The idiom “There’s more than one way to skin a cat” can be aptly used to describe building a championship-caliber NFL roster under the salary cap. There isn’t a right or wrong way to allocate resources in putting together a team that has Super Bowl potential. A specific blueprint doesn’t exist.
Under the current NFL collective bargaining agreement, Super Bowl teams have been constructed with low-cost quarterbacks on rookie contracts. Among those include the 2012 49ers, 2013 and 2014 Seahawks and 2018 Rams. Teams with higher-priced quarterbacks have also gotten to the Super Bowl (2011 Giants, 2013 Broncos and 2016 Falcons). The dichotomy exists this year.
The following table outlines the salary cap charges for the Chiefs‘ and 49ers’ key contributors at each position and on special teams. That’s 14 each on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
Reserve list and dead money charges are tracked as well. Dead money is a salary cap charge for a player that is no longer on a team’s roster. The CBA’s $235 daily amount for participating in a team’s voluntary offseason workout program is included in the cap numbers.
Financial tale of the tape
Each NFL team‘s actual salary cap (known as adjusted salary cap) is typically different from the NFL’s set amount because unused cap room can be carried over from one year to the next year, and other adjustments can further increase or decrease cap space. The actual salary cap is currently $188.2 million.
There is a big discrepancy in the Super Bowl participants’ adjusted salary caps. Only four teams (Chargers, Falcons, Rams and Ravens) have a lower adjusted salary cap than Kansas City’s, which is just under $190.15 million. The 49ers are at the other end of the spectrum; just the Browns and the Colts have a higher adjusted salary cap. San Francisco’s adjusted salary cap is $231.896 million. This is partially because the 49ers had the NFL’s third most cap room to carry over from the 2018 league year with $35.03 million. The league’s average adjusted salary cap according to NFLPA data is $200.313 million.
The 49ers and the Chiefs are the NFL’s two extremes with cap expenditures. Kansas City brings up the rear with cap expenditures of $168.36 million. San Francisco tops the NFL at $224.03 million, which is 33 percent more than Kansas City’s. The league average is $188.4 million.
Kansas City’s key contributor cap spending is heavily weighted toward the offense. It’s $66.67 million offensively to $34.44 million defensively. San Francisco allocates more of the cap to defense but isn’t as skewed as Kansas City. The breakdown is $67.1 million for offense and $79.057 million for defense.
The 49ers took a calculated risk with the five-year, $137.5 million contract given to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in February 2018. Only five impressive starts after a 2017 midseason trade from the Patriots were needed for Garoppolo to briefly become the NFL’s highest-paid player at $27.5 million per year. The 49ers did something unique with Garoppolo’s contract because of an abundance of cap room. The deal was structured with an unusually large $37 million cap number in 2018 (the first year), which is almost 35 percent more than Garoppolo’s average yearly salary. Garoppolo’s remaining cap numbers are more manageable than in the typical high end contract. Thanks to this decision, the 49ers have a better chance to keep a strong roster around Garoppolo.
A high-caliber quarterback on a rookie contract like Patrick Mahomes is the most valuable commodity in the NFL because of the roster flexibility it can provide. Garoppolo’s cap number is almost four and a half times as much as Mahomes, which is slightly less than $4.5 million. That could be changing during the offseason. Mahomes, 2017’s 10th overall pick, became eligible for a contract extension when the regular season ended. He is .
The biggest investment at running back for each team isn’t reflected in these cap charges. The Chiefs signed LeSean McCoy to a one-year, $3 million deal containing an additional $1 million in incentives days after the Bills released him during the roster cut-down in the preseason. McCoy was an afterthought late in the regular season and a healthy scratch for the AFC Championship Game.
The 49ers have a potent rushing attack despite Jerick McKinnon not a playing a down since signing a four-year, $30 million deal to come to the Bay Area in 2018 as a free agent. McKinnon tore his right ACL in 2018 during a preseason practice. He has spent this season on injured reserve after undergoing another surgical procedure on the knee. McKinnon’s injury prompted the 49ers to give Tevin Coleman a two-year, $8.5 million deal worth up to $10 million through incentives during free agency.
Raheem Mostert, who was a restricted free agent, started taking a more prominent role in San Francisco’s running back by committee approach as the season progressed. He signed a three-year, $8.65 million deal worth a maximum of $10.75 million because of incentives and salary escalators. Mostert may have been better served financially playing on his $2.025 million restricted free agent tender considering he led NFL running backs this season with 5.6 yards per carry and had a remarkable NFC Championship Game. Mostert became the first player to ever rush for at least 200 yards and score four touchdowns in a playoff game. His 220 rushing yards set a conference title game record and came 29 yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single game playoff rushing record (248).
