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Managing the Cap: Three Likely Cuts and Two Potential Restructures

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at New York Jets Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

February is right around the corner, which means it’s time for the annual purge of bad contracts in the NFL. This is especially true in Los Angeles, where a handful of veterans entering the third year of their second NFL contracts should probably sleep with one eye open between now and March 14.

With most speculating a 2018 salary cap figure of $180,000,000 and the Chargers already having roughly $156.6M in hard commitments, the team has just over $23.4M to spend on internal free agents, external free agents and their draft picks. That isn’t much money considering they need to leave $10M-$12M of cushion to deal with draft picks and injury replacements, which is why I fully expect Tom Telesco to free up another $18.8M with a series of cuts and restructures.

Let’s take a look at the moves I expect the Chargers to make in the next 6-8 weeks with an eye on creating additions salary cap space…

Travis Benjamin

Benjamin, who was supposed to be a marquee free agent signing as both the Chargers #2 receiver and the best return man in the NFL, has been terribly disappointing during his two years in lightning bolts He hasn’t been consistent as a route runner, refuses to fight for contested balls, and is terrified of contact. To make matters worse, his fear of contact leads to far too many mental errors as both a receiver and a punt returner.

Travis’ cap number for 2018 is $7M, which is comprised of $5.75M in base salary and an additional $1.25M in pro-rated bonus money. He also has another $1.25M in bonus money due in 2019, which would be accelerated against the 2018 cap if he’s cut this offseason. Here is how cutting Benjamin would impact the cap:

Cap Number: $7M

Dead Money: $2.5M

Cap Savings: $4.5M

New Cap Space: $27.9M

Odds of being cut: 90/10

Brandon Mebane

Mebane, who just turned 33, is coming off of his first full season since 2013 and, in my opinion, his age and injuries caught up with him in the second half. Brandon got off to a sluggish start while he knocked off some post-injury rust, had a promising 3-4 game stretch in the middle of the season, and wore down late in the year. While I recognize his value as a leader on and off the field, it just isn’t enough to turn a blind eye to his declining production.

Brandon is entering the third and final season of a deal that is due to pay him $5.5M in 2018 ($4.5M base, $1M pro-rated signing bonus). Cutting him saves the team a cool $4.5M against the cap and, hopefully, forces them to finally address the nose tackle position in the draft.

Cap Number: $5.5M

Dead Money: $1.0M

Cap Savings: $4.5M

New Cap Space: $32.4M

Odds of being cut: 85/15

Joe Barksdale

I think this is decision is driven by a lack of availability on Joe’s part more than his play. Barksdale played 11 games in 2017, was a game time decision seemingly every week, and offered very little as a run blocker. I have a hard time seeing Anthony Lynn hitch his wagon to the right tackle after a year in which he made both Branden Oliver and Jerry Attaochu healthy scratches nearly every week because he simply didn’t trust them to stay on the field.

Barksdale has a $5.8M cap number in 2018 ($4.5M in base salary, $1M in pro-rated signing bonus, and a $300K roster bonus), but cutting him before March 14 would negate the roster bonus. He has $2M in pro-rated signing bonus money remaining on his contract ($1M in 2018 and $1M 2019), all of which would count against the 2018 cap assuming he’s cut before June 1. I don’t think this is a tough call.

2017 Cap Number: $5.8M

Dead Money: $2M (remaining pro-rated signing bonus)

Cap Savings: $3.8M

New Cap Space: $36.2M

Odds of being cut: 80/20

Even with the cuts of Barksdale, Mebane, and Benjamin, the team would still only have a little over $36M to work with, or something in the neighborhood of $24M once they account for draft picks and injury replacements. That still isn’t enough, which is why I think they’ll restructure the following contracts:

Philip Rivers

For almost as long as he’s been a Charger, the team could count on Philip to re-work his contract when they needed some extra cash. They did it again least year, converting about $3M in roster bonus money to realize a cap savings of around $2M, and I suspect they’ll probably go back to that well again in 2018.

Here is how this works: Team A and Player A agree to a “new” contract that involves a “new” signing bonus. That “new” signing bonus is actually base salary the team and player agree to convert to pro-rated signing bonus money, which pro-rates, or spreads that new signing bonus evenly over the remaining years in the contract.

Philip Rivers has two years remaining on his deal and a 2018 cap number of $22,000,000, which is comprised of a base salary of $10M, $4.5M in pro-rated signing bonus, a $5M roster bonus and roughly $2.5M that was deferred from a previous restructure. The team could conceivably convert $4M of his base salary to signing bonus, freeing up $2M this year.

Cap Number: $22,000,000

Base Salary: $10,000,000

Salary Converted to Bonus: $4M (pro-rated $2M in both 2018 and 2019)

2018 Cap Savings: $2M

New Cap Space: $38.2M

Corey Liuget

I went back and forth on this one because I’ve been convinced for some time the Chargers would cut Corey Liuget, but the likely departure of Brandon Mebane probably makes that unlikely at this point. While I think Liuget has been disappointing since signing his current deal in 2015, he looked better playing his natural 3-technique position in 2018 and it’s hard to imagine the team dropping both of their starting interior defensive linemen in the same offseason.

Corey has three years left on his current deal and is owed $8M in base salary in 2018, presenting the team with an opportunity to convert more of his base salary to bonus money than they did with Rivers. I think they can convert about $6M to bonus money, which results in a $2M per year pro-ration over the life of the contract and a $4M savings against the 2018 cap.

Cap Number: $9.5M

Base Salary: $8M

Salary Converted to Bonus: $6M (pro-rated $2M in 2018, 2019 and 2020)

2018 Cap Savings: $4M

New Cap Space: $42.2M

There you have it – I expect the Los Angeles Chargers to cut Travis Benjamin, Brandon Mebane, and Joe Barksdale while also restructuring Philip Rivers and Corey Liuget. Approaching these players and their contracts would create an additional $18.8M in additional cap space for 2018, setting them up nicely to re-sign their key internal free agents and make a couple solid, if unspectacular external free agent signings. And while it’s never for general managers to cut players in the midst of a contract, I do think these are fairly easy, logical decisions for a variety of reasons.

You know what I think; tell me what you think…