Behind the scenes: How NFL teams fit roster under salary cap

First Published      Last Updated Mar 19 2017 01:15 pm

When the Packers gave Brett Favre the NFL's first $100 million contract in 2001 — well, first "$100 million contract," because, like so many deals in the league, it wasn't ultimately worth the advertised amount — the team structured it to create extra space under the salary cap for other signings.

So other players' signings were put on hold by the Packers until Favre's could be finalized.

Easier said than done.

"He was tough to reach. When he's off in the woods, hunting or fishing, it's hard to find him," recalled Andrew Brandt, who managed Green Bay's cap then as a team VP. "And we had all these other guys lined up, and I couldn't do their deals until we found him. So that was a very stressful time."

Such behind-the-scenes machinations take place all the time in the NFL, where the salary cap, which grew to $167 million per club for the coming season, factors into every roster-shaping decision. As free agents search for deals, the amount of money they're able to obtain is dependent on several variables, of course. None is as crucial as how the cap would be affected.

Before spending season began, front offices studied their own players and finances to figure out their needs. They also examined how other teams handle cap space.

They looked at who they have, who they wanted to keep, who they would need to release, how contracts might be restructured to free up money, what veterans might be available from elsewhere, what the draft (and its cheaper contracts) might offer.

"I'm not a believer in doing things on the fly. I can sleep at night once I have every scenario covered. 'The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry' is kind of the mantra," former Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey said. "Yes, we had a plan, but we all needed to know it may not go perfect and we needed to know what to do if it didn't go our way."

A look at how cap management works:


"Are you a playoff team? Then maybe you just have to make a few tweaks," former Broncos GM Ted Sundquist said. "If you missed the playoffs, you have to decide: Are we too young or too old? Do I have some young guys that we can wait on and hope they develop? Or are we on the other side of the hill and we have to make hard decisions with some aging veterans?"

There is another category, of course.

"The bottom-feeders," Sundquist called them. "Constant changing of coaches, coordinators. Never finding progress."


As teams assess rosters, Hickey said, "The starting point is your quarterback situation: Do you have a franchise guy? An OK veteran? An unproven youngster?"

Teams look at the full roster, applying a calculus of contributions versus contract.

"You listen to your scouts and your coaches, independently of each other," Sundquist said. "But you also have to cover your ears and block out noise, people in the organization — it can be the owner, but I didn't have that problem in Denver — saying, 'Well, so-and-so, who's a Hall of Famer, said this on ESPN the other day.'"


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