The new NFL league year—which begins on March 17—is still two weeks away, but teams are already gearing up for the free-agency frenzy by addressing their salary-cap issues. This year will be an interesting one for players on the open market, given that revenue plummeted and caused the projected cap to drop to $180.5 million for the 2021 NFL season, down almost $18 million from last year.
It is not only the first time the cap has fallen since an uncapped 2010 campaign, but also the first time in the last eight years that it has failed to grow by at least $10 million. This drastic reduction has left several teams in a financial bind as they must now make moves that will get them cap-compliant.
Fortunately, there are a couple of ways that even the clubs egregiously over the projected cap can shed salary for 2021, freeing up room to sign free agents this spring. Teams have the option to extend or restructure a contract—spreading out base salary or signing bonuses over the life of the deal—or they can outright release players to make space.
These and other, more creative methods are expected to be employed liberally by many teams over the next few weeks to create the cap flexibility needed to improve their rosters in free agency. Here is a look at some of the most cash-strapped franchises and what they can do to free up money.
Las Vegas Raiders: Trade Marcus Mariota
The Las Vegas Raiders are one of 11 teams currently over the projected salary cap, but they have arguably the simplest move of any to get out of the red. The team has $33 million tied up in quarterbacks, including a backup in Marcus Mariota who will account for a $10.7 million cap hit this season in the final year of a two-year, $17.6 million contract he signed last winter.
Mariota was expected to push starter Derek Carr for the QB1 role on the Raiders, but the incumbent still wound up starting every game last season. Mariota did perform admirably in his lone 2020 appearance, completing 17 of 28 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown while adding another 88 yards and a score on the ground. It was a performance that proved he could still serve as a productive signal-caller in the league—just not as a member of the Raiders.
Expect the Raiders to move on this quickly, whether via trade with a starter-needy, money-flush organization like the Patriots or by simply releasing Mariota. None of Mariota's salary is guaranteed for 2021, so the club can cut the quarterback to get him off the books without penalty.
If available, the Raiders would be wise to scoop up second- or third-day draft capital in exchange for the six-year veteran, as doing so would not only give Vegas some money to throw around in free agency but also potentially add draft selections that the franchise can make use of in a variety of ways.
Minnesota Vikings: Release Anthony Barr
The Minnesota Vikings are another team that won't be able to make any free-agency moves until they deal with their financial situation, as the club needs to shed a bit over $11 million to get under the cap for 2021. The Vikings can make a relatively simple move to free up that money by releasing linebacker Anthony Barr—who accounts for a big $15.1 million cap hit this year—before another $7.1 million becomes guaranteed on March 19.