The billion-dollar breathlessness already has begun regarding 2016 league year, which will feature unprecedented amounts of cap space and, presumably, unprecedented spending.
Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. The salary cap represents the most a team can spend. In any given year, teams can spend less, if they want.
For 2011 and 2012, all teams were required to spend on average 89 percent of the cap, and all teams collectively were required to spend 99 percent of the available money. All teams complied, individually, and collectively.
A four-year window then opened for the next round of compliance: 2013 through 2016. Collectively (and on average), 95 percent of the total cap dollars must be spent. Individually (and on average), teams must spend 89 percent.
So if the cap, to use the easiest numbers to digest, were $100 million every year, each team would be required to average $89 million in spending per year. For each year in which the $89 million is exceeded, less can be spent later. If, for example, a given team spent $100 million in 2013, 2014, and 2015, it would be required to spend only $67 million in 2016 to comply.
Per a source with knowledge of the situation, only the Jaguars and Raiders currently are behind the 89-percent minimum based on the first three years of the current four-year window. Once the salary cap is locked in for 2016, the NFL and NFL Players Association will be able to calculate the total amount that each team needs to spend in order to get to the minimum.
For most teams, that won’t be an issue, making the achievement of the 95-percent league-wide number easier to hit. For some teams, it will be necessary to dig deep and find players to whom plenty of money will be given.
That still doesn’t mean the Jaguars and Raiders, or anyone else, will go nuts in free agency. For every team that has sailed over the 89-percent number, this is the reconciliation year in which they can both spend less and also carry over any unused cap space for the next four-year window, which opens in 2017 and closes in 2020.
The teams know how much they’ve spent, and they’ll know how much they need to spend. Ultimately, the predetermined budget for a given team means much more than the salary cap. And the 2016 budgets for most teams already have been determined.
As to the Jaguars and Raiders, there’s another important reality to keep in mind. The 2016 league year begins in March 2016 and end in March 2017. After Week 17 of the 2016 season, both teams will see key young players become eligible for second contracts — and both teams will have full coffers of earnings from a full season of football, including the new money from the expanded Thursday Night Football package. Whatever the deficit may be at that point, the Jaguars and Raiders can cure it with a stroke of the pen on the inevitable second contracts that Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson, and Allen Hurns and Khalil Mack and Derek Carr, respectively.
Will it be good for this specific business if teams bust the juke-a-box next month? Absolutely. But the availability of so much cap space doesn’t necessarily mean that the league will suddenly be transformed into a gang of drunken sailors the moment the new league year begins.