Having a salary cap can level the playing field in a professional sport. But as the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers have shown this season, a team still needs to be smart in how the cap is handled.
The NFL’s salary cap system is a complicated mess that, at times, reads like the U.S. tax code. A team’s cap space can be influenced in different way by a number of things, such as salaries, bonuses, former players, and even rollover space from the year before. But ultimately, the goal is to dedicate as much space as possible to the active roster and teams that succeed tend to do better.
First of all, here is how much salary cap space each team used this season, according to Spotrac. The Broncos and Panthers each ranked among the top seven.
But more important than how much salary cap space is used is how much of that space is going to players on the active roster.
As the chart below shows, all 12 playoff teams this year ranked among the top 21 teams in terms of percentage of cap going to active players. In other words, the higher the percentage, the lower the amount of cap space going to players that were not helping the team.
Of the five most efficient payrolls this season, two are in the Super Bowl, two others (Packers, Bengals) made the playoffs, and the fifth (Jets) won ten games and missed out on the playoffs because of a tiebreaker.