Where Did All The Secret Money Come From?

Posted: August 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | Tags: | 20 Comments »

Old friend Derek of IgglesBlog fame politely asked me last night, “WHEN ARE YOU WRITING THE POST EXPLAINING WHERE ALL THE SECRET $ CAME FROM?” It is not true that it came from my big winnings from Las Vegas, where I spent last weekend. Didn’t come out ahead on that trip, not even close. No, the “Secret Money” came from … well, exactly where I told you it would come from a couple of weeks ago.

See, as I said before the lockout ended, the Eagles were looking at about $26 million of space. They then went out and signed four large deals:

  • Nnamdi Asomugha ($10 million 2011 cap hit)
  • Jason Babin ($5.3 million 2011 cap hit)
  • Cullen Jenkins ($4 million 2011 cap hit)
  • Vince Young ($4 million 2011 cap hit)

That’s $23.3 million against the cap, which put them at about $3 million of cap space left. They also signed a slew of other guys. But all of those guys, with the exception of Ronnie Brown, were signed to minimum contracts and barely impacted the cap, as I will explain. Some more went to rookies, though only the top three picks are actually counting against the cap right now. They actually saved some cap space by trading Kolb to Arizona for DRC. They saved a little bit more by trading away Brodrick Bunkley. My original estimate may have been off by a little … but not by much because, as of yesterday, they had $4.6 million left under the cap.

This is for two reasons. First, look at the table that BJ has up at his invaluable EaglesCap site. See those notations for “veteran discount”? That means that veterans signed to minimum contracts count for LESS for cap purposes than they are actually getting paid. While I can’t recall whether this provision was part of the original 1993 CBA, it has certainly been part of the CBA since the late 1990s.

Second, there is always something called the “Rule of 51” in effect during the preseason. That rule means that the players with the 51 highest salaries count against the cap right now (along with any additional prorations from bonus money paid to players not in the top 51). Once rosters are cut to 53, then everybody counts. But until then, just the top 51 guys.

Thus, for each veteran signed to a minimum contract, they only count $525K against the cap and are displacing guys who had previously been in the Top 51 and had counted only a little less — likely in the neighborhood of $450K. Thus, the impact of signing all of these minimum salary guys is only about $75K apiece. Because, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the Eagles had a lot of guys under contract already, the impact of signing guys is only the marginal impact over the guys they are displacing from the top 51 calculation.

As to Ronnie Brown, he signed a deal worth $1 million, plus incentives. Again, that only increases the cap by the difference between $1 million and the guy he displaced from the top 51, or about $550K.

Brown is also good example of what the Eagles have been up to. The NFL is weird this year: the draft happened before free agency. Guys like Brown who might have taken an open running back job for a team that would then draft a young back to compete with him now entered a marketplace where that drafted running back is already in place. Now, understand that teams really do always love their draft picks, especially if you give them a summer to do nothing but re-watch their college tape and without the chance to see them even in a mini-camp setting to get an additional read on them. Teams with a young drafted running back will not feel the need to hedge their bet with a veteran RB the way they would if they were staring at a hole at the position in March, not knowing who they will wind up with in the draft, and “never dreaming” that Joe Blow would fall to them.

Anyway, the point is that the market for solid but not superstar veterans is far thinner than it would have been five months ago. And guys like Brown are forced to take deals far below what they would have taken. Consider this: in 2010, the Eagles signed Mike Bell to a fully guaranteed $1.5 million deal. In March, before the lockout, they tendered Jerome Harrison at the second round level, which I believe was worth $1.91 million. Getting a guy like Ronnie Brown at only $1 million is pretty good relative to those deals, in my humble opinion. And I don’t think it would have been possible given a typical off-season schedule.

In this sense, the Eagles have been value investors, signing good young players like Ryan Harris and Evan Mathis for bargain prices. The value is usually in the draft, but there is absolutely value in minimum salaried veterans in this market, and the Eagles are taking advantage of it. Yes, it feels different than their typical approach, but this isn’t a typical year. And as such, the Eagles are doing what they always try to do: buy under-priced assets. They did it with Mike Vick, which paid off — and that is a good parallel here, because Vick didn’t get reinstated until training camp 2009, and lots of jobs were “filled”. The Eagles saw a guy who was cheap and bought, figuring no job is ever really filled. That is happening again in 2011.

The one thing that is striking about this off season is the fact that three of the four big deals are multi-year contracts for players in their 30s. That is odd. But understand that they are generally structured in a way that favors the Eagles. For example, Babin got a low signing bonus and large salaries. If he ever declines, he can be cut without impacting the team going forward.

That’s nice, of course, but the problem with signing players in their 30s is that they will decline at some point, and it usually happens before you are smart enough to cut them, not after. Which hurts the team. In that sense, this is a high risk strategy, and one that has not been especially kind to the team when they have tried it in the past no matter how well the deal was structured.

Finally, a word about cash. It is not the case that every team needs to spend 99% of the cap this year. The league as a whole needs to spend 99% of the cap. So it isn’t like the Eagles are just lighting cash on fire because they have to.

That said, by BJ’s calculations at EaglesCap, the team has spent “just” $115.5 million in cash this year against a cap of $123.4 million. That will go up with extensions for Vick and DeSean Jackson, but again, it isn’t like the team has hit some secret trove of cash that they had kept hidden. They have still spent less than 100% of the cap in cash terms. And, if memory serves, they have actually spent less cash so far than they did last year.

All of which means that there is nothing magical going on here. It just means that this year is a strange one for the league as a whole, and the Eagles have been clever in taking advantage.