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Should the NFL get creative with handling a lowered salary cap?

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

As the start of the 2021 NFL league year draws even closer on March 17, many teams are still in a holding pattern as they await the final salary cap number for the 2021 season. While many fans are getting frustrated with the unknown, not knowing the specifics for how teams will be required to operate until the last minute isn’t new for the NFL as the Collective Bargaining Agreement passed only three days before the start of the new league year in 2020.

Just as things were fast and furious then, it very well could happen again for 2021. One NFL coach even went as far to call it a “massacre” when teams are going to have to make these flurries of moves to become salary cap compliant.

I got to thinking... What if the salary cap ends up being exactly what it was last season? Would we have teams that are still in trouble? Yes there would be. The Pittsburgh Steelers would actually be alright if the salary cap came in once again at $198.2 million as they are hovering right under that number at the moment even before Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract is applied.

But after thinking about this even more, I was wondering if the NFL and the Players Association could work out an agreement to keep the insane amount of salary cap casualties coming all at once and flooding the market? Of course the NFLPA should be willing to do things to keep this from happening as it could significantly drop market value throughout the league. But what could they do?

Since the implementation of a salary cap in the NFL, the value has never gone down from one season to another. Since the league is entering uncharted territory, there is no precedence as how to handle the situation. Therefore, a new idea doesn’t immediately have to be ruled out simply because it’s never been done before.

So how about this? If the salary cap ends up coming in at the new floor established several weeks ago at $180 million, would both sides agree to an incremental decrease over the course of the offseason?

The biggest reason there’s expected to be a flurry of player releases before March 17 is because teams simply won’t have enough time to get their exact numbers in order. The fastest way to fix things is to simply get player contracts off the books by releasing them. The other option teams have is to restructure or offer contract extensions for players. If teams had more time to get under the salary cap, these options could keep teams from having to release players, especially all at once.

When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, they can become salary cap compliant all the way down to the $180 million without cutting a player. There are enough players with high cap numbers with one year remaining on their contracts where the Steelers could offer extensions and reduce these numbers to help with the salary cap. But if the Steelers have only days, or even hours, to get these extensions done, chances are they’re just going to have to simply release some players because of the constraints.

Instead, what if the NFL and players association agreed that on March 17 NFL teams need to simply be under last season’s salary cap number? Instead of having to get all the way down to $180 million, what if the goal was only $198.2 million? Then, as the offseason continues, new salary cap goals are met at various increments. Here’s an example of an offseason schedule which drops the salary cap from $198.2 million to $180 million before the beginning of training camp:

March 17th: $198.2 million
April 17: $193.2 million
May 17: $188.2 million
June 17: $183.2 million
July 17: $180 million

If the 2021 NFL salary cap ends up being $180 million, stepping down the amount each month still has all the teams getting to the same number before the start of the season. For those teams really strapped with the salary cap, they would only have to release the minimum amount of players each time in order to try to get to the number. Then, teams will have a month to rework deals in order to drop the additional $5 million each time. The market does not get flooded with a bunch of street free agents all at once, and the total number of players released is likely to decrease as teams could nickel and dime their situation over an extended period.

Of course, teams who are already under the projected salary cap probably have no problem with a jump in the number as it takes teams out of the running to try to sign certain players. But teams that have skimped on the salary cap and have a lot of space, are they the ones who should be rewarded simply because the NFL was dealing with a global pandemic in 2020? Or are teams that spend up to the cap year after year, like the NFL wishes, should they be given some relief?

I don’t know if the NFL has thought of this idea or not, or if they have considered it and already dismissed it. But operating under the assumption that the salary cap has to completely come into affect at the beginning of the new league year is something they should reconsider. The salary cap has never decreased from one year to the next, so it’s not like they’re breaking any kind of tradition.

What do you think? Should the NFL consider stepping down the salary cap throughout the offseason? Or have you figured out the flaw in the theory as to why it should be disregarded? Make sure you leave your thoughts in the comments below.