Dead money is a salary cap charge for a player that is no longer on a team's roster. It exists because of how salary cap accounting rules operate.
Signing bonuses, option bonuses and certain roster bonuses are prorated or spread out evenly over the life of a contract for a maximum of five years. When a player is released, traded or retires, the remaining proration of these salary components immediately accelerate onto his team's current salary cap.
There are two major exceptions to this general rule of bonus proration accelerating. Only the current year's proration counts toward the cap with players released, traded or retiring after June 1. The bonus proration in future contract years is delayed until the following league year, which typically begins in early to mid-March.
A team can also release two players each league year prior to June 1 (known as a post-June 1 designation) that will be treated under the cap as if released after June 1. With a post-June 1 designation, a team is required to carry the player's full cap number until June 2, even though he is no longer part of the roster. The player's salary comes off the books at that time, unless it is guaranteed.
This means dead money is typically a sunk cost where money isn't owed to a player. A payment is associated with dead money when there are salary guarantees at the time of release or departure comes after the player has already begun receiving a portion of his compensation in that particular league year.
Excessive dead money can inhibit a team's ability to field a competitive team. The salary cap room needed to be active in free agency or give contract extensions to important players on the team shrinks.
The largest amounts of dead money from individual players in NFL history are below and separated into two categories. The first is dead money from a single league year. The other is dead money taken over two league years because of a post-June 1 designation, a player being traded, released or a retirement processed after June 1.
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Single league year
Carson Wentz (QB) - Eagles: $33,820,611
Wentz leaving Philadelphia in 2021 seemed unthinkable prior to his stunning regression last season. He was considered the long-term answer at quarterback when he signed a four-year, $128 million extension in June 2019. The deal contained a then-NFL record $107,870,683 of guarantees, which included a $16,367,683 signing bonus and $30 million option bonus.
An option bonus is essentially an additional signing bonus that's usually paid in the second or third year of a contract to exercise later years in the deal. Since an option bonus is given the same treatment on the salary cap as signing bonus, it is also prorated or evenly spread out over the life of a contract for a maximum of five years.
Conventional wisdom suggested Wentz would remain with the Eagles because the record for dead money relating to an individual player in one league year would be shattered in a trade. This didn't stop the Eagles from dealing Wentz to the Colts for a 2021 third-round pick and conditional 2022 second-rounder that becomes a first-round pick if he takes at least 75% of Indianapolis' offensive snaps this season, although the salary cap has dropped $15.7 million from $198.2 million in 2020. Wentz's dead money is a whopping 18.53% of the 2021 league-wide salary cap of $182.5 million.
Philadelphia's cap savings in 2021 are minimal because Wentz's cap number was $34,673,536 prior to the trade. Wentz is off Philadelphia's books after 2021, where $31,274,536, $34,273,539 and $32 million of cap room is gained, respectively, in 2022, 2023 and 2024.
Jared Goff (QB) - Rams: $24.7M
Goff became expendable despite signing a four-year extension averaging $33.5 million per year shortly before the 2019 regular season started. Rams head coach Sean McVay wanted an upgrade at quarterback. Goff was included in the trade that brought Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to Los Angeles.
A record-setting $110,042,682 of guarantees, which included a $25 million signing bonus, were a part of Goff's four-year, $134 million extension. Nine million of Goff's 2020 base salary was converted into signing bonus to give the Rams $7.2 million of cap relief last year. Since Goff wasn't traded on the first day of the 2021 league year (March 17), the Rams are responsible for his $2.5 million second day of the league year roster bonus (March 18). The 2020 salary conversion and the timing of the trade account for $9.7 million of Goff's dead money. The other $15 million is the original signing bonus proration associated with his 2021 through 2023 contract years.
Brandin Cooks (WR) - Rams: $21.8M
The record Cooks set for the most dead money related to an individual player for one league year in 2020 is obsolete thanks to Goff and Wentz. The Rams used a signing and option bonus contract structure with the five-year, $81 million extension Cooks signed in 2018. The Cooks deal contained a $7 million signing bonus and a $17 million option bonus to pick up his 2023 contract year. Cooks was traded to the Texans in April 2020 about two weeks before the NFL Draft. Adding to the dead money is a $4 million third day of 2020 league year roster bonus that had already become a Rams financial obligation when the trade was made.
Antonio Brown (WR) - Steelers: $21.12M
Brown signed a four-year, $68 million extension containing a $19 million signing bonus in February 2017, which made him the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver. The Steelers didn't expect Brown to force a trade a year later when restructuring his contract in March 2018 by converting $12.96 million of his 2018 salary into signing bonus to create cap room. Brown had three years left on his contract when traded to the Raiders in March 2019. The $21.12 million comes from the signing bonus proration relating to the $19 million signing bonus originally in the extension and the $12.96 million signing bonus from the 2018 restructure.
