I have (NFC) West envy. Alex, Dwight and David S. were among a number of readers who caught Mike Sando's excellent analysis of the NFC West salary-cap situation last week and requested a replication of the post in Black and Blue terms.
So I played with the numbers and possibilities for a while. Here is where I landed: Unlike a few NFC West clubs, no NFC North team will be hindered by its salary-cap status this offseason. You will see players cut and signed to contract extensions. A few will have their deals renegotiated and there might be a trade or two. But none of the moves will be forced by a shortage of cap space, thanks to smart management and a steadily increasing cap. (It's expected to be at least $123 million in 2009.)
Ultimately, there are two questions when it comes to the NFL salary cap: (1) Can teams make the moves they want to make? (2) Will they be forced into any moves they don't want to make?
Without fail, the NFC North answers to those questions are, "Yes" and "No," respectively. So if the cap isn't the primary engine of player movement, what is? In short, football priorities and cash-flow issues. (The latter should not be underestimated. Amid the national economic downturn, some NFL teams are losing sponsors, laying off employees and freezing ticket prices. It's only natural to assume player payroll budgets will be tight.)
During the next three weeks, NFL teams will make final decisions on their existing rosters before the start of free agency. So on Feb. 10 in the NFC North, the most instructive exercise is to run through the cash flow and football issues of each team to help project which players are at least under consideration for a move this month.
As always, we'll structure ourselves in alphabetical order as a way to fool Chicago fans into thinking we give the Bears top priority on this blog.
Estimated working cap number as of Feb. 27: $20-$25 million
Cash flow: The Bears announced they will freeze ticket prices while absorbing a 1 percent increase in the City of Chicago's amusement tax. Team President Ted Phillips said revenues will decrease but the football budget hasn't.
Potentially targeted players:
- Safety Mike Brown. It's hard to imagine the Bears re-signing him as a free agent following a 15-game performance that demonstrated he can still play the run but has difficulty in coverage. His injury history makes it an especially risky proposition.
- Running back Kevin Jones. What would be the point of bringing back Jones, who was inactive for five of the last seven games of 2008? Plus, offensive coordinator Ron Turner has already said he wants to involve backup Garrett Wolfe more in the offense in 2009.
- Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye. I don't have any inside knowledge that something is brewing, but Ogunleye's $4.8 million base salary in 2009 is high for a player who had five sacks in 16 games last season. Ogunleye is also entering the final year of his contract, meaning there wouldn't be a huge cap hit (about $2.5 million) if he is released. The Bears could ask him to adjust his base salary with an opportunity to earn it back in incentives.
- Cornerback Nate Vasher. Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times lays out a compelling argument for why Vasher won't be outright released after two consecutive disappointing seasons. (In short: They've already paid him $11.5 million in guaranteed money and he would count $4.7 million against the 2009 cap if released.) But it wouldn't be surprising if the Bears target Vasher for a pay cut. His $2.9 million base salary is high for a player who was deep in the doghouse last season.
Estimated working cap number as of Feb. 27: $35 million
Cash flow: The Lions have frozen most ticket prices and dropped others. They must budget a hefty sum of guaranteed money, perhaps $35 million, to sign their pair of No. 1 draft choices. Those issues suggest the Lions won't be heavy spenders on the free-agent market.
Potentially targeted players:*
- Quarterback Daunte Culpepper. The Lions owe Culpepper a $2.5 million roster bonus on Feb. 27, a sum they are unlikely to pay unless they feel reasonably certain he will be their starter in 2009. The addition of offensive coordinator Scott
Linehan gives Culpepper a fighting chance, if nothing else. But his status will be determined before free agency begins.
- Quarterback Jon Kitna. Like Culpepper, Kitna is also under contract with the Lions. But his falling out with the team last season -- ending with a trip to injured reserve -- suggests he'll be elsewhere in 2009. It's possible the Lions will try to trade him, but few people around the NFL believe they'll keep him on the roster into March.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Estimated working cap number as of Feb. 27: $25-$30 million
Cash flow: President/CEO Mark Murphy has said that revenues are down. But the Packers' unique ownership structure makes them relatively insulated from economic ebbs and flows.
Potentially targeted players:
- Left tackle Chad Clifton. A Pro Bowler in 2007, Clifton swooned in 2008 and is entering the final year of a six-year extension he signed in 2004. You wonder how much longer his knees can hold up. Releasing Clifton would leave a modest cap hit of about $2 million. But the health status of right tackle Mark Tauscher, a pending free agent, might spur the Packers to try to get one more year out of Clifton to avoid replacing both tackles in the same season.
- Cornerback Al Harris. He will turn 35 in December and has spoken openly about a possible offseason trade. The Packers' shift to a 3-4 defense won't necessarily impact the secondary, but they have an opportunity to get younger by replacing Harris with Tramon Williams. Harris' skills are best utilized on a team that plays bump-and-run coverage rather than a mix of man and Cover 2.
- Right tackle Mark Tauscher. The Packers face a difficult decision about whether to re-sign their long-time bookend after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament late last season. It might be risky to count on him as a starter, but the Packers might consider signing him to an incentive-laden contract to protect against the timing of his recovery.
Estimated working cap number as of Feb. 27: $30 million
Cash flow: Owner Zygi Wilf has made a capital call to his investment partners in each of the three full years he's owned the team. Wilf has said he will never let finances get in the way of building the team, but it's likely the Vikings will take a more conservative approach in 2009.
Potentially targeted players:
- Center Matt Birk. It's always possible that contract discussions could occur in the next three weeks. But the lack of dialogue over the past year suggest Birk could play elsewhere in 2009. It's also not out of the question that he could retire.
- Quarterback Gus Frerotte. The Vikings would like him to return as a backup, but it's unlikely Frerotte is interested in that scenario. Frerotte seems certain either to retire or seek his release prior to free agency.
- Safety Darren Sharper. It seems likely that Tyrell Johnson will step into Sharper's starting position, and Sharper will seek a new team to finish out his career.
(*The Lions have already released the following players: Cornerback Leigh Bodden, tight end Dan Campbell, offensive lineman Jon Dunn, receiver Mike Furrey, guard Edwin Mulitalo and safety Dwight Smith.)