Long-term success or failure in the NFL more often than not is dictated by the salary cap. For winning teams, how many quality players can it afford to keep? For a losing team, how many good players can it afford to sign?
So imagine building a team with one arm tied behind your back.
That’s how it works with teams with a hefty percentage of their salary cap tied up in “dead” cap money. Put simply, dead money is salary cap money a team is spending on a player who is no longer on the roster. Most times, that money is leftover signing bonus. For example, if a player signs a three-year deal that includes a $30 million signing bonus, the team can prorate that bonus over three years – or $10 million against the cap for the three-year duration of the contract. However, if a team parts ways with that player after one year, the $20 million of leftover bonus is accelerated onto the current year’s cap.
The Miami Dolphins have $37.5 million invested in players that are no longer on the roster, according to data from OverTheCap.com. That’s the most dead cap money in the NFL and represents 19.9 percent of their cap space. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was traded to Tennessee in March, represents $18.4 million of that money and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who hasn’t played for the team since 2017, accounts for $13.1 million of dead money.
The New York Giants have $33.7 million of dead cap money. The trade of receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland meant $16 million of dead money was dumped on this year’s cap.
The Arizona Cardinals have $30.2 million of dead cap money. Most of that is tied to three quarterbacks who are no longer on the roster: Josh Rosen ($8.2 million), Sam Bradford ($5.0 million) and Mike Glennon ($3.0 million). That doesn’t include cornerback Patrick Peterson, who was suspended for six games by the NFL on Thursday. His cap charge for the season is $11.9 million.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have $26.6 million of dead cap money. The bulk of that stems from the trade of receiver Antonio Brown to Oakland. His $21.1 million of dead money represents 10.2 percent of the Steelers’ entire cap.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have $24.3 million of dead cap money. Dumping quarterback Blake Bortles meant $16.5 million in dead money.
The Baltimore Ravens have $23.7 million of dead cap money. Sending quarterback Joe Flacco to Denver put $16.0 million of dead money on this year’s cap.
The Denver Broncos have $21.4 million of dead cap money. Quarterbacks Case Keenum ($7.0 million) and Paxton Lynch ($1.3 million) represent a big chunk of that figure.
The Cleveland Browns have $20.2 million of dead cap money. Six players have dead-cap charges of at least $1.4 million, led by guard Kevin Zeitler’s $7.2 million.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Chicago Bears have a league-low $992,092 of dead cap money. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($1.1 million), Indianapolis Colts ($1.4 million), Houston Texans ($1.8 million), Minnesota Vikings ($2.2 million) and Los Angeles Rams ($3.9 million) round out the six teams with the least dead money.
With the salary cap rising consistently by $10-plus million per year, teams feel justified taking on some dead money to improve the “culture” (the Giants and Steelers moving on from Beckham and Brown) or cutting bait with underperforming players (the Jaguars release of Bortles).
Then again, these numbers don’t lie: Of the eight teams with the most dead money on the 2019 cap, only one – Baltimore – qualified for last year’s playoffs. On the other hand, of the eight teams with the least dead money, Chicago, Indianapolis, Houston, Los Angeles and Dallas qualified for last year’s playoffs.