NFL salary-cap management is no longer about finding creative ways to squeeze players underneath a tight limit. Now, after four consecutive years of at least $10 million annual jumps, most teams have more cap space than they know what to do with.
The 2017 cap will be $167 million, representing a nearly 40 percent rise over five years. The average team is projected to have about $40 million in cap space, ranging from more than $100 million for the Cleveland Browns to less than $10 million for several other teams, when the new league year begins March 9.
Below, we’ve grouped teams by their salary-cap health, and they’re ranked in no particular order under each grouping. Make no mistake: In the current NFL, every team has enough cap space to do just about anything it wants. These tiers are based on available space, individual cap structure and the length of the to-do list. Cap space is estimated in some cases, but there is a level of subjectivity involved beyond the numbers, so deal with it.
Note: As transactions continue to take place around the start of the new league year, the figures below are as of late afternoon March 1.
Health grade: A+
Approximate space: $105 million
A couple of years of caution and few homegrown talents to reward allowed the Browns to carry over more than $50 million from last year’s cap. That accounts for nearly half of this season’s league-leading total. Receiver Terrelle Pryor Sr. is in position to consume some of that space, but the Browns already have given linebacker Jamie Collins a four-year extension (2017 cap hit: $12.1 million) and almost certainly will roll over a significant portion of their current space to 2018.
San Francisco 49ers
Approximate space: $79 million
The 49ers’ new management duo, general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, have inherited a relatively barren roster. The good news is they have enough cap space to do just about anything they think can improve it. That includes pursuing a veteran quarterback who would require a premium contract, but their spot at No. 2 overall in the draft might represent their more likely direction.
Approximate space: $70.2 million
No team has used abundant cap space more aggressively the past three years than the Jaguars, who have signed 27 players to nearly $500 million in total contracts. It hasn’t helped much — they have an 11-37 record in that span — but they once again are in position to (over-) pursue the top of the free-agent class. The recent release of pass-rusher Jared Odrick and pending trade of tight end Julius Thomas should be cautionary tales.
New England Patriots
Approximate space: $62.3 million
It’s just not fair, is it? The defending Super Bowl champions have one of the NFL’s cleanest cap ledgers. It starts with quarterback Tom Brady’s absurdly friendly contract, which counts just $14 million against the cap in 2017. (It rises to $22 million for 2018, which suggests a possible renegotiation.) Even with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett on the roster, the Patriots use 5.1 percent less cap space for quarterbacks than the average NFL team. Other than Brady, the only players with cap charges higher than $10 million are left tackle Nate Solder ($11.2 million) and safety Devin McCourty ($10.9 million). It’s possible that linebacker Dont’a Hightower, a pending free agent on whom the Patriots declined to use the franchise tag, could add to that list if he re-signs.
Approximate space: $59.9 million
A starting quarterback on his rookie deal is the best bargain in the NFL, and the Titans will have at least one and probably two more years of that with Marcus Mariota. He’ll occupy just $6.6 million in 2017 space and would count $7.7 million in 2018 if the Titans don’t extend his contract before then. In the meantime, if they want, the Titans can focus their cap commitment on other expensive needs: pass-rushers and receivers.
Health grade: A
Approximate space: $51.5 million
The Bears have enough space, and perhaps the motivation, to be among the most active teams in free agency. Part of that is attributable to the decision to pass on a franchise tag for receiver Alshon Jeffery; he would have counted more than $16 million against the cap. Parting ways with quarterback Jay Cutler, an expected move, would free another $13 million. That would leave the Bears without a single player counting more than $8 million against the 2017 cap, a situation ripe for spending. In other words, the Bears have a lot of cap space because they don’t have many players left who merit big contracts. After losing 23 of the first 32 games of coach John Fox’s tenure, the Bears are in position for a quick(er) fix.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Approximate space: $66.9 million
A good portion of that total must be saved to support contract extensions for receiver Mike Evans and quarterback Jameis Winston. Evans’ new deal could come as early as this spring. Even so, the Buccaneers have plenty of room to find, say, a running back or another receiver or defensive help as well if desired, and general manager Jason Licht has not been shy on the free-agent market in the past.
Health grade: B+
Approximate space: $44 million
The Raiders had so much space in recent years that they had to work hard to meet the NFL’s spending floor. After several free-agent sprees under general manager Reggie McKenzie, that’s no longer the case. Their estimated 2017 total must be considered in the context of two massive deals that loom: contract extensions for quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack, both of whom will push the highest end of the market for their positions. They could both carry an average cap hit of $20 million annually.
Approximate space: $54.6 million
New general manager Chris Ballard inherited plenty of space from Ryan Grigson. The Colts have a few free agents of their own to consider, most notably tight end Jack Doyle, but Ballard is in position to spend heavily to improve the Colts quickly. Other than quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts have only two players set to count more than $10 million against the cap in 2017: left tackle Anthony Castonzo ($12.8 million) and cornerback Vontae Davis ($10.25 million). Getting Luck some help — at receiver and along the offensive line — seems to be the top priority.
