NFC South Salary Cap Analysis

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the 2014 salary cap has been set at $133 Million, what does this mean for the teams in our division?

Originally projected to be somewhere around 126M, the NFL finally set the 2014 Salary cap at $133M. Given this sizable increase, it's worth taking a look at how this impacts our immediate rivals in the NFC South, and the greater implications for each team as they build their rosters. We'll also peak a bit into the future, considering where each team stands with the 2015 cap. All of the information used here is provided by www.overthecap.com.

Atlanta Falcons

Current Cap Space: 26.2 Million

The Falcons carried over roughly 3 Million of unused 2013 cap space that, after Tony Gonzalez officially retires, will lift the Falcons to over 26M in total cap space for the year, which is the most space in the division.

Largest Remaining Potential Cap Savings (1M+):

Roddy White: 5M Thomas DeCoud: 3M
Osi Umenyiora: 3.5M Steven Jackson: 1.8M
Kroy Biermann: 3M Matt Bryant: 2.75M
Harry Douglas: 1.8M Jason Snelling: 1.3M
Sean Weatherspoon: 2.8M

Key Free Agents:

DT Jonathan Babineaux (33) DT Corey Peters (25)
DB Robert McClain (25) C Joe Hawley (25)

Biggest Roster Needs:

Right Guard, Free Safety, Pass Rusher, Defensive Tackle, Tight End, Offensive Tackle

Analysis:

With over 26 Million in cap space, the Falcons have plenty of room to make moves this off-season, though I wouldn't expect a lot of major moves given some key free agents that will likely need to be resigned as well. On the list of potential cap savings, the only players that seem like potential cuts at this point are Thomas DeCoud and Jason Snelling. A contract extension for Roddy White seems likely, though I wouldn't predict a huge cap savings for 2014 by doing so. Depending on what the Falcons do in free agency and in the draft, players like Osi and Kroy could be potential cap casualties, though I'm doubtful either is cut. The only other name of interest is Matt Bryant. His 2.75M cap savings when measured against his position and age would be troubling, if it weren't for the fact that he's been nearly invaluable as a clutch player on this team.

As for our own free agents, it seems very likely that we will resign either Babineaux or Peters, though preference will probably be given to the younger Peters. If Babs is looking for similar money to what he has made, he will likely be allowed to test the free agent waters. Robert McClain has proven to be a valuable player in our secondary and will likely not cost much while Joe Hawley will likely be brought back on a short-term deal so that he can compete with Konz for the starting C job.

Even after signing our own free agents and allocating 3-4M to signing drafted rookies, there is no reason the Falcons can't be active in free agency. The Falcons need to fill a lot of holes on the roster - fortunately, they have the cap space to do so.

2015 Outlook:

Even with a franchise QB contract on the books, the Falcons currently have nearly 63M in cap space assuming the 2015 cap stays at the 133M mark it is at now. That is with 30 players under contract. However, that doesn't include players like Julio Jones and Sean Weatherspoon, so that should be taken into consideration. That said, the Falcons are in great shape for 2015 which means handing out a bigger contract to a key free agent (or two) in 2014 will be easy to accommodate in the future. There's little reason the Falcons shouldn't be able to restock the roster with younger talent in the next couple of years.

New Orleans Saints

Current Cap Space: 1.5 Million

The 1.5 Million cap figure includes the roughly 7M franchise tag (TE value) for Jimmy Graham. If Graham is determined to be a WR by the NFL - which is a possibility - the tag value will increase to roughly 12M.

Largest Remaining Potential Cap Savings (1M+):

Jahri Evans: 2.5M Brodrick Bunkley: 1.2M
Lance Moore: 2.5M Darren Sproles: 3.5M
Junior Galette: 3.5M Pierre Thomas: 2.9M
Patrick Robinson: 1.3M Cameron Jordan: 1.4M
Mark Ingram: 1.4M Victor Butler: 1.5M

Key Free Agents:

RT Zach Strief (30) C Brian de la Peunte (28)
S Malcolm Jenkins (26) WR Robert Meachem (29)

Biggest Roster Needs:

Offensive Tackle, Outside Linebacker, Cornerback, Wide Receiver

Analysis:

Of the four teams in the NFC South, the Saints clearly needed the extra cap space more than any of the others. The franchise tag could prove to be very costly and it's in the Saints best interest to get a long-term deal signed with Graham, if for no other reason than to reduce his cap hit for this year. As it currently stands, the Saints will have to make more moves in order to sign their rookie class and keep some key free agents. Due to their cap situation, it is highly unlikely that they will be players in free agency at all.

On the list of potential cap casualties, it seems a near certainty that the club will part with either Darren Sproles or Pierre Thomas, with Thomas being the more likely cut. They may also have to restructure several other contracts, especially of top-5 QB Drew Brees, who is due to count 18.4M against the cap, with over 10.7M of that coming from his base salary. However, continuing to restructure contracts only delays the cap hits, and as you'll see in a minute, that may not be a great option either.

However you look at it, the Saints are in the worst cap position of any team in the NFC South and in one of the worst cap situations in the NFL. They will have to do tons of work and may have to let some key free agents walk in order to be under the cap by the beginning of the season. In fact, even with some key cuts, I'd expect that either their starting Center or Right Tackle will hit free agency and sign elsewhere. And that's not even considering the 3-4M it takes to sign the rookie draft class.

