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.
For example, the Steelers had the largest amount of dead money related to an individual player for one league year in NFL history last season with wide receiver Antonio Brown at $21.12 million. Brown signed a four-year, $68 million contract 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 after restructuring his contract in March 2018 by converting $12.96 million of his 2018 salary into signing bonus to create salary cap room. Of Brown's $19 million signing bonus, $3.8 million counted toward Pittsburgh's salary cap evenly for 2017 through 2021. The $12.96 million was on their books at $3.24 million annually from 2018 through 2021. Because of the trade, the $7.04 million of bonus proration from each of the last two years of Brown's contract in 2020 and 2021 automatically accelerated onto Pittsburgh's salary cap in 2019.
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 a 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. In Brown's case, Pittsburgh had a residual cap charge last year although his signing bonus was already paid. 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.
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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.
Here's a look at the players responsible for the largest amounts of dead money this year. There are eight players with at least $10 million in dead money.
Potential dead money subject to a grievance is not included in the calculations. Neither are potential expenses from termination pay since a player must submit paperwork during a small timeframe right after the regular season ends in order to collect even though there's cap charge for it when a qualifying player is released. The NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement's $235 daily amount for participating in a team's voluntary offseason workout program is included in dead money when applicable.
Brandin Cooks, WR, Rams: $21.8 Million
Cooks breaks the record for the most dead money related to an individual player in one league year that Brown set last year. It's because the Rams used a signing and option bonus contract structure with the five-year, $81 million extension (worth up to $84.5 million through salary escalators) Cooks signed in 2018. 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.
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 about two weeks before the NFL Draft. Adding to the dead money is a $4 million third day of the league year roster bonus that became a Rams' financial obligation on March 20.
Nick Foles, QB, Jaguars: $18.75 Million
The Jaguars signed Foles to a four-year, $88 million contract (worth up to $102 million through incentives) with a $25 million signing bonus to try to recapture the 2017 season success, which culminated in an AFC Championship Game appearance, during 2019 free agency. Foles broke his left clavicle in the first quarter of the 2019 season opener against the Chiefs. The injury opened the door for Gardner Minshew, a 2019 sixth round pick, to eventually take Foles' starting job. Foles was traded to the Bears in March leaving the Jaguars with an $18.75 million salary cap charge this year relating to his $25 million signing bonus.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Jets: $15,062,500
Bell is the latest cautionary tale about giving running backs lucrative second contracts. The Jets were essentially bidding against themselves in signing Bell to a four-year, $52.5 million contract (worth up to $60.15 million through incentives and salary escalators) with a then veteran running back contract record $27 million fully guaranteed at signing in 2019 free agency. The Jets pulled the plugged on a disgruntled Bell two weeks ago by releasing him.
A majority of Bell's dead money comes from his fully guaranteed $8.5 million 2020 base salary. Since there is an offset, Jets will get some modest cap relief from the one-year contract he subsequently signed with the Chiefs in which he can make just under $706,000 in base salary for the rest of the season. Bell also had a $4.5 million March roster bonus. Additionally, there's a $2 million cap charge from his $8 million signing bonus. The Jets will have $4 million of dead money for Bell next year because of the signing bonus.
Joe Flacco, QB, Broncos: $13.6 Million
Flacco makes a return trip to the dead money list but with a new team. The Ravens had a $16 million cap charge for Flacco last year after trading him to the Broncos in March 2019. The Broncos cut Flacco this past March when the 2020 league year began. There wouldn't have been any dead money for Flacco's release if the Broncos hadn't restructured his contract for cap purposes as the preseason roster cut down was approaching last year. $17 million of Flacco's $18.5 million 2019 base salary was converted into signing bonus and two voiding contract years in 2022 and 2023 were added so proration could be over five years instead of just three years.
2019 was Brady's contract year. Brady's contract was reworked that August to raise his 2019 salary from $15 million to $23 million because he was underpaid. Two contract years for 2020 and 2021 with $30 million and $32 million salaries automatically voiding on the last day of the 2019 league year were included for cap purposes so Brady's fully guaranteed $20.25 million roster bonus could be prorated over three years at $6.75 million annually through 2021 instead of just 2019. The renegotiated contract also contained a clause prohibiting the Patriots from designating Brady as a franchise or transition player.
It was the first time Brady hadn't signed an extension to keep him from playing out his contract. Conventional wisdom was that Brady and the Patriots would reach an agreement on a new contract before the 2019 league year ended to make the voiding years a moot point. Brady leaving for the Buccaneers in free agency this year was a surprise to many. His departure created the $13.5 million cap charge.
Quincy Enunwa, WR, Jets: $11,880,233
Enunwa signed a four-year, $33.4 million extension (worth a maximum of $36 million with salary escalators) at the end of the 2018 regular season. He only played in one game last season because of a neck injury that could be career ending. Enunwa, who was going to miss the 2020 season due to his neck injury, was released in August. His $6 million 2020 base salary was fully guaranteed. $4,078,588 of Enunwa's 2021 base salary was guaranteed for injury. When a player is released, salary guarantees accelerate onto a team's current salary cap. There isn't distinction in cap treatment based on the timing of the release like with bonus proration.
Todd Gurley, RB, Rams: $11.75 million
The Rams raised some eyebrows in 2018 by dramatically re-setting a steadily declining running back when Gurley had two years remaining on his rookie contract. Gurley signed a four-year, $57.5 million extension (worth a maximum of $60 million through salary escalators). Gurley's $21 million signing bonus was the largest ever for a running back at the time.
The Rams released Gurley in March with a Post-June 1 designation before his $5 million 2020 base salary and $5 million roster bonus in 2021 became fully guaranteed. Gurley didn't play any of his new contract years since his four year extension ran from 2020 through 2023. He made out like a bandit from the deal. Gurley is $20 million better off from the extension than playing out his rookie contract. He quickly signed a one year deal for $5.5 million with the Falcons.
It's a small consolation for the Rams that $2.5 million of Gurley's $7.55 million third day of the 2020 league year roster bonus that became fully guaranteed in March 2019 is subject to an offset. The Rams will have a $4.2 million cap charge for Gurley in 2021 because of using a Post-June 1 designation on him.
Reshad Jones, S, Dolphins: $10.1 million
Jones was rumored to be on the trading block last year as Miami started rebuilding but was ultimately kept. The two-time Pro Bowl participant was limited to four games in an injured plagued 2019 season. The Dolphins picked up $5.535 million of cap room by releasing Jones in March. It would have been $9.745 million, except $8.82 million of Jones' $9.735 million 2018 base salary was converted to signing bonus near the beginning of that offseason in a contract restructure to create cap room. A $2 million base salary guarantee for this year is a part of Jones' dead money.