Perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2012 NFL owners meetings is the salary-cap projections.
Starting with the 2014 season, revenues are expected to rise significantly because of increased television dollars and the overall strength of the game. What won't rise much is the salary cap.
After having flat caps of $120.375 million in 2011 and $120.6 million in 2012, the NFL management council told clubs Tuesday that the cap won't increase much in the next three years. In fact, the 2015 cap may go up to only $122 million, according to management council projections.
Although the cap numbers for 2013, 2014 and 2015 still can be negotiated, projections point to very little increase. The cap may rise by only $300,000 in 2013, going to around $120.9 million. Even though increased network television money is coming in 2014, the cap is projected to go only into the $121-plus million range.
If that sounds amazing, consider this: The salary cap in 2009 was $123 million, higher than what is projected to be in 2015.
Where did all the salary-cap money go?
The answer resides in what has happened during the first two seasons of the new collective bargaining agreement. When the management council and the NFL Players Association ran the numbers from the percentage of money going to the players, the salary cap in 2011 was supposed to be less than $120 million. It could have been as low as around $116 million.
To put more salary money into free agency last season, the union was able to shift some of the benefit money into salary money. The result was a $120.375 million cap in 2011.
According to sources, the salary cap was supposed to be around $113.5 million this year. With 427 free agents, a huge cap decrease would have depressed the market and given almost too much contract leverage to teams. The union worked out a deal with the owners to trade off $7.1 million in benefit dollars per team from future years to have a $120.6 million salary cap.
What made things even more palatable for free agents was that approximately $283 million of unused cap dollars from 2011 was selectively rolled over into this year's cap. It's a plus for the players if teams roll over unused cap dollars into the next year, but eventually the flat caps would eat up the annual excess.
Already, it's causing teams to make tough decisions.
Look at the Houston Texans. Coming off their first playoff season, the Texans opted not to re-sign defensive end Mario Williams, cut right tackle Eric Winston and traded linebacker DeMeco Ryans. Instead, they chose to give long-term deals to running back Arian Foster and center Chris Myers.
"I think it's the NFL today; you've got to scout and make good decisions in terms of your contracts,'' Texans general manager Rick Smith said. "You can't afford to make mistakes. Anymore, you got to make sure you can evaluate the guys who fit your system and then go sign those guys. I think as you manage your cap and you manage your team, you got to figure who your core group of players are and keep those guys.''
Smith admits it's a challenge. Losing Williams, Winston and Ryans was tough.
"If we continue to draft well and develop our players that way, we are not going to be able to keep all our players,'' Smith said. "That's just a function of the system. You got to have confidence in the system. You have to have confidence to select the players that fit that you can continue to coach them up and develop them."
Smith came to meetings expecting a flat cap. So did Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
"We are mindful of where the cap was going,'' Dimitroff said. "You have to plan ahead and be mindful that the cap could be flat. You just have to be creative in how you do deals.''
The Falcons made the tough choice of saying goodbye to middle linebacker Curtis Lofton for that reason. Lofton was hoping to get the $8-9 million-a-year deal given to the top inside linebackers in the league. Lofton was a leader of the defense, but he wasn't necessarily a linebacker who is great in coverages on passing downs.
Knowing the future impact of flat caps, the Falcons placed a financial limit to what they would offer Lofton. He opted to sign with the New Orleans Saints. They said goodbye to a former second-round pick who was labeled a success.
The Falcons also have to incorporate signing quarterback Matt Ryan to a contract extension. In a flat cap, there is only so much room for big-ticket contracts.
Players are still hoping for big salary-cap increases in 2014 and 2015, but the numbers aren't going in that direction. A flat cap means tougher negotiations for long-term deals.