Surely, you’ve heard the news by now. The Detroit Lions have made a major trade recently. Quarterback Jared Goff is in. And Matthew Stafford is out. But how does this contract swap affect the Lions’ salary cap space in 2021?
Before examining the Lions’ remaining cap space, here’s an explanation of what it is. The salary cap is a limit in which a sports organization allows their teams to spend on players in the offseason.
Supposedly, the NFL will not set their salary cap lower than $175 million this year. For simplicity’s sake, we will assume it is set at $175 million. Taking that salary cap number and subtracting it from a team’s payroll for the upcoming season gives you the amount of cap space they have.
One more thing to add, every team has something called a “rollover.” Rollover is the amount of unused cap space by each team from the previous season. That unused cap space will boost the $175 million salary cap.
Let’s break this down more. Hypothetically, team X had $30 million in cap space to spend during last year’s offseason. However, they only spent $20 million of that $30M. $10 million in unused cap space now gets added to this year’s salary cap. So, team X has a salary cap of $185 million, instead of the $175M set by the NFL.
Let’s apply this to the Detroit Lions:
Salary Cap: $175 Million
Lions 2020 Rollover: $12.8 Million
Lions Salary Cap: $187.8 Million
Lions 2021 Payroll (Dead Cap included): $198.7 Million
Lions 2021 Cap Space: $187.8 – $198.7 = -$10.9 Million
*Numbers taken from Spotrac, *Numbers are rounded up to the nearest hundred thousand
Due to the $12.8 million rollover from the unused cap space in 2020, Lions’ salary cap is set at $187.8 million this year (12.8 +175 set amount by NFL). Subtracting that $187.8 salary cap to the team’s payroll of $198.7M puts Detroit at -$10.9 million in cap space.
That’s an issue. If a team has a negative amount of money in cap space, they can’t spend any money on players. A part of their payroll will need to be cleared out.
We also have to include the money that will be put aside to sign draft picks. According to Over the Cap, the Lions are projected to spend $7.3 million of cap space on their current pile of draft picks.
At the very least, newly acquired general manager Brad Holmes needs to clear $$18.2 million from the Lions’ payroll. $10.9 million to get out of the negative and $7.3 million to sign his draft picks in a few months.
How can he do that? A few options are available to Holmes.
The first? Restructuring of player contracts who are currently on the team. Outside of potential restructure, he can cut or trade players. Here is a guide on whom the Lions could cut or trade to free up money.
What to expect in the offseason
Personally, I’m expecting the Lions to clear up $33.5 million from their payroll by cutting or trading several players. Usually, cutting that amount of players doesn’t happen, but circumstances this year might call for it.
By doing that, it would give Detroit $22.6 million in cap space for this offseason. Putting away $7.3M to sign their draft picks and $15.3M to spend on free agents.
Also, keep in mind that $33.5 million is a generous estimate, especially if there are a few players that Holmes might want to keep, regardless of savings. Remember that $18.2 million is the minimum amount he needs to clear, although that would leave Detroit with no money to spend on free agents. A realistic range would be anywhere from $24-$32 million cleared from their payroll.
So, what should you expect?
At least 4-5 players to be released or traded along with a quiet free agency.
Former general manager Bob Quinn had us accustomed to a few big contracts a year. However, with limits this year, it isn’t plausible. Look for low risk-high reward signings and bargain deals due to connections with the coaching staff or city.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to go after some of the more notable (and expensive) free agents. They will just have to find their way around it.
And if Detroit decides to re-sign their pending big-name free agents (i.e., defensive end Romeo Okwara or wide receiver Kenny Golladay) or other team’s free agents, expect their new contracts to be heavily backloaded.
A backloaded contract is when the majority of the money in a player’s contract is placed in the last few years of that said contract. This is done to make a smaller cap hit in the first year, saving more money initially, but losing it later.
The issue with backloaded contracts is it hurts the long-term team-building strategy despite helping the short term. With the Lions heading into a rebuild, it doesn’t seem like the most effective action they could make, which leads me back to the assumption of a quiet free agency.