First, I know some of you will object to the idea of talking about the offseason in the midst of an 8-4 campaign. I hear you and agree that we shouldn’t be spending too much time talking about 2021 when 2020 is so compelling for the Titans right now.
However… the conversations around what projects to be a very interesting Titans free agent class have already started and I think it’s worth breaking down some of the factors that will influence who Jon Robinson can and will try to bring back. This will be one of the strangest offseasons in NFL history and there are a ton of moving parts, so let’s take a peek ahead at how those parts might fit together for the Titans.
Warning: This is a very long breakdown, if you want the TL;DR version, just scroll down to the summary section at the bottom.
Decreasing Salary Cap
Since the NFL adopted the salary cap model in 1994, the cap has risen every year except for one — the 2011 lockout season, when the cap dipped from $123 million in 2009 to $120 million in 2011 (the 2010 season was an uncapped year as allowed by the previous CBA). That steady increase — the cap has gone up at least $10 million in each of the past seven years — has given flexibility to teams as they build rosters.
The salary cap hell that once forced Floyd Reese to move on from Derrick Mason, Samari Rolle, and Kevin Carter at or near their primes is extremely rare in the modern NFL. Some of that is due to the tools available to general managers to shed bad contracts and an adjusted rookie wage scale, but a lot is the direct result of the steadily rising salary cap.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the reduction in revenue for the league will change that in 2021. Currently, OverTheCap.com is projecting a $176 million salary cap for next season, just slightly above the $175 million floor that the NFL put in place prior to the start of this season. That’s a whopping $23.2 million decrease from this year’s cap and it’s one that nobody saw coming just nine months ago. That dynamic would make this an unprecedented offseason in many ways.
However, a recent report from Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk is hinting that the league might not cut the cap quite so drastically, especially if the roll out of the COVID vaccines is successful. His recent report cited a league source stating that the NFL might keep the cap around $195 million, just $3 million short of this year’s number.
Part of the reason for that is the likelihood of a big spike in revenue that is expected to come in 2021 and beyond. The league has already added an extra playoff game in each conference and will soon have the option to expand the regular season to 17 games (which they will certainly exercise). With new TV contracts set to be negotiated over the next two years — and some projections expecting them to potentially double their current rates — NFL business, and the salary cap along with it, is set to boom in coming years.
The salary cap is calculated based on total league revenue, which means that a jump from where the cap currently sits ($198.2 million for the 2020 season) to somewhere around $240 million in 2022 is certainly possible, if not likely. That means that we could see some very strange looking contracts getting passed around this offseason. I’d imagine that deals with multiple void years will be en vogue as a mechanism to get players the money they want now, but keep it from counting against the cap until after 2021.
I’d also imagine that contract values will be down in general, which may create a glut of one-year deals as players take what they can get now and hope to get back on the market quickly in 2022 when all teams should have plenty of money to spend.