Things fans ought to know about the 2018 Broncos' cap and roster situation

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Well, we already know that a 5-11 season was a major disappointment to us (the fans), to Elway and the rest of the FO people, to the coaches, and to the players. And most of us also know that the disappointment that was the 2017 season will inevitably lead to roster changes that may go above and beyond the usual roster changes that occur for EVERY NFL team after every season.

As fans, most of us also know there is this often annoying thing in the NFL known as a HARD salary cap, but some of us choose to disregard it if it conflicts with pie in the sky, orange Kool-Aid infused visions of signing ALL the high dollar free agents hitting the market, and winning Super Bowls annually in perpetuity. Others among us have decided to expect the worst possible outcome so they won't be disappointed if it happens, but can be pleasantly surprised if things turn out to be better than their fantasies of doom and gloom.

I'm not slugging down any orange Kool-Aid that leads to unrealistic visions of unicorns crapping rainbows, but I'm not drinking any poisonous broth of doom and gloom either. I'm just trying to provide some useful and factual information and education about the Broncos' cap and roster situation since I've seen a lot of misinformation and misconceptions in MHR comment threads and posts. But I'm beginning this little journey into the Broncos' 2018 cap and contract situation with a warning, a disclaimer, and with credit given where it's due. The warning is that if you're seriously mathematically averse, you might as well bail on this post now. But cap stuff is actually simple arithmetic. College algebra is NOT required, let alone trigonometry or calculus. The disclaimer is that some of the numbers I will use aren't yet set in stone (they're reasonable projections based on past tendencies) since the 2018 NFL cap has not yet been set and announced. I will also use rounding (generally to the closest $10K) to make the arithmetic (and the number of buttons I have to punch on my $2 Dollar General Store calculator) easier.

On to the sources:

The main readily available internet sources of cap and contract information for fans are Spotrac and OTC. I use both, and try to resolve discrepancies between the two I notice based upon my knowledge of the Broncos (a lot of which I learn at MHR via posts, comments, or links I follow in the Horse Tracks). Spotrac tends to provide more details about individual contracts, tends to be quicker to report roster and contract changes, but also seems to make more roster, contract, and arithmetic errors IMO. But don't count on the tables and tools either offers to give you a clear picture of the cap effects of cutting or trading specific players on specific dates. In my experience, they're especially poor at dealing with contracts with option years, Because of that, I generally use Spotrac's contract info (in the small print underneath the tables for individual players) and my $2 Dollar General Store calculator to calculate the possible cap effects of changing circumstances affecting specific contracts over time.

Time to explain the top 51 rule:

All 32 teams are building up to TC rosters of 90. But only 53 players per team will end up on the regular season roster after mandatory roster cuts occur before the start of the regular season. It's not terribly realistic to expect 90 players, many of whom have little to no guaranteed money, and may end up selling cell phones at a kiosk in the Mall after training camp ends, to fit under a hard salary cap designed for 53 regular roster players (plus IR and practice squad players, but I'll get there later). Anyway, from the beginning of free agency in March until the mandatory roster cut to 53 prior to the beginning of the regular season, only the 51 highest cap hits for each team have to fit under the cap, along with current dead money. After the mandatory roster cut to 53, everybody has to fit under the cap, so all 53 players on the regular roster, any players on PUP, players on IR, and practice squad players.

Arithmetic time begins now:

OTC says the Broncos currently have a rounded $26.77M in top 51 cap space with 59 players under contract for 2018. So the top 51 rule is in effect. That means that every time the Broncos sign a higher dollar player as they're building up to their TC roster of 90, a lower dollar player will fall out of the top 51 and no longer count against the top 51 cap.. On the other hand, every time the Broncos cut/waive/trade a higher dollar player, a lower dollar player will take his place in the top 51 and count against the cap. To keep the arithmetic and button punching simple, I'm going to use hypothetical low dollar guys with 2018 cap hits of $600K as the guys who fall out of or climb back into the top 51 as roster moves are made. It's not a random number. Rookie minimum salary for 2018 is $480K. Minimum salary for players with one credited season is $555K. Minimum salary for players with two credited seasons is $630K. Minimum salary for players with three credited seasons is $705K. And I haven't accounted for the fact that some of these low paid guys (in NFL terms) have signing bonus money and other bonuses and factors contributing to their potential 2018 cap hits.