2015 Outlook:

As it stands right now, the Saints are about 19M under the 2015 cap if it stays at the 133M figure. However, that does not include Jimmy Graham or Cameron Jordan in those figures. That figure includes 36 players currently under contract. That also includes a base salary of 18.7M for Drew Brees, with a total cap hit of 26.4M. If the Saints restructure his 2014 numbers, that 2015 number is only going to increase. As you can see, if the Saints keep Graham and restructure Brees, there's a very high likelihood that they will run out of cap room quickly - without even considering getting Jordan under a long-term deal. The contract offsets and restructures will likely make the Saints a non-player in 2015 free agency again, and could well cost them some key free agents as well.

Carolina Panthers

Current Cap Space: 8.5 Million

The 8.5M cap figure for the Panthers includes roughly 13M for tagging DE Greg Hardy.

Largest Remaining Potential Cap Savings (1M+):

Greg Olson: 2M Charles Godfrey: 2M
Mike Tolbert: 1.3M Dwan Edwards: 1.4M

Key Free Agents:

CB Captain Munnerlyn (25) S Mike Mitchell (26)
WR Ted Ginn Jr (28) CB Drayton Florence (33)
S Quitin Mikell (33)

Biggest Roster Needs:

Offensive Tackle, Wide Receiver, Cornerback

Analysis:

The Panthers have arguably put together one of the most fearsome defensive front sevens in the NFL today. They have a superstar in the making in Luke Kuechly and monster pass rushers in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. However, that defense is also where a large amount of their money is currently tied up, with Johnson accounting for a 16.2M cap hit and the DE Tag on Hardy accounting for 13M. This is also with all four of their defensive secondary starters set to be free agents. Getting Hardy inked to a long-term deal may help their short-term cap space, but could get very costly down the road.

One other detail: Cam Newton is on the final year of his four year rookie contract. Currently, Cam only counts about 7M against the 2014 cap, but it is highly likely that the team will want to get him locked down for the long term this year. Given his talent, and having just taken the club to the NFC South title and the playoffs, Cam will likely look for money similar to what Jay Cutler brought in (7 years, 126.7M, 54 Guaranteed). The Panthers will try to get that number lower, but more than likely, Cam will get somewhere around 17-18M per year on average. Depending on the structure of that contract, the Panthers may be restricted in what they can do in free agency.

Of the guys on their cap casualty list, Tolbert and Olsen seem unlikely to be cut. Godfrey and Edwards are potential cuts, but would only free up about 3.4M by doing so - just enough to sign their rookie draft class. With some key free agents like Ted Ginn Jr and Captain Munnerlyn needing to be resigned, it's likely the Panthers won't have much cap space this year to be players in free agency.

2015 Outlook:

If the 2015 cap stays flat at 133M, the Panthers would have about 31M of cap space to play with, with 29 players currently under contract. However, that list does not include Cam Newton or other free agents like Ginn and Munnerlyn. With Cam's contract likely being in the 18M/year range, the 31M of space for 2015 could disappear quickly, though several players will be easier to cut to free up some space. While Carolina isn't in nearly as bad a shape as the Saints, they won't have a lot of wiggle room in the next couple of years. The ridiculous cap hits they have tied up in their running backs will limit what they can do until 2016.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Current Cap Space: 18.8 Million

Of all the NFC South teams, the Bucs are in great shape with very little dead money this year, and loads of options to free up more space.

Largest Remaining Potential Cap Savings (1M+):

Darrell Revis: 16M Gerald McCoy: 10.4M
Vincent Jackson: 5.1M Carl Nicks: 2.3M
Donald Penn: 7.4M Davin Joseph: 6M
Jeremy Zuttah: 4.5M Michael Koenen: 3.2M
Connor Barth: 2M Demar Dotson: 2M
Mason Foster: 1.4M

Key Free Agents:

LB Adam Hayward (29)


Biggest Roster Needs:

Defensive End, Offensive Tackle, Tight End, Quarterback?

Analysis:

The Bucs are arguably in the best cap position of any team in the NFC South. While their current cap space isn't as great as the Falcons, they have several moves they can make to free up a ton of space. Likewise, they don't have any big name free agents that need to be resigned either. They've got some phenomenal players on defense, with Levonte David, Darrelle Revis and Gerald McCoy all being top-tier players at their positions. The bigger question for the Bucs is whether the new coaching staff believes that Mike Glennon is a franchise QB. In a division where the other three teams are set at the critical position, the Bucs need to quickly determine if Glennon is the answer, or if they need to address the position in 2014.

Of the potential cap casualties listed, Davin Joseph seems like a likely cut. For his production, Zuttah may also be cut. Those cuts alone would put the Bucs at over 28M in cap space and could make them major players in free agency. It's also likely that they'll try to restructure Penn to reduce his cap hit, though it's certainly not a necessity to do so. The cap hits for the punter and kicker look a little out of whack, so cuts or restructures there are not out of the question.

I'd look for the Bucs to try and fix their pass rushing issues in free agency, with a target like Michael Johnson making some sense for them. It would also make some sense for them to go after a Guard in free agency, with Schwartz out of KC as a good fit. I wouldn't look for them to go after any free agent QBs, as it is a particularly weak class this year. I'd look for them to try and address the position in the draft, using either their first or second round pick on a ball slinger.

2015 Outlook:

Assuming 133M, the Bucs will have 45 players under contract and about 21M in cap space - arguably the best financial position in the NFC South. When you consider that they will likely address their QB situation in the draft, the Bucs are well positioned for 2015 and beyond. If they do find a franchise QB, they won't have to pay him big money until around the 2018 season. However, that also presumes they can find that QB, assuming that Lovie Smith isn't a Glennon fan. Either way, the Bucs are well positioned to be players in free agency this year and next, and if they can address the QB position adequately, there's little reason to believe they can't be serious contenders in very short order.


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