The NFL salary cap is a fluid entity that is constantly being tweaked and updated. In the offseason, player contracts are being added, subtracted, and restructured at such a pace that it can be challenging to keep up with where teams stand with their finances.
On Wednesday, March 15 at 4 p.m. ET, the 2023 league new year begins and at that time, every team in the NFL must be cap compliant. Over the last few weeks, we have seen teams making player cuts in order to meet this requirement, and at the time of the writing of this piece, several teams were still over the cap and will need to make some difficult decisions in the coming days.
For the Detroit Lions, they have been comfortably sitting in the top half of the league in available salary cap space, and have not needed to make any drastic cuts or restructures. So far, the only player they have released from his contract was Michael Brockers, but after his role was reduced to a gameday healthy scratch—coupled with a $10 million savings— that move was anticipated for some time.
The Lions have several more pending decisions to make before the start of free agency—including tendering their exclusive rights free agents and potentially re-signing some of their 18 unrestricted free agents—and their salary cap will adjust accordingly. But for the moment, let’s take a look at where Detroit stands with its current situation.
The NFL set the league salary cap at $224.8 million for the upcoming season, but the Lions were able to “rollover” $2,223,156 (unused money from the 2022 season), and saw $186,546 in “adjustments” (adjustments to player contracts based on bonuses earned or not earned), making the Lions maximum salary cap $227,209,702 for the 2023 season.
With the maximum number set, the amount of salary cap space the Lions have is calculated by adding up the amounts from the top-51 players' cap hits and subtracting it from the bolded number above.
At the time of the publishing of this article, the Lions have 48 players under contract, which accounts for approximately $194.6 million. That means...
$227.2 million - $194.6 million = roughly $32.6 million available before any dead cap hits.
The Lions have incurred around $10.3 million in dead cap hits (DJ Chark’s voided year and Brockers’ guaranteed money after release are the biggest culprits), meaning...
$32.6 million - $10.3 million = $22.3 million available at this time.
Now, that number will change quickly, and the next three players that sign with the Lions will have their entire cap hit will count against the cap. For example, the Lions have seven players eligible for an ERFA designation, and each one would cost around $940,000 to retain. Meaning, if the Lions assign designations to all seven, the first three would remove another $3 million from the available cap space.
But after those three, the top 51 rule kicks in and the cap hits will be less impactful because, for every player that is added to the roster, a player who previously counted against the salary will have their contract removed.
For example, if the Lions already have 51 or more players on their roster, and a player with a $1 million contract is added, the player with the lowest contract—currently Derrick Deese Jr. with a $750,000 contract—would be removed. Meaning...
$1 million (added) - $750,000 (removed) = $250,000 (salary cap impact).
So as players are added ahead of, or during free agency, keep in mind that the entirety of the player's salary cap hit is not as drastically impactful as it may appear on the surface.
Lastly, based on the Lions’ current draft picks, their draft class is expected to cost roughly $11 million once they all sign their contracts. But, because of the top 51 rule, only around $8 million of that would likely count against the cap. Additionally, if the Lions move spots in the draft—which general manager Brad Holmes tends to do—that number will adjust accordingly. Also, rookie contracts are not typically signed until May, so while the Lions will need to keep in mind that they will need to have around $8 million available come that time, they can use the money during free agency as needed, then make adjustments (i.e. contract restructures, extension, etc...) at that time.