San Francisco utilizes a fullback more than any other NFL team. Kyle Juszczyk was on the field for 36.6 percent of San Francisco’s offensive snaps despite missing four games with a left knee sprain. The 49ers raised eyebrows in 2017 by signing Juszczyk to a four-year, $21 million deal that averaged over twice as much as the NFL’s second most lucrative fullback contract. 49ers general manager John Lynch justified the deal at the signing by describing Juszczyk as a versatile offense weapon. Juszczyk has earned Pro Bowl honors in each of his three seasons with the 49ers.
Sammy Watkins is being paid like an elite wide receiver without the matching production. When Watkins signed with the Chiefs, his three-year, $48 million deal made him the NFL’s fourth highest-paid wide receiver by average yearly salary. He’s now ninth. During Watkins’ two years in Kansas City, he has caught 92 passes for 1,192 with six touchdowns in 24 regular season games. Watkins is leading the Chiefs with 190 receiving yards during postseason. His 114 receiving yards, which included a 60-yard touchdown, against the Titans in the AFC Championship Game were the first time he had hit the 100-yard mark or scored a touchdown since the regular-season opener against the Jaguars.
The Chiefs became the only team with two wideouts on deals averaging at least $16 million per year when Tyreek Hill signed a team-friendly three-year, $54 million extension right before the regular season started. Watkins has the NFL’s biggest 2019 wide receiver cap number at $19.2 million.
Emmanuel Sanders gave San Francisco’s passing game a boost when the Broncos dealt him and a 2020 fifth-round pick for 2020 third- and fourth-round picks as the late October trading deadline was approaching. The 49ers assumed the remaining 10 weeks of Sanders’ $10.15 million base salary in the trade for a $5,970,588 cap charge.
The league’s two All-Pro tight ends are in different places financially. The five-year, $45.975 million extension (worth up to $49.975 million through base salary escalators) Travis Kelce received from the Chiefs in 2016 has held up in a stagnant tight end market. Jimmy Graham became the NFL’s first $10 million per year tight end with the Saints in 2014; he’s still the league’s only $10 million per year tight end on a different deal. Graham signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Packers in 2018 free agency. Kelce’s $10,718,400 cap number in 2019 was second among tight ends.
George Kittle is the NFL’s biggest bargain for a tight end. The 2017 fifth-round pick’s rookie deal is worth just under $2.7 million for four years. Since the 49ers are usually proactive in signing core players to extensions, expect Kittle to reset the tight end market at some point during the offseason.
Both teams prioritize protecting the quarterback’s blindside by investing in tackles. Joe Staley, 35, received a two-year extension from the 49ers averaging $14 million per year in the offseason. The Chiefs gave arguably the league’s best right tackle, Mitchell Schwartz, a raise although he had two years left on his contract. Schwartz’s 2019 compensation almost doubled with the increase to $12.53 million in the one-year extension he signed worth $11.255 million. Left tackle Eric Fisher remains Kansas City’s highest-paid offensive lineman with the four-year, $48.5 million extension containing $40 million of guarantees he signed in 2016.
Each team made a trade for a pass rusher given a franchise tag. The 49ers dealt a 2020 second-round pick to the Chiefs for Dee Ford, who signed a team-friendly five-year, $85 million contract in conjunction with the trade. The Chiefs gave Frank Clark a five-year, $104 million contract with $62.305 million in guarantees ($43.805 million fully guaranteed at signing) when he was acquired from the Seahawks for a 2019 first-round pick and a 2020 second-round pick shortly before the NFL Draft was held last April. There was also a swap of 2019 third-round picks in that deal. Clark has the largest 2019 cap number for a defensive player currently under contract with the Chiefs at $6.5 million. Clark’s cap number balloons to $22.7 million in 2020.
The 49ers further bolstered their pass rush by taking Nick Bosa, who has a $6,100,339 cap number in 2019, with the second overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. 2015 first-round pick Arik Armstead had a long awaited breakout season with 10 sacks while playing under a $9.046 million fifth-year option. He is a franchise tag candidate, and the 2020 defensive end number is expected to be in the $18 million neighborhood.
San Francisco’s defensive line has five first-round picks, including DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas. Buckner, who is scheduled to play 2020 on a $14.36 million fifth year option, and Armstead may be an either-or proposition for a long-term deal in San Francisco. Both players are represented by Joel Segal, who made edge rusher Khalil Mack the NFL’s highest-paid non-quarterback with the Bears at $23.5 million per year in 2018.
Kansas City making a major investment in a pass rusher during the offseason that had never done anything for the Chiefs probably didn’t sit too well with Chris Jones after the type of 2018 season he had. Jones set a NFL record by recording a sack in 11 straight games and was third in the league with 15.5 sacks. The Chiefs are hopeful about keeping Jones in Kansas City long term, although most teams don’t have two high-priced pass rushers. There has been a lot of speculation that Jones will be a franchise tag and trade candidate like Ford. The 2020 defensive tackle number should be around $16.25 million.
The 49ers jump-started what had been a stagnant inside linebacker market by briefly making Kwon Alexander, who tore the ACL in his left knee during the middle of 2018 season, the highest-paid player at the position on a four-year deal averaging $13.5 million per year. Alexander returned from an eight-game stint on injured reserve due to a torn pectoral muscle for the playoffs. In his absence, 2018 third-round pick Fred Warner, who has a $923,204 2019 cap number, emerged as one of the NFL’s better young linebackers. Warner was named November’s NFC Defensive Player of the Month after 33 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles in three games.
Anthony Hitchens spearheads Kansas City’s linebackers. He joined the Chiefs in 2018 as a free agent on a five-year, $45 million deal worth as much as $49.25 million through incentives.
The bulk of San Francisco’s cornerback cap charges come from Richard Sherman, who returned to his previous Pro Bowl form in the second season after tearing his right Achilles. Sherman finally hit pay dirt this season with the $4 million of annual not-so-easily-achievable incentives in the three-year deal with a base value of $27.15 million he negotiated without an agent in 2018. He didn’t earn any of the incentives last season. The earned incentives aren’t reflected in the cap charges because San Francisco won’t have to account for them until achieved not-likely-to-be-earned incentives and likely-to-be-earned incentives that weren’t met are reconciled before the 2020 league year starts on March 18.
Making the Pro Bowl also triggered some favorable structural changes to Sherman’s contract. Sherman’s 2020 base salary is increasing by $1 million to $8 million, and an injury guarantee for that amount activates the day after Super Bowl LIV (Feb. 3). The $8 million becomes fully guaranteed less than two months later on April 1. His $2 million in 46-man per game active roster bonuses ($125,000 per game) for 2020 reduces to $1 million with the increase in base salary.
The Chiefs don’t have any big cornerback expenditures. Kendall Fuller and Charvarius Ward are on rookie contracts, and Bashaud Breeland signed a one-year “prove it” deal for $2 million with an additional $3 million in incentives.
Tyrann Mathieu was given a three-year, $42 million contract — which put him at the top of the safety market — to help transform a Kansas City defense that was a weakness in 2018. He hasn’t disappointed. The Chiefs ranked 31st in total defense in 2018 while giving up 26.3 points per game. This regular season, the Chiefs were 17th and points allowed dropped to 19.1 per game.
49ers free safety Jimmie Ward has put himself in position to reap the benefit of returning to San Francisco this season on a one-year, $4.5 million deal worth up to $5 million with incentives. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him sign a contract in free agency comparable to the $10.5 million per year deal Lamarcus Joyner received from the Raiders last March on the open market.
The Chiefs and 49ers have similar special teams cap expenditures. Each team’s collective cap charge is in the $5.5 million neighborhood. Robbie Gould, who the 49ers designated as a franchise player in the offseason, is the league’s second highest-paid kicker at $4.75 million per year. Chiefs were proactive in signing third-year kicker Harrison Butker to a long term deal in the offseason averaging $4.055 million per even though he was an exclusive rights player scheduled to make $645,000 in 2019.
The 49ers have more substantial cap charges for injured players. The 49ers lost center Weston Richburg ($7,598,436 cap number) late in the season to a torn right patellar tendon. As previously mentioned, McKinnon ($5.75 million) hasn’t been available in the two seasons since signing. The 49ers put wide receiver Marquise Goodwin ($3,906,250), who was slowed by knee problems, on injured reserve in December. Kansas City’s biggest cap charge for an injured player belongs to defensive end Alex Okafor ($2,943,750).
Dead money exists because of how salary cap accounting rules operate. Signing bonuses, option bonuses and certain roster bonuses are prorated or spread out evenly over the life of a contract for a maximum of five years. When a player is released, is traded or retires, the remaining proration of these salary components immediately accelerate onto his team’s current salary cap.
There are two major exceptions to this general rule of bonus proration accelerating. Only the current year’s proration counts toward the salary cap with transactions occurring after June 1. The bonus proration in future contract years is delayed until the next league year beginning in the following March. A team can also release two players each year prior to June 1 (known as a post-June 1 designation) that will be treated under the salary cap as if they were released after June 1. With a post-June 1 designation, a team is required to carry the player’s full cap number until June 2 even though he is no longer a part of the roster. The player’s salary comes off the books at that time unless it is guaranteed.
This means dead money is typically a sunk cost where money isn’t owed to a player. Only if there are salary guarantees when a player is released will there be a payment associated with dead money.
The Chiefs and 49ers have thrived despite having some big dead money charges. Edge rusher Justin Houston ($7.1 million) and safety Eric Berry’s ($6.95 million) respective dead money are the two biggest cap charges the Chiefs have for defensive players. The 49ers have the biggest dead money charge of the two teams, as wide receiver Pierre Garcon is counting $7.2 million on San Francisco’s cap.