Health grade: B
Approximate space: $41.8 million
The Bengals have a fair bit of cap space, in part because their two highest-paid offensive linemen — left tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler — have expiring contracts. They’ll need either to re-sign them or find replacements. (They have $29.2 million tied up in quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green.) They’ll also need to consider the future of their linebacker corps; both Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga are entering the final year of their deals.
Approximate space: $32.3 million
The Panthers have been relatively cautious in free agency under general manager Dave Gettleman, so you can count on most of their space going to their own players they hope to re-sign. At the top of that list is defensive tackle Kawann Short, who is currently consuming nearly $15 million in cap space under the franchise tag.
Approximate space: $36.7 million
For the immediate future, the Dolphins’ cap space will be limited by the decision to pay two players high-end “quarterback money.” The actual quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, will count $20.3 million toward the 2017 cap. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will count $19.1 million. General manager Mike Tannenbaum likes to be active in free agency, and he has the space if desired, but he also has some emerging players to take care of soon. Among them: receivers Kenny Stills and Jarvis Landry and safety Reshad Jones.
Approximate space: $30 million
The Steelers aren’t usually big players on the free-agent market, and in most years — including 2017 — their available space is largely consumed by extensions for key players. They are largely spent after re-signing receiver Antonio Brown and using the franchise tag on running back Le’Veon Bell this week. Brown, Bell and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will count about $35 million toward the cap. The Steelers also have looming decisions at linebacker, where Lawrence Timmons and Jarvis Jones are on expiring contracts; linebacker James Harrison signed a two-year extension this week.
Approximate space: $40 million
The Broncos’ quarterback money goes to linebacker Von Miller, whose deal counts $20 million against the 2017 salary cap. Of course, all things being equal, they would prefer to enter training camp with Trevor Siemian (2017 cap hit: $628,196) and Paxton Lynch ($2.2 million) competing at quarterback. But they could squeeze in a veteran QB if general manager John Elway really wants to.
Approximate space: $40.6 million
The Vikings no longer have the luxury of a cheap quarterback, now that they’ve locked in Sam Bradford (2017 cap hit: $18 million) as their starter. They’ll add to that total when tailback Adrian Peterson is officially off their books. But there is plenty on the Vikings’ to-do list, most notably reassembling the offensive line. They also need to budget for 2018, when the contracts of Bradford and cornerback Xavier Rhodes expire.
Health grade: B-
Green Bay Packers
Approximate space: $39.9 million
General manager Ted Thompson rarely ventures into free agency, so the Packers’ available space is usually best viewed as their potential flexibility to re-sign players with expiring contracts. The list this season is lengthy, including guard T.J. Lang, running back Eddie Lacy, tight end Jared Cook, defensive back Micah Hyde and linebackers Nick Perry and Julius Peppers. To re-sign them all would be a tight squeeze but doable.
Los Angeles Rams
Approximate space: $20 million
The Rams have some space and a bunch of decisions to make over the next year or so. New coach Sean McVay must decide how much of the Rams’ defensive core to keep intact. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson played 2016 under the franchise tag and will do so again this year. Linebacker Alec Ogletree and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner are pending free agents. Those decisions must be balanced with the glaring need to get quarterback Jared Goff more playmakers.
Approximate space: $34 million
Quarterback Kirk Cousins’ situation means the Redskins must keep maximum cap flexibility. Franchise tag figures can’t be prorated, so Cousins’ entire $23.94 million number will count against the 2017 cap. And don’t forget that the Redskins already are paying “quarterback money” to cornerback Josh Norman, who will count $20 million against the 2017 cap. Tack on left tackle Trent Williams’ $15.1 million figure, and it will be difficult for the Redskins to re-sign two of Cousins’ top targets, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.
Approximate space: $27.4 million
No matter their personnel needs, the Lions must keep in mind that a monster contract extension for quarterback Matthew Stafford is looming. His contract will expire after the 2017 season, which makes now a good time to extend him. He is currently counting $22 million against the cap, and the Lions have enough space to craft a balanced deal, rather than the backloaded types they once did for him and other stars.
New Orleans Saints
Approximate space: $21.7 million
The Saints get quarterback Drew Brees at a relatively reasonable $19 million cap charge in 2017, which helps explain their less-frenzied situation compared to previous years. They’ll have enough space to pursue several free agents this month. That flexibility could be short-lived, however. Brees’ contract can void after the season, and he’ll turn 39 in January 2018. Do they want to commit big cash, and cap space, to him again?
Approximate space: $26.6 million
The Seahawks remain afloat on the cap, even as quarterback Russell Wilson counts $18 million and top defenders Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor count a combined $51 million. For starters, the offensive linemen on Seattle’s roster count a total of $5.5 million, 78 percent less than the NFL average. Even so, there isn’t a ton of room to make a big shift in thought this offseason.
Approximate space: $24.5 million
The Texans’ problem, as it were, is that they have two players making “quarterback money” and could have a third by the end of the offseason (if the Texans can bring back cornerback A.J. Bouye). Brock Osweiler will count $19 million toward the 2017 cap, and defensive end J.J. Watt has a $14.5 million charge. All other maneuvers must consider that hefty base.
