Looking at top 51 cap figures for 2012

In recent weeks, I’ve updated you a few times on where the NFC South teams stood on salary-cap commitments for 2012.

Let’s do it again, but let’s do it from a slightly different perspective. When the league year starts in mid-March, the cap figures that will be used to calculate on where each team stands will be based solely on the top 51 cap figures for each team. That system will be used until just before the season starts, when all cap hits, even those for players that get released, determine where each team stands.

So let’s look at the figures for the top 51 for each team. The Panthers lead the division at $126.9 million. They’re going to have to make some roster moves (likely including, but not limited to, releasing linebacker Thomas Davis) before the league year starts just to get below the $120-million cap by the start of free agency.

The Saints are next at $101.4 million, but that number doesn’t come close to telling their whole story. They obviously are going to be re-signing quarterback Drew Brees to a huge new contract. If they also want to keep receiver Marques Colston and guard Carl Nicks, they’re going to have to create some cap space. I’m looking at contract numbers, age and 2011 production and thinking defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma could be candidates for restructured contracts or releases.

The Falcons are just behind the Saints at $100.2 million. But Atlanta’s situation isn’t as complicated as New Orleans’. The Falcons do have some free agents they want to keep, starting with linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Brent Grimes. But those two combined won’t eat up as much cap space as Brees. Besides, if the Falcons do want to be big players in free agency, there are some moves they could make to create room and the first one I’d point to would be releasing left tackle Sam Baker.

The Buccaneers are at $97.4 million, but go ahead and knock that down to $90.2 million. I can’t see any way the Bucs keep defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth at a $7.2 million cap figure, especially when there would be absolutely no cap implications for releasing him. I don’t want to raise the expectations of Tampa Bay fans unrealistically. But the Bucs, who still believe that building through the draft is the way to go, will be somewhat more active in free agency than they were last year when punter Michael Koenen was their only real signing. Don’t expect a free-agent frenzy, but the Bucs will add a few free agents.