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Why This Draft is More Important for These Teams than Any Others

Why This Draft is More Important for These Teams than Any Others

The NFL Draft has transformed into a three-day spectacle with many months of analysis, breakdowns, and endless scouting reports culminating in a seven round sprint that lays the groundwork for much of the season ahead. The draft is an important time for all franchises, competing and rebuilding alike, as it provides a cost-effective way to acquire the next generation of All-Pros and future Hall of Famers. For teams that have pushed their salary cap to its maximum, testing the boundaries of how far they can push out and manipulate contracts in order to load up for a Super Bowl run in the present, the draft is a lifeline.

The Los Angeles Chargers, Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are all part of this group of teams that will begin to feel the effects of their actions in the seasons to follow. Below, we take a look at why the 2022 NFL Draft is such an important inflection point for these teams thanks to their salary cap positioning and roster management.

Los Angeles Chargers

Year Effective Cap Space Rank Cap Space Effective Cap Space  Players Rostered Active Cap Spending

2023

29 $8,631,439 ($7,868,561) 29

$216,368,561

The Chargers were the consensus free agent period winners this offseason. They signed unrestricted CB J.C. Jackson, re-signed WR Mike Williams, and traded a 2022-2nd and 2023-6th round pick for veteran EDGE Khalil Mack. However, by adding these three players they also added a combined $168.275 million in cap charges over the next 3 seasons. Throw in players like EDGE Joey Bosa, WR Keenan Allen, and C Corey Linsley, who were already on the roster and carry contracts with APY over $12 million, and the Chargers find themselves 29th in the league in terms of effective 2023 cap space, according to Over the Cap. 

Add in the fact that Justin Herbert is up for an extension at the conclusion of the 2022 season and the Chargers could find themselves cash strapped rather quickly. With six QB contract extensions equal to or greater than $40 million signed across the league in the past two offseasons, it is reasonable to assume that Herbert will command at least that number, but likely more. While the massive cap hits from a Herbert extension will likely not come into play until 2024 or 2025, it could affect the team’s ability to bring back S Derwin James – who is set to become a UFA after the 2022 season – and/or IDL Jerry Tillery whose 5th-year option has not yet been exercised. 

As it stands currently, the Chargers only have 29 players under contract for 2023. This makes them the only team with less than $15 million in 2023 effective cap space with less than 30 players under contract. After such an active offseason in which they filled major holes at cornerback and edge rusher, the Chargers biggest hole remains at right tackle after they released tackle Bryan Bulaga in March. 2021 first-round pick Rashawn Slater has the left side locked down but Los Angeles’ current in-house options at right tackle are Storm Norton and Trey Pipkins III, neither of which are particularly inspiring options. Norton in particular closed 2021 on a low note as he was eviscerated in Week 18 by Maxx Crosby.

 Los Angeles picks at #17 in the first round which likely presents a conundrum. The 33rd Team’s top-ranked offensive tackles – Evan Neal, Ikem Ekwonu, and Charles Cross – are all trending towards being top-ten picks. Tackle Trevor Penning out of Northern Iowa would be a solid consolation prize and likely still on the board. The Chargers entered last season with the 15th youngest roster in the league and do have youth at some key positions. However, they need to augment their depth in their secondary as they are poised to see the contracts of James, fellow safety Nasir Adderley, and cornerback Michael Davis all expire in the next two offseasons.

Cleveland Browns

Year Effective Cap Space Rank Cap Space Effective Cap Space  Players Rostered Active Cap Spending

2023

30 ($7,679,350) ($23,429,350) 30

$225,179,350

This offseason, the Browns committed $230 million (along with a litany of draft picks over the next three seasons) to acquire QB Deshaun Watson. They also made a big move extending CB Denzel Ward on a 5-year $100.5 million deal. On top of all this, Myles Garrett is still under contract for another 5 seasons with $130 million due on the cap. These three contracts alone will hinder many of the moves that the Browns will want to make to round out their roster moving forward. 

While in a similar situation as the Chargers with only 30 players under contract in 2023 and no first-round pick in this year’s draft (or the next two), the Browns will really need to rely on finding talent in the second and third days of the draft in order to surround Watson (who will carry a league-record $54,993,000 cap hit in 2023), Garrett, and Ward. The Browns could get up to $18.858 million in cap relief this season if they are able to find a trade partner for Baker Mayfield, but this will only be helpful in 2022 and for cap carryover purposes. Even if they can find a way to unload his entire contract, they would still only be $11 million under the projected 2023 cap – 8th least in the league.

The Browns entered 2021 with the fourth-youngest roster in the league, a number that has risen as Cleveland has brought in multiple veterans this offseason. In addition to Watson, they significantly bolstered their offense by trading for wide receiver Amari Cooper from the Dallas Cowboys. The biggest weakness on the roster is along the defensive line, both at edge rusher across from Myles Garrett and on the interior at defensive tackle. Cleveland’s top pick in 2022 is #44 overall, an area where they can still find multiple day one starters along the defensive line. Edge rusher Drake Jackson out of USC, Myjai Sanders from Cincinnati, and defensive tackle Logan Hall out of Houston would all fit for the Browns.

Looking forward, Cleveland has a number of significant contributors scheduled to be free agents on the defensive side of the ball. Next offseason, starting linebackers Anthony Walker and Sione Takitaki are scheduled to be free agents as are cornerbacks Greedy Williams and Troy Hill. The safety position is also set to see an exodus as starting strong safety Ronnie Harrison’s contract expires after 2022 while starting free safety John Johnson III’s deal is up after 2023, along with Grant Delpit who started seven games and played over 50% of snaps in 2021. It would not be a surprise to see Cleveland spend all three picks in this year’s draft on the defensive side of the ball.

