Analyzing Contracts & Cap Space: AFC North (Fantasy Football)

The FootClan
Unlock Exclusive Tools + Bonus Episode
Join the FootClan

This is part of a series where I analyze the financial situations of each NFL team, division by division. The gold standards for sports finance data are Spotrac and Over the Cap, which were referred to countless times during this writing.

Editor’s Note: For more on Team Opportunity, Contracts of Note, and the Dynasty outlook of each team, check out the Dynasty Pass part of the Ultimate Draft Kit+.

Pittsburgh Steelers

  • 2023 Cap Space: $9.3 million (25th in NFL)
  • Biggest cap hit: TJ Watt ($29.3 million)

Let’s just get it out of the way… Kenny Pickett is a tough name for a Quarterback. I always envision an announcer screaming “Can he pick it? Yes, he can!”

Ok, bad puns aside: second-year QB Kenny Pickett has the reins of this team for the foreseeable future. He’s on the second year of a rookie contract and while Mitch Trubisky is owed a cap hit of $6 million (significant for a backup QB), Trubisky can be released for only $4.6 million in dead money next season. It doesn’t seem like the Steelers will be bad enough to earn a high draft pick for a new QB, and they are relatively strapped for cash at the moment. TJ Watt still has three years remaining on his monster contract (although he can be released for $12 million in cap savings next season) and Cameron Heyward, the second-highest cap hit, has two years remaining on his deal. Barring a total disaster from Pickett this season, I don’t see the Steelers making a play for a new signal-caller either in the draft or via free agency.

So let’s work with the assumption that Kenny Pickett will be starting for the next two seasons. Who will he have around him? Diontae Johnson is under contract for two more seasons; he can be released for $10 million in cap savings next year, but that doesn’t seem like a very Steelers-esque move. George Pickens, of course, has three years remaining on his rookie deal, and Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth both have two. My main takeaway is this: although this offense didn’t knock your socks off last season, they have a real window to figure it out. I would expect this core to be in the Steel City for at least the next two seasons, and that’s an important window for dynasty fantasy football.

I should also mention Allen Robinson, who ends up in Pittsburgh after a disastrous campaign with the Rams. You might be thinking that ARob, former perennial WR1, is an interesting, free stash in dynasty. After all, he’s only 30, and he’s under contract for two more seasons! The short answer is ‘no.’ Robinson’s cap hit jumps to $17.6 million next season (which would be higher than Diontae Johnson‘s) and he can be released for less than $2 million in dead money. So it’s pretty unlikely that Allen Robinson is on this team for more than a season, barring some monstrous turnaround.

Baltimore Ravens

  • 2023 Cap Space: $8.9 million (23rd in NFL)
  • Biggest cap hit: Ronnie Stanley ($23 million)

After an offseason filled with speculation, we have our answer: Lamar Jackson will be a Raven for a long while yet. The dead money on his contract falls below $57 million for the first time in 2026 and even then, Baltimore would owe Lamar $35 million if they released him. It looks quite likely that Lamar will be behind the helm for the next four to five years, at which point he will be 31 years old.

Now, the players around Lamar are more uncertain (except for Mark Andrews, who has three more seasons under contract through age 29. ‘Mandrews’ cap savings if released only hits $10 million in 2025, the final year of his contract). Devin Duvernay has one more year on his rookie deal before hitting unrestricted free agency. Odell Beckham Jr. is 31 years old and under contract for just one season. Rashod Bateman has two years on a rookie deal; new arrival Nelson Agholor has one year. The only wideout who will likely be on this team for 2+ seasons is Zay Flowers, selected in the first round of the 2023 NFL draft. I think it’s hard for redraft purposes to identify the WR who will emerge this season. But in dynasty, Flowers is the only wideout with the contract runway to have a real shot at earning the title of WR1.

The FootClan
Love the show? Join our community!
Join the FootClan

The running back room is trickier. Gus Edwards has one season left under contract and will turn 29 this offseason. JK Dobbins has one year remaining on a rookie deal and is currently holding out for a big contract extension after this season is up. Oh, and Melvin Gordon is on a one-year deal (Super Bowl Champion Melvin Gordon, that is). Anyways, the odds are probably against any of these players being the RB1 for the Ravens for the next few seasons; this is a situation to be wary of in dynasty past the 2023 season.