Matthew Stafford (QB) - Lions: $19M
The 12-year veteran requested a trade after the 2020 season. The Lions dealt Stafford to the Rams for Goff, a 2022 first-round pick, a 2023 first-round pick and a 2021 third-round pick in March. The $19 million in dead money is because of the bonus proration in his 2021 contract year and voiding 2022 and 2023 contract years inserted in a 2020 contract restructure. Ten million of the $19 million comes from the $50 million signing bonus in the five-year, $135 million extension Stafford signed in 2017, which made him the NFL's highest-paid player at $27 million per year. The signing bonus was an NFL record at the time.
Two league years
Running back Todd Gurley isn't included, although the Rams have $20.15 million in dead money from his 2020 release with a post-June 1 designation. The Rams initially had an $11.75 million cap charge in 2020 for Gurley after his departure as $2.5 million of Gurley's $7.55 million third day of the 2020 league year roster bonus, which became fully guaranteed in March 2019, was subject to an offset, making the total net dead money $17.65 million. The $2.5 million was recouped from the one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Falcons Gurley played under last season. The Rams have an $8.4 million cap charge for Gurley this year because of using a post-June 1 designation on him.
Marcell Dareus (DT) - Bills: $23,939,215 ($10,374,510-2017/$13,564,705-2018)
Dareus, who signed a six-year, $95.1 million extension in 2015, was dealt to the Jaguars for a 2018 fifth-round pick at the 2017 trading deadline after he got off on the wrong foot with the new regime of head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane. Both were hired from the Panthers after the 2016 season. Because Dareus was traded during the middle of the season, slightly more than $4.25 million of the 2017 dead money is base salary and a workout bonus he received prior to being dealt. The remainder is bonus proration from Dareus' $25 million signing bonus and $7 million option bonus in the 2015 extension.
Julio Jones (WR) - Falcons: $23.25M ($7.75M-2021/$15.5M-2022)
Atlanta's primary motivation in trading Jones and a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Titans for a 2022 second-round pick and 2023 fourth-round pick was an extremely tight salary cap. The Falcons had less than $300,000 of cap space before the trade. The lack of cap space had been preventing the Falcons from signing any of the nine players selected in this year's draft. By waiting until after June 1 to trade Jones, the Falcons picked up $15.3 million of cap room because of the Titans assuming his 2021 base salary in the transaction. Atlanta gains $3.763 million and $19.263 million of cap space in 2022 and 2023, with the Titans becoming responsible for Jones' $11.513 million base salary for each of those years in the trade.
Drew Brees (QB) - Saints: $22.65M ($11.15M-2021/$11.5M-2022)
The Saints' liberal use of fake or voiding/dummy years to stretch out bonus proration over a longer time frame in Brees' most recent contracts finally caught up with them. As expected, Brees announced his retirement in March. Prior to the announcement, Brees and the Saints agreed to reduce his $25 million 2021 base salary to $1.075 million -- his 2021 league minimum salary -- in February so $23.925 million much-needed cap relief could be gained instantly. The Saints easily had the NFL's worst salary cap situation for 2021 when the offseason began. Brees was carried on the Saints' roster until June 11 to prevent the $11.5 million in bonus proration relating to his voiding 2022 and 2023 contract years from becoming a 2021 cap charge.
Ndamukong Suh (DT) - Dolphins: $22.2M ($9.1M-2018/$13.1M-2019)
Suh became the NFL's highest-paid non-quarterback when he signed a six-year, $114.375 million contract averaging $19,062,500 per year with the Dolphins an as unrestricted free agent in 2015. Miami's 2016 contract restructure for cap purposes helped hasten Suh's departure in March 2018 after playing three years under the deal. Suh's $26.1 million 2018 cap number was unmanageable. The restructure made a post-June 1 designation the only way to pick up significant cap room with Suh's release. Miami didn't have the luxury of time because $8.5 million of Suh's $16.985 million 2018 base salary was set to become fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year. The post-June 1 designation allowed the Dolphins to take Suh's cap hit over two years instead of having $22.2 million count in 2018.
Contract restructurings in 2014 and 2015 for cap purposes to Romo's 2013 contract extension were primarily responsible for the $19.6 million. He was released in 2017 with a post-June 1 designation after he decided to retire. If Romo's 2013 extension had been left alone, the Cowboys would have had a $5 million cap charge in 2017 relating to the retirement instead of the $10.7 million of dead money they had for him. There also wouldn't have been any 2018 dead money for Romo.