Cap Space: What Does It Actually Mean For The Browns?

Many fans and pundits will look at the salary cap space and say this is the budget each team has to go out and sign their own players or free agents. Unfortunately, this isn’t an accurate reflection of the truth, so let us look at the salary cap position the Browns are in and break it down.

Effectively salary cap space is spending power within a one-year window. So if any of the deals a team does cover multiple years, then using a metric like 2021 salary cap space isn’t a good picture of what is going on, let’s look at why.

All Salary Cap data in this article is from Over The Cap.

The NFL Has An Annual Max Budget Per Team

Based on the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players union the NFL has a maximum spend per team which is called the salary cap. This is created based on percentages of TV money and other revenue streams.

There is also a minimum spend over three year periods of 90% but this really isn’t an issues for teams.

Other than the 2021 salary cap that has been hit by an unprecedented pandemic, the cap will always continue to rise. More money will continue to come into the league and that as a result means more money for the player.

Here is the growth in the NFL Salary Cap since 2011:
2011 – $120.0m
2012 – $120.6m
2013 – $123.0m
2014 – $133.0m
2015 – $143.3m
2016 – $155.3m
2017 – $167.0m
2018 – $177.2m
2019 – $188.2m
2020 – $198.2m

What Happens To The Budget They Don’t Spend?

When you have a budget like a salary cap that is so large it is highly unlikely you are going to spend every single dollar that is allowed in any given year. This is where we get salary cap rollover from.

However much money a team doesn’t spend, they can then transfer this into the next season as salary cap rollover.

Let’s use the numbers above as example. Say in 2011 you spent $110m of the $120m Salary Cap, this would mean you can roll that spare $10m into next season. In the 2012 season the NFL Salary Cap is set at $120.6m + the $10m rollover, you’re new working budget is $130.6m

What Is NFL Salary Cap Space?

Salary cap space is calculated by the difference between what a team is currently spending on its top 51 players plus any dead cap/injured reserve and the NFL salary cap plus any previous rollover.

Cap Space = (NFL Salary Cap + Cap Rollover) – (Top 51 Players + Dead Cap/IR)

(The NFL uses 51 players in the offseason to give teams a little wiggle room before reverting to the full 53 during the season plus practice squads.)

Cap Space = 1 Year Spending Power

Above we have seen that a large salary cap rollover can lead to a much bigger cap number for a team in a single year and in turn, all 32 NFL teams can be working off different budgets because their rollover is unique to them.

Salary Cap Space is telling us in a one year window, how much spending power that team has based on the maximum amount they can spend and what they are spending right now.

We will use an example of two families to explain why spending power doesn’t show their financial position accurately.

Family A has an annual income of $100,000 and savings of $25,000
Family B has an annual income of $20,000 and savings of $150,000

Over the next 12 months, Family A would have a spending power of $125,000 whereas Family B has a spending power of $170,000. But the issue for Family B is if they spend that $150,000 of savings it isn’t going to reappear next year as you can only spend savings (salary cap rollover) once.

This means while cap space is a good snapshot of a team’s financial spending power in a single year is not a good metric for judging what their budget is moving forward and their ability to sign players on multi-year deals.

Where Do The 2021 Browns Currently Stand?

In terms of where the Browns stand, 2021 is set to be the fourth season where the team spends more than the annual NFL salary cap. Sashi Brown left behind over $50m in the Browns ‘savings account’ and that has been used year on year to maintain one of the most expensive rosters in the NFL. This is why each year we see the Browns cap space diminish, their years of outspending the league must soon balance out.

The NFL Salary Cap for 2021 hasn’t been finalised yet but we have been told it will be at least $180m, so let us just use $180.5m.

The Browns are currently spending $188,544,845 on their top 51 players and have $508,602 in dead cap.

The Browns rolled over around $30m last season.

As of today (19th Feb) this leads to a 2021 cap space of $20,224,057.

Browns 11th Most Expensive Roster

Currently, there are 17 teams in the NFL that are spending more than $180.5m on their roster and dead money. If you take away the $30m of rollover from this season then we are talking about how the Browns can cut money out of the current roster before adding any new players.

Data From Over The Cap

Say you add JJ Watt on $25m over the next two years, that $20m is effectively gone. These numbers above already include all the free agents that have left the team such as Vernon, Mitchell and Higgins.

But The Salary Cap Goes Up Every Year?

Before anyone says, but the cap always goes up every year, let me address this. The salary cap goes up but so do the rookie deals and the veteran deals. If we look at all of these deals as a percentage of the NFL salary cap they are pretty consistent. It is why it is always best to compare deals between different years as a percentage of the salary cap at the time of signing rather than the pure dollar value (For example Tom Brady’s first veteran deal was less than $7.5m per year). All the information on these deals is stored by position here on Over The Cap.


I have previously written about techniques that NFL teams can use to borrow money from future seasons and spend that now. You can read that piece here.

Where the Browns have already done this they have players like Hooper and Conklin much cheaper in 2020 & 2021 than they really are. They are currently set to be accounting for $9.75 between these two players once their deals have expired and they leave the team due to void years.

You cannot use manipulation for the salary cap over a long period of time (check out the Saints) to get around the fact the Browns need to look at making their current roster cheaper before adding multiple free agents and extending their rookie deal players. I have already written on how they will need to budget between 2023 and 2026 once they have three massive deals on their books due to Myles Garret, Baker Mayfield & Denzel Ward.

Over the next few weeks, I will write on how they can remain competitive over the next six years while transitioning from the roster the way it is to one which has their three young stars under veteran deals. There will be some very tough and difficult questions facing this Front Office. Some will be unpopular but in the long run, they are a bright group who will make the best decision for the franchise possible. Let’s have a run of 6+ playoff appearances over 7 years rather than go ‘all in’ and have to blow it up in two years’ time.

I hope you enjoyed the piece, if you have any questions feel free to ask me on Twitter at @JackDuffin, my DM’s are always open.

One thought on “Cap Space: What Does It Actually Mean For The Browns?

  1. Well done.

    There are many out there who get confused or misinterpret facts re the salary cap. U said, “The salary cap goes up but so do the rookie deals and the veteran deals.” I know from reading Browns social media a high percentage of fans actually think that the rising salary cap means the GM has more cap to spend on players.

    As you implied, “inflation” results in the GM not gaining anything in spending power. The players make out as NFL player salary accelerates much faster than normal inflation. However, the GM faces rising salaries & rising rookie deals etc so regardless of how much the salary cap rises, the GMs do not have greater spending power “inflation adjusted”.

    This is a case where the teams and GMs do not really gain purchasing power, but the players gain big. Really big.

    Thanks for having the section “But The Salary Cap Goes Up Every Year?” because numerous fans misinterpret the reality of rising salary cap, completely overlooking the lack of rising GM spending ability due to NFL player salary inflation.

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