Is the NFL salary cap real or a mirage? 10 front-office truths, from restructuring tricks to valuable compensatory picks and rookie deals

Spend enough time on the offseason trail and this line will come up often: The NFL is the best reality television out there. That was undoubtedly true in March this year. The pace was frantic, and taking a lunch break from your phone likely meant missing out on news of a blockbuster trade. During a 16-day stretch through the start of free agency, four marquee NFL quarterbacks, three elite receivers and a top-shelf pass-rusher were dealt to new teams.

We also saw some new contracts, and quarterback pay has followed the NBA's supermax model. Aaron Rodgers broke the $50 million per year threshold on a new deal just 10 days before Cleveland gave $230 million in full guarantees to Deshaun Watson. Teams buying into the one-player-away mantra are spending big trying to find that player. And the timing -- a few months after a bunch of traded players got together in Los Angeles to win a Super Bowl -- isn't lost on many.

"It probably has a little bit to do with the Rams," Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "People [are] realizing maybe you can win the Super Bowl without draft picks. ... I guess it has something to do with that."

The wild offseason has led to a broader discussion surrounding the merits of the NFL salary cap, which must confuse the average fan by now. Some teams swear by the cap rules, while others bend or manipulate them in the name of contention.

It's well documented that the Rams absorbed high-salary players via trade, worrying about tomorrow's outlook, well, tomorrow. And every year teams like the New Orleans Saints shed dozens of millions in cap space over a few weeks with a series of contract restructures. Yet the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers, two teams strapped for cap space to start free agency, were just forced to trade away elite receivers in Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams because they couldn't pay them -- or didn't want to pay them. They faced a combined cap deficit of nearly $50 million in the days leading up to free agency and responded logistically, letting the cap make tough decisions for them.

Either way, the lower salary caps over the past two years (due to effects of the COVID-19 pandemic) prompted some NFL teams to play even more credit card football, charging cap dollars to future years and hoping for the best.

"The cap has been hard with the COVID," Bills general manager Brandon Beane said. "People are still working through various tricks, whether it's restructures, voids -- whatever you're going to do to manage it going backward for a year. We're still trying to work our way out of it."

All of this begs a few questions: What really is the salary cap? And does it really prevent teams from doing what they want, when they want it? Let's try to answer some of that with 10 front-office secrets about the cap and how teams manage it.