The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have exactly $25,259,270.00 in salary cap space, according to this handy up-to-date NFLPA page. You should bookmark that page. Looking at that number you might be tempted to think that the Bucs have been rather frugal in their spending, or at least can stand to sign a few more players. In fact, that's not really true. The reason the Bucs have this much cap space is simple: they pushed big cap hits from Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson into the future (and last year), while simultaneously rolling over a lot of cap space from previous years -- and that cap space was previously rolled over from the 2011 season.
If the Buccaneers were frugal at one point, it was during the 2010 and 2011 offseasons, when they barely spent in free agency and didn't sign anyone to long-term contract extensions. But the past two offseasons have seen more spending in free agency than nearly any other team in the NFL, with the signings of three premium free agents and a fourth, expensive free agent (Eric Wright). Add to that a slew of players who add depth this offseason, and the Bucs have in fact been extremely aggressive in improving their team. But they can't keep this up forever, or they will land in salary cap hell soon enough despite what seems like an overwhelming amount of cap space.
Effective cap space vs reported cap space
One piece to the puzzle is the "effective" cap space any team has, rather than the reported cap space. That is: how much room can they really spend, in practice, without running into cap problems? I stole those terms from OverTheCap who do a good job of explaining the concept. Most of the difference hinge on a few issues: the need to reserve cap space for rookies, the need to reserve cap space for in-season signings and practice squad signings, the fact that only 51 players count against the cap during the offseason but every player counts during the season, and the need to keep some cap room to roll over into future seasons.
Let's go through the numbers for the Buccaneers.
Start: $25 million -- reported cap room
Less: $5.5 million -- estimated rookie salary cap (from here)
Less: $1 million -- players 52 and 53 once the season starts
Less: $1 million -- approximate cost of maintaining a practice squad, including premiums for a few quality practice squad players.
Add: $3.5 million -- cap hits of the eight players replaced by eight rookie contracts.
Initial adjusted cap room: $21 million
That's still a lot of money, right? Well, that doesn't yet account for the Darrelle Revis trade. Whether or not that trade actually happens, the Bucs do need to make sure that they have the cap room to keep him if the trade does go down. Given his contract demands and the fact that the Bucs hate pushing cap hits into the future (because cap hits can only be delayed, not deleted), that's another $16 million in cap space the Bucs must reserve.
Revis-adjusted cap room: $5 million
Now, the Buccaneers can create some more cap space at that point by releasing Eric Wright. He's more likely to see his contract adjusted downward than released, though, so let's make an assumption: Wright counts for $5 million against the cap this season. That's probably around what he would get on the open market, so that seems reasonable to me. That's a decrease of $3 million, which leaves us with.
Revis- and Wright-adjusted cap room: $8 million
The Bucs need room to operate during the season. They need to be able to sign players to replace those placed on injured reserve. How can we estimate that? Well, let's look at Football Outsiders' Adjusted Games Lost statistic, which suggests that the average team suffers season-ending injuries to four starters per year. Of course, you don't want to count on that: you need to make sure that you can continue to operate even in a worst-case scenario of losing multiple starters for the season. The worst team in that respect was Green Bay last season, with a whopping 108 adjusted games lost -- or nearly seven starters. Note that this doesn't really count backups, so you should probably adjust that number upwards to around the equivalent salary of 8 replacement players. At $500,000 per player, that comes to another $4 million the Bucs should keep free to continue operating securely during the season without having to resort to salary cap cuts.
Here's another factor: the Buccaneers want to sign Mike Williams to a long-term contract this offseason. A rough guess at what he would earn per year would be $6 million per year, around the same kind of money Danny Amendola received. He counts for $1.4 million against the cap this season by my numbers, so that would mean a $4.5 million cap hit.
And suddenly, the Buccaneers are left with the following:
Effective cap room: $-1.5 million
Wait, what just happened there?
It seems like I'm doing something fishy, right? Well, I'm not. Or rather: not really. I'm making a few assumptions you can argue with, but most of these things are normal adjustments, and don't account for that much. You want to go into the season with enough salary cap space to operate even in the worst case scenario. You don't want to spend beyond your means, and then find out that you need to cut or restructure a solid player because otherwise you can't sign a replacement for whoever you just placed on injured reserve. And yes, that is going to happen to teams this year. Several teams are so close to the cap they can't even sign rookie at this point -- and that's while just counting the top 51 players.
The one big equalizer here is quite simply Darrelle Revis. Why do the Bucs have this much cap room? Because they're saving enough to sign Revis to a long-term contract. Yes, they could cut Wright and then free up a little more cap room, and they could have used that cap room to sign someone like Sean Smith. But what's the point of cutting Wright to sign Sean Smith -- a lateral move if there ever was one? If the Bucs cut Wright once they sign Revis, it's because they have too much money invested at the cornerback position -- and they're not about to then spend more money on that position. Add in an extension for Mike Williams, and all of this cap room becomes a lot less spacious.
There's another factor, though: the Bucs can roll over any leftover cap space to next season. And they will most certainly need it, because they already have some $97 million committed to the 2014 season, and that's without Revis traded for or Mike Williams signed to a long-term contract. With a likely league salary cap of around $125 million, the Bucs won't have much room left. Add in a possible contract extension for Josh Freeman (and otherwise a glaring need to find a quarterback somewhere, somehow), and the Bucs will actually have to start cutting people -- or at a minimum start renegotiating contracts next year.
Cap hell: we have arrived
This is how you get to cap hell in a hurry: sign multiple highly-priced free agents in a short time. Yes, the Bucs are doing a good job of managing the cap hits of those contracts, but this is why they can't just go out and keep spending willy-nilly, despite apparently having plenty of cap room. Because that 'apparently' is a whole lot less apparent on closer viewing.
Of course, this sudden decrease in cap space makes one question the wisdom of adding Darrelle Revis in the first place.