As COVID-19 changed the financial landscape of the NFL with attendance numbers a fraction of their norms, the league is faced with the reality that 2020 revenues likely saw a drop. Every offseason, the NFL uses those revenues along with projections for future seasons to determine the salary cap for the upcoming season. Over the last five to six years, the salary cap has grown about $10 million a year. Heading into the 2021 offseason, there's a strong possibility that the cap is stagnant or sees a regression.
Before the 2020 season, the league and the NFL Player's Association agreed that the salary cap for 2021 would be no less than $175 million. Several teams are already considerably over the cap for 2021. Still, a $15 million regression in addition to the expected $10 million growth could mean a net loss of $25 million to the salary cap as teams projected out to 2021.
When teams work out long-term deals for their star players, they consider the projected growth of league revenue to structure the deal. While the league's next television deal is expected to dwarf the previous one with Amazon and other streaming services expected to be players on the NFL TV landscape, for 2021, teams will have to work with what they have.
Figuring a floor of $176 million for the salary cap as projected by OverTheCap.com, there are currently 14 teams projected to be over the cap before the start of the league year.
The New Orleans Saints are currently $112 million over the cap heading into the 2021 offseason. The Philadelphia Eagles follow at -$53 million in cap space, and the Atlanta Falcons are next at -$36 million.
Though the cap is a fixed number, contracts can be manipulated to make them work for your team's cap reality. However, the three teams listed above have a lot of work to do if they're going to find themselves salary cap compliant. And perhaps this is where the Dallas Cowboys could help.
The Cowboys have a team that is ready to contend if they can find a few pieces to help a defense that was one of the worst in football in 2020. Let's look at a few trades that the Cowboys could make to help alleviate the cap strain a couple of NFL teams face.
Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback, New Orleans Saints
As mentioned before, the New Orleans Saints are currently projected to be $112 million over the cap for 2021. Even after they clear some of Drew Brees contract off the cap with a post-June 1st designation, they still have a ton of work to do.
The Cowboys need help at cornerback opposite of Trevon Diggs, and Marson Lattimore could be the fix they need.
Lattimore, drafted in 2017, is going into the final year of his rookie contract. He's got no more guaranteed money left on his deal, but they'd be unlikely to cut him outright. He's a player they'd like to have as part of their future, but if they need to clear $10 million off the cap, Lattimore might be someone they'd be willing to move for 2021 or future draft compensation.
Though he allowed eight passing touchdowns in 2020, he's been a pretty good player in his short time in the NFL. He also plays with a bit of an edge and swagger that would be nice to have on the outside.
With just one year left on his deal, the Cowboys could try to work out an extension or let him play it out before signing him to a long-term contract. Or they could take the one-year rental and recoup the draft pick sent to the Saints with a compensatory pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Also from New Orleans: Malcolm Jenkins, Malcolm Brown, Demario Davis
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Safety, Pittsburgh Steelers
If at first, you don't try, try, try again.
That's how the saying goes, right?
As I've noted several times over the last week, the Dallas Cowboys have needed to find a legit playmaker at safety for their defense. Someone with range to play the deep middle but could also play in man coverage when required.
Back during the 2019 season, when the Cowboys were flirting with the idea of trading for Earl Thomas, Fitzpatrick was another name that came up at the safety position. There was little indication that the Cowboys expressed interest in the one-time Miami Dolphins first-round draft pick. However, that doesn't mean they shouldn't make a call to the Pittsburgh Steelers to see if they're interested in moving their playmaking safety.
The Steelers are projected to e $34 million over the cap this offseason if there is cap regression. Though his $2 million cap hit for 2021 isn't much of a burden, there's the upcoming extension that they'll have to work out with Fitzpatrick to keep him in Pittsburgh long-term. 2021 is the final year of his contract, and the Steelers will need to decide this offseason or before March 18th of 2022 what they want to do financially with Fitzpatrick.
As Ben Roethlisberger is coming to the end of his career, the Steelers are at a bit of a crossroads. Do they try to hold onto their roster that helped them reach the playoffs while looking for a new quarterback? Or do they look to unload players and begin the process of rebuilding?
With T.J. Watt also requiring an extension in the near future, one that is likely to set the market for edge rushers, they might have to make a difficult decision here, and the Cowboys should help them come to that decision.
Grady Jarrett, Defensive Tackle, Atlanta Falcons
If there's a move out there that makes way too much sense, it's the Cowboys sending draft picks to the Atlanta Falcons for Defensive Tackle Grady Jarrett. The Cowboys need a wrecking ball at defensive tackle, and Grady Jarrett has been just that for the Falcons.
Drafted by Dan Quinn in the fifth round of Quinn's first NFL Draft as head coach with the Falcons, Jarrett has become one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. Jarrett had five sacks in 2020 and was fifth in the NFL with 57 total pressures per Pro Football Focus.
Grady Jarrett is scheduled to count $20 million on Atlanta's salary cap in 2021. They need to rework that number or trade him to get their salary cap situation in order. The Falcons are a projected $36 million over the cap at this point.
If the Cowboys were to make a move for Jarrett, they would likely need to restructure his contract to make him fit with the other big names they have. He'd be the player the Cowboys have been looking for to play on the interior. Sure, the Cowboys have Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore, but neither player has proven to be a legit defensive tackle at this point. They could still develop into reliable run defenders, but if the Cowboys are looking for a fix this offseason, trading for Garrett would be a bold but great move to help fix the middle of your defense.
Other Falcons to Consider: Deion Jones.