Forget everything you've been told about where the Cleveland Browns stand with respect to the salary cap.
Are the Browns in "cap hell"? Hardly. Are they "cap poor"? Nope. Are they right to take it slow this free agent season? In my opinion, absolutely.
There have been a number of cap changes which impact the team over the last week, and the OBR has the details, many of them exclusive for our subscribers.
Here's what has happened:
1. The Browns have gotten over $9 million in cap credits
2. Ryan Tucker has re-negotiated his deal with the team, saving several million against the cap.
3. Kellen Winslow has been traded, saving the team additional cap money.
The net effect of these changes is that the Browns are in much better cap shape than they were this time last week, although existing contracts with WR Braylon Edwards and QB Derek Anderson are impacting the team's flexibility to make trades. Look for analysis of that particular topic in the coming days.
Let's go through all these changes in turn, and then figure out what they mean for the Browns cap space overall.
Each year, the league adjusts each team's salary cap based on a number of factors, providing cap credits (or deductions) based on the events of the past year.
Many of these cap credits are generated by whether or not players achieved bonuses in the past year. The NFL forces teams to apply performance bonuses and incentives in their cap calculations to stop teams from getting around the salary cap through the way they award bonuses.
For cap purposes, these bonuses are split into two parts. One is called a "likely to be earned" (LTE) incentive. They have a evil-Kirk counterpart called "not likely to be earned" (NLTE) incentives.
An example of an LTE would be a playing time bonus for a starter. If the player starts five games, for example, he receives a $500K bonus. That bonus might be called "likely" and would count against that year's salary cap.
An NLTE might be awarding your long-snapper a $2 million bonus if he scores four touchdowns. These bonuses do not count against the cap each year.
One trick that teams have learned is how to "bank" money for next year's salary cap by declaring unlikely bonuses as "likely to be earned". For example, the team might declare the long-snapper touchdown bonus as "likely", and then get a cap credit next year when (gee whiz golly) it turns out that the long-snapper didn't score any touchdowns at all. (Who would have thunk it?)
The Browns, for example, stashed several million in bonuses they called "likely to be earned" for Ken Dorsey and Ryan Pontbriand when they signed new contracts a few years ago. While we can't tell you what the bonuses were, league sources tell the OBR that they were used to roll forward cap credits for later years, including 2009.
This year, the Browns used that device and other circumstances to come up with over $9 million in cap credits. Since the team had about $10 million before the 2009 gun went off, those additional credits would give the team up to $19 million in available space.
League sources tell the OBR that the Eagles (masters at this game) and the Buccaneers have far more in cap credits for this year, with both teams getting over $20 million. But the Browns are in the upper tier of teams getting credits this year, so it helps their cap standing relative to others in the NFL.
RYAN TUCKER HELPS OUT
Fans following the OBR Insider Blog know that we've been sweating this one for several days, ever since an NFL source told us that Tucker's salary cap number had dropped over the last week or two.
Since we didn't have a lot of information, the drop could have meant anything from Tucker's release to salary cap machinations of the type which would give Stephan Hawking a pounding migraine.
Turns out that Ryan Tucker re-did his deal with the Browns, with the net effect that he helped the team save over $2 million against the cap from his previous deal.
Tucker's new deal, which has not been confirmed by the team or his agent at this point, is a one-year deal according to our sources.
THE IMPACT OF THE WINSLOW DEAL
Unlike the aforementioned Anderson and Edwards, Kellen Winslow had a contract which made him less painful to trade from a cap perspective.
Players are most "trade-able" from a cap perspective when they're close to the end of their deals, and have little in the way of signing bonus money which would be rolled up if they're cut or dealt.
Winslow's deal was salary-heavy and had no future signing bonus money to roll up, which means that the Browns had very little "dead cap" left over when K2 was traded to the Buccaneers. According to the best information we have, the Browns will have less than a million in dead cap space after dealing Winslow, and will save at least $3.5 million by packing him up in exchange for draft picks.
WHAT'S THE NET RESULT?
As close as we can figure at this point, the Browns now have over $25 million to spend against the cap. This puts them very near the league average as of the start of free agency.
After the spending spree of the last several days, the Browns would seem to be in the upper half of the league in terms of available cap space.
Unfortunately, for the Browns, even though they're doing better than average, league-wide spending is thrown off by a couple of teams (Eagles, Chiefs, Buccaneers) who have well over $40 million available to spend. And the Washington Redskins, of course, are acting like a 14-year-old debutante with Daddy's credit card.
As long as those teams are setting the market, players will likely be getting more than they deserve.
The Browns, meanwhile, seem to be biding their time, and waiting to until players they want fall into their price range.
The Browns also now have three draft picks in the first fifty, which gives them a need to retain some flexibility as they near the draft.