The N.F.L. salary cap is more like a predatory lending agreement than a hard-and-fast budget restriction. It is filled with loopholes that allow teams to overspend lavishly and push the financial consequences years into the future. Inevitably, however, the bills come due.
The salary cap is expected to grow in 2022 to $208.2 million, the maximum figure agreed upon by the N.F.L. and its Players Association in May. That’s a 14 percent increase from this year’s cap and great news for most of the league. The New Orleans Saints, however, are in danger of seeing much of their roster repossessed. The Saints, whose Week 14 victory over the Jets lifted their record to 6-7, have so many hefty long-term contracts on their ledger that they are currently an estimated $61 million over the 2022 cap, per OverTheCap.com.
Future cap estimates can be misleading: A team that is a few million dollars in the red can actually have few fiscal worries. A $61 million shortfall, however, cannot be made up by restructuring some contracts and cutting a few veteran backups.
The Saints’ long-term financial situation is actually worse than the raw numbers suggest. The only quarterback on their payroll beyond this season is Taysom Hill, 31, a career backup/gadget specialist/receiver/punt returner best suited to the run-heavy offensive philosophy favored by service academies. Jameis Winston, who led the team to a 5-2 record as a starter before his season-ending knee injury, will be a free agent at the end of this season, as will Trevor Siemian, who replaced Winston before giving way to Hill.
Hill led the Saints to victory over the Jets mostly by handing the ball off or plunging into the line himself, and he could conceivably enjoy modest success if surrounded by a pile-driving offensive line, outstanding playmakers and a stout defense. Unfortunately, the perennial Pro Bowl offensive lineman Terron Armstead is also an impending free agent, as are many of this year’s starters at receiver and on defense.
The Saints cannot even lighten their future debt load by trading the two-time All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas, who is on currently the physically unable to perform list with an ankle injury and may also be at odds with the organization. In fact, trading Thomas could make things worse, because the Saints would immediately be on the hook for the remaining $22.7 million from his 2019 signing bonus, which is currently amortized across the length of his contract. Also, trading an outstanding player to make ends meet is like selling your car for grocery money.
No matter how creative it is in its accounting, New Orleans will be forced to part ways with many productive starters in 2022. It’s a good thing Hill has experience at multiple positions, as he may be forced to play them all simultaneously next year.
Most of the N.F.L. sighed with relief when the robust 2022 cap estimate was announced. The salary cap is tied directly to league revenues, which fell drastically in 2020 when Covid-19 pandemic restrictions resulted in empty or limited-capacity stadiums. The cap decreased from $198.2 million in 2020 to $182.5 in 2021, and it would have fallen further had the league and the players’ union agreed to spread revenue shortfalls across two years, lest teams be forced to field penny-pinching rosters consisting solely of irreplaceable quarterbacks, minimum-salary rookies and accounting department interns.
Next year’s cap increase leaves just three teams besides the Saints in the red. The Minnesota Vikings are $7 million over the cap but can easily restructure some contracts and continue their traditional state of bland mediocrity. The Cowboys are $12 million over the cap, but quarterback Dak Prescott and other top performers are locked into long-term deals, so it will just take a touch of Jerry Jones’s financial necromancy to keep their first-place roster intact. The Packers are $39 million over the cap but may solve their problem by trading quarterback Aaron Rodgers and starting over: the football equivalent of downsizing after a messy divorce, or perhaps renouncing earthly possessions to forage for berries in the wilderness.
On the other side of the ledger, the Miami Dolphins lead the N.F.L. with $77 million in 2022 cap space; the Los Angeles Chargers are second with $73 million. Gaudy future cap figures can be as misleading as dire ones: A team with millions in future dollars to spend often has no one on the roster worth spending them on.
The Dolphins (6-7), however, are enjoying a five-game winning streak behind the emerging second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, while the Chargers (8-5) are led by Justin Herbert, already one of the league’s brightest young stars in just his second season. Both teams will be able to bid for the services of players that teams like the Saints are forced to shed. Free agent spending sprees don’t often make teams better, but salary purges almost always make them worse.
The Saints spent their way into this predicament by keeping their veteran nucleus together during Drew Brees’s final seasons. In fact, $11.5 million of next year’s shortfall is “dead money”: the amortized leftovers of bonuses paid to Brees years ago while the Saints were balancing their budget like a unicycle on a tightrope.
The Saints went 49-15 and won the N.F.C. South four straight times from 2017 through 2020, so the franchise likely has few regrets about its financial choices during Brees’s golden years. They may wish they had devoted the 2021 season to more intensive credit repair, however. The Saints lost five straight games before defeating the Jets, and they visit Tom Brady and the Buccaneers (10-3) on Sunday night. Even if New Orleans manages to stagger into the playoffs, it will be an unsatisfying coda to an era of excellence, and the Saints will be paying for it for years to come.
Not too many years, mind you. The league’s 11-year, $110 billion media rights agreements with various broadcasters takes effect in 2023. The salary cap will then blast into orbit, and every team — even the Saints — will be able to go back to spending money like there is no tomorrow.