NFC South: 2011 salary-cap room

As we linger in lockout limbo, there’s not a lot to do but watch as the negotiators continue on a road that seems to be headed toward a new labor deal. With at least that on the horizon, the possible start of a free-agency period isn’t far behind it.

So let’s take a look at some salary-cap figures as we look forward to free agency. Some of the reports about the possible deal have pegged that 2011 salary cap right about $120 million.

In terms of money already committed toward a 2011 cap (rookie contracts aren’t a factor yet because teams haven’t even been allowed to negotiate with draft picks), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the lowest figure in the league. They’re sitting at $63.8 million. In recent years, the Bucs spent well below the cap and had the league’s lowest payroll in the uncapped 2010 season.

There’s been talk that a new agreement could require all teams to use somewhere near 90 percent of the salary-cap space. That means the Bucs theoretically would have to spend somewhere close to $50 million in cap space to meet the minimum. Could that lead to the Bucs being players in free agency? Yes, but I don’t think you’ll see them going crazy. They have some of their own free agents (like Davin Joseph and Cadillac Williams) that they want to keep. The Bucs also have some other young players under contract for the moment that could be in line for contract extensions. Tampa Bay’s in a youth movement and the Bucs will do their best to keep their core intact first. They could make some moves in free agency. But I don’t expect to see them going out and signing a bunch of big-name free agents who are in their 30s.

The Carolina Panthers are just a bit ahead of the Bucs at $73 million. But that number’s a bit misleading. Assuming the rules for the franchise tag get worked out as expected, center Ryan Kalil, who had the tag placed on him before the lockout, is going to add $10 million to that.

Then, there’s the fact that the Panthers want to keep some of their own free agents, like DeAngelo Williams, James Anderson and Charles Johnson. That’s going to cost some big money. Oh, by the way, the Panthers also are in a youth movement like the Bucs. They may sign a veteran backup quarterback and a few role players, but don’t expect a frenzy in Carolina.

The two teams in the NFC South that are the most likely to be active in free agency are the two who currently have the most money committed to the salary cap. The Atlanta Falcons are at $103.5 million and the New Orleans Saints are at $104.8.

The Falcons have to make decisions on keeping some of their own guys, like linebackers Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas and offensive linemen Tyson Clabo, Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl. They’ll keep at least a couple of those guys and that will add to their cap figure. But owner Arthur Blank isn’t going to sit idle in free agency. If there’s one move that’s been telegraphed, it’s that the Falcons will go out and get an expensive pass rusher. They’ve got enough money to do it and if they want to sign a few more free agents beyond that, they’ve got a few guys that could be cap casualties.

The Saints aren’t the type to sit still either. They’ve got a bunch of potential free agents and it will cost them money to keep the ones they want. But there’s plenty of room to be creative. Running back Reggie Bush has a $16 million cap figure. There’s no way he stays at that number. The Saints either will sign him to an extension that will greatly lower this year’s cap figure or they’ll let him go.

NFC South 2011 salary-cap figures

January, 13, 2011
We still don’t know what the future holds when it comes to the NFL and the labor situation. But, this much is certain: If a new agreement is reached, all four NFC South teams are going to have a lot of salary-cap room to work with in 2011.

Let’s guess and say the new salary cap will be somewhere around $140 million or $150 million. I’ve obtained numbers on what each of the 32 teams has committed toward the 2011 salary cap at the moment, and the NFC South is in great shape. None of the four teams is over $100 million.

The league average is $97 million and the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are just slightly above that. The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are way below the league average.

For perspective, the Dallas Cowboys have the most money committed toward a 2011 cap with $134 million and 13 other teams are over $100 million.

The Saints are at $99.5 million and it’s important to note that they have 28 potential free agents, so they might have to use a good chunk of their space to re-sign their own players. The Falcons are right behind them at $97 million.

After that, there’s a dramatic drop to the other two NFC South teams. As you might expect, Tampa Bay has the least amount committed toward a 2011 cap of all 32 NFL teams. The Bucs have $58.7 million that would count against the cap right now. They also have some pretty prominent potential free agents, and re-signing them could drive that number up.

But Tampa Bay still would be poised to spend some major money in free agency. Would the Bucs, who haven’t been big players in free agency in recent years, actually jump in and spend?

Well, you have to hit that question from several angles. First off, I wouldn’t expect a free-agent frenzy from a team that struggled to get fans to the stadium in 2010. Besides, the Bucs are committed to a youth movement that started to show some very positive signs this past season.

That said, any new agreement almost certainly would include a cap floor somewhere north of $100 million. That could mean the Bucs could turn to free agency to help meet the limit. More importantly, a couple of free agents could really help their youth movement along.

The Carolina Panthers are in a similar situation. They have $71.8 million committed toward the cap and only Kansas City ($66.5 million) is between them and the Bucs at the low end of the scale. The Panthers started a youth movement last season and, like the Bucs, Carolina owner Jerry Richardson has been hesitant to spend big on free agents in recent years. The Panthers also have a big group of their own free agents (headlined by DeAngelo Williams) that they probably would try to re-sign as soon as an agreement is reached.

But, even then, I think you would see the Panthers and the rest of the NFC South at least be somewhat active in free agency.