Things are setting up nicely for a prolonged 49ers run atop the NFC.
They reached the Super Bowl last season, and many of their top competitors likely will soon find it difficult to maintain their status. While a significant drop in the NFL salary cap -- which appears quite likely because of the coronavirus pandemic's financial effect on the league -- would negatively impact all teams, some inevitably will be hurt more than others.
It just so happens that some of the teams most likely to be trapped between a rock and a hard place are the ones currently seen as the most likely to unseat the 49ers from atop the conference.
The Dallas Cowboys' series of head-scratching contract decisions seems certain to put them in a precarious financial situation as it relates to the 2021 salary cap. But if you think the Cowboys are in a rough spot, just wait until you see the forecast for the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints.
Teams with the most money already committed to the 2021 salary cap:— Field Yates (@FieldYates) July 17, 2020
1. Eagles: $267.3M
2. Saints: $250.1M
3. Falcons: $214.9M
4. Chiefs: $200.7M
5. Texans: $197.5M
According to FoxBet, San Francisco (+460) is a slight favorite to win the NFC this coming season, though the Saints (+575) aren't far behind. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the third-best odds in the conference, and the Cowboys (+750) and Eagles (+1000) come in at fourth and fifth, respectively.
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The salary cap -- which only counts the top 51 salaries on a team -- is set at $198 million for the upcoming 2020 season. Even if the cap remains flat for 2021, which seems to be the most optimistic of possibilities, all three of the Cowboys, Saints and Eagles will face a harsh reality, increasingly in that order. And if the 2021 cap drops, their plights will be exacerbated.
Dallas appears to have been shortsighted in its negotiations with quarterback Dak Prescott, whose desired long-term contract likely only will be more expensive next offseason than had the team addressed it before Wednesday's franchise tag deadline. Regardless, we can assume that the Cowboys currently have around $210 million in cap liabilities for the 2021 season, according to Over The Cap.
The Cowboys will carry over about $10 million in space into next season, so if the cap remains flat, they're currently rubbing right up against it. The Saints and Eagles, however, are way over the line, as both teams clearly were banking on what was an anticipated rise.
New Orleans currently has $249 million in cap liabilities for the 2021 season -- that doesn't include running back Alvin Kamara, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Any way you slice it, the Saints will have to find a way to trim costs. It will be difficult to do so without cutting some of their top players, or trading them for pennies on the dollar.
Consequently, New Orleans' roster might look a lot different next year than the last few seasons. Quarterback Drew Brees carries a huge $36.1 million cap hit in 2021, though his contract isn't guaranteed. If the Saints cut Brees, however, they'll only create an additional $13.5 million in cap savings while incurring over $22 million in dead money.
All signs point to Taysom Hill being the Saints' starting quarterback in 2021, and even then, more large salaries will have to go. It wouldn't be surprising whatsoever if standout defensive end Cameron Jordan and starting left tackle Terron Armstead have to play elsewhere. The Saints also might be forced to make tough decisions on cornerback Marshon Lattimore and starting right tackle Ryan Ramczyk.
And remember, for every salary removed, another one -- albeit less expensive -- takes its place.
Still, with some clever cap management, New Orleans theoretically could retain the core of its contending roster (minus Brees). But it's difficult to envision it being anywhere near as stacked as it is in 2020.
As for the Eagles, well, they're doomed.
They already have an astonishing $265 million in 2021 cap liabilities, and will have a much harder time remaining competitive while cutting costs. Of the Eagles' nine most expensive 2021 cap hits, each would create at least $10.6 million in dead cap if released, meaning savings will be minimized. Still, some of those players will have to go.
Receivers Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and former 49er Marquise Goodwin are as good as gone. Cutting those three would create an additional $20 million in cap space -- still not nearly enough.
Standout tight end Zach Ertz would appear to be one of the most likely cap casualties, particularly given Dallas Goedert plays the same position. Fletcher Cox is one of the best defensive tackles in the league, but he might have to go, too. Cutting those two -- both of whom were Pro Bowl selections last season -- would create an additional $12 million in cap space.
You get the point.
While the 49ers certainly will feel a squeeze if the cap drops, they're far better prepared. They currently have $170 million in cap liabilities for 2021, and while several key players are due for free agency, the 49ers can create additional space by cutting players who arguably aren't essential to their future success.
The Cowboys, Saints and Eagles -- not to mention the Bucs and Seattle Seahawks -- certainly appear capable of competing with the 49ers in 2020. But next season, the herd should thin, and while new threats surely will emerge, San Francisco has a far better chance of remaining atop the conference than most of the other current NFC contenders.