Newly minted Miami Dolphins Quarterback Josh Rosen highlights some of the clever work done behind the scenes in NFL front offices. After being selected by the Arizona Cardinals with the 10th pick of the 2018 NFL draft, Rosen has been shipped to the Dolphins on the bargain basement salary of just $2 million per season for the next 3 years with an option for a fourth season. How did this happen?
A Simple(ish) Cap Primer
The NFL has a salary cap that goes up each year, that teams are not allowed to exceed. This is different from some other US sports such as the NBA and MLB where salary caps are soft and when a team exceeds the cap they simply pay a luxury tax on the amount over the cap. In the NFL the cap is hard and can not be breached in any way.
This often leads to some accounting shenanigans to keep a teams cap number down while also paying players the going rate. You will often hear of players redoing their contracts. A process that basically means they convert some of their salary into a bonus, and reducing their base salary. Signing bonuses are spread over the length of the contract allowing a team to give a player a bunch of money up-front and spread the cost.
For example, in 2016 Ndomakung Suh reworked his contract with the Dolphins, converting $20m of his salary into a bonus. This created $16m in cap space for Miami, who could spread that bonus amount over the five remaining years of his contract. Seems clever doesn’t it?
The Cap Hits Keep on Coming
Well not so fast. This isn’t the smartest way you to manage your salary cap unless you are on the verge of a championship team and are looking to clear a little cap space to add the final piece of the puzzle. Whenever you begin reworking contracts you move money to later years of the contract. This backloading of a contract usually makes the player far too expensive in the latter years of his contract.
The second downside to this kind of move is if that player leaves the team the entire bonus counts against the salary cap at that time. There are exceptions for some players released after June 1st, where the bonus can be split over 2 seasons. But in general, the cap hit comes straight away.
The Josh Rosen Situation
When Rosen was selected by the Cardinals he signed a standard 4-year $17.6m deal with $10.9m as a signing bonus. This signing bonus stays on the Arizona Cardinals salary cap, meaning the Miami Dolphins only have to pay the remainder of his contract which is just $6.2m over 3 seasons. This is an absolute steal for a player taken top 10 in the draft in 2018.
The flip side of this is the poor cap management by the Cardinals. After taking Kyler Murray number 1, they reduced the trade value of Josh Rosen dramatically, as predicted here. In fact, we predicted Rosen would go to the Patriots at number 64, but he actually went 2 spots higher at 62 to the Dolphins.
This constant QB carousel since Carson Palmer retired has left the Cardinals in a version of the cap hell we described earlier in this article. Arizona actually has $16.2m of dead cap money taken up by three QB’s they have moved on from in very quick succession. That’s 8.34% of their total cap space. Put another way, the Cards are paying QB’s not on their roster $7m more than they are paying their current quarterbacks.
The Dolphins meanwhile have scored themselves a highly rated prospect for the bargain basement price of just $2m per season. None of this is a guarantee of success of course. The NFL is littered with failed former first-round quarterbacks. But if the Dolphins keep making these great decisions the future looks much brighter than it has in a while.