The NFL's new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) has brought an issue we haven't faced in a number of years: Tight salary-cap situations.
After jumping considerably in the final few years of the old CBA, the league's cap limit isn't expected to rise much, if any, for the 2012 season. That means teams will have roughly $120 million to work with as they assemble the top 51 players on their training camp roster.
Based on the numbers I've been able to dig up, it appears that three of our four NFC North teams are going to be relatively tight against that number, especially considering they need to save room for signing a draft class. All teams must be in compliance when the new league year opens, and free agency begins, on March 13.
The following is how much each team currently has committed to its 2012 cap. Keep in mind that the numbers probably will change between now and March 13 as teams re-sign, re-negotiate and release players from their rosters.
Chicago Bears: $101.8 million
Detroit Lions: $122.8 million
Green Bay Packers: $115.3 million
Minnesota Vikings: $115.3 million
A few thoughts:
We've already discussed the Lions' situation at some length. Simple math tells us they're going to have to adjust some current salaries just to get under $120 million, and the first candidate is receiver Calvin Johnson, who is projected to count about $22 million against the cap alone. As we've noted, four players -- Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch -- account for nearly half of their total cap projection.
There are tricks available for teams like the Lions who want to keep or re-sign their players in a tight environment. They come with risks and the potential for future problems, but there is always a way to squeeze players into a given year's cap. The new CBA has a provision that allows teams to borrow against future caps, providing another option.
One positive bi-product of the Bears' decision to trade for quarterback Jay Cutler in 2009: It relieved them of the cap commitment associated with two first-round draft picks. That's one of the reasons new general manager Phil Emery has some $18 million to work with if he wants to sign veteran free agents and/or use his franchise tag on tailback Matt Forte.
The Packers have a number of veterans they want to re-sign, including tight end Jermichael Finley and center Scott Wells. With about $5 million in wiggle room, based on these numbers, they'll need to make some adjustments to fit both players in. As Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has already suggested, the Packers could carve out some space by either releasing receiver Donald Driver or renegotiating his contract. The same could happen for left tackle Chad Clifton.
Still, it should be clear why it seems unlikely that the Packers would place their franchise tag on quarterback Matt Flynn for the purposes of trading him after March 13. Doing so would require a $14 million cap commitment, require more cap maneuvering than would be comfortable and likely exposing either Finley or Wells to the free agent market.