Cincinnati Bengals

  • 2023 Cap Space: $19.6 million (5th in NFL)
  • Biggest cap hit: DJ Reader, $15.5 million

The ‘Big Money Bengals,’ as I just started calling them, have funds to spend. They are top-five in the NFL in cap space, and their biggest cap hit — defensive tackle DJ Reader — has his contract expiring after this season. The second biggest cap hit — Trey Hendrickson — can be released for $12 million in cap savings.

They need the money since Joe Burrow has one year remaining on his rookie deal. The Bengals exercised their 5th-year option (of course) and owe Burrow $29.5 million in 2024, twice the biggest cap hit on the team currently. After that, Burrow will sneakily be 29 (he entered the league at age 24) but will still probably sign a pretty significant contract. That’s not to mention Ja’Marr Chase, who has two seasons left on a rookie deal and then might break the record for WR contract size (which probably will have just been broken by Justin Jefferson). Any savings in cap space, then, is important.

What about the other pieces to this offense? Joe Mixon has two years remaining on his deal, but can be released for just $2.75 million in dead money next season; frankly, that seems the most likely option for a 29-year-old running back who had some efficiency declines last season. Tyler Boyd hits unrestricted free agency, as will 26-year-old Irv Smith. Even Tee Higgins‘ rookie contract is up!

My point is that as solid as the Bengals have been the past few years, a lot can change in the blink of an eye. I don’t expect Mixon or Boyd to return; maybe Irv Smith has a chance at an extension if he has a great season, but I would be surprised. Tee Higgins is the most notable ‘wild card’…but will the Bengals be willing to pay big WR money in the midst of talks of mega-contracts with Burrow and Chase? I’m not sure, but I do know that other teams certainly will. I lean towards the inclination that Higgins will be suiting up for a different team next season. He’ll still be an impactful fantasy player, but maybe less so; on the other hand, Chase will likely have total control of the target share.

Cleveland Browns

  • 2023 Cap Space: $14.2 million (9th in NFL)
  • Biggest Cap Hit: Myles Garrett ($29 million)

I’m old enough to remember when the Browns, led by 2nd-year QB Baker Mayfield, entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations. Honestly, it didn’t go as poorly as you might think: Chad Henne ran for a crucial first down to seal a five-point Kansas City Chiefs‘ victory over the Browns in the divisional round. Yes, the Browns were almost in the AFC championship!

But they were not, and Baker is now in Tampa Bay, after stints in Carolina and Los Angeles. Voldemort — as the Ballers put it — is now at the helm, with a massive contract (he could only be released now for $220 million in dead money) that all but guarantees his role as the starter for the next four seasons. Amari Cooper will probably be around for half of that: he’s under contract for two more seasons and can be released for $11 million in dead money next year, but is probably playing at a level that wouldn’t warrant a release.

Beyond these two players (and Myles Garrett on the defensive side), though, it’s hard to envision what the Browns will look like moving forward. Nick Chubb has two more seasons under contract, but can be released for just $4 million in dead money in 2024; his cap hit if retained would jump to $16.2 million in the season when he would be 29 years old, and I have a feeling the Browns may be looking to move on. Donovan Peoples-Jones has one season left on his rookie deal, while new arrival Elijah Moore has two. Technically, David Njoku is under contract for three more seasons…but his cap hit jumps by $10 million to $18 million next year, and he could be released for less than $10 million in dead money (in 2025, those numbers are $19 million cap hit and $15 million in cap savings). Oh, and I should mention: Voldemort’s cap hit jumps up to SIXTY-FOUR MILLION starting next season. So the Browns are going to be even more motivated to move on from veteran players that represent the opportunity for decent cap savings. I would be trying to trade away Nick Chubb and David Njoku, making the argument that they have two and three more seasons left on their deals (even though, wink wink, there’s a good chance it only turns into one year in both cases).

The FootClan
Unlock Exclusive Tools + Bonus Episode
Join the FootClan


Let me know what you think on Twitter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *