Allen Park — With each Detroit Lions transaction this week — whether an agreement with a new free agent, a cut or a trade — several fans will inevitably respond by asking how much salary-cap space the team has remaining.
Unfortunately, that's not an easy question to immediately answer. Until contracts are finalized and filed with the league, there is uncertainty about the year-by-year structures of the deals, leaving us in the dark about the annual cap hits.
And some of those numbers are taking a bit longer this year. Transactions typically require physicals and the NFL has put significant restrictions on how those are being performed in during the coronavirus outbreak.
So when trying to analyze cap space in the current climate, we're occasionally left with less-than-ideal options. We can rely on agent-leaked numbers, which can occasionally inflate the overall values by including non-guaranteed performance bonuses into the equation.
Below, we'll work around some imperfect, but documented numbers to give you an accurate estimate of where the Lions are after the first wave of free agency.
First, let's start with the basics. The league's salary cap is $198.2 million for the 2020 season. That figure was set last week, following the ratification of a new labor agreement between the owners and players.
Additionally, the Lions carried over $18,009,533 in unused cap space from the previous year. This is an official number, provided to the Detroit News by the NFLPA.
Now, the deductions. We must remove dead money from the equation. That's lingering cap hits tied to traded and released players. The Lions have a bunch after several moves the past week. The biggest hits are tied to the releases of Rick Wagner, Damon Harrison and Devon Kennard, as well as the trades of Quandre Diggs and Darius Slay. In total, the Lions have $20.4 million in dead cap.
That's the fifth-most dead money in the NFL, according to contract website Spotrac, but still well short of the Carolina Panthers, who check in with a league-leading $46.1 million. Other teams with significant dead cap include Jacksonville ($33.96 million), New England ($22.55 million), Minnesota ($22.19 million) and Baltimore ($16.52 million).
Moving on to the meat of the cap, let's talk contracts. Even though offseason rosters are allowed to include up to 90 players, and the Lions are currently set to have more than 70 in the fold once this week's agreements become official, only the top 51 count toward the cap until the start of the regular season.
Our estimates have the Lions' top-51 cap hits totaling $163.21 million. That includes new additions Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Jamie Collins, Desmond Trufant, Nick Williams, Danny Shelton, Duron Harmon, Chase Daniel, Jayron Kearse and Tony McRae.
With Harmon, we know his exact cap hit, since the Lions inherited the final year of his pre-existing deal signed in New England, while full contract numbers have been reported for Vaitai, Trufant, Collins, Williams, Daniel, Kearse and McRae.
As a reminder, there might be some slight discrepancies with those free agent numbers, compared to the official contract details, once the deals are signed and filed with the league.
We're left with some simple addition and subtraction to get the team's remaining space. We take the $198.2 million starting point of the cap, add the rollover from the previous year then subtract the dead money and the top-51 cap hits. That leaves us with $32.59 million.
That doesn't mean the Lions still have $32 million to spend. The team will need to leave room to add its nine-pick draft class, which includes an estimated $6.1-million cap hit for the No. 3 pick, according to Spotrac. Additionally, the Lions have to account for full-roster expansion, including practice squad, counting against the cap once the season starts. That will add a couple million.
Finally, general manager Bob Quinn likes to leave some extra cap in case the team wants to pursue a late cut, like defensive tackle Mike Daniels last year, or a mid-season trade such as the Harrison addition in 2018. Call it a rainy-day fund. Another consideration is a possible extension for wide receiver Kenny Golladay, which could significantly increase his current $2.31 million cap hit.
Remember, the Lions didn't use $18 million in cap in 2019. It's difficult to imagine it will be that much this year, given the win-now edict placed on Quinn and coach Matt Patricia, but the team also isn't going to spend every last penny.
In our previous cap analysis prior to the start of free agency, we estimated the Lions had approximately $51 million in overall space, giving them $25-30 million to commit to the signing period. Using the same math, the Lions could still safely use between $7-10 million of their current cap space on roster upgrades prior to April's draft.