NFL salary cap figures are not always what they seem. Dead money values allow teams to cut players and free up space against the cap at certain times during offseason periods. There are also roster bonuses and contract guarantees that do not count against the cap.
Some fans cling to the notion that teams that spend the most money within the limits of the salary cap should contend for a Super Bowl championship. That, of course, is not always the case. Injuries, slumps, and poor money management can have negative impacts on a club for several seasons.
These are the 10 worst NFL salary cap situations as of August 2014.
Reminder: These values are not final cap spaces as of the start of the 2014 NFL regular season
10 Baltimore Ravens: $5,158,608 in Cap Space
The one constant every team that wins a Super Bowl must deal with over the subsequent seasons: Guys are going to want to get paid.
It was just two summers ago that some around the NFL wondered if Joe Flacco would ever be anything more than a serviceable starting quarterback. Flacco didn't have a banner year in 2012 as far as his statistics, but he stepped up when on the big stage, leading the Ravens to the franchise's second ever Super Bowl title.
As would any quarterback facing a similar situation, Flacco inked a mammoth deal with the Ravens in 2013. His cap hit will be over $24 million from 2016 through 2018.
9 Kansas City Chiefs: $5,100,462 in Cap Space
The Chiefs, unlike the Ravens, haven't won a Super Bowl in recent history. Don't try telling that to quarterback Alex Smith. Smith, who is out of contract after the 2014 campaign, believes that he deserves a deal similar to that of Joe Flacco.
One could easily compare Smith with Seattle Seahawks starter Russell Wilson. Both are game managers, while neither are going to deliver monster fantasy football stats. Wilson, unlike Smith, has hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in celebration.
The 30-year-old KC starting QB has some work to do if he to earn his desired contract.
8 Chicago Bears: $4,991,134 in Cap Space
The Bears did not want to lose quarterback Jay Cutler to free agency last winter, so much so that they awarded the 31-year-old with a contract that promised him at least $54 million. That does not even include roster bonuses that Cutler could earn down the road.
A seven-year deal worth potentially $126.7 million is quite the leap of faith to take on a player such as Cutler. He has survived a full 16-game regular season just once since joining the Bears, and that was back in his debut campaign with the club back in 2009.
Cutler's contract does not, however, completely handcuff the Bears. Chicago can realistically revisit the situation once the 2015 regular season ends, as Cutler's dead money value will drastically dip at that time.
7 Carolina Panthers: $4,853,369 in Cap Space
While the statuses of rookie quarterbacks such as Cleveland Browns phenom Johnny Manziel, Jacksonville Jaguars backup Blake Bortles and potential Minnesota Vikings starter Teddy Bridgewater continue to make headlines on ESPN and NFL Network, there is one matter that is flying under the radar:
Newton and his camp are obviously hoping to strike on a new deal before the 2014 campaign gets underway. The Panthers have no reason to oblige. Football is a rough and dangerous sport, after all, and it would behoove Carolina to wait until next winter before guaranteeing any additional cash to Newton.
6 San Diego Chargers: $4,223,242 in Cap Space
The health and staying power of reliable tight end Antonio Gates will significantly impact San Diego's cap situation following 2014. His cap hit goes up by close to $1 million next year (up to $8.2625 million), while his dead money value drops by half down to $2.3625 million.
Gates will turn 35 years old next June.
There should, so long as he can remain on the field, be no questions about the playing future of quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers tossed for 32 touchdowns and 4,478 passing yards while completing 69.9 percent of his passes in 2013. It's likely that he will sign one final deal with the Chargers at some point between now and next summer.
5 New Orleans Saints: $4,103,456 in Cap Space
Whether or not Jimmy Graham should be viewed as a wide receiver or tight end was an offseason story that could have changed the way certain players are paid moving forward. Graham was eventually ruled to be a tight end, and thus he missed out the contract he had been pursuing. That said, the Saints have locked themselves with the dynamic play maker for at least the next few seasons.
Quarterback Drew Brees will probably retire as a New Orleans player; as he should. The 35-year-old is signed through the end of the 2016 season, after which both player and club will have to evaluate what is best for both parties.
4 Washington Redskins: $2,084,974 in Cap Space
The Redskins have invested “win-now” money into a team that could, if things go wrong, fail to make the playoffs this season. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo is on a franchise-tag deal, and thus his status for the future remains in limbo. The cap hits of wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson rise to over $9 million next year.
Then, there is quarterback Robert Griffin III.
The 'Skins are tied to RG3 up through the end of 2015. There is nothing the team can do about that. Griffin has thus far earned nothing outside of the rookie deal he signed in 2012.
The Washington front office could be facing quite the dilemma if Griffin gets banged up at any point over the next couple of years.
3 St. Louis Rams: $1,749,759 in Cap Space
The story of Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, has overshadowed the fact that 2014 will be a make-or-break season for several players on St. Louis roster. The Rams will likely want to re-examine the status of defensive end Chris Long in February, when his dead money value drops by nearly $15 million. Left tackle Jake Long, who tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee last December, could also be expendable if he cannot remain on the field this coming fall.
All eyes will be on quarterback Sam Bradford each time he and the Rams take the field. Bradford has entered the end of the scary portion of his rookie deal, and he needs to show head coach Jeff Fisher that he is able to stay healthy and consistently win in the NFL. Otherwise, St. Louis will have no other choice but to move on to a new QB.
2 Detroit Lions: - $141,198 in Cap Space
The Lions have made a mess of their cap space, most notably regarding star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford are not going anywhere anytime soon, and Detroit failed to lock Suh down during the winter and spring months. Financially speaking, the Lions may have no choice but to trade Suh as soon as possible.
That may sound crazy to diehard Lions fans, but those individuals have to remember one thing: Detroit finished third in the NFC North standings in 2013, and the Green Bay Packers still have a guy named Aaron Rodgers as their staring quarterback. As harsh as it would be for those who pay money to watch the Lions in person, the club may have to cut ties with Suh and look past the upcoming regular season.
1 Denver Broncos: - $170,586 in Cap Space
The Denver Broncos and not the Seattle Seahawks are the best team in the NFL as of August 15. Sorry, members of the 12th Man, but it's true.
Denver's defense is in a better state than it was last February. That's not including free agency acquisitions DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. Throw in quarterback Peyton Manning and an offense that set records in 2013, and you've got the makings for a roster capable of winning a consecutive conference championship.
The Broncos have the luxury of worrying about the future next winter. Manning may retire as an active player at that time. This team is built to win now, and it has the goods to do just that.