NFL teams copy Cleveland Browns moneyball, overspend

CLEVELAND, OHIO - JANUARY 14: Paul DePodesta Cleveland Browns Chief Strategy Officer addresses the media after the Browns introduced Kevin Stefanski as the Browns new head coach on January 14, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - JANUARY 14: Paul DePodesta Cleveland Browns Chief Strategy Officer addresses the media after the Browns introduced Kevin Stefanski as the Browns new head coach on January 14, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

People laughed at the Cleveland Browns and their idea that manipulating the salary cap can create wins, but now everyone seems to be trying it, at least the overspending part.

The Cleveland Browns rebuilding methods and techniques of salary cap manipulation pioneered by Paul DePodesta and Sashi Brown (and now Andrew Berry) are becoming a league-wide fad. After watching the San Francisco 49ers copy the Browns methods last season and make it all the way to the Super Bowl by overspending the cap allowance, other teams are trying to do the same thing, although most are going to screw it up.

The upshot is that there are nineteen teams that need to either restructure huge contracts or cut some high placed veterans to squeeze under the regular season salary cap. There could be more than the usual number of salary cap cuts around the league at the end of summer camp this year, and the Browns may be able to pick up some very good players at a bargain rate.

Former Browns GM Sashi Brown, articulated the rebuilding strategy in 2016:  the Browns would hoard salary cap and draft picks for a few years and then when they have accumulated more first-round draft picks than other times, and can spend more on free agents, they would make a Super Bowl.

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Most of the league laughed, with the exception of the San Francisco 49ers. They thought it was a great idea and implemented a similar program. Both teams gutted the rosters, removing veterans and trading for more draft picks. By the end of 2017, both teams had accumulated $59 million worth of carryover cap dollars.

In 2016-2018, both teams had six number one draft picks and averaged over ten picks per year overall in the draft.

Then they started to spend some of that excess carryover money.

Last year, the 49ers were the biggest spenders in the NFL, followed by your Cleveland Browns.  The 49ers spent about $33.5 million over the cap allowance. Using numbers from, their total spending was  $221,687,320 last year compared to the annual cap allowance of $188,200,000 cap allowance.

You can think of the cap allowance as “salary” and the carryover like the team’s savings account.  The cap allowance is replenished every year, but once carryover dollars are spent, they are gone.

The Browns were number two in the NFL in overspending, $24.6 million over the cap allowance, though they were nowhere near the playoffs at 6-10.

The Browns have now spent down about half of their $59 million stash. They can afford to do what they are doing because they underspent for years, and they should be fine this year, so do not worry that they are overspending this year.

Evidently, the other NFL teams were more impressed with the success of the 49ers than the flop of the Browns last season. Most reasonable people believe that the Browns problems were mainly the result of coaching chemistry, rather than a lack of talent.  Overspending when the team is a contender now seems like common sense.

However, what is weird is that almost all the teams in the NFL are attempting to overspend this year. The problem is that some might not know what they are doing.  Several teams have signed free agents that they cannot afford and will have to make major cuts to right the ship this summer.

Using numbers from, as of May 7, there are 26 teams whose “total cap” right now is higher than the $199.2 million annual cap allowance. The total cap includes active payroll plus dead money. Most of the draft picks are not on contract yet, and there will be name players that retire or have their contracts restructured, so that total cap may go up or down depending on what each team decides to do.  The teams have saved carryover dollars are allowed to overspend up to that adjusted salary cap (cap allowance plus carryover dollars).

Other teams, however, do not have the carryover dollars and will have to make major refinancing moves, trades or cuts to get under the limit for the regular season.

Even those teams that are under the cap allowance are just barely under.   Washington, last in the NFL,  is at $189 million.  Once they put their draftees on contract, they will be right up to the limit.  It is conceivable that 32 of 32 teams will overspend this year’s cap allowance, unless they start cutting some high priced players to recover cap space.

This may never have happened before.

To go back for the past five years and compare the teams that underspent or overspent:

                          2016     2017   2018  2019    2020

Underspend:      17          21        17       18     0 to 6

Overspend:         15         11         15       14     26 to 32

It is as if each front office just figured, “Hey, let’s spend out all our savings this year and see if we go to the Super Bowl like the 49ers!”

The impact on the Browns is that there will be an opportunity to sign players later on, as teams have to cut players to get under the regular season cap. There are 19 teams that need to cut players just to fit in under the regular season cap. League-wide there has to be $194 million worth of moves for all these teams to get under the regular-season limit.

The Brown could dip into their carryover dollars to sign additional players, or more likely, they may cut someone like Olivier Vernon and use that money to sign other players at reduced rates.  Vernon is a very good player, but the front office has to think about whether his $15.5 million cap hit could be used in some other way.

The waiver wire might hold some *really* big surprises this year.  If Vernon is gone, the Browns might sign two players of equivalent value. There may be another Brock Osweiler type deal, in which one team sends a draft pick in exchange for a multimillion-dollar bailout to recover cap space.

Could it be that this potential glut of overpriced players explains why star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is filing for unemployment instead of being rewarded with a huge new contract? Maybe no one has space for him because they are all overspent.

Next. Most pivotal stretches in 2020. dark

Perhaps GMs are in the NFL are figuring out that there will be a lot of talent coming back on the market this summer.  Maybe they don’t need to pay a premium price to get premium talent if they can be patient.