The NFL salary cap is an enigma to most casual fans and considering the wizardry that the Vikings front office has shown (namely thanks to the amazing work of Vikings executive vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinksi) in recent years, it’s not hard to see why some fans have been talking about the salary cap like Congress talks about the federal budget.
If we’re going to make comparisons, though, the salary cap is much more aligned with state budgets than federal ones, as individual states in the United… States can’t run deficits, which is why budget deficits are such a big deal whenever they rear their heads and why situations like the one the Vikings found themselves in after the 2019 season typically lead to situations like the ones we find ourselves in.
The current Vikings feel like the state of Minnesota’s budget around the 2008 housing market collapse, as they finally ran out of space this off-season, which was the impetus for the rebuild that we’ve been seeing since the start of free agency. The Vikings have been letting “core” player after core player go and while some of that was the team either allowing players to opt-out of their deals (per Everson Griffen) or walk (Trae Waynes/Mackenzie Alexander), part of that has come from the team cutting players that were otherwise under contract (Xavier Rhodes/Linval Joseph, etc.).
While contracts in the NFL aren’t like contracts in other sports/walks of life, there are some consequences to cutting players that have years left on their deals. That’s where dead cap money comes in, which is the penalty a team faces for cutting a player before the end of their deal. That money is essentially money that the team pays a player that it cuts, meaning that it’s “dead” money in the sense that you’re not getting anything out of it aside from not having to pay that player the full amount of their contract.
A better explanation comes from VikingsWire.com:
“Dead money is contributed towards the salary cap, but cannot be used to sign players. When a team cuts a player, a certain amount of that player’s cap hit can be saved and used on other talent, but a certain amount of it is dead money, which cannot be used.”
For example, the Vikings accrued dead cap space by cutting both Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph. When they cut Joseph (according to StarTribune.com):
“The Vikings will incur $2.4 million of dead money against their 2020 cap by releasing Joseph but will save $10.4875 million by cutting the 31-year-old nose tackle.”
Likewise, cutting Rhodes saved the team $8.1 million (to go with $4.8 million in dead cap money). So, essentially the team is saving money by releasing those players but at the same time, it’s hard to rebuild a team when you’re still paying ex-players any amount of money to play for another team (as the Vikings are with Rhodes, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts today, despite the Vikings being interested in re-signing him (which is what general manager Rick Spielman said when they cut him).
Rhodes signing with the Colts is the worst possible outcome for the Vikings, who were hoping to re-sign him at a lower cap amount (something around the dead cap hit), which would’ve essentially erased the dead cap hit and thus give the Vikings some value for the nearly $5 million they’d be paying Rhodes either way. Obviously, there’s little incentive for Rhodes to agree to that, as he’d get that money, either way, making any money he gets from the Colts a bonus).
According to OverTheCap.com, the Vikings currently rank fifth among NFL teams in terms of having the most dead cap space (as of the writing of this piece). The four teams with MORE dead cap space than the Vikings are the Patriots, Lions, Jaguars, and Panthers.
That fact will make it difficult for the Vikings to sign anyone of consequence in the remainder of free agency, which points further to the fact that they’re going to be mostly rebuilding the defense/offensive line/receiving corps. Fortunately, the Vikings have 12 draft picks in the 2020 NFL Draft, something that will most likely change as Spielman is known for trading down to amass more picks.
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