While the Tampa Bay front office wants to see how the 2013 season plays out, the Bucs will be looking at a tough salary cap picture in 2014 with $119 million already committed to current contracts, according to ESPN's Pat Yasinskas. This is without figuring in QB Josh Freeman's potential re-signing.
The urgency to win in the NFL is ever-present. For the Buccaneers, it is even more of a pressing need. While even the most die-hard Bucs fans aren’t making travel arrangements to New Jersey, site of this year’s Super Bowl, just yet, a serious run at the playoffs is expected.
As reported by ESPN NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas on Monday, the Buccaneers already have $119 million committed to the 2014 salary cap. While no one is willing to say 2013 is a make-or-break year, anything less than an 8-8 season will surely cause a shakeup of high-dollar veteran Bucs players. Even with a playoff run, general manager Mark Dominik will earn every penny of his 2014 salary, trying to keep the nucleus of the team together, if they in fact manage to reach the 2013 postseason.
If Tampa Bay makes the playoffs, it will be most likely with quarterback josh Freeman at the helm and that would earn the former first-round draft pick a big payday as he is in the final season of his five-year rookie contract. The number Yasinskas quoted did not include getting Freeman under contract in 2014, so there will be difficult decisions to be made if the team's signal caller earns a new deal. High-salary players like Davin Joseph, Carl Nicks, Donald Penn and others could potentially be asked to have their deals reworked or even face the possibility of being released.
While the new media contracts will kick in next season, according to Daniel Kaplan of Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal in a report last year, the NFL salary cap is expected to stay relatively flat around $123 million until 2016, providing little relief for cap-strapped teams like Tampa Bay.
Kaplan wrote, “The NFL is projecting that the salary cap will stay relatively flat through 2015, a period that represents the first half of the 10-year collective-bargaining agreement signed last August and runs beyond the start of the league’s new media deals in 2014, according to multiple team and league sources.”
Former Packers executive Andrew Brandt agreed with Kaplan.
“There is an overexcitement [among players] about the TV deals, which do not start at the higher levels and have to ramp up,” said Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers executive and co-founder of the National Football Post. “This is something that players will have to come to grips with, and agents and the union will need to be realistic on, with contract projections that this expected windfall in the rise in revenues is not happening any time soon.”
The Buccaneers, like all NFL teams will have some options when the 2014 offseason begins next March. The first, and the simplest way to free up cap space, is to release players. Dominik had structured a majority of the contracts of the current Bucs in a cap-friendly way, rarely handing out signing bonuses, which have to be pro-rated over the length of the deal. Most of Dominik’s free agent signings have come with guaranteed base salaries that are seen through the first two years of the deals.
In the case of newly obtained cornerback Darrelle Revis, there was no bonus at all. Instead, it's a year-to-year option deal, however coming with a high cap hit each season of $16 million in base salary. However, if Revis under-performs, the Buccaneers can release him with no future ramifications to the salary cap because there was no signing bonus.
Another option, and one that is frequently used by NFL teams is restructuring and/or extending current contracts. Dominik has done this in a very cap-friendly way, converting the next year's high base salary into a high roster bonus for the current year at the end of the season to use up all of the remaining cap space in December. He did this with wide receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks last year, essentially paying them handsomely twice in their first season with the Bucs and making them play the 2013 season at or near the veteran minimum base salary.
Jackson was paid $12.16 million in the form of a roster bonus in 2012. That dropped his 2013 base salary, which was supposed to be $13 million, to $840,000. Nicks was given a roster bonus of $11.785 million at the end of the 2012 season, and will make $715,000 in 2013 instead of the $12.5 million he was due to make this year. Those moves freed up $18 million in salary cap space in 2013. This practice is more of a Band-Aid than a cure, but is a way to free cap money immediately.
Something else that NFL general managers have done, as was the case with offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood during training camp last year, is to renegotiate the player's current deal to a lower base salary. Basically with high-priced veterans, teams can go the player and his agent and play a high stakes poker game, asking for a player to play for a lower salary or risk being released. Dominik did that with Trueblood and saved $1 million in cap room last year.
He also cut backup QB Dan Orlovsky and re-signed him for the league minimum, a move that saved close to $1 million in cap room in 2013. With the way free agency played out in 2013, more players than not will likely agree to the option instead of taking their chances on earning their current salary elsewhere.
Regardless of which option is used, Dominik’s work will be cut out for him in 2014. The good news for Tampa Bay is that if it comes down to that the Buccaneers most likely had a successful 2013 campaign and the organization will be trying to keep the team together for another run. If the team falters, and Dominik is relieved of his duties, then expect some wholesale changes in Tampa Bay, and some familiar – and high-priced players – playing in different uniforms in 2014.
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