Due to the numerous rules and complexity of the NFL Salary Cap, the way a Player contract is structured can be a major factor in whether a team decides to release a Player or make a trade.
Each season, the salary cap is determined by calculations tied to the NFL’s revenue for that league year. The base NFL salary cap for the 2020 season is $198.2 million per team. The base salary cap number, plus carryover and adjustments from the prior season, is what gives each team their “functional” salary cap going forward in the new season. Cap space is determined when you subtract active cap spending and dead cap space from that number.
On the night of October 13, 28-year old football player Le’Veon Bell was released by the New York Jets after supposedly exploring all options to trade the two-time All-Pro running back after fewer than two seasons with the team. After Bell sat out the entire 2018 season, the Jets signed him to a four-year, $52.5 million contract last March, solidifying a long-term deal like he had hoped.
Bell’s contract is as follows:
Le’Veon Bell, NY Jets 2019-2022
Contract: 4 years / $52,500,000
Signing Bonus: $8,000,000
Average Salary: $13,125,000
Guaranteed at Sign: $27,000,000
Total Guaranteed: $27,000,000
Free Agent: 2023 / Unrestricted Free Agent
Given that the NFL trade deadline is on November 3 this year, why did the Jets choose to release Bell as opposed to trading him?
NFL Standard Player Contract ("SPC") is not conducive to trading in a League where most teams tend to follow a standard protocol when negotiating a contract structure. A player often receives a signing bonus when he agrees to a new contract, thus impacting the team’s salary cap. However, the maximum amount that counts on the cap in a given season is one-fifth of the bonus, allowing teams to prorate the costs and lessen a contract’s impact on the salary cap.
A trade is essentially the same as releasing a player when looking at the salary cap impact. When a player is traded, all future prorated money accelerates into the next season. This in turn prevents some teams from going after certain players if their contract includes any large bonuses. In addition, the team trading for a player needs to make sure there is enough cap room to execute that trade. For example, if a team needs to trade for a player, but only has $1 million in cap space, they would likely have to restructure other contracts in order to create additional space for a talented player.
The Jets’ decision to release Bell left behind $15 million of dead cap space for 2020 and $4 million in 2021. This means any team who would have claimed Bell on waivers would be responsible for his remaining salary. Thus, no team was going to even consider trading for Bell unless he completely redid his contract, which was very unlikely.
With his Jets contract, Bell was slated to make $8.5 million in base salary in 2020. Although he was released and signed a new contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, that money was guaranteed, which means the Jets are still responsible for the remaining $6 million in base salary he has remaining for the year. However, Bell’s contract included an offset clause that will defray it by the amount of the salary on his new contract with the Chiefs.
According to ESPN, Bell’s one-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs will pay him a base salary of $1 million. Since the season has already started, his contract will be prorated, thus leaving him with roughly only $690,000 in base salary this year. With Bell making just the $690,000 base salary from the Chiefs, the Jets would only owe him $5.39 million for the rest of the 2020 season.
As pointed out by NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, the money does not stop there due to a provision for veteran players written in the CBA. A veteran player is allowed to collect termination pay, which allows the player to keep their full base salary if they get cut. Thus, Le’Veon Bell can also claim termination pay because the Jets cut him. This means that the money from his next team, the Chiefs, is actually not deducted from what the Jets owe.
Another factor contributing to the Jets’ decision to release Bell instead of trade appears to be the $8 million injury guarantee written into his contract for 2021. According to ESPN, the Jets were worried that if they kept Bell until the November 3 trade deadline, he might get injured. Had he suffered a long-term injury, the Jets would likely have had to pay an additional $8 million in 2021 due to the guarantee. Thus, rather than keeping Bell on their roster until the deadline when they may have been able to trade for a draft pick, they opted to release him. Given the rocky relationship Le’Veon Bell has with the Jets, an injury could have led to a long dispute between him and the Jets over the $8 million injury guarantee.
The release also gives the Jets the most salary cap space in the NFL entering the 2021 season. Although there will still be $4 million in dead money from Bell’s signing bonus, had Bell remained on the roster his cap hit would have been roughly $11.5 million more. Therefore, while the trade deadline presents an option for teams looking to get out of bad contracts, depending on its structure it may actually be more beneficial to simply release the Player in question.
The only positive for the Jets right now is the potential to have the No. 1 pick in the 2021 Draft and secure Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Fans who have been around since their 1-15 record in 1996 shouldn’t get too excited though. Just as the Jets were primed to select future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning with the No. 1 pick when he shockingly announced he would return to Tennessee for his senior season, Lawrence could do the same.
 DeArdo, Bryan (October 13, 2020). "Jets Release Le'Veon After Exploring Options to Trade Former All-Pro Running Back".  Le'Veon Bell Contract. Sportrac.com  Teicher, Adam (October 15, 2020). "Le'Veon Bell Signs with Kansas City Chiefs on 1-year Deal".  Bell’s new contract with the Chiefs does also include $1 million in playing time and playoff incentives, which means his deal could end up paying him a maximum of $1.69 million.  Breech, John (October 18, 2020). "Le'Veon Bell's Contract Details with Chiefs Revealed".  NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement. Article 30, Section 1: Eligibility.  Schefter, Adam (October 17, 2020). "Le'Veon Bell's $8M Injury Guarantee Key Reason NY Jets Released RB".