Analyzing Contracts & Cap Space: NFC West (Fantasy Football)

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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+.

Los Angeles Rams

  • 2023 Cap Space: $10.2 million (22nd in NFL)
  • Biggest Cap Hit: Aaron Donald ($26 million)

The Rams had a storybook 2021 season: they sold the house to land Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp had an all-time great WR season, and they brought home a Super Bowl ring in front of their home fans (well, kind of). Then, in 2022, everything fell apart.

It’s easy to dismiss the Los Angeles Rams as old and busted after a miserable 5-12 record last season (just one game ahead of the hapless Arizona Cardinals). They went all in, and it worked. Now it’s time for a few years at the bottom of the barrel. Right?

Well…maybe. The Rams’ core is surprisingly intact for the next few seasons. Sean McVay is returning, of course, which is great news for the team and fantasy managers. But as much as it seems like Stafford and Kupp are ‘done,’ their contracts spell otherwise. Stafford’s release this year would incur a ridiculous $111 million dead cap (money still paid to a player even if they are released); next year, it would be $91.5 million, and then in 2025, a hearty $42 million. It’s only until 2026 that the number would drop below Matt Ryan‘s record-setting dead cap hit of $40 million. Cooper Kupp has similarly monstrous dead cap numbers: $59 million this year, and $47 million next year, before dropping off to a (still substantial) $17 million in 2025. Aaron Donald rounds out the triumvirate with $60 million in dead cap this year and $33 million next year; as things stand now, the Rams would only save $500,000 in cap money by releasing him.

Put simply, these guys are locked in for the foreseeable future — presuming they don’t retire. That’s a whole other conversation, but let’s assume they continue playing for the next few years. After all, as Jason puts it, they did make the conscious decision to come back to the team. The exceptions are Tyler Higbee and Van Jefferson, both of whom have expiring contracts after this season and may be hard-pressed to sign long-term deals at the ages of 31 and 28, respectively.

Fortunately, the Rams do have up-and-coming replacements on cheaper deals. Ben Skowronek is under contract for the next two years at just a $2 million cap hit. Cam Akers is in an interesting situation: his contract is up after this season but, because he didn’t play in enough games during his injury season to qualify as an ‘accrued’ season, he’s a restricted free agent in 2024. That means the Rams can match any offer made by another team. It’s hard to imagine Akers commanding massive sums on the free agent market, so there’s a strong chance the Rams are able to keep him in the fold for relatively cheap.

Ultimately, while it feels like the sun has set on the Rams, previously high-powered players like Stafford and Kupp should have plenty of runway left. And Cam Akers is an intriguing trade target; there’s a strong chance he’s the team’s starting back for the next two seasons.

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Arizona Cardinals

  • 2023 Cap Space: $26.7 million (2nd in NFL)
  • Biggest Cap Hit: Budda Baker ($16.8 million)

Oh, Arizona. Many jokes were made at the Cards’ expense after the sacking of Kliff Kingsbury, who had just signed a new contract (and is now being paid massive sums to not coach the team). Then Kyler Murray went down with an ACL injury, and things went from bad to worse.

In general, the Cardinals are the team with perhaps the foggiest future in the NFL. With a new head coach installed and Kyler set to miss a chunk of this season, they are clearly in a rebuild. They control two picks — their own and the Houston Texans‘, thanks to an in-draft trade a few months ago — that have strong chances of turning into the first pick overall. That would give them the opportunity to take Caleb Williams, the consensus top QB in the upcoming draft class. Kyler, of course, signed a massive contract: his cap hit jumps up to $50 million next season, and hovers around there for four years. But that contract was inked under a different regime…

So the Cardinals sit at a crossroads. Do they work Kyler back into the fold and keep the supporting cast intact? Or do they tear it down by trading trade Kyler, drafting Caleb Williams, and using all of that cap space (and incoming picks) to start anew?

Frankly — and I know the Footballers feel differently — I think it’s the latter. There are real financial incentives to move on from Zach Ertz and James Conner, who are both under contract for two more seasons but can be released next year (at ages 34 and 29) to save $8 million and $5 million in cap space, respectively. I should also mention Budda Baker who, after a team-leading cap hit of $16.8 million this year, drops all the way below $4 million next year. Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown is an unrestricted free agent after this year and, at age 27, will be in his prime. He will certainly demand significant value on the open market. Will the Cardinals want to match that? They certainly have the cap space…but will they prefer to draft Marvin Harrison Jr. and ink a much cheaper rookie deal for — most likely — similar levels of production right off the bat?

It’s impossible to know. The team has made overtures to their commitment to Kyler…but, of course, there’s no reason not to be nice to your quarterback at this stage, especially when he is signed to a long-term deal. I honestly think it’s more likely that the Cardinals trade Kyler for a haul, and use that haul — likely two top-five picks along with a ton of cap space — to build a future around Caleb Williams.

