In order to answer the question in the headline, one has to know a little bit about the NFL salary cap. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the cap is decidedly poor for someone with a B.A. in economics. It seems like a lot of the sportswriters I admire drift toward the fiscal side of sports over time — TV deals, collective bargaining agreements, territorial rights squabbles — but I feel like that’s a weakness of mine. I can’t (or won’t) break away from watching, analyzing and writing about the smaller moments on the fields and courts. I don’t completely ignore the macro, but people looking for comprehensive coverage of the business of sports probably aren’t refreshing this site every half hour to see if I’ve written anything new.
So with that said, let’s talk about the San Francisco 49ers’ cap situation! I’ve done some research on sites like Spotrac, Overthecap.com, Niners Nation (who has a new cap guy named Jason Hurley who really knows his stuff) and others. I’m not exactly sure I have all these figures correct, but I’m going to try to earn a C+ for effort.
— It appears that the 49ers are $4,604,136 under the cap (including Darcel McBath’s salary, which has not been announced yet but we’ll assume for the purposes of this post). That’s not a lot of flexibility, as only six teams have less cap room than San Francisco.
— The 49ers have the most draft picks of any team, and if they stand pat and draft a player with each of those picks their “year one pool” is $7,925,751. But their combined cap number won’t come anywhere near $8 million, because …
— There’s this provision in the CBA called the “Top 51 rule,” which if I understand correctly (a huge “if”) means only the top 51 cap numbers count against the overall figure. So every rookie added to the payroll pushes someone off at the bottom of the list (when it comes to the team’s cap number, that is — everyone still gets paid). The last player currently in the 49ers’ top 51, Jewel Hampton, has a 2013 cap number of $481,666. I took Overthecap.com’s pick-by-pick estimates for the 49ers’ picks and subtracted the last salaries in the 49ers’ top 51 to find out how much the rookie pool would add to the cap. My calculations say that the draft picks *as currently allotted* would add $1,419,484 to the 49ers’ overall cap figure. That would leave San Francisco $3,184,652 under the cap.
How hot is that money in Trent Baalke’s pocket?
Almost $3.2 million seems like more than enough to add one more prominent free agent (like Nnamdi Asomugha). However, there are a couple of problems with this assumption: (1) my calculations could be off and (2) the longer the 49ers wait to do anything, the less they will be forced to spend. Caving to the demands of someone like Asomugha or Charles Woodson now would only mean paying them more than they’d garner if either player is still without a contract a week or five down the road.
Trading up in the first round would net the 49ers a rookie who’d make more than either the 31st and 34th picks, but probably not enough to make a difference. For example: based on the magical “Draft Pick Value Chart,” if you added up No. 31 (est. cap figure: $1,249,096) and No. 34 (est. cap figure: $986,209), you’d get approximately enough value to move up to No. 15 overall, which has an estimated cap number of $1,713,584.
The 49ers can renegotiate with a player or two, or even cut someone (more on that soon). However, they aren’t in a position where they absolutely HAVE to add a free agent, especially since they don’t know what will be available to them in the draft. And perhaps even more important than the 2013 cap is figuring out how to stay under the cap in 2014, 2015 and beyond. In other words, prepare for a quiet month until the fun begins on April 25.