NFL money shuffling into future years

(Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today)

Numerous teams have started restructuring the contracts of big-money players. They are helping their cap position now and waiting for the days when the new TV contracts kick in and open up more salary-cap room.

Over the last week, the focus of the football world has been on Indianapolis, but, much like a magician who uses misdirection to take the audience's eyes off the trick itself, the business of the current NFL players shouldn't be overshadowed by the aspirations of the NFL hopefuls. Teams have been restructuring the contracts of their stars and deferring salary cap hits to future years.

The Patriots made headlines last week as the story broke that quarterback Tom Brady took the unprecedented step to reduce his salary by signing an extension to open up more than $8 million in cap space for 2013 – dropping his 2013 cap number from $21.8 million to $13.8 million and his cap numbers for the next four seasons will be a reasonable figure (by Hall of Fame QB standards) at $13.8 million, $13 million, $14 million and $15 million.

In exchange for his willingness to re-work his deal to help the team in the short-term, he benefitted in the short-term as well, receiving a check for $30 million in the form of a signing bonus, which dropped his base salary to $1 million for 2013 and $2 million for 2014. According to base salary numbers, Brady will be paid only $85,000 more in 2013 than Vikings long snapper Cullen Loeffler.

In realistic terms, Brady will get paid $33 million over the next two seasons. He was slated to make $30 million in that span under the existing contract he had, but the cooking of the books pays him $3 million more, but takes away $8 million from the Patriots salary cap. At a time when the Redskins are still whelping like a scalded dog for being hit with a $36 million cap penalty for not spending during the uncapped season prior to the lockout, it seems strange that NFL teams are getting "creative" at the same time to open up salary cap space by simply converting payment of existing contracts.

A half-dozen teams have showed how the salary cap can be worked, massaged or apparently circumvented to get a number the team can work with. Check the following approaches – some more drastic than others.

New York Giants – The G-Men got the cap space war started by simply cutting three of their vested cap-heavy veterans – Ahmad Bradshaw, Chris Canty and Michael Boley. That was their way of dealing with freeing up salary cap space. It wasn't a method shared by others, but it started the contract ball rolling. This week, they got in on the restructuring fun by getting Mathias Kiwanuka to drop $1 million off his cap number for 2013 by converting base salary into a phantom mid-contract signing bonus. Others soon joined in.

Detroit – The Lions are working on getting QB Matthew Stafford signed to a contract extension. While it can be argued he has played well enough to deserve a second big-money contract, word out of Detroit is that the primary reason why the Lions want to do get something done soon (as in before the start of free agency) is that, while his base salary for 2013 is $12.5 million, his cap number is $20.3 million due to the way his rookie contract was structured. The Lions have freed up a lot of cap money since the end of the season – cutting starting DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, guard Stephen Peterman and WR Titus Young, while also convincing center Dominic Raiola and WR Nate Burleson to restructure their contracts to avoid a similar fate.

New Orleans – The Saints are in need of freeing up cap space to help their anemic defense and took significant steps Wednesday to help that out. Guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, WR Marques Colston and LB David Hawthorne all agreed to restructured contracts. Colston, for example, will still make the $4.5 million he was due for 2013, but $2.8 million of that was converted into a signing bonus spread across the remaining four years of his current contract. His base salary drops from $4.5 million to $1.7 million and gives the team a cap savings of about $2.1 million for this year.

Dallas – The Cowboys announced Wednesday that the team has restructured the contract of DE DeMarcus Ware, switching $5 million in base salary into a signing bonus that will keep his compensation the same for 2013, but save the Cowboys $4 million against the cap. Word out of Dallas is that Ware is just the first of several contracts that will either be restructured or terminated in the coming days.

Pittsburgh – The Steelers got QB Ben Roethlisberger, LB Lawrence Timmons and WR Antonio Brown (who signed his contract with Pittsburgh during the season last year) to all restructure their contracts over the last week and the word in Pittsburgh is that LaMarr Woodley is coming next. Considering that the Steelers are one of the most financially frugal organizations in football, pushing money into future years to save money now goes against what the organization's reputation.

Philadelphia – The Dream Team remains in the process of dismantling the bad, getting rid of defensive linemen Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson. From the sounds of things, if Nnamdi Asomugha isn't willing to do a phantom restructuring of his current contract, he could be the recipient of the salary cap guillotine. The Pro Bowl cornerback is due a whopping $15 million this year, but only $4 million of that is guaranteed money.

Is this merely a blip on the radar or a portent of things to come? The Vikings have managed their salary cap well under Rob Brzezinski's mindful watch and have never returned to the cap hell that Jeff Diamond created in 1999 and 2000. Other teams have not. It would appear this latest rash of restructurings and, short of that, roster cuts is pointing to something on the horizon.

The NFL has secured TV contracts with all of the major networks after their current deals expire this year. With contracts with CBS and FOX as the primary source of network games on Sunday afternoons, NBC for Sunday night games and ESPN (Disney/ABC) for Monday night games, the current contracts bring in $3.09 billion annually. The next contract, which begins in 2014, bumps that price up to $4.95 billion. There will be a lot more money to go around and, as a result, more room to absorb the bigger cap hits taken with the recent of restructurings.

The Vikings haven't joined the restructuring ranks yet, but players with big cap numbers for 2013 could be approached about the possibility. That would include veterans like Jared Allen (cap number of $14.28 million in 2013), Kevin Williams ($7.5 million) and Antoine Winfield ($7.25 million).

The game is afoot in the NFL, except it's currently not being played by 250-pound men with bad intentions. It's being played by guys in suits moving numbers across a financial chess board.

THURSDAY NOTES

  • The Baltimore Ravens are trying to lock down QB Joe Flacco before they have to slap the franchise tag on him, but the same isn't true with former Viking Bryant McKinnie. Reports out of Baltimore say the Ravens aren't going to re-sign McKinnie until after free agency begins. It may be a calculated risk, but given McKinnie's history of letting himself get out of shape in the offseason, the Ravens may have to see for themselves whether he's changed his ways before committing tens of millions of dollars to him.

  • As we enter the 10th day since teams were allowed to put the franchise tag on players – an option half the league used last year – to date, none of the teams imposed the tag yet.


    John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.


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