Buy Now, Pay (and Suffer) Later: The Crippling Effects of Dead Money

How much can releasing a player early affect your team’s salary cap? A lot.

If a player retires, your team gets all of that salary cap money back, right? Wrong.

My team traded away a bad, overpriced player, so our salary cap is no longer affected! False.

If you knew the answers to all three of these questions, you might not need to read this (but you still should, because it’s funny). If you didn’t know the answers, and you claim to follow the NFL offseason in any capacity, then this is required reading.


In my last post, I picked a few big-money free agent contracts to illustrate how a big-money contract can be manageable – or horrible.

One surefire sign of a bad contract is significant dead money hits in out-years. Should a team choose to terminate that contract prematurely, they would incur a cap hit even though the player is no longer on the team. There are several ways in which dead money can be incurred. The most prevalent example is a signing bonus, which is paid instantly but gets prorated over the life of the contract for salary cap purposes. OverTheCap provides an in-depth summary of dead money here.

In this post, we will look deeper at which teams and positions are suffering dead money effects the most. And of course, poke fun at the failures.

Dead Money by Team

Here are some summary facts on dead money in the NFL right now (all numbers courtesy of OverTheCap):

Total Dead Money: $232,760,111

Average Dead Money Per Team: $7,273,753 (~ 4.5% of total salary cap)*

Most Dead Money: $24,971,845 (Saints) (!!!!!!!!)

Least Dead Money: $193,271 (Bengals)

*Although the 2016 NFL league-wide salary cap is $155,270,000, each team has a team-adjusted salary cap because there are carryovers and adjustments from the previous year.

Capital Offenders

Let’s pause for a moment to rip on the Saints, whose dead money penalties count for a whopping $25 million, or 16 percent of their team-adjusted salary cap.

To give you an idea of how much money that is: if the Saints had that extra $25 million in cap space, they could have signed the two biggest defensive free agents – Olivier Vernon and Malik Jackson – to the same contracts that they signed with their new teams (the Giants and Jaguars, respectively).

In fact, there’s only one player in the entire NFL with a 2016 cap hit higher than $25 million, and he plays for… who else? The Saints (Drew Brees’ cap hit is $30 million). Irony at it’s finest.

To Saints GM Mickey Loomis: I have only one question.

Other guilty parties: Atlanta ($18.8M), Philadelphia ($15.1M), Detroit ($14.6M), Cleveland ($13.5M), and Buffalo ($13.1M). Unsurprisingly, none of these teams are beating down the door where the Lombardi Trophy is held.

Smart Shoppers

All is not lost, as some teams actually make good decisions. The best example is the Bengals, whose strategy has been to build through the draft and hand out big money to homegrown players instead of unknown free agents. Because of that strategy, Cincinnati is sitting on less than $200K in dead money, which is substantially less than the minimum salary for an NFL rookie.

Other savvy shoppers: Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Green Bay, and Dallas (all less than $1 million in dead money).

We can draw an obvious, but nonetheless important, conclusion from this information: Avoiding dead money is very helpful, but it’s not enough to win. Of the six teams with less than $1 million in dead money hits, two (Tampa Bay, Jacksonville) are among the least talented teams in the NFL.

Dead Money by Position

Now let’s take a look at each position across the entire league. To make my life easier, I only looked at players whose dead money hit was $1M or more – the idea being, with those players, something in the plan definitely went wrong. This approach still let’s us look at about 90% of the total dead money in the league, so the data is plenty good enough to draw conclusions from.

A picture is a thousand words:


This graph shows:

  • (numbers in black) – the number of players in each position grouping that have a dead money hit greater than $1 million.
  • (blue bar) – the league-wide total dead money for each position grouping.
  • (orange bar) – the maximum dead money for a single player in each position grouping.
  • (silver bar) – the average dead money per player in each position grouping.

And here is the makeup of each position grouping:

  • OL: this includes all five offensive line positions (LT, LG, C, RG, RT).
  • DL: this includes all 4-3 defensive linemen, all 3-4 defensive linemen, and 3-4 outside linebackers. In other words, players who play on the line of scrimmage.
  • LB: this includes all 4-3 linebackers and 3-4 inside linebackers.
  • DB: this includes corners and safeties.
  • RB, TE, and QB are self explanatory.

Let’s take a closer look at each position group. I’ll share my observations along with some general conclusions at the end. And I’ll definitely make fun of teams for a few of these terrible contracts.

Offensive Line (14 players, $51 million in dead money)

Observations: I included all five offensive line positions in the same group, so it’s not surprising that they are leading the way in terms of dead money.

