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3 salary cap reminders ahead of the 2023 NFL league year

As NFL Teams are working on becoming cap compliant as well as having space to participate in free agency, here are a few things to remember.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

It’s almost here.

In less than a week, the legal tampering period kicks off in which unrestricted free agents and NFL teams can begin discussions and agree on contracts for the 2023 NFL season. With the frenzy beginning Monday, March 13, 2023, at 12 PM, there will be plenty of news around the NFL as players join new franchises and look to cash in on big paydays.

In just over a week, these contracts can officially be signed as the 2023 NFL league year kicks off at 4 PM ET on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. At this time, not only can “future” contracts and deals that were arranged during the legal tampering become official, teams must also be compliant with the 2023 NFL salary cap.

As a reminder, only the top 51 contracts on the teams offseason roster, which can be as many as 90 players, count towards the salary cap. With a salary cap number of $224.8 million plus the carryover of individual franchises in unused cap space from 2022, the Steelers cap for 2023 is $229,227,145. In the coming days, look for a salary cap update here at Behind The Steel Curtain to set where the Steelers are in the process ahead of free agency.

For now, here are three reminders of various things in regards to the NFL salary cap.

The salary cap can be manipulated

Because of this, some people such as BTSC senior editor Jeff Hartman love to make the claim that the salary cap is merely a myth. It’s not a myth. But it’s not something that is hard and fast. The salary cap can be manipulated. The total number of money available for each team as their salary cap does not change, but the amount individual players count towards the salary cap have a number of ways in which they can be reduced. Whether it be through contract extensions, large signing bonuses, restructured contracts, the addition of void years, or flat-up releasing a player, the amount of cap space a team can work with can be juggled using various techniques.

The bill always comes due

As teams manipulate their salary cap numbers throughout the process, it is always important to remember that the money never goes away. The bill always comes due. Every dollar that is paid a player in salary or in bonus, with the exception of some savings when a player qualifies for a veteran salary benefit contract, will eventually count towards the salary cap. When you see a report the team saved $8 million on the salary cap by restructuring a contract, that money was simply pushed into future years in order to provide cap space for the upcoming season. The only way money goes away from a player’s salary cap hit is by a reduction in or the termination of their salary. If a player takes a pay cut, gets released, or retires, their unpaid salary does not count towards the salary cap. But often contracts would still carry dead money because the previously paid bonuses, the tool used in order to restructure contracts, still have to be accounted for on the salary cap even if the player is no longer on the roster. So when teams are manipulating the salary cap and finding space, the money will be accounted for eventually.

Kicking the can down the road isn’t as bad as some think

There is a stigma among NFL fans, particularly Pittsburgh Steelers fans as those are the ones I have the most contact with, who despise the idea of the Steelers kicking the can down the road and pushing money into future years. While often being viewed as taking a problem and worrying about it later, this isn’t necessarily the case. It’s not like teams have to pay interest on the money pushed into the future, and a dollar today is actually worth more than a dollar tomorrow.

To better explain, let’s pick an arbitrary number that the Steelers push into the future by restructuring several contracts. Let’s say the Steelers save $20 million by doing so. That $20 million as part of the 2022 salary cap would account for 9.6% of the cap that is available. But in 2023, that same $20 million that was pushed forward is worth 8.9% of the salary cap. This works simply because the salary cap, with the exception of the 2021 NFL season, has gone up every year. When money from one year gets pushed into the next, it’s done so at the same dollar-for-dollar value but isn’t as hurtful the next year because of the increase in the salary cap. So the $20 million counting towards the cap today hurts more than the same $20 million on the salary cap next season.

Just to clarify, it doesn’t mean that this money should be pushed forward when not necessary. Having a large amount of dead money in contracts for players no longer on the roster is not ideal. But if the money is already paid for, and the salary cap space is needed, having it take up a smaller percentage of the salary cap and a future year isn’t as terrible as some make it out to be.

So there are three gentle reminders about the salary cap to remember when news of these things break. With the Steelers floating right around the salary cap amount at this time, moves will be coming to save space ahead of the 2023 league year. And when those things happen, make sure you are tuned into Behind The Steel Curtain for continued coverage and breakdown of the Steelers salary cap.