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Salary cap space: The game within the game

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What the team does financially in 2019 has a huge impact on the 2020 cap

Ever since the Buffalo Bills’ current cap situation started to come into focus, maybe a year or so ago, this comment seems to come up fairly often:

“We’re not going to spend all this cap space anyways, so who cares if we overspend on a player? It doesn’t matter, we can afford it, and it’s not going to stop us from making any other moves.”

Maybe it does matter.

In the beginning of the salary cap era, cap dollars were “use it or lose it”—if you didn’t spend the money in the current year, the ability to spend it was lost. As long as you weren't bumping up against the cap, it didn't really matter if you wasted a few dollars overpaying a player who wasn't worth it. You weren't going to spend the money anyways. The only consequence was a few extra dollars out of the owner’s pocket.

With the 2011 collective bargaining agreement (CBA), salary-cap rollover became a thing. If your team couldn’t find a player it wanted to spend its cap dollars on, you could now save those cap dollars for the following season. Salary cap management took on much more of a big-picture perspective than before; Wasting money now meant that you’d have less available to spend in future years.

Perhaps the best way to think about this is to forget entirely the common “current salary cap” figures everyone references and relies on. Our salary cap in 2019 is $0. We have zero available cap dollars for 2019. Every player we sign, every salary we add to our 2019 roster, we need to steal cap space from our 2020 budget to cover it. Because for all practical purposes, this is the scenario that salary cap rollover creates.

Now, instead of having $67 million cap dollars burning a hole in our pocket—where a wasted million here and a couple million in dead money there seems insignificant—every dollar spent is putting us further and further into the negative, to the detriment of next year. Every player, from the superstar to the scrub, from those making minimum wage to those making eight figures, takes on a new meaning regarding being “worth it.” Now, we aren’t just deciding if their cap hit fits into this year’s salary cap. We have to decide if they’re really worth taking that money from next year to bolster our roster this year, or if we could get a better player, or more bang for the buck, with that money next year. Will that player have a meaningful impact on our team for the price tag, or would that money better affect our team’s success in 2020?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m as sick of the “Just wait ‘til next year!” rhetoric as everyone else. I’m not advocating being cheap and hoarding cap space into perpetuity. But every dollar we spend this year does matter, regardless of how much or how little we may be spending on the rest of this year’s roster. It’s far more complex than “We have the cap space, it doesn’t matter.”