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Notes: Lions will carry over 10th most 2020 cap space in NFL

Maybe the cap situation is not as bad as we thought

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions - NFL Football Game Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When the Detroit Lions traded quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams (and acquired quarterback Jared Goff in return), the team accelerated Stafford’s bonus cap hits into 2021 and put themselves in a payroll bind that needs to be solved. Spotrac’s 2021 Lions salary cap table (which includes Goff’s contract) shows $199.4 million on the books due to $179.1 million in actual roster salaries and $20.3 million in dead money. The league-wide salary cap for next season has not yet been set, but the current booked values already exceed the 2020 salary cap ($198.2 million) from last season and revenue losses from COVID are expected to push the cap down in 2021.

So the Lions are currently “over” in a sense, and need to do something to get down far enough to sign incoming rookies, possibly franchise tag Kenny Golladay, and otherwise fill out the roster for next season. Cutting some veterans on large contracts could help, but opening space in that way also creates additional holes to be filled:

The Lions already have to rebuild a gutted wide receiver corps, replace the majority of their defensive ends, and do something about their linebackers. The cap situation may not be quite the disaster the Spotrac table makes it look like, though.

According to this NFLPA graphic from yesterday, the Lions bring $12.8 million worth of salary cap space left unspent during the 2020 season forward to increase their team salary cap limit for the 2021 season. Only nine teams are rolling forward more cap space than the Lions:

From NFL Network’s Mike Garafalo and Around the NFL’s Kevin Patra, we know that the NFL sent out a memo on Thursday that notified teams they will be required to spend at least $180 million on player payroll in 2021. That minimum, a $5 million increase from 2020, came out of negotiations with the NFL Players Association. That (the minimum) does not tell us the value we want to actually know (the maximum), but it might indirectly tell us something useful.

First, this suggests the dire predictions of a massive salary cap drop from last season are less likely. Back in December 2020, former Chiefs general manager-turned-analyst Scott Pioli cited OverTheCap’s projected decline in the cap number to $176 million. Just a month ago, ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio wrote that “A league source with knowledge of the situation suggests that the salary cap could be in the range of $180 million.”

Then, two weeks ago, NFL.com’s Tom Pelisserro reported “(s)ome team officials believe (and surely hope) the cap will ultimately land closer to $185 million per club.” As time goes forward, the leaked projections steadily increase by small amounts. While the final league-wide cap value is unlikely to rise, this trend implies fear of a precipitous drop is dissipating.

Second, if we believe that the league-wide cap will at the very least not rise, the confirmed increase in the minimum floor means the spread will be smaller in 2021. The spread between last season’s minimum salary floor ($175 million) and the actual league-wide salary cap value ($198.2 million) was more than $20 million. The 2021 range between whatever the top value ends up being to the new $180 million floor will certainly be less than $20 million. That compression of the range of payrolls, assuming teams are equally adept at deploying their payroll (a heroic assumption, I know) to acquire talent, should lead to better talent parity.

Given their buffer of rolled cap from 2020, the Lions are not in any immediate trouble. Expect them to release a few veterans (particularly expensive defensive tackles and perhaps a cornerback or two, and CBS Sports’ Cody Benjamin thinks the team could stand to lose a quarterback contract), but not make any big money moves in free agency due to limited cap space. It will be interesting to see how free agency prices respond to the cap changes, and how often that forces the Lions to replace veterans with rookies on pre-set bargain deals.

Now, on to the rest of today’s Notes:

  • The Detroit Free Press’ Dave Birkett was on the NFL and U podcast talking about his latest draft article’s topic (subscription required for the article):

  • Some interesting observations here by Ben Fennell on the hot quarterback prospects:

  • ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler believes Matthew Stafford will be the league MVP in 2021 at the helm of the Rams (article is behind the ESPN+ paywall). For those who are more interested in players still on the Lions roster, take a look at the names of players expected to make a jump from their rookie seasons:

  • Not Lions or even NFL related, but this is pretty cool. Using 14 seasons of FBS college football data, Brian Fremeau plotted drive starting field positions (x-axis) and how many points were scored on those drives (y-axis). The line is the average points scored by drives starting from each field position, with exactly the relationship you are expecting. What’s interesting is the third tweet in the thread suggests it is a reasonable expectation to want your offense to at least get a field goal on normal possessions after kickoffs: