Analyzing Contracts & Cap Space: AFC South (Fantasy Football)
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.
- 2023 Cap Space: $13.8 million (16th in NFL)
- Biggest Cap Hit: Laremy Tunsil ($26.6 million)
A nice word to sum up the Texans’ current financial position would be ‘opportunity.’ A not-so-nice word would be ‘wasteland.’ Kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn demands the eighth-largest cap hit on this team. The only skill player in the top ten of cap hits is WR Robert Woods (yes, he’s on the Texans now). The number three cap hit is second-year cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.
These numbers aren’t entirely accurate, since second-overall pick CJ Stroud‘s contract will certainly land him in the top ten. But the point remains: this organization has made basically zero serious commitments to any offensive players outside of Stroud. Robert Woods can be released after this season for less than $5 million in dead cap. Dameon Pierce can be released now for $600,000, while Devin Singletary hits unrestricted free agency in 2024. Newly signed Dalton Schultz is taking up under $3 million in cap space this year.
So — what do we do? Honestly, other than CJ Stroud in superflex leagues, I am staying away from the Texans. They are in the depths of a rebuild, focusing more on defense, QB, and offensive line cornerstones than other skill players (which is a good NFL decision, just an annoying fantasy one). It’s hard to project Schultz, Woods, Pierce, and Singletary having relevance beyond this season, and even then, we will be making the usual arguments for them (“they still get to play 60 minutes of NFL football, someone has to score fantasy points”). I don’t mind if you want to take a flier on former 2nd round pick John Metchie, who will probably be with the team for the next few years on a cheap rookie deal, and has the inside track to become Stroud’s #1 target.
- 2023 Cap Space: $8.3 million (26th in NFL)
- Biggest Cap Hit: Ryan Tannehill ($36.6 million)
Buckle up, Titans fans. You’re probably in for one last ride.
Why do I say that? Well, Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry are combining for a $53 million cap hit this season, nearly 25% of the team’s limit. Both contracts are voidable after this season, for just $13 million total in dead money. Call me a pessimist, but I think it’s unlikely that the 36-year-old Tannehill and 30-year-old Henry are re-signed to any sort of long-term contract. That’s especially true for Tannehill after the Titans traded up to draft Will Levis in the second round (really, almost the first round). Besides, the Titans are a well-run, no-nonsense organization. They released Taylor Lewan, a franchise mini-legend, to save $15 million this offseason, just one year before he was set to hit free agency. Robert Woods followed to clear another $12 million in contract space; this team has no problem eschewing expensive contracts.
That makes Levis a long-term trade target. I can’t imagine it would take a lot to acquire the Kentucky product after he fell in the draft and was selected as a backup. The only other skill player in the top 20 of cap hits is, of course, Treylon Burks. I think the second-year WR has done enough on the field — and the team has done enough financially around him — to ensure that he will be the top target on this team for a few years to come. That’s especially true because it’s unlikely that the Titans are so bad this season to earn a draft pick high enough to draft an immediate replacement like Marvin Harrison Jr…and they are not a likely destination for veteran WRs to target in free agency.
So, trade Tannehill and Henry to a contender — or, honestly, just enjoy what will probably be another great year of production for Derrick Henry. After all, the Titans are paying for greatness: Henry’s $16 million cap hit is the highest in the league. Did I mention Tannehill’s was second highest after Patrick Mahomes? Yeah, these two will be out of Tennessee after this season. Especially after they lose the division to the…
- 2023 Cap Space: $15.6 million (11th in NFL)
- Largest Cap Hit: Cam Robinson ($17.4 million)
The Jags are a testament to what you can do in this league if you roster a great QB on a cheap, rookie deal. They are paying $63 million to five non-quarterbacks — Cam Robinson, Darious Williams, Christian Kirk, Evan Engram, and Calvin Ridley — and still sit in the top ten of league cap space.
And, to be honest, it’s probably going to last a bit longer. Trevor Lawrence has two more years on his rookie contract. Cam Robinson, who will be 29 years old, can be released for just $5 million in dead money (and $17 million in cap savings) after this season and 31-year-old Darious Williams can be released for $500,000 in dead money and $10 million in cap savings. That clears up plenty more space to potentially sign Calvin Ridley and Evan Engram, both unrestricted free agents after this season (and the latter on the franchise tag) to longer deals. And, of course, Josh Allen (the linebacker!), who will also be an unrestricted free agent.
But those deals are uncertainties. What’s much closer to a certainty is that Christian Kirk will be on this team for the next few years: his cap hit jumps up to $24 million next season, but the Jags only save $3 million by releasing him in 2024. That’s similar to Zay Jones, who has a cap hit of $11 million but only a cap savings of $4.5 million upon his release next season. So there is a world where Ridley and Engram depart in free agency — both will be 30 after all — and leave the targets in this potent offense to Kirk and Jones. They are the two pass-catchers I’m targeting (get it?) in this offense.
Oh, and it goes without saying: try to get Trevor Lawrence on your team. It seems like there will be some solid skill players around him for years to come — I didn’t even mention Travis Etienne, who has two more seasons on his rookie deal. Unlike Justin Herbert, who will probably lose just about every star-receiving option after this season, Lawrence is good to go for the foreseeable future.
- 2023 Cap Space: $25.2 million (4th in NFL)
- Largest Cap Hit: Shaquille Leonard ($19.8 million)
The Colts’ financial ledgers are…interesting. They’ve invested an insane amount into their O-line: three of the top five cap hits this season (Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, and Braden Smith) are offensive linemen. This was a big factor in Jonathan Taylor‘s breakout 2021 campaign, but unfortunately, it regressed last season. Hopefully, they can get back to form…
Speaking of Jonathan Taylor, though, things look a little bit dicey for the former fantasy RB1. While it feels like JT just entered the league, he’s actually in the final year of his rookie contract, set to hit unrestricted free agency after this season. There’s a good chance the Colts will franchise tag him — just like the New York Giants tagged Saquon Barkley — keeping him in the fold for another year…but a one or two-year window in this system is not what you want for one of the top running backs in fantasy. I have Jonathan Taylor on my dynasty squad — I drafted him with the 1.04 in a startup last year — and am going to try to trade him after his stock (hopefully) rises during the start of this season.
Michael Pittman Jr. is in a similar situation, being in the final year of his rookie contract, and honestly a competitor for that franchise tag. It could even be a longer-term deal if Pittman demonstrates a real connection with Anthony Richardson — the Colts have the cap space, and no other wideout is in line for a sizable long-term deal (Alec Pierce has three more years before negotiations begin).
One last position I want to highlight is at tight end. Living legend Mo Alie-Cox can be released after this season for $0 in dead cap, which is the likely outcome instead of paying a 31-year-old tight end $6 million in salary. That means you should be keeping an eye on Jelani Woods, the Colts’ other massive TE who actually flashed for two top-five finishes last season. He’s worth a roster add in deep dynasty leagues since all signs point to him being the TE1 in Indy after this season.
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