|Tom Benson has an NFL-high $167M committed to Saints player costs this season. (Getty Images)|
The salary cap dominates the NFL economic landscape to the point where it seemingly trumps all. Fans have learned its permutations and calculations, compiling lists of dead cap penalties and ascertaining roughly how much space their team has at any given point in the calendar.
The cap gets so much attention that we forget that this is a payroll business and, ultimately, in football, cash is still king. It's why in 2012, with an unadjusted cap figure of $120 million some clubs will end up actually allocating more than $150 million to player costs. In NFL circles that actual spending total is referred to as "committed cash," and a survey of those totals at the start of this season reveal some surprising names at the top of the spending heap.
Quick quiz: Take a wild guess as to which owner is actually spending nearly $167 million in committed cash in 2012? Here's a hint -- Dan Snyder, Jerry Jones and Paul Allen aren't anywhere close.
(Going to put a little extra space here so you guys don't accidentally scan down to the answer. Don't want to spoil the exercise for you, after all.)
Answer: Tom Benson. Yep, in the year of "Bountygate" and with all the tumult the Saints have been through, including fines and suspended coaches, New Orleans is spending a third over the cap ($40M-plus over), and nearly $30 million more than the next-highest team.
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Quiz No. 2: Go ahead and guess which owner is second behind Benson. Hint: It's someone else, like Benson, who for years was labeled as being too frugal for his own good.
Answer: None other than Ralph Wilson. Yes, two guys who have been the subject of speculation in the past about franchise relocation are spending more than anyone else in the billionaires club of NFL owners. Whodathunk it?
It's not all that hard to figure out, though. The cap has remained flat, which explains why so many teams were either willing, able or were forced to spend well over to keep their rosters in place. The Saints rewarded quarterback Drew Brees with the biggest contract in league history, for instance, and did so by frontloading the deal with major cash outlays early in the contract. They have been active in the free-agent market in recent years for players like Darren Sproles, Ben Grubbs and Curtis Lofton, and have worked to retain their own talent.
This also helps explain the lack of real movement toward a new deal for tight end Jimmy Graham. The 2012 spending has to be capped at some point, and having Graham playing a little deeper into his team-friendly rookie contract provides some relief.
And the Bills recently extended quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, defensive tackle Kyle Williams, running back Fred Jackson and receiver Steve Johnson, then doled out record guarantees for pass rusher Mario Williams at the start of free agency. Combine all of that and you have a payroll of $139 million, just a few hundred thousand dollars ahead of the Lions ... another franchise that has had some lean, lean years and wasn't topping the spending charts.
Detroit faced a do-or-die situation with Calvin Johnson, of course, and needed to redo his deal to avoid a major cap hit at a time when it was already in a cap crunch. Johnson's megadeal included huge immediate payments, and when you factor in all those years of picking in the top five under the old collective bargaining agreement, when Matthew Stafford could get $40 million guaranteed before ever throwing an NFL pass, it doesn't take an abacus to figure out that will push your payroll.
Otherwise, it's some of the usual suspects in this stratosphere, with the Eagles, Patriots and Ravens all over $130 million, and then a few more you might not have guessed rounding out the top eight (which accounts for the highest-spending quarter of the league in 2012).
The Buccaneers and Cardinals also top $130 million in committed cash for this season, with owners in the Glazers and the Bidwills who have been viewed by many as chronic under-spenders most years (and, to their point, had the Bidwills been willing to spend near these levels a few years back, and done the right thing to keep Kurt Warner and give him a contract he couldn't walk away from, the Cardinals would be in much better shape and wouldn't have had to throw money at Kevin Kolb). Arizona's situation was just like Detroit's; one player, in this case, Larry Fitzgerald, held the key to their offseason with a cap-killer contract for 2012 that forced a renegotiation. Fitzgerald became the highest-paid receiver in league history, and Arizona's payroll was on the rise a few years after the team was criticized for losing a host of key players in free agency.
Tampa Bay went on a Dan Snyder-esque binge that included Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright early in free agency, and cash was king with those contracts as well, with the Bucs putting up big money now in the deals but having protections against bloated cap hits down the road and without inflated salaries deep in the contracts.
At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of most cap space, there are some of the usual suspects, in the Bengals and the Chiefs and the Jaguars all having $12 million or more in cap room, but that doesn't always mean a team isn't spending (as the minutiae of the adjusted cap, and carryover, and cap credits all play a role in this). New Jaguars owner Shahid Khan comes in around $128 million in committed cash, which is well above the league average ($123 million).
So keep that in mind when immediately equating cap room with a lack of spending. And keep an open mind in general, because sometimes these numbers will fool you, and not every owner is going to be at the top or the bottom of the spending pole every year. The Cowboys come in around $116 million in 2012 payroll.
By 2015 the cap is projected to begin to swell, with the new television money kicking in, and by next year teams will have to spend at least 90 percent of the cap in actual dollars, so there could be plenty of movement in these committed cash figures in years to come.