Following the Browns decision to release LeCharles Bentley from his contract, Orange and Brown Report subscribers began asking about the cap impact of the decision and whether or the release could have been cap-motivated.
With the help of NFL sources and published reports, we've pieced together the Browns current cap status and the cap impact of Bentley's release. In addition, we've learned enough about the precise structure of Bentley's contract to determine if it had any role in motivating the player and organization to part ways.
1. Whatever motivation the Browns had for releasing LeCharles Bentley, it wasn't to save money against the salary cap.
2. The structure of the contract strongly suggests that the Browns have been thinking about the possibility of releasing Bentley as far back as last season.
3. While Bentley's contract is unlikely to have played any role in the team's decision to release the player, the structure of his contract may have contributed to Bentley's unhappiness about reduced playing time.
Understanding these conclusions requires that we determine where the Browns currently stand against the salary cap, how Bentley's contract impacts the cap, and how his 2008 contract is structured.
The Browns Cap Situation
Our sources tell us that the Browns, as they currently stand, are approximately $10 million under the salary cap, which places them in the middle of the NFL pack in terms of their financial flexibility, although it limits somewhat their ability to do restructuring of large contracts, e.g., Kellen Winslow's deal.
The Browns have some flexibility beyond their current space under the cap. At least one player has what's known as "likely to be earned" (LTBE) bonuses which have been padded to "bank" money for the 2009 season.
LTBE bonuses count against this year's cap. If they aren't paid, however, the Browns can use the unpaid amounts next year. This essentially lets the team "bank" money in this year's cap that they could spend next year. Based on what we know, the Browns have stashed some money in LTBEs that are actually "unlikely to be earned".
If the situation was dire enough, the team could likely renegotiate deals to remove those LTBEs, giving them more room this year (at the cost of being able to use that money next year).
Adding their current cap space to this "banked reserve", the Browns don't appear to be in a position where they need to drop players in order to make moderately-priced roster moves.
From this, we can safely conclude that the team's reasons for releasing Bentley have nothing to do with a sudden need to drive out more room under the cap.
The Browns cap concerns are likely more focused more on 2009, when their salary commitments are already in the top five of the league. This is important when we take a look at Bentley's renegotiated contract below.
Bentley's 2008 Contract and the Cap
The offensive lineman and Browns quietly re-negotiated Bentley's contract last fall. The new deal eliminated the 2009-2011 seasons from the five he had remaining, and replaced it with a smaller two-year deal. The decision to renegotiate at that time was critical, and points to the team's effective cap management.
The new deal had a number of cap implications:
1. Acceleration of the original 2006 signing bonus
Bentley's original signing bonus was pro-rated over five years (through 2010). This yearly pro-rated signing bonus came to over $1.5 million per year, since Bentley got over a $7 signing bonus back in 2006.
When Bentley's contract was shortened, over $3 million of pro-rated signing bonus had to accelerate to fit into 2007 and 2008. Our sources tell us that the team put nearly all of it into the 2007 cap since the deal was done that year. The Browns, realizing that they would have less room in 2008, absorbed almost all of the impact of Bentley's deal last season, erasing most of the impact to the cap this year and next.
What's important here is that if the Browns had not signed Bentley to a new and shorter contract, and did not get it done last year, the team would have been in a much tighter spot right now. With the team closer to the cap in 2008 and 2009, releasing Bentley under the terms of his old deal would have burned a ton of cap space this year and next, when the team simply didn't have it.
2. Cap impact in 2008
Since Bentley's contract ends this year, there is no acceleration of remaining signing bonus. The pro-rated signing bonus amount counts the same against the cap whether Bentley was a Brown in 2008 or not.
What Bentley had left were some of the usual bonuses and a relatively low salary. By releasing Bentley, the team saves $605,000 against the cap, which according to published reports is Bentley's base pay this season. That amount will likely get taken back up if the team signs a veteran corner for minimum salary.
Bentley's contract is structured such that his release has practically no cap impact whatsoever. This is a result of good planning, and suggests that the team was concerned about whether Bentley would have to be released last year when they re-did the deal.
Did Bentley have Financial Motivation to Leave?
The entire story of why Bentley chose to ask for his release, and why the Browns gave it to him, isn't yet known. Both sides have offered their comments about it, and fans likely will learn more over the course of the coming weeks and months.
It can be said, however, that Bentley was not tied to the Browns because of the wealth of his contract. His base salary in 2008 is approximately the minimum salary for a veteran NFL player with his years of experience. Assuming that he's signed, Bentley can't lose salary by playing elsewhere, and may make somewhat more if he's able to get any sort of bidding war going for his services as a free agent.
Our sources, however, tell us about another factor that may have contributed to Bentley's unhappiness. According to our sources, Bentley's renegotiated contract had between two and four million dollars of incentives for this year. Those incentives were, we've been told, tied to playing time.
We cannot tell you the specific nature of these incentives. If they were tied to playing time, like our sources have suggested, Bentley's frustration at being a reserve might have not only involved pride, but his pocketbook as well.
In addition, significant playing time, and making those incentives, is the only way that Bentley's 2008 contract could have had any real cap impact. Without knowing their precise nature, it's tough to tell whether they might have been achieved.
Bentley has not mentioned these incentives, nor has the team. For many players, the chance to get onto the field is what focuses them. If the Browns felt that Bentley's on-field success would have given them a better chance to win, the incentives do not appear so large as to have given them a reason to balk.
Could an inability to make financial incentives have been a factor? Certainly.
Only the player can tell you for sure.