Approximate space: $18.4 million
The good news is the Falcons don’t have any pending free agents who would require major deals. The most significant might be receiver Taylor Gabriel, and even he is a restricted free agent. It might be a good idea to use their cap space on left tackle Jake Matthews, who is now eligible for an extension, and cornerback Desmond Trufant. His deal expires after 2017.
Approximate space: $8.3 million
The Ravens are never among the NFL’s leaders in cap space, in part because of their emphasis on veteran building blocks and — more recently — because of quarterback Joe Flacco’s megadeal. Flacco is set to count $24.55 million against the 2017 cap. The Ravens can create more flexibility with a roster purge, one that is rare for them but could still be looming. Cutting defensive end Elvis Dumervil, for instance, would create $6 million in space. Releasing safety Lardarius Webb, meanwhile, could create $5.5 million.
New York Jets
Approximate space: $19.1 million
Most cap-leveraged teams are paying a quarterback top dollar, and the absence of that makes the Jets’ situation notable. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith are free agents, which means that at the moment, the Jets are devoting only $1.8 million in cap space to the position (Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty). That could change in free agency, but for now, the Jets’ cap space is consumed by players such as Muhammad Wilkerson ($18 million) and receiver Eric Decker ($8.75 million). Darrelle Revis ($15.3 million) is included for now, until the Jets release him on March 9.
Approximate space: $15.7 million
The Bills’ space is limited by the $15.9 million consumed by quarterback Tyrod Taylor, a reasonable figure for an unquestioned starter but subject to change based on a $15.5 million option bonus due March 11. The Bills also have a high level of cap space devoted to defensive veterans Marcell Dareus (2017 cap hit: $16.4 million) and defensive end Jerry Hughes ($10.45 million). Nevertheless, they’re going to want to use some space to keep linebacker Zach Brown, who had 149 tackles last season.
Approximate space: $12.3 million
The Eagles don’t have much extra space, but they’re in the B tier largely because they’ve been proactive in re-signing their key veterans. Their cap space has gone to lock in players such as offensive tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson, who will combine to count $21.7 million against the 2017 salary cap. Tight end Zach Ertz signed an extension last season that counts $5.6 million, and defensive end Vinny Curry’s 2016 deal counts a reasonable $9 million.
Approximate space: $22 million
The Cardinals are giving it one more go in 2017 with their veteran nucleus, which means a solid portion of their cap is consumed by quarterback Carson Palmer ($24.1 million) and receiver Larry Fitzgerald ($15.9 million). Both players are in the final year of their contracts, so the Cardinals will be in good cap position for a roster makeover in 2018, if desired. They have about $74 million committed for 2018, the sixth-lowest total in the NFL.
Health grade: C
Kansas City Chiefs
Approximate space: $17.6 million
The Chiefs’ high activity in free agency in recent years, combined with rewards for their own players, leaves them without as much flexibility as most teams. Pass-rusher Justin Houston will count $22.1 million against the cap, one of the highest charges for a non-quarterback in the NFL, while quarterback Alex Smith is at $16.9 million and receiver Jeremy Maclin is at $12.4 million. Offensive tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz will combine to count more than $16 million. Tight end Travis Kelce’s new contract gives the Chiefs a one-year reprieve ($5.4 million) before his cap charge doubles in 2018.
New York Giants
Approximate space: $8.3 million
The Giants have a top-heavy cap structure, with four players — quarterback Eli Manning, pass-rusher Olivier Vernon, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and cornerback Janoris Jenkins — counting at least $15 million against the cap. Nose tackle Damon Harrison counts $10.6 million, which brings the total to nearly $80 million for that group. The Giants could bring that number down by signing Pierre-Paul to a long-term deal, but otherwise they must be conservative, knowing they’ll need to make a massive extension offer to receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in the next year or two.
Approximate space: $4 million
The Cowboys were one of the NFL’s few teams that needed to restructure contracts in order to give themselves enough offseason cap space to operate. Left tackle Tyron Smith’s deal was shuffled for at least the third time, lowering his 2017 cap charge to $8.8 million but raising it to $17.5 million in 2018. The Cowboys did the same for center Travis Frederick, who counts $4.5 million in 2017 and $13.2 million in 2018. This “kick-the-can” approach is largely why the Cowboys have the NFL’s tightest cap situation most years. If quarterback Tony Romo is released, he could still be on the cap books for another two years, depending on how the Cowboys classify it. On the positive side: They’ll benefit from at least two more years of rookie contracts for quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott before those two are eligible for extensions.
Los Angeles Chargers
Approximate space: $4 million
The Chargers got a little top-heavy after using the franchise tag on defensive end Melvin Ingram ($14.5 million), giving them four players who count $9.5 million or more against the cap: quarterback Philip Rivers ($20 million), cornerback Brandon Flowers ($11 million) and defensive lineman Corey Liuget ($9.5 million). They can lessen Ingram’s hit with a long-term extension, but otherwise, the Chargers’ situation is not ideal if you’re of the belief that they must make significant roster progress to compete.