Detroit Lions: Why leading NFL in cash spending doesn’t really mean anything

Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions warm up prior to the start of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Ford Field on October 29, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions warm up prior to the start of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Ford Field on October 29, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images) /

No one spent more cash than the Detroit Lions according last season, but that doesn’t really mean much of anything in the big picture.

The NFLPA released numbers documenting the cash spent by each NFL club last season and it turns out that no one dropped as much coin as the Detroit Lions.

That probably led to some raised eyebrows with Lions fans and perhaps some jollies from rival fans, but ultimately it doesn’t mean much of anything. Because the NFL has a salary cap, no team is really permitted to spend more than any other club. And because of a provision in the current CBA, each team is required to spend at leasdt 89% of the cap over a four year period.

In other words, the playing ground is pretty flat, financially speaking. Far more than it may appear when looking at one year cash spending figures like the NFLPA released yesterday. ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted out the full list ranging from the Dallas Cowboys at the bottom to the Lions at the top.

So what’s the deal then? It really comes down to how money hits the salary cap compared to when checks are actually written. To work through the differences between cash spending and cap spending, let’s take a look at the Rick Wagner’s contract.

In total, it’s a five-year, $47.5 million deal. $14.5 million was in the form of a signing bonus while the balance of the total contract serves as Wagner’s base salary from 2018-2021. Base salary is paid out in weekly game checks while a signing bonus is paid up front. For the purposes of the salary cap, salary only hits the cap in its respective season while signing bonuses are spread evenly over the life of the contract, up to five years.

We see Wagner’s signing bonus accounted for in the yearly breakdown under the prorated bonus section above ($2.9 million x 5 years = $14.5 million). So for the salary cap accounting, Wagner’s yearly cap hit is his base salary plus the prorated portion of his signing bonus. And this is where we see the difference between cap and cash.

In terms of the cap, Wagner “cost” the Lions $5.9 million for the 2018 season, made up of his $3 million salary plus the $2.9 million prorated portion of his signing bonus. But in terms of cash, the Lions wrote a check $14.5 million check at signing plus $3 million in salary during the season for total cash spending of $14.5 million.

Even though the Lions will take a yearly $2.9 million salary cap charge for the bonus in 2018 and beyond, that’s money already paid to Wagner. So for the 2018 season, Wagner will have a total cap hit of $5.9 million but only his $3 million base salary will be actual cash paid by the Lions.

You may recall that the Lions signed Matthew Stafford to a fairly significant contract last season. That deal came with a $50 million signing bonus – or nearly 25% of the Lions’ entire cash spending for last season. That is a big chunk of cash, the likes of which they will not be paying in 2018 even though it will be spread over a five year period for the salary cap.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising to see that the Lions are currently in line to have the second-lowest cash spending total in the NFL for 2018.

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Like I said, the 89% floor and the hard salary cap provide a level financial playing field for NFL teams to compensate players. Ultimately, the salary cap is just an accounting method that can lead to some pendulum swings in how cash is actually spent relative to when it hits the team’s cap. And that’s why none of this really matters when looking at single-year figures.