FAB 3. GREENBERG’S SYSTEM KEEP BUCS FROM SALARY CAP HELL
NFL free agency is around the corner and isn’t it nice to know that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t need to make drastic roster moves and restructure deals to get under the salary cap?
The base salary cap for the league this year is currently $168 million. For the Bucs – and other teams – that have rolled over unused salary cap room from previous years – the number is higher. For Tampa Bay, it’s an estimated $173,330,779, according to OverTheCap.com. For Cleveland, which has the most salary cap room at $106,539,421, the Browns’ cap figure for 2017 is $218,123,269.
After releasing cornerback Alterraun Verner, which freed up $6.5 million in cap room, the Bucs have the fourth-most cap room in the league when tabulating the top 51 salaries on the books for 2017. There aren’t currently any teams that are over the cap, which goes into effect on the first day of the 2017 league year, which is March 7, but Dallas has the least amount of cap space at just $4.2 million, according to OverTheCap.com, followed by Kansas City with just over $5 million.
That’s not even enough to sign the Cowboys’ and Chiefs’ draft picks – much less any free agents – so they’ll have to cut some players or restructure some contracts to free up more cap room. Bucs fans remember those days in the early 2000s.
Former Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay sank the Bucs on his way to Atlanta with overpriced contract extensions for defensive end Simeon Rice, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and kicker Martin Gramatica shortly after the team’s Super Bowl championship in 2002. McKay and former capologist John Idzik used big signing bonuses back in the day, and the accelerated proration of signing bonus money quickly turned into millions of dollars worth of dead cap money, which forced former general manager Bruce Allen and former capologist Kevin Demoff into making some very tough and unpopular roster moves to bring Tampa Bay into cap compliance from 2005-08.
Mike Greenberg took over as Tampa Bay’s capologist when he became the team’s director of football administration in 2011. He and former general manager Mark Dominik philosophy devised a new system of not paying signing bonuses, which are prorated for the cap over the life of a contract, and instead, guaranteeing the first year or two of a contract and the use of timely roster bonuses to the team’s advantage.
One of the best moves that general manager Jason Licht made – and it’s a move that has largely gone under the radar – is keeping Greenberg on the staff and continuing the practice of using roster bonuses and guaranteed money. The result has been very little dead salary cap money over the years, which has been a huge help in effectively managing the salary cap over the last four years.
The Bucs have $867,467 in dead cap money, and most of that is from cutting Austin Seferian-Jenkins last year. Twenty-one teams have at least $1 million in dead salary cap money. Nine teams have $3 million in dead cap money, led by Washington’s $8,746,824.
To fully understand how Greenberg’s contract structuring methods work, let’s examine reserve offensive lineman Evan Smith’s deal, which was a four-year, $14.25 million contract that included $7.25 million in guaranteed money that he signed in 2014 when he became the team’s starting center.
The deal featured a $2.5 million base salary and a $1 million roster bonus, which made his first-year cap hit $3.5 million. The roster bonus was payable immediately, so it essentially took the place of a signing bonus for Smith, although classified differently in the contract so there was no proration element. The first two years of Smith’s contract was guaranteed, so although he didn’t get $7.25 million upfront in the form of a signing bonus, Smith was still assured to get that much money even if he was released after one year.
Smith’s base salary rose to $3.75 million in 2015 and that money was guaranteed, too, but his base fell to a more palatable $2.5 million last year. It’s not uncommon in Greenberg’s contract to have players’ base salaries go up and down from year to year instead of a gradual escalation each year. That reason is twofold.
First, by having base salaries go down for a year after increasing the previous year, it gives the Bucs some flexibility and some temporary “cap savings” with certain players’ contracts. While Smith’s base salary went down in 2016 by $1.25 million, Verner’s went up from $4.25 million in 2015 to $6.75 million last year – an increase of $2.5 million.
If every Bucs player’s salary continued to escalate at the same time without any of the “down years” that Greenberg budgets, Tampa Bay’s cap situation could become squeezed in a hurry. So entering 2017, Smith’s base salary rises to $3.5 million and he’s due a $1 million roster bonus in March, which makes his cap hit $4.5 million this year if he makes the team.
Despite such a high salary cap value, Smith really isn’t in danger of being a cap casualty for two reasons. First, Smith is the starting center as of right now because Joe Hawley is not under contract as of yet for 2017. The Bucs have an appreciation for his game and his position flexibility being able to play both center and guard, which is where he started against Chicago as an injury replacement for Kevin Pamphile.
And second, the Bucs are in tremendous salary cap shape, so they don’t need to cut Smith or even restructure his contract to a lower cap figure this year. That’s the most important reason.
There will come a day when the Bucs will feel a salary cap squeeze when star players like wide receiver Mike Evans, middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and quarterback Jameis Winston are signed to their second deals, which are far more lucrative than rookie contracts. Great drafting by Licht and the Bucs scouts has helped keep costs down because many of the team’s starters are still on their rookie deals and are relatively cheap labor.
But when that day comes just trust that Greenberg and Licht will be ready and will have a plan to keep the Bucs from ever going back in to salary cap hell. They’ve done a great job thus far.