replace with the $15.3 million they get back in the form of cap space? For starters, they can now afford to sign their rookie draft class, including No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts. Grady Jarrett’s contract jumps out. Is the interior defensive lineman deserving of being the sixth-highest paid defensive player in terms of cap charge? Dante Fowler Jr. certainly underperformed in 2020. The two combined for 7 sacks and 16 QB hits. With Jones, Fowler and Jarrett all contributing to a defense that gave up the fourth-most yards and third-most yards per play and had the 10th fewest sacks, you question how long they will stay at this high of value for a team signing them after their contracts are up.
Minnesota Vikings: Top 5 Cap Hits – $78,824,118
- Kirk Cousins – $31,000,000
- Danielle Hunter – $17,150,000
- Eric Kendricks – $12,441,765
- Harrison Smith – $10,232,353
- Patrick Peterson – $8,000,000
The Vikings have been a very interesting team to watch at the top of their roster in terms of cap chargers over the past several years. At one point, they had 10 players making more than $10 million against the cap. With Kirk Cousins being the third-highest cap hit in the NFL, the team has needed to creatively find ways to restructure and move players who are not producing to their cap value. The team will see star player Danielle Hunter return after missing the entirety of 2020 after posting back-to-back 14.5-sack seasons. They will also get back All-Pro LB Eric Kendricks, who missed the last five games of the 2020 season. Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson should play well on the back end after combining for 18 interceptions over the past three seasons.
Los Angeles Chargers: Top 5 Cap Hits – $75,280,000
- Joey Bosa – $20,750,000
- Keenan Allen – $15,700,000
- Mike Williams – $15,680,000
- Linval Joseph – $11,900,000
- Chris Harris Jr. – $11,250,000
Los Angeles joins the Chiefs as the only two teams in the top 10 to not have their starting QB in their top 5 cap hits. This gives them flexibility to take chances on their top 5. They extended Joey Bosa to a top-of-the-line edge rusher contract; he is the seventh-highest paid defensive player against the cap this season. They also had the flexibility of paying two top-10 WRs in salary cap terms. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams will be eight and nine against the cap respectively. They also took shots on Linval Joseph and Chris Harris Jr in free agency, offering them both top 10 contracts against the cap this year. Having a starting QB on a rookie contract affords you the opportunity to top-10 money against the cap to players who may not be top-10 talent.
Arizona Cardinals: Top 5 Cap Hits – $74,370,109
- Chandler Jones – $20,176,388
- D.J. Humphries – $19,930,000
- DeAndre Hopkins – $12,500,000
- Jordan Phillips – $12,000,000
- Kyler Murray – $9,763,721
Chandler Jones is in an interesting situation. After three seasons of elite production from 2017-2019 (49 sacks, 52 tackles for loss, 77 QB hits), he only played in five games in 2020, when he had 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss and 7 QB hits. At 31, the Cardinals could cut him and save $15.5 million against the cap. This would give the Cardinals the opportunity to move some of DeAndre Hopkins’ future options into this year, saving them from his cap hits in the future, which will be over $22 million from 2022-2024. Kyler Murray has two more years on his rookie contract before the team will have the ability to extend his didth-year option, which will be high as he has already been to a Pro Bowl. Jordan Phillips may have been one of the luxury signings that a team with a rookie contract QB has, but if he doesn’t perform this year the team will likely move on from him in 2022.