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NFL Finances 101: The terms to know as free-agency period beckons for Bucs

The free-agency period starts March 17. Here’s what fans need to know before then.
With stern salary cap limitations looming for 2021, it's unlikely Bucs owner Joel Glazer, left, and general manager Jason Licht will be able to retain all their prominent unrestricted free agents.
With stern salary cap limitations looming for 2021, it's unlikely Bucs owner Joel Glazer, left, and general manager Jason Licht will be able to retain all their prominent unrestricted free agents. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published Mar. 5
Updated Mar. 5

Fittingly, NFL free agents can sign with teams starting March 17 — an ideal day for seeing green, since it’s also St. Patrick’s Day.

Some of the league’s most prominent names will reap long-awaited bonanzas, either with their current teams or new ones. Others will be saddled with franchise tags. Some may extend their tenuous careers with short-term deals.

Meantime, fans will be subject to an all-out blitz of the league’s financial and free agency vernacular: restructures and roster bonuses, dead money and prorated money.

What does it all mean? For the less indoctrinated, we try to explain some of the terms indigenous to this part of the NFL calendar.

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So what is the NFL’s salary cap for 2021?

The number hasn’t been determined, but due to the pandemic, it’s certain to be well shy of the 2020 figure ($198.2 million).

The NFL recently raised the cap floor to $180 million, and it’s widely believed the ceiling won’t be much higher.

That shortfall could keep the Bucs from re-signing a pivotal free agent or two. On the flip side, with the cap expected to increase significantly in 2022, it also could prompt players to accept team-friendly one-year deals with the hope of cashing in the following year.

What is a player’s salary cap number?

Generally, it’s the combination of the player’s base salary, any offseason roster bonuses he’s owed that year, and a proration of any signing bonus.

Using Tom Brady as an example, his 2020 cap number was $28.375 million (according to spotrac.com) when combining his $15 million base salary, $10 million roster bonus and $3.375 million bonus covering various incentives (performance, playing time, Pro Bowl, etc.).

How do signing bonuses help create roster flexibility?

Because they can be prorated. Let’s use Brady again as an example: He’s set to make $25 million again in 2021 (the last season of his two-year deal) when combining his $15 million base salary and $10 million roster bonus. But if Tampa Bay wanted to restructure his deal and extend him for 2022, the roster bonus could be converted to a signing bonus, with that $10 million prorated over two seasons.

Brady still would get the $10 million up front, but only $5 million would count against the 2021 cap, meaning his cap number for this upcoming season decreases by $5 million. That little piece of restructuring could help the Bucs keep a critical component such as, say, kicker Ryan Succop.

Related: Tampa's Super Bowl was not a coronavirus super spreader, officials say

What is ‘dead money’?

This is money that must be counted toward a team’s salary cap for players no longer on the roster. By recently trading quarterback Carson Wentz to the Colts, the Eagles took on $33.8 million in dead money, the largest single dead-cap hit in NFL history (per spotrac.com).

Using the minimum salary cap ($180 million) as a reference point, the Eagles are using nearly 19 percent of their 2021 salary cap on a quarterback no longer playing for them.

So in the case of Wentz, why would Philadelphia be responsible for so much “dead money” by trading him?

Because when a player is traded, the remaining base salary on the contract goes to the new team, but the former one remains responsible for any unallocated bonus money. Wentz’s deal is pretty complicated, but the Eagles are still on the hook for the remaining prorations from his $16.4 million signing bonus and $30 million option bonus, according to overthecap.com.

While restructuring money to signing bonuses seems like a great way to create cap space in the short term, teams easily can mortgage their futures when doing it liberally. The Bucs generally avoid this practice.

Explain the franchise tag

It’s an annual designation each team may apply to one player set to become an unrestricted free agent.

A player who gets the “exclusive” franchise tag must be offered a guaranteed one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position (as of a certain date in the year in which the tag will apply), or 120 percent of the player’s salary from the previous season, whichever is greater. The deadline for applying the tag is March 9.

Since receiver Chris Godwin seems the likeliest candidate for Tampa Bay’s franchise tag, let’s use him as an example. Godwin earned a $2.1 million base salary in 2020, but if given the franchise tag this year, he’d earn around $16.5 million. While receiving an exorbitant raise, he’d also be in position to negotiate for a long-term deal in 2022.

So let’s talk brass tacks here: Will the 2021 salary cap allow the Bucs to keep all their significant free agents?

Probably not. The cap’s too modest, and the number of valuable free agents (Godwin, Succop, Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David, Ndamukong Suh, Leonard Fournette) is just too high. Bucs director of football administration Mike Greenberg is widely considered one of the best cap gurus in the NFL. But he’s not a magician.