The official NFL salary cap for 2015 was set at $143.3 million at the beginning of the year. Nominally, that is the amount of cap space available for NFL teams to field a team this season.
But not every team has the same amount of cap space available. Because teams can roll over unused cap space from year to year, and don't have to spend the entire available cap space in any given year, teams use a different amount of cap space each year to field a team.
The New York Jets for example currently have the highest total cap number in the league this year with $152.8 million, while the Tennessee Titans have the lowest number at $127.8 million, a difference of $25 million.
But not all of that cap money goes to the players actually playing on the field on Sunday. The 44 players who saw at least one snap for the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday have a total combined cap charge of $127.9 million, the highest value in the league. The New Orleans Saints also fielded 44 players on Sunday, and those players have a combined cap charge of just $60.3 million. That's a difference of $67.6 million, a much bigger spread than the $25 million you would get by only looking at the total salary cap.
If you're wondering about the Cowboys, they fielded 45 players on Sunday with a combined cap charge of $79.9 million, the second lowest value in the league. Taken as a percentage of the total cap, the Cowboys fielded just 58% of their salary cap versus the Falcons on Sunday. So what happened to the remaining 42% of the Cowboys cap? Here's where the rest of the money goes for the Cowboys and for the other 31 NFL teams:
Game Day Inactives / Did Not Play
Per league rules, seven players of the 53-man roster are inactive on game day. Occasionally, teams have one or two additional players (e.g. the third quarterback, a ninth offensive lineman etc.) who are on the active roster but do not play a snap. In an ideal world, teams would sit down-roster backup guys and perhaps a third QB on the game day inactive list. With the down-roster guys at an average cap charge of about $600,000 a pop and the QB at perhaps $1.4 million, that would give you around $5 million in cap money that you would expect to be inactive on game day.
But as teams progress through the season, that Game Day Inactive list also contains injured starters. For the Cowboys last Sunday, that list included Dez Bryant ($7 million cap hit), Jeremy Mincey ($2.2 million), and Matt Cassel ($1.8 million), and added up to $14 million, which ranks the Cowboys around average in the NFL, but only because Tony Romo has already been moved to "IR designated for return".
The Saints, who had QB Drew Brees ($23.8 million cap hit), OG Jahri Evans ($7 million), S Jairus Byrd ($5.5 million), and CB Keenan Lewis ($4.5 million) inactive combined for $47.3 million in cap space on the Game Day Inactives / DNP on Sunday, an astonishingly high figure. By comparison, the Bengals had "just" $5.4 million in cap space on the bench on Sunday.
Dead money is the cap charge left on the books from players whose contracts had been terminated at one point. The Cowboys for example still have to account for Miles Austin ($5.1 million), Doug Free ($4 million - dead money left from when Free's contract voided earlier this year), Kyle Orton ($2.3 million), Jasper Brinkley ($1.4 million), and others. In total, the Cowboys have to account for $15 million in dead money this year, which is the tenth highest value in the league.
The Saints ($31 million) once again have the highest value in the league, the Bengals have the lowest value ($1.1 million).
Unlike injuries, dead money is not really the result of bad luck, but is usually the result of bad cap management/player acquisition and/or a significant restructuring of the team. In any case, it is money not available for investment into players.
The sum of the cap space for all 32 teams is $4.5 billion this year. After three weeks, $174 million, or 4%, of that is already on injured reserve. That may not sound like a lot, but for the teams most affected, it is a lot. The Cowboys for example have Tony Romo ($15 million cap charge), Orlando Scandrick ($4.4 million), and Terrell McClain ($1.1 million) headlining their list of injured players, which tops out at a cap charge of $23 million, the highest value in the league.
The 49ers have just two players with a combined $650,000 cap charge on IR, the lowest value in the league.
PUP / NFI / Suspended
The PUP and NFI lists also contain players who are dealing with various injuries, the suspended list contains players who have run afoul of various NFL rules and regulations. Notably for the Cowboys, Greg Hardy ($3 million cap charge) and Rolando McClain ($2.6 million) are on the suspended list.
Teams can have up to ten players on their practice squad, though none of them are eligible to play unless they are called up to the 53-man roster. The cap charge for the practice squad is normally around $1.2 million.
Add it all up, and the Cowboys had just $81 million, or 58%, of their $139.6 million cap playing for them on Sunday, the second lowest value in the league.
Here's how the other NFL teams stack up. For your convenience, the table is sortable (just click on the blue column headers).
|Salary Cap Allocation by Team, Wk 3, 2015 (all cap data per Overthecap.com)
Playing in Wk 3
|Total Cap||in %||Inactive/DNP||Dead Money||IR||PUP||Suspended||NFI||PS|
Injuries are often a convenient excuse for a bad performance, but there's no denying that as injuries mount, especially to key personnel, this will affect team performance.
This is especially true at quarterback, and you'll notice that the top three teams on this list, the Saints, Cowboys, and Bears, all had their veteran starting QBs out of action last Sunday. And if you were to add Ben Roethlisberger's $17.2 million cap charge to Pittsburgh's total, the Steelers would jump to second place on this list with a $78.9 cap charge for their available players (57%).
And while taking player salaries as a proxy for player quality is a very shaky proposition at best, there's little doubt that a team like the Saints won't have much success fielding their $61 million team against a $129 million team like the Bengals. Having said that, having a largely healthy (and expensive) roster to field on Sundays doesn't necessarily guarantee a victory. While the top seven teams in terms of cap charge for available players have four teams with a winning record in the Broncos, Cardinals, Bengals, and Jets, the three other teams (Eagles, Seahawks, and Rams) have losing records.
Overall though, I'd rather have my salary cap dollars on the field for my team on Sunday than doing something else. And when you strip away the salary cap detritus you begin to understand that as much as the NFL has tried to create parity, being healthy, being in good cap shape, and not being suspended goes a long way towards ensuring that parity is not a concept you need to familiarize yourself with.