Before getting at how the Browns fundamentally changed NFL cap management, it would be good to visit how cap management currently works in the NFL. The primary purpose for the salary cap in the NFL is to control the amount of money a team can spend on its roster. Theoretically, this would ensure a competitive balance throughout the NFL.
The salary cap has always been used as a means of limiting how much an NFL team can spend on players. NFL teams have always approached the cap as a budget to be followed. They have used the cap like it was a bank account that could never be overdrawn.
The basic strategy is to spend the money as intelligently as possible on players to fill out the roster. That is, teams would attempt to use as much of the yearly salary cap as possible to hire the best players to produce a winning team. This is the basic strategy of NFL salary cap checkers.
There are several philosophies for managing the cap to field the best possible team. For an excellent account of how teams utilize NFL cap management strategies, I would recommend Crunching Numbers by Jason Fitzgerald and Vijay Natarajan. It’s slightly outdated now that there is a new collective bargaining agreement but the philosophies of cap management are still relevant today.
One basic strategy a team will use is to sign a player to a 3-year contract with a high signing bonus and low annual salary. This allows the team to prorate the bonus over multiple years while keeping the annual salary number low.
Another is to approach is the restructuring strategy. Teams will sign players to high dollar contracts with the first year being low to fit the player under the cap number. The following years the player’s cap number balloons putting the team in cap trouble. To compensate, a team will restructure the contact converting salary into signing bonus and prorate the bonus over multiple years. These teams, see Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints, are always on the edge of cap hell.
The New England Patriots have dominated the NFL due in part to their salary cap management. They designate how much of their cap will go to certain positions. They also designate the level of production they should get at that position for that cap space. If a player fails to play up to their cap expectation or they are projected to be owed more than what fits into that designated cap number’s expected production — the Patriots simply part ways with the player. But maintaining a level of cap brutality combined with finely detailed management has allowed the Patriots to stay ahead of the cap curve.
In this way, the New England Patriots are the kings of salary cap checkers. But the move to salary cap chess is changing the game.