Though cornerback Justin Gilbert is no longer on the Cleveland Browns roster, having been traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers in early September for a sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, his presence is still being felt on the financial side of things. Though he was traded, this does not exempt the Browns from absorbing leftover dead money on his rookie contract.
Had Gilbert remained in Cleveland for the duration of the 2016 season, he would have had a total salary cap hit of $3,500,046. Of that, $786,682 was his base salary, $1,913,364 was in the form of a prorated signing bonus and another $800,000 in roster bonus. Because the roster bonus was paid out prior to the trade—during training camp, in fact—that money stays on Cleveland’s books, as does the prorated signing bonus. Thus, this year, the Browns have to eat $2,713,364 in dead money, while the Steelers are on the hook only for the base salary amount.
The Browns will also have dead money attributable to Gilbert next season, because again, his prorated signing bonus was among the guaranteed money given him by Cleveland in his rookie contract. That accounts for another $1,913,364 in dead cap space in 2017. All told, the Browns will have $4,626,728 in dead money for Gilbert spanning through 2017. Again, this is cash the team can absorb, given they still have just under $49 million in cap room that they can carry over into next year, but it still means money spent on someone not on the roster, a situation no general manager would like to put his team in if it can be helped.
In contrast, the Browns’ signing this week of offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper was via the waiver wire and not via trade, which makes his financial situation different to that of Gilbert’s. All guaranteed money that was still owed him was absorbed by both the Arizona Cardinals—who traded Cooper to the New England Patriots in March—and then by the Patriots upon Cooper’s release. Once Cooper hit waivers, he was considered a candidate for a prorated veteran minimum salary but even that can be more complicated than it first appears.
For a fourth-year player, Cooper’s minimum salary this year began at $775,000, but it also has to be prorated down to reflect the five weeks he spent on the roster in New England in the regular season. But even then, the Browns don’t have to pay Cooper this prorated amount. Certain veterans qualified for a special set of circumstances where a veteran with four or more years of experience can receive the minimum salary that reflects his level of experience but have a salary cap figure that actually corresponds with veterans with just two years of experience. That amount is $615,000 in 2016.
There are catches, though, to this setup. One, is that the veteran’s new contract can only be a one-year deal. Two, the combined bonuses in the one-year contract (such as signing or roster bonuses) cannot be more than $80,000.
In a prorated, four-year veteran minimum salary, Cooper will cost the Browns $476,470 for 2016. But as we don’t yet know what kind of deal the Browns have signed him to, we can only assume that this is his cap hit. It truly depends on how the front office viewed the waiver claim. Remember, Cooper had yet to play a snap for the Patriots this season, as he is working his way back from a foot injury. Do the Browns view him as a stash for later, or is this just a flyer addition, to see how Cooper may be able to contribute should he get healthy?
When the full contract details become available, his footing in Cleveland will be made more clear. Also worth keeping in mind: While this is Cooper’s fourth season, he has yet to complete it, which doesn’t make him a vested veteran, which is why he was subject to waivers in the first place. Otherwise, vested veterans with four or more accrued seasons who are released become immediate free agents.
The lesson in all of this: That even the most straightforward-seeming NFL transactions have a complicated undercarriage. A trade is never just a trade; a waiver-wire acquisition of a veteran player is never a simple signing. The departure of Gilbert and the arrival of Cooper are two very illuminating examples of financial life in the NFL.