Speaking too soon on 2014 salary-cap spike

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A good portion of our offseason salary-cap discussions have centered around a commonly-held notion that the cap limit will increase dramatically when the NFL's new television contract starts in 2014. The assumption appears fundamentally flawed, and the strong sense here at the NFL owners meetings is that the cap won't increase much -- if any -- when the transition occurs.

In all, the NFL figures to have at least five seasons -- 2011-2015 -- of nearly flat cap limits. This year, the cap increased minimally, by about $225,000, to $120.6 million.

Assuming the league's internal projections are correct, that will come as bad news to players who have signed short-term deals in anticipation of cashing in on surplus cap space in a few years. It also means that teams like the Detroit Lions, whose cap crunch became well-known over the past few months, can't expect the commitments they've pushed forward to dissolve into an expected surplus.

Lions president Tom Lewand freely acknowledged that reality while speaking here at the Breakers Hotel a short time ago. Lewand said that "history has shown very few spikes in the cap even with new television deals" and explained the fallacy of waiting out a cap crunch until the new television contract kicks in.

Laughing, Lewand said: "I hope that the other three teams in the NFC North want to wait it out."

What does this mean for the Lions? In essence, they'll have to manage their cap annually much as they did this past year, extending the contracts of key players (Calvin Johnson) at premium rates to spread out their cap hits and occasionally allowing a starter (Eric Wright) to depart.

"The danger you can get in from a cap perspective is thinking there is going to be some kind of amnesty year," Lewand said. "Or if you kick the can far enough down the road that somehow it will fall off the edge of the earth. It doesn't. The can is still there. And even with the new television deals, I think you've got to be pragmatic and you've got to be smart about the dollars you can spend now but cognizant of what you're going to spend."

Many of us thought the television contract would be a salvation of sort for the Lions as they restructured the contracts of quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and receiver Nate Burleson, among others. But we were wrong to think it would be that easy. Let's try to explain in simple terms why we were wrong, based on what Lewand said.

The average of the current deal is $1.93 billion. By the end of the new deal, the average will be $3.1 billion. But it is a gradual progression, and the NFL won't reach that top revenue number until 2022.

So in 2014, the league will shift from the high point of the old deal to the low point of the new one. Without getting specific, Lewand said: "There is not a big jump."

In the end, Lewand said: "I think that a lot of clubs have cap issues going forward. It's going to be a tight cap and it's going to be a challenge going forward. It's a challenging cap."

And that won't change anytime soon.