What happened to the Detroit Lions Salary Cap anyway?

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I’ve gotten this question a lot lately but I haven’t really answered it because the answer is not the simplest thing to have to explain. In other words, it’s complicated. How can the Lions be $23.5 million under the cap (for 2008) back on December 10th of 2007*, then fall to $18 million under on February 15th 2008**, then fall all the way to $4.4 million under by March 10th 2008*** when they really haven’t signed any big names nor extended the contracts of any high priced players already on the team? As if that wasn’t bad enough, they even cut several players in cap saving moves recently, signed a few former Tampa players and are now hovering around $200 thousand or less in cap available. So what gives?

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First, some basics: the salary cap that a team can spend in any given year is determined by the NFL prior to the new league year. A team may not go over the cap at any time from the beginning of free agency until the end of the team’s season. Each player on the team has a salary cap figure that is based on their salary and bonuses and a portion of their signing bonus (which is allocated equally over the length of the contract). To read about the salary cap basics head to http://www.askthecommish.com/salarycap/and for even more details click on Salary Cap FAQ on that same site. (The FAQ section has details on “going over the cap” that some will find interesting, especially those that believe a team can and does go over the cap if they want to). Anyway, now that you have the basics of the salary cap down (clear as mud right?) then lets go on.

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Let’s now start from December 10, 2007 when the Lions were estimated to be $23.5 million* under the cap for 2008 based on the players they already had under contract for 2008 at that time and the estimated total cap they would have to work with. On December 15th the Lions signed Safety Patrick Body to a deal that goes through 2008 and on December 19th they did the same for LB Buster Davis. That shaves $0.74 million off the 2008 cap available. Then on January 1st the Lions sign 11 guys to contracts for 2008 that shave another $3.545 million off. (For a list of players signed or cut throughout the year go to http://www.detroitlions.com/section_display.cfm?section_id=23&top=1&level=3)

 Will these guys eventually make the team? Maybe, maybe not, but they do count against the cap. Nothing else happens in January so we head into February.Â

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Starting February 7th and going until Feb 21st the lions can tender offers to guys who they have restricted rights to (guys who have played for 3 years but less then 4 years in the league). They have 4 of these players and during that two week period tender an offer to all four of them at the required salary of $0.927 million each (if another team makes them a contract offer the Lions have the right to match the offer or let them go and get a draft pick from that team based on where the player was originally drafted). It would seem that at least one of the four received his tender before February 15th and that along with the earlier mentioned signings explains the reduction in available cap from $23.5 million to $18 million**. As mentioned above, the Lions eventually tendered offers to all four restricted free agents before the Feb 21st deadline. They also tendered offers to their two ERFA’s Greg Blue and Sean McHugh (guys with less then 3 years in the league) in the amounts of $445,000 and $605,000 for another cap hit of $1.05 million.

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Then on February 25th the Lions cut Fernando Bryant. The Lions no longer have to count his $3.35 million salary against their cap… however, when a player is cut his unallocated salary bonus (the amount that would’ve been allocated to each remaining year of the contract) gets accelerated into the cap year when the player is cut. In other words, the Lions 2008 cap gets hit for Bryant’s 2008 AND 2009 signing bonus allocations of $1,166,666.67. The 2008 allocation was already factored in, but the 2009 allocation is new and shaves that $1,166,667 off this year’s cap availability.Â