New Orleans Saints

Year Effective Cap Space Rank Cap Space Effective Cap Space Players Rostered Active Cap Spending

2023

32 ($32,832,009) ($42,582,009) 38

$257,832,009

While New Orleans was able to create $80 million in cap space again this offseason, they will once again find themselves at the very bottom of the league in terms of projected 2023 cap space when the 2022 season comes to an end.

The Saints seem to be fighting an uphill battle against the cap every offseason. This year they were forced to shed nearly two-thirds of their cap liabilities in order to get under the salary cap by the start of the league year. This meant losing UFAs like LT Terron Armstead and S Marcus Williams who both went on to sign deals at the top of their respective position markets with new teams. Additionally, they lost DE Trey Hendrickson to the Bengals in free agency during the 2021 offseason after he led the NFC in sacks the season prior. 

New Orleans will have $29.4 million in dead money count against the cap this season thanks to void contracts. Next season, they are scheduled to have another $20 million in dead money for the same reason. Handicapping yourself with dead money year after year like this is a recipe for disaster when trying to keep a team competitive. 

While they have remained over .500 each of the last 5 seasons, they could really use an influx of cheap, young talent. The Saints entered 2021 with the 12th oldest roster in the league and have their work cut out for them, though they have two premier assets that will help. Thanks to a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans holds the 16th and 19th overall picks in the 2022 NFL Draft, surrendering the 18th overall pick, a 2023 first-round pick, and three more future draft choices.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that such a consolidation of assets would mean New Orleans has a quarterback they are targeting, especially because the position remains one of need despite re-signing Jameis Winston and bringing in Andy Dalton this offseason. However, the Saints have proven to be willing to march to the beat of their own drum when it comes to draft season. They traded a future second-round pick in 2017 to draft running back Alvin Kamara in the third round and moved two first round picks to move up in 2018 and take defensive end Marcus Davenport.

Heading into the 2022 season and beyond, the Saints have myriad needs they will have to address outside of their signal-caller. They already lost Armstead in free agency and are poised to lose center Erik McCoy and guard Calvin Throckmorton in 2023 along with interior offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz in 2024. New Orleans will see their defensive line depleted with Davenport and starting defensive tackle David Onyemata set to depart in 2023 while franchise stalwart Cameron Jordan’s contract is up in 2024 when he will be 35 years old. The already bare receiver room in the Bayou will continue to thin out as well with Marquez Callaway and Tre’Quan Smith set to become free agents in the next two years.

Armed with two premier picks, the Saints will likely select some combination of offensive tackle, wide receiver, or defensive lineman. Penning along with wide receivers Treylon Burks of Arkansas and Chris Olave from Ohio State would all be great fits for New Orleans barring a trade up. A quarterback is also likely on their radar, and the likelihood of a first-round signal-caller depends on how the rest of the board falls.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Year Effective Cap Space Rank Cap Space Effective Cap Space  Players Rostered Active Cap Spending

2023

31 ($26,132,462) ($34,382,462) 40

$251,132,462

The Buccaneers are in a unique situation compared to the three other teams on this list. While the Browns and Chargers seem to have their QB for the next 10 years and the Saints are still searching for a successor to Drew Brees, the Bucs are living year-to-year with Tom Brady at the helm. Entering his third season in Tampa, the team understands that his time in the league is limited, even if there are rumors that he would play until he’s 50 years old.

On top of the uncertainty at the QB position, the Bucs have nine other players who are being paid $10 million or more per year. This offseason the team tagged, and subsequently re-signed, WR Chris Godwin for 3 years, $60 million. They also re-signed RB Leonard Fournette, traded for OG Shaq Mason, and brought in former Falcons WR Russell Gage. 

With all of this maneuvering, Tampa decided not to bring back DT Ndamukong Suh (yet he is still unsigned) and lost 28-year old G Ali Marpet to an unexpected, early retirement. 

Tampa also has more than $19.4 million in dead money counting against the cap in 2022.This number could more than double to $44.4 million in 2023 if Brady decides to retire (for good this time) or explore free agency, since his contract voids at the start of the 2023 league year. 

The Buccaneers entered 2021 with the third-oldest roster in the NFL and are one of the teams most heavily in win-now mode. They are positioned to undergo a significant defensive exodus following the 2022 season. Tampa Bay’s top linebacker Lavonte David will be a free agent along with six defensive backs: starting cornerback Jamel Dean, starting free safety Logan Ryan, safeties Keanu Neal and Mike Edwards, as well as cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and Sean Murphy-Bunting. Any team with Tom Brady is a Super Bowl contender but the Buccaneers are truly Super Bowl-or-bust as they could conceivably be rebuilding half their defense after this season.

Moving another year ahead, both starting tackles – right tackle Tristan Wirfs and left tackle Donovan Smith – are free agents, as is starting right guard Shaq Mason. Wide receiver Mike Evans and starting strong safety Antoine Winfield Jr. round out the crop of significant contributors the Buccaneers could lose in the next two seasons.

Armed with the 27th overall pick as well as their own second and third-round picks, it will be impossible for the Buccaneers to adequately prepare for the next two offseasons through the 2022 NFL Draft. Their focus needs to be on players that can help them win this season and in particular can help Brady. Left guard remains a significant hole after Marpet’s retirement and either Kenyon Green out of Texas A&M or Boston College’s Zion Johnson would be a great addition in the first round.