So my advice regarding Cardinals’ players in dynasty is…stay away. We could be sitting here in a year after a surprisingly solid season with Kyler back at the helm and the offense pointing up…but it’s hard for me to envision. Kyler himself, of course, is still a supremely important dynasty player, since he will certainly have a starting job — and the accompanying production — somewhere. It just not might be in Arizona.

Seattle Seahawks

  • 2023 Cap Space: $7.1 million (27th in NFL)
  • Largest Cap Hit: Jamal Adams ($18 million)

The ‘Hawks were probably the second-greatest feel-good story of last year (first place likely goes to the Detroit Lions). Russell Wilson departs, Seattle is supposed to tank, and then they end up making a run to the playoffs. Geno Smith signs a big deal this offseason, and now we wait. Is the fairytale going to continue?

In terms of stability, the answer is…probably. Geno can be released after this season for $14 million in cap savings, but the real savings only hit in 2025 ($25 million). D.K. Metcalf will probably stick around: they save virtually no money by releasing him until 2025, and even then it would be an odd move to release a dominant, 28-year-old WR. The same goes for Tyler Lockett: after this season, releasing him only opens up $7 million, which is probably not enough incentive for his steady production (and status as a franchise legend).

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So Seattle’s money is going to be tied up in three aging veterans, right? They won’t have the flexibility to build their roster, right? Wrong: the two biggest cap hits on the team are Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs, both of whom can be released to save about $9 million in cap (each) after this season. The front office has tipped their intention, it would seem, drafting Tariq Woolen and Devon Witherspoon to shore up the secondary on cheap rookie contracts. This type of planning is the mark of a well-run organization!

So what does it all mean? You probably have a decently-sized window left for Geno, D.K., and Lockett. It throws a bit of cold water on Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who deserves to be a WR1 but will likely play second or third fiddle for a few seasons; it’s hard to envision him taking over Metcalf’s role early on. And even for the unfortunate duo of running backs (in the fantasy sense, no manager ever wants to see a committee, especially between great players like Kenneth Walker and Zach Charbonnet), stability is a good thing.

San Francisco 49ers

  • 2023 Cap Space: $10.6 million (21st in NFL)
  • Largest Cap Hit: Trent Williams ($27 million)

This might sound weird, but it’s a genuine pleasure to read through the 49ers’ financial ledgers. It’s not surprising, given their quality of play on the field, that their contract situation is clear and generally stable.

The major offensive pieces are more or less locked in for the foreseeable future. Deebo Samuel‘s cap hit jumps up to $28.5 million next year (thanks to a $20.9 million base salary), but they save basically nothing by releasing him. George Kittle is under contract for three more seasons and, although the team could save $10 million if they release him next season, it’s hard to imagine letting go of one of the best TEs in the game (perhaps the best if Travis Kelce finally gets knocked to the mat by Father Time) to save $10 million. Brandon Aiyuk is under contract for two more seasons; again, basically, zero savings if he is released. And of course, the vaunted newcomer Christian McCaffrey is signed on for three more years, with significant savings from his release only coming in 2025 at age 29.

Now, there is a little bit of a concern about the upcoming cap hit that the 49ers will have to endure. It doesn’t make much sense to release any of those players from a savings standpoint, but the cap hits do start to accumulate: $28.5 million for Deebo, $20 million for Kittle, and $14 million each for CMC and Aiyuk. So the 49ers might not have much room to breathe…although they have a potential out of offensive tackle Trent Williams’ (35 years old) contract after this season ($13 million in cap savings).

All this to say: the 49ers’ core supporting cast is pretty much locked in for the next few years. What is not locked in, of course, is the signal-caller. Brock Purdy seems to be the front-runner, but Trey Lance has two more years on his rookie deal and the team saves absolutely nothing by releasing him. Sam Darnold is on a one-year deal and hits unrestricted free agency after this season, so I wouldn’t consider him in the long-term plans very much (of course, thanks to the injury bug that seems to haunt the Niners, he will probably take more snaps than expected this season).

So which is it, Purdy or Lance? Honestly, looking at the escalating cap situation of some of the other stars on the team…it feels like Purdy makes more sense for this system. Mr. Irrelevant is on an insanely cheap deal: $889,000 this season and $1 million in each of the next two seasons. Lance, of course, as the 3rd overall pick, was able to ink $9.3 million this year and $10.8 million next. If $76.5 million of the cap are going to position players on offense, which quarterback makes more sense, especially in a system that makes just about any signal-caller look like Tom Brady?

My advice: hang onto the 49ers in dynasty and try to get Purdy on your roster.

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