What cap space means in NFC West

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Marco from Las Cruces writes: I have seen it mentioned before, but do you have any numbers on the NFC West teams and their salary cap space going into next season?

Mike Sando: A month has passed since Marco dropped that question into the NFC West mailbag. The Cardinals' deeper-than-expected run through the NFL playoffs accounted for some of the delay in responding, but mostly I wanted to provide an answer with meaningful context. We are now in position to do that.

The first thing to understand is that an NFL team's salary-cap space usually doesn't reflect how much money the team has to spend in free agency. As counterintuitive as that sounds, it's true -- and that's why "cap space" is overrated in attempting to gauge a team's options.

Think of your personal finances. Having $5,000 in a checking account may or may not mean you can afford that $2,500 plasma television. You might have automatic deductions for a mortgage and car payments looming. You might have a paycheck on the way. You might have all of these transactions to consider, which makes that $5,000 balance meaningless on its own.

Back to the NFC West.

Let's start our salary-cap exercise with the Cardinals.

The latest internal NFL data shows Arizona with about $40 million in salary-cap space three weeks before free agency. That is the highest figure in the league.

But what does that mean?

In theory, the Cardinals could sign Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and their own free agents, including quarterback Kurt Warner, without using that much cap space.

We could deduce as much from considering the 2009 salary-cap charges associated with the highest-paid players at defensive end (Jared Allen, $11.45 million) and defensive tackle (Tommie Harris, $9.1 million) while assuming Warner's new deal might count about $10 million against the cap.

But the reality is much different.

The Cardinals have fewer than 40 players signed for 2009, meaning millions more will vanish when they fill out their roster. Some of that cap space will go toward signing draft choices.

Once the Cardinals account for other cap charges -- incentives from 2008, salary escalators for 2009 and future miscellaneous expenses relating to various reserve lists -- their functional cap space figures to stand between $20 million and $25 million heading into free agency.

Even that figure is a bit optimistic.

Re-signing their own free agents, notably Warner and linebacker Karlos Dansby, could require more than $15 million in cap space.

The Cardinals would still have enough left over to pursue a high-profile free agent, but an aggressive approach to the market could require trade-offs.

With that, we take a comprehensive look at where NFC West teams stand in relation to the salary cap:

Arizona Cardinals

Current cap room: $40 million

Projected functional cap room: $20 million to $25 million

Top players without contracts for 2009: Kurt Warner, Karlos Dansby, Antonio Smith, Bertrand Berry, J.J. Arrington, Terrelle Smith

Cap considerations: Having so few players under contract for 2009 has made the Cardinals' cap-space figure misleading. Other teams in the division won't be adding nearly as many contracts for the 2009 season. Arizona must also consider the financial implications associated with extending contracts for receiver Anquan Boldin or defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, should the team elect to address those situations. Rewarding Boldin with a Larry Fitzgerald-type contract might chew up an additional $8 million in cap space in 2009. Trading Boldin and releasing Edgerrin James would free up additional cap room.

San Francisco 49ers

Current cap room: $12 million

Projected functional cap room: $20 million to $30 million

Top players without contracts for 2009: Bryant Johnson, J.T. O'Sullivan, Roderick Green, Billy Bajema, Allen Rossum

Cap considerations: Of all the NFC West teams, the 49ers are in the best shape to pursue free agents from other teams because their own core players are signed for 2009. The 49ers will pick up additional cap room when they release quarterback Alex Smith or rework his contract. Smith's deal is counting about $10 million against the cap. San Francisco pushed unused 2008 cap space into 2009 by writing incentives into the 2009 contracts for running back DeShaun Foster and defensive back Donald Strickland. Once neither player achieved those incentives, the associated cap space rolled over into the 2009 cap allotment. It's one way teams work the system.

Seattle Seahawks

Current cap room: $20.3 million

Projected functional cap room: $15.5 million

Top players without contracts for 2009: Leroy Hill, Rocky Bernard, Maurice Morris, Leonard Weaver, Floy
d Womack
, D.D. Lewis

Cap considerations: Like the 49ers, Seattle pushed unused 2008 cap space into the 2009 cap. The Seahawks did this by writing incentives into linebacker Lance Laury's deal, to cite one example. Seattle lost 2009 space through salary escalators, and the team's high-draft position will produce a fatter rookie allotment than usual. The Seahawks should have enough cap room left to operate in free agency, but Hill's situation will affect the bottom line. Naming Hill a franchise player would consume about half of the team's projected cap space. Seattle has recently structured contracts to defer salary-cap pressures into the second year, but the looming uncapped season will not allow for the same flexibility.

St. Louis Rams

Current cap room: $13.9 million

Projected functional cap room: $4 million

Top players without contracts for 2009: Oshiomogho Atogwe, Ron Bartell, La'Roi Glover, Dane Looker, Brett Romberg, Nick Leckey

Cap considerations: The Rams can clear additional cap room by releasing receiver Torry Holt and reducing other contracts. Both appear likely for a team with a new front office and head coach. The Rams, with the second overall pick in the draft, will have to set aside about $6 million to sign their 2009 selections. The team faces another $4 million or so in charges associated with entering the final capped year of the collective bargaining agreement.