The NFL's salary cap is set to get back on track in 2022 -- and spending should be back as well, with another anticipated jump in the cap for 2023.
Sources say next season's cap is expected to reach the $208.2 million maximum agreed upon by the NFL and NFL Players Association in May. The final number has not been officially announced, but it's expected to be revealed at the NFL's annual labor seminar next week.
The salary cap this season is $182.5 million -- down from $198.2 million in 2020, but much higher than it would've been had the league and union not agreed in August 2020 to spread an anticipated multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall from the COVID-19 pandemic over several years. Players are still "paying back" what amounted to a low-interest loan that allowed players to continue making full salaries and bonuses in 2020 despite empty stadiums, and the agreement to set a ceiling on the 2022 cap expedited that repayment process.
Many big-money free agent deals and extensions still got done in 2021. But the $15.7 million drop in the cap left many teams doing cap gymnastics, using salary conversions, voidable years and other maneuvers to stay in compliance. Some free agents opted for one-year deals, hoping to return to a more robust market in March.
From 2013 to 2020, the cap had been growing at a pace of $10.74 million a year, so the expected $208.2 million cap for 2022 is likely around where the 2021 cap would've landed if not for the pandemic. It also would mark the first time the cap has exceeded $200 million.
Sources cautioned that unexpected stadium capacity limits due to a COVID spike or unlikely lockdown could still impact the 2022 cap number. But those are not considered likely scenarios. No NFL games have been canceled in 2021, stadiums have been mostly full, nearly all of local revenue has returned, new TV deals were finalized earlier this year in concert with the expansion to a 17-game regular season, expanded playoffs began last year and the NFL is increasingly flush with gambling money and other new revenue streams.
All of that has also generated optimism the cap will spike substantially again in 2023 as money from new TV deals hit and trigger media "kickers" in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement that can increase players' share of revenue from 48% to as high as 48.8%. (The CBA is a revenue-sharing deal in which the cap is based on players' share, divided into salary and benefits.)
How much the cap jumps in 2023 will depend in part on how the NFLPA decides to handle repaying players' certain benefits that were canceled in 2020, such as performance-based pay, Pro Bowl pay and tuition assistance. The agreement called for those benefits to be repaid sometime after 2023. No decisions on those matters are likely before the annual meeting of the union's board of representatives in March, a source said.
The good news for players who bet on themselves and teams that have been feeling the cap crunch the past year or two: Relief, and virtual normalcy, is coming.