One of the more perplexing features of the NFL is the salary cap. On the one hand, it seems straight forward. You have a salary cap that all teams must fit under. Simple, right?
It gets more complicated in a hurry. After all, teams with very little cap space frequently sign marquee players to high dollar contracts. This is accomplished through bonuses, incentive-laden contract clauses, and back-loading a deal where the bulk of the contract’s value is paid in later years, where the team projects to have more cap space.
This salary cap planning and “manipulation” is what NFL salary capologists like Mike Bluem spend their time considering every day. How can we plan for the future in a way that allows Chris Ballard and Jim Irsay to field a team with the most talent in the NFL for the longest period of time? We can’t simply spend all the way up to the salary cap every year, leaving no space available, and hope to keep the nucleus together. Major contracts for our own players will consistently require work as the old ones expire and new deals need to be made.
Keeping in mind the needs for our own players, how much salary cap space do we have to work with to sign free agents and bring in outside talent? How do we work all of this together to make sure we stay above the NFL’s mandated 89 percent rule?
This week, we’ll take a look at these questions and do our best to shed light on the NFL salary cap, 89 percent rule, and what fans might be able to expect Chris Ballard and Mike Bluem to do in 2019 and beyond.
2019 Salary Cap and How the Colts Fit
On December 11, 2018 the NFL announced that the 2019 salary cap is projected to be in the range of $187 - $191.1 million. For the purposes of this story, we’ll assume a salary cap of $189 million, which is an $11.8 million increase over 2018’s cap of $177.2 million — or 6.66%.
In terms of the 89% minimum cash spend rule, utilizing the 2019 projection, the Colts have a four-year running salary cap total of $688,470,000. In order to meet the 89% expectation, the Colts must spend a total of $612,738,300. The team has currently spent $553,242,521. Therefore, Jim Irsay and Chris Ballard must spend at least $59,495,779 to stay on track to the 89% target from 2017-2020.
They could spend this amount and still be under the 2019 projected salary cap, excluding carryover. In short, the team will have no issue maintaining a number well above 89% as a four-year running total compared to salary cap.
In terms of projected salary cap space, the Colts currently lead the NFL with $115,413,981 in projected cap space per Spotrac. This is $19 million above the New York Jets, who have the second highest available salary cap space and $35 million over the Buffalo Bills who have the third. It is $54 million above the Houston Texans, who have the sixth highest cap available for 2019 and nearly $67 million above the Dallas Cowboys who have the tenth.
There is not a team in the NFL who comes anywhere close to the Colts in terms of salary cap and cash available to make major moves in free agency. The Jets, Bills, and Raiders are not in the same league as the Colts in terms of how attractive the situation is with those franchises. The Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Seattle Seahawks, and Dallas Cowboys are the most attractive teams outside of the Colts in the top 10 of this list.
The teams who played in conference championships? The Kansas City Chiefs have $36,443,381, which is the 13th highest projected space in the NFL. The Los Angeles Rams have $36,267,550, which is 14th. The New England Patriots have $20,896,191, which is 22nd. The New Orleans Saints have $11,901,194, which is 26th.
Collectively, those four teams have $10 million less cap space than the Colts have on their own in 2019.
All of this adds up to what should be a very desirable situation for Chris Ballard, Mike Bluem and the Indianapolis Colts. It could even be argued that, with 9 projected draft picks and $115 million, no team in the NFL should take a more aggressive trajectory over the short- and long-term than Indianapolis. It is up to Chris Ballard to keep working the same magic he has over his first two seasons as an NFL General Manager.
There is very little Chris Ballard could want that he doesn’t have the capital to acquire. The biggest names in free agency? Ballard is at the top of their and their agents’ call lists. Not every marquee free agent will want to play in Indianapolis but their agents will want to visit to set the market.
Outside of location, the work Ballard has done over the last two seasons has made the Colts a very desirable place to play. They have an incredibly stable locker room with players who clearly respect one another and who care about playing for eachother. They have a player’s coach who is well respected, loved, and who played the game at a high level himself. They have a top tier quarterback who is only a couple of years into his prime, a player-friendly defense that allows players to focus on maximizing their own athletic gifts, and they just went from a 4 win season to a visit to a Divisional Round playoff game.
They also have a coaching staff and culture that has helped numerous veteran players have career best season performances. Ask Eric Ebron, Pierre Desir, Margus Hunt, Mark Glowinski, Jabaal Sheard, and Denico Autry how they feel about their decision to sign in Indianapolis. Ask Kenny Moore II how happy he is to go from getting waived by the Patriots to being the best cornerback in Indianapolis.
The Colts should be a magnet for the type of players Ballard covets. It should attract superstars who are looking to get out of unstable situations and get a fresh start. It is more likely that Ballard can be picky about who he wants to add to his locker room than it is that he will struggle to find players who are interested in playing in Indianapolis.