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In 2008 all 32 teams in the league got their assigned salary cap figure from the NFL shortly after the superbowl. The unadjusted figure for each team was $116,729,000 but most teams had an adjusted cap figure instead. Here we have to understand a couple other details about the NFL salary cap. A team may put into a players contract an incentive that would allow that player to get a bonus should he meet certain criteria. If the bonus is likely to be earned (a LTBE bonus) it counts against that years cap. If the player fails to meet the criteria and does not actually get the bonus then the next year’s cap is adjusted upwards to make up for what was already deducted the year the bonus wasn’t earned. Teams use this to “push” cap into the next year. How can a team be sure a likely to be earned bonus won’t actually get earned and thus push the cap into the next year? They sign a guy during that last week or two of the season with a LTBE bonus incentive in the contract, but since there is only a week or two left in the season there is NO WAY the player can actually qualify and earn the money. It’s still considered a LTBE bonus though, so that cap of that bonus gets added to that teams next years cap as a positive adjustment. Now, if that same bonus is not likely to be earned (a NLTBE bonus) it does not count against the team’s cap in that year. However, should the player somehow actually achieve the criteria and receive the bonus then the team’s cap is adjusted downwards the next year. The NFL and the players association have already pre-determined what is a LTBE and a NLTBE bonus so contracts can be written with full knowledge of what is or is not likely to be earned. NLTBE bonuses do not count against the rookie pool, so teams are using that to sign their top draft picks to ever bigger contracts. What does all this have to do with the Lions? Well, Calvin Johnson (as well as some others) hit their NLTBE bonuses in 2007, got their bonus money and the Lions cap was adjusted, downwards, in 2008 for them. In fact, the Lions had the biggest downward adjustment in all of the NFL, to the tune of $5,348,065 (while the Lions probably knew this was coming, no one else did until the end of February). So instead of a salary cap figure of $116.729 million (or more) to work with, the Detroit Lions have only $111.380935 million to work with.

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Another incentive that often appears in a top player’s contract is an escalator. When a player meets certain criteria as defined in their contract they trigger an escalator and the player may receive a pay raise in a future (or all future) years.�� (Some escalators also include voiding a year or two off the end of a contract.) It was announced at the end of February that the Lions had 3 players meet their escalators: Jon Kitna had a salary increase of $1 million for 2008, Roy Williams had a salary increase of $3.1 million in 2008, and Kevin Jones had a salary increase of $1.825 million in 2008. Total of these escalators (and a negative to the cap) was $5.925 million.

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Between February 28th 2008 (the start of free agency) and March 10th the Lions sign Dwight Smith, Keith Smith, Michael Gaines, John Owens, Aveion Cason, Corey Hulsey, and George Foster. They also trade Shaun Rogers for Leigh Bodden. Each of these moves reduces the amount of cap the Lions have to work with. (For the total of what each player costs the Lions cap see column M at http://www.thenetrat.com/LionsCap2008.xls).

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With these downward cap adjustments, salary escalators and other personnel changes the Lions have reduced their available cap to a mere $4.4 million*** by March 10th.  Another cap rule has also come into effect at this point. From the start of free agency until the start of the first game of the season each team need only count the top 51 contracts against the cap. The Lions have many more then 51 players signed by now, so the salaries of the lower paid players are no longer counting against the cap (in this way teams take 80 or more players into camp). Every time a new player is signed, some other player’s salary no longer counts against the cap… and vice-versa, for every player cut another lower salaried player now counts. Anyway, every move from here on out affects the cap twice, once for the player added or cut, and once for the other guy who either now counts or does not count against the cap.

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The Lions finish up March to date by signing Chuck Darby, Travis Fisher, Kalvin Pearson, Corey Smith, Gilbert Gardner, and Brian Kelly while cutting Blaine Saipaia, Kalimba Edwards, Kevin Jones and Kenoy Kennedy. They designate Kalimba Edwards a June 1st cut (meaning they cut him now but he will be treated as if he were cut on or after June 1st when different salary cap rules apply as to the acceleration of the unallocated signing bonuses). Kalimba’s salary and roster bonuses totally $4 million must remain on the books (and affecting the cap) until June 1st.

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So where does that leave the Lions now? My best guesstimate is $ $72,263. Why a guess? The Lions do not release hardly any information about actual contracts and all information must be pieced together from various other sources, some sources are more accurate then others. Also, in this case, Brian Kelly’s actual signing bonus was never published (that I can find) so I had to make an educated guess. I’ve also had to make guesses on the most recent signings of Corey Smith and Gilbert Gardner. My cap chart will, of course, be adjusted if/when I receive any new information on these contracts.
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So there you have it, a simplified explanation to the very complicated question of what happened to all the cap money the Lions had for 2008 (or is that a complicated explanation to the simple question? Nah, I think I have the right way of it).Â
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* http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/writers/peter_king/12/09/week14/4.html

23.5 million 12-10-07

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** http://www.draftsharks.com/members/articles/Salary_Cap_%2f_Free_Agency_Primer.aspx

18 mill Feb 15, 08

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*** http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news?slug=jc-underthecap031008&prov=yhoo&type=lgns

4.4 mill  March 10, 08

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