Must tender RFAS:

Tendering the Broncos' RFAs has to happen before free agency begins on March 14, or else they'll be lost to free agency, or become considerably more expensive to keep. The Broncos have two important ones to keep, (Paradis and Barrett), and one who should probably be allowed to test the free agency market (Bennie Fowler). We won’t know exactly how much the tenders will cost until the cap is set later this month, but based on last year’s prices, and allowing for a projected cap increase, $2.9M is a reasonable estimate of the price of a 2nd round tender. So, 2nd round tenders for the duo of Paradis and Barrett will cost about $5.8M, but they’ll knock 2 low cap hits out of the top 51. $5.8M – $1.2M = $4.6M.

Must tender ERFAS:

This also has to happen before free agency begins, but it's basically a no brainer. ERFAS are players with no more than 2 credited NFL seasons when their current contracts expire, and they can be signed to one year non-guaranteed veteran's minimum salary deals that range between $555K and $705K in price. After applying the top 51 rule, $1M in top 51 space should be more than adequate to cover all our ERFAs. The ones who end up making the Broncos' 2018 roster will be RFAs in 2019, and the ones who don't won't cost anything against the 2018 cap after roster cuts.

Must sign draft picks:

This is actually NOT an early priority based upon the top 51 rule. Under the CBA of 2011, ALL draft picks are assumed to have been tendered a rookie minimum salary of $480K (in 2018) for cap purposes as soon as they're drafted. But that assumed $480K will fall outside of the top 51. So nobody needs a dime of cap space to draft a player, but everybody needs adequate cap space to sign their draft picks. I'll use OTC's projections for draft pick cap hits in order to calculate the top 51 cap space needed to sign the Broncos' draft picks. Rounding and adding: $4.98M for #5 + $1.25M for #40 + $.73M for #71 + $.67M for #100 + $.66M for #108 + $.66M for #112 = $8.95M. Those are guesstimates for the cap hits of our 1st through 4th round draft picks including our projected 3rd round compensatory pick. Our 5th through 7th round picks will have cap hits that fall outside of the top 51, so don't have to be considered at this time. ALSO, since I just added 6 new higher cap hits to the Broncos' roster, it means that 6 previous lower cap hits just fell out of the top 51. 6 X $.6M = $3.6M. $8.95M – $3.6M = $5.3M.

Summing up:

First we get more arithmetic. Have to consolidate what I've already done.We started with $26.77M per OTC. We haven’t cut, traded, or restructured anybody yet. $26.77M – $5.35M to sign draft picks – $4.6M to tender RFAs – $1M to tender ERFAS = $15.82M left in top 51 space for free agents.

Other costs to account for:

I've hypothetically tendered our RFAS and ERFAs, signed our draft picks, and have $15.82M left in top 51 cap space, but I haven't signed Kirk Cousins, or any other UFAs, or accounted for other regular season cap costs. Le sigh! Time to account for those other regular season costs.

Cap hits #52 and #53 will count after roster cuts, so I’ll stick with my $.6M 2018 cap hit per low dollar player for the sake of consistency. That’s $1.2M. We’ll need a minimum of $1.36M for practice squad salaries ($8K per player per week X 10 players X 17 weeks in the season = $1.36M), but I’ll bump it up to $1.8M to cover their salaries for the playoffs and to allow for the possibility of paying somebody more than minimum PS salary. And I’d like to have another $5M or so emergency fund for IR replacement players and such. So, $1.2M for cap hits 52 and 53 + $1.8M for PS + $5M for IR replacements and emergencies = $8M. Daggone it! I'm now down to $7.82M in cap space, and I haven't signed Kirk Cousins or any other UFAs. But I've done everything else I needed to do without cutting, trading, restructuring, or renegotiating a single player on our current roster. And the roster needs some changes since the 53 we had last year collectively couldn’t produce a competitive season. We need an overall younger and cheaper roster to become and remain competitive. Change can be painful, but it's necessary for growth and improvement. I don't know who will go and who will stay, although there's plenty of speculation about that going on. I think I'll do another fan post before long about some of the possibilities and the cap effects that would result. There's some darned important stuff coming up on the calendar in terms of dates and deadlines for exercising options, and guaranteeing salary money that will undoubtedly factor into roster decisions in the near future.

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR.