As of February 29th at 12:01am, the Lions have officially entered their playoffs (free agency), that will culminate with our SuperBowl appearance late April (NFL draft).
As with any sport, there is a business aspect to football. There are rules and regulations that all NFL teams must comply to. If there weren't, we'd have the disparity that exists in baseball (although with recent changes, that disparity is less today than it has been in the past). Those rules are an agreement between the owners and the players that are outlined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, commonly referred to as the CBA. The Salary Cap is one of the rules that greatly limits and effects what a team can and can not do. The CBA is a 400 plus page document that is basically the rule book for the NFL. If you're interested in reading it (get a life!!), it can be found at the NFLPA.Org's website at the following address http://www.nflpa.org/CBA/CBA_Complete.aspx. It does have some interesting information if you want to scan it.
For players that were only signed through the 2007 season, their contracts officially expired at midnight on February 28th. These players are now free agents and according to the rules of the CBA, they are lumped into one of several different classes of free agents, based on the number of accrued seasons they have. A player gains an accrued season anytime he's on the roster (active, inactive, injured reserve) for six regular season games.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents (ERFA) – These players are players that have less than 3 accrued seasons. They are not allowed to negotiate a contract with any other teams, other than their current team and if they want to play, they must sign a contract for the league minimum based on their years of service in the NFL. The Lions had four such players. DeVale Ellis has already signed his contract for 445K. I would assume that the others have been offered a contract, but have yet to sign it. Sean McHugh (535K), Greg Blue (370K) and LaMarcus Hicks (370K).
Restricted Free Agents (RFA) – These players have 3 accrued seasons and can be tendered a contract of 4 different amounts. For 2008, the amounts are General Tender ($927,000), a 2nd Round tender ($1,417,000), a 1st round tender ($2,017,000) or a 1st and 3rd round tender ($2,562,000). The Lions had four players qualify:
- Langston Moore (6th Round)
- Dan Orlovsky (5th Round)
- Stephen Peterman (3rd Round)
- Stanley Wilson (3rd Round)
The Lions elected to give them all a general tender. What that means is the Lions have offered to sign them for the 2008 season and pay them $927,000, provided they make the team. These players can either sign the tender and join the Lions or they can sign a contract with another team. If they elect to sign with another team, the Lions would have the option of either matching that contract and retain the player or receive draft choice compensation from the acquiring team equal to the round in which they were originally drafted.
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA) – These players have at least four accrued seasons and are free to negotiate with the Lions or any other team. Players released by other teams are allowed to sign a player contract before the start of free agency. If a player is not released, he may only negotiate with his current team before the start of free agency. The Lions signed two free agents before free agency began.
- Dwight Smith (cut by the Vikings) – Reportedly a two-year, $5M contract that will pay him a signing bonus of $350K, a roster bonus of $300K and a base salary of 1.35M in 2008 and a roster bonus of $750K and a base salary of $2.25M in 2009. The current year cap charge will be $1,825,000.
- Keith Smith – Reportedly signed a two-year, $5M contract with the Lions. Although there are currently no details of his contract available, his current year cap hit will likely be about the same as Dwight Smith's.
The Lions also cut one player before the start of free agency.
- Fernando Bryant – He was due to make a base salary of $3.35M and had a roster bonus of $500K due in early March. Since he was cut, the Lions will saved his current year compensation of $3.85M less the unamortized portion of his signing bonus $1.167M or about $2.683M.
The Lions also had three players that elected to void the final year(s) of their contract. Damien Woody, George Foster and Tatum Bell. When a player voids his contract, the salary cap effect of the voided contract works the same way as when a player is cut.
- Damien Woody – In 2007, Woody agreed to take a $2.25M pay cut and in return, the Lions gave him the option to void his contract at the end of the 2007 league year. He was due to make a base salary of $4.5M this year. Since he voided his contract, the Lions will save his base salary of $4.5M less the unamortized portion of his signing bonus of $1.5M or about $3M savings.
- George Foster – The Lions acquired Foster in a trade at the start of the 2006 season and Foster was due a base salary of $871, 250 plus a workout bonus of $35,000. Since he elected to void his contract, the Lions will save $906,250 against the current years cap. Since he was acquired in a trade, there was no unamortized signing bonus, Denver had originally paid his signing bonus.
- Tatum Bell – In the trade for Foster, the Lions also acquired Bell. His base salary for the 2008 season was $545,000 and since he elected to void his contract, the Lions saved $545,000.
In summary, Adam Schefter of NFL.com had the Lions at $6.8M under the cap on February 21st. Since that time, the Lions had cap charges from three ERFA's $1.275M, four RFA's $3.7M, signed two free agents $3.65M. And had cap savings of about $7.125M from four players that were either cut or voided their contracts which would put them about 5.3M under the cap (6.8M + 7.125M - 1.275M - 3.7M - 3.65M).
Keep in mind that player contracts are several pages long and include base salaries, signing bonuses, option bonuses, roster bonuses, report bonuses, workout bonuses, salary advances, likely to be earned bonuses, non-likely to be earned bonuses, escalators and voiding provisions. All of these amounts are and can be treated differently depending on the wording of the contract and how it relates to the CBA. As a result, the numbers that I've posted and how they effect the Lions salary cap are only reasonable estimates and shouldn't be interpreted as exact.