January 26, 2021

Ranking NFL Teams with the Biggest Salary Cap Issues in 2021

Every NFL offseason, there are teams who are looking to add big-name players thanks to a ton of available cap space and there are teams who are in salary cap hell and have a lot of work to do. This offseason, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the likely shrinking cap space, some teams are in a real unenviable spot.

The good news for the 1-15 Jacksonville Jaguars, aside from having the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, is that they also have the most cap space in the NFL at over $73 million. Of all of this year’s playoff teams, the Indianapolis Colts have the most available cap space at just under $65 million, second-most in the league.

Currently, 13 teams are over the projected salary cap for 2021. The range varies from the New York Giants, who are just over $3 million over the cap, to a team who is over $100 million over the 2021 projected cap of $175 million.

While all teams currently over the cap will have to make some changes, these five teams have the most work to do. Having salary cap issues like this is something that can really change a team. The offseason leading up to the 2021 season is going to be extra rough for these five teams.

*Salary Cap Figures via OverTheCap

5. Los Angeles Rams: -$30.5 Million

The Rams need to free up a little over $30 million in cap space this offseason. They signed quarterback Jared Goff to a four-year deal worth $134 million back in 2019. As bad as that deal looked back then, it looks even worse now, considering how Goff has been playing.

The 2021 season will be the biggest cap hit of Goff’s contract at $34.6 million. The NFL’s best defensive player, Aaron Donald, is taking up just under $28 million. Once you add in Jalen Ramsey’s $22.5 million and Cooper Kupp’s $14.5 million, you have nearly $100 million of the projected $175 million cap space for 2021.

From now through the 2024 season, only the Rams and the Eagles are in the bottom five of the league in projected cap space each season. So things are not looking promising for the Rams anytime soon.

Los Angeles has made some bad contractual decisions in recent years, including one that has led to over $8 million in dead cap space for Todd Gurley in 2021.

The Rams are going to have to make some tough decisions that will likely result in either a defensive drop off or an even shakier offense.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers: -$34 Million

Ben Roethlisberger’s future is uncertain but one thing that is certain is that he is responsible for nearly 23% of the team’s salary cap in 2021. His $41.25 million cap hit is made worse by the fact that the Steelers’ offense was a huge disappointment and ultimately led to their exit in the playoffs.

Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is now a free agent and is unlikely to return to Pittsburgh, mostly due to salary-cap issues. The same could likely be said about running back James Conner. 

The majority of the Steelers’ cap space, outside of Roethlisberger, is on the defense and the offensive line. The Steelers are lucky enough to have Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool on cheap rookie contracts.

Outside of that, Pittsburgh is going to look a lot different next season.

3. Atlanta Falcons: -$36.3 Million

Matt Ryan is responsible for over 23% of the team’s salary cap in 2021. The Falcons roster is very top heavy in terms of cap space, with five players (Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews and Dante Fowler Jr.) responsible for about 70% of the team’s salary cap.

What was supposed to be a high-powered offense coming into 2020, hasn’t quite panned out. Atlanta will have some work to do this offseason and the new GM and head coach will surely have their work cut out for them.

Look for Atlanta to restructure some of their biggest contracts and make some obvious cuts this offseason. Ditching Ricardo Allen, James Carpenter and Allen Bailey would free up around $15 million.

While that’s a start, Atlanta has some work to do with their “Big 5” contracts.

2. Philadelphia Eagles: -$53.5 Million

Now that Doug Pederson has been canned, it seems more likely that Carson Wentz will stay in Philadelphia, but that could certainly change any day. Wentz is a modest 17.5% cap hit in 2021 but does carry nearly $60 million in potential dead cap space.

One area where the Eagles could save some money is at wide receiver. Getting rid of DeSean Jackson and Zach Ertz is a start, but the Eagles could make some drastic changes to get under the shrinking cap. 

Considering how bad the Eagles were in 2020, having the league’s second-highest salary cap issue is only going to make matters worse. Future cap seasons for the Eagles are already among the league’s worst projections but of course, that could change. Almost every aspect of the Eagles franchise right now appears to be heading in the wrong direction.

1. New Orleans Saints: -$103 Million

The New Orleans Saints have over $100 million in salary cap they need to free up, nearly twice that of the next highest team. After going all-in to win a Super Bowl in Drew Brees’ final season, the Saints will now have to deal with the repercussions of that decision. It's especially worse since the cap number won’t increase this season as it typically does, thanks to the pandemic.

Whether Brees retires or not, he'll count against the Saints' cap and there's really nothing the Saints can do about it. They could cut Jared Cook, Emmanuel Sanders, Kwon Alexander and others to get under the salary cap, but it might take some drastic cuts and restructurings to make that happen.  

It doesn't help that the Saints gave Taysom Hill a pricey two-year deal last offseason that gives him a $16.2 million cap hit in 2021. 

The Saints deserve praise for trying to maximize their Super Bowl window, but it appears that that window has shut. 

Photo: Getty Images