Overall, the group is pretty balanced. It is made up of 6 tackles and 8 guards, and has a mix of younger and older players. It’s interesting that there are no centers in the group. Let’s take a look at the worst offenders to see if there are any outliers:

OT Sam Baker: $6,400,000

OT Gosder Cherilus: $5,800,000

OG Ben Grubbs: $5,200,000

OG Jahri Evans: $5,100,000

OT Will Beatty: $5,000,000

Pretty straightforward. The Sam Baker signing was predictably disastrous, as Baker was injury prone and never a particularly effective player. The Falcons still thought it was a good idea to give him a 6 year, $41 million contract ($18.25 million guaranteed). I wonder if then Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff had just watched The Dark Knight for the first time prior to offering the deal.

Biggest culprit: The Falcons, with two players (Baker and G Jon Asamoah) totaling $10.3 million in dead money. Whoops.

Wide Receivers (12 players, $39 million in dead money)

Observations: It’s surprising that wide receivers would account for more dead money than defensive linemen. Teams carry many more defensive linemen than they do wide receivers, and we know that defensive linemen often receive mammoth contracts in free agency. Let’s look at the worst wide receiver offenders to see if there’s an outlier:

Calvin Johnson: $12,916,000

Dwayne Bowe: $4,600,000

Roddy White: $3,775,000

Anquan Boldin: $2,727,000

Marques Colston: $2,700,000

Sure enough, one player – Calvin Johnson – is driving this number up. But wait… didn’t Johnson retire? Shouldn’t the Lions be free from a penalty? Not at all. This article explains in detail why Johnson is still counting against the Lions’ 2016 cap. There will always be an unforeseen impact from a player retiring suddenly, but the Lions worsened Johnson’s cap situation significantly because of how they structured and managed the contract.

Another interesting observation for wide receivers is that the top six players on the list (the five above plus Andre Johnson) are all over 30 years old. Avoiding old, declining wide receivers in free agency seems obvious, but hey, what do I know?

Biggest Culprit: The Lions, courtesy of bad luck (early retirement) and some poor contract management. The Browns deserve an honorable mention here, too, because of the truly terrible contract they gave Dwayne Bowe a year ago.

Defensive Line (8 players, $37 million in dead money)

Defensive linemen have the highest average dead money per player at $4.6 million (compare that to a $3.6 million dead money average for the offensive line and a $3.3 million dead money average for wide receivers). Let’s look at the worst offenders to find out why:

Junior Galette: $12,100,000

Mario Williams: $7,000,000

Jason Hatcher: $4,500,000

Charles Johnson: $4,020,000

Tamba Hali: $4,000,000

Another outlier. Galette didn’t retire, and he’s actually a young player (just 28); however, he was released due to legal problems just one year into a 4 year, $41.5 million extension ($23 million guaranteed). Galette had a history of off-field issues, so this wasn’t a surprising result. Giving Galette a bunch of money was a Joker-like decision, so I’m wondering if Mickey Loomis and Thomas Dimitroff had a Dark Knight slumber party, or something.


I combined these groups because there wasn’t much to see, and also because I know your attention span has limits. A few observations:

  • Despite being traded, Byron Maxwell still counts for $4.8 million in dead money against the Eagles’ cap. The Eagles won a sizeable victory by getting rid of Maxwell’s contract; however, this is a good example of how finding a trading partner doesn’t let you off scotch free.
  • Teams are predictably stingy with running backs. There are only five RBs on the list, and only one has a dead money hit over $3 million (Demarco Murray at $4 million).
  • While teams are stingy with RBs – not handing out much guaranteed money – they behave oppositely with QBs, handing out tons of guaranteed money without regard. And still, there is almost no dead money wrapped up in QBs around the league. The reason is that teams are simply willing to put up with expensive, underperforming quarterbacks because the position is too important.

Wrapping Up

Putting it all together:

  • Dead money can cause significant problems for teams in terms of re-signing their talent and obtaining free agents (the Saints have 16% of their salary cap tied up with dead money).
  • Effective management of dead money won’t win you a Super Bowl by itself, but messing it up will cripple your chances.
  • Cap penalties from an unexpected player retirement are risks that can’t be ignored when signing older players to huge contracts.
  • Signing old wide receivers and troublemakers to lucrative, multi-year contracts is a bad idea.
  • Hiring Mickey Loomis or Thomas Dimitroff as your GM is an even worse idea, unless you just want to have Batman slumber parties and/or burn stacks of money.
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Engineer by day, aspiring football writer by, well, any other time that he has.

Loves data-driven, analytical approaches to NFL analysis.

Also loves pizza, gin, and taking co-ed sports too seriously.
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