Breaking down the NFL salary cap

Will Michael Johnson and Alex Mack stay with their Ohio teams or go elsewhere?

The National Football League’s 2014 league year begins at 4 p.m. today. It also begins the four-month period where the salary cap and a team’s balance sheet gets more attention than the depth chart.

When it comes to caponomics, there are a lot of misconceptions. Here are five key things to remember in respect to the cap, the Browns and the Bengals:

NOT ALL TEAMS START AT $133 MILLION: Many thought early last month that the cap would come in at $126.3 million, but due to larger revenues it came in $6.7 million more than expected. A big reason is television — the new deals that were negotiated in 2011 begin this year and there is CBS’ commitment for Thursday Night Football. When the collective bargaining agreement started in 2011, many predicted the cap would remain flat until 2015. This year’s figure surpasses the $127.997 cap of 2009.

In reality though, most teams start at a higher figure because they can carry over unused cap room from the previous season.

The Browns have carried over a league-high $24,537,568 into 2014 and have an adjusted cap number of $157,537,568 while the Bengals carried over $8,663,480 to adjust their cap to $141,663,480.

Both Ohio teams are above the league average. According to the NFLPA, the average per club carry over is $6.1 million.

THE FLOOR: It is 89 percent cash to spend per club over a four-year period. That is important because large salary bonuses count in cash spent for the year they are handed out. When you compute cap figures, the signing bonus can be prorated. For example, Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins had a cap figure of $7,123,539 last year but the cash spent was $19,005,425 due to a $15 million signing bonus.

FREE AGENCY FRENZY

This season, Atkins’ cash spent number is $6 million but the cap figure is $9 million due to the prorated signing bonus.

The Bengals spent the fourth-most cash in the league last season ($140.8 million) or 114.5 percent over the salary cap. The Browns spent $106.8 million or 86.9 percent. According to FoxSports.com NFL reporter Mike Garafolo, 10 teams did not hit the minimum spend last year but the Browns are in better shape compared to others.

50 SHADES OF CAP GRAY: When discussing the salary cap, you can’t look at the remaining amount in black or white terms. When seeing the amount remaining, especially at this time of the year, knock off $6-8 million for draft picks and injuries that will occur at some point during the season.

Also starting today, only the top 51 salaries count against the cap. That changes the first week of the season when all 53 on the active roster are factored in.

HOW MUCH ROOM IS THERE? According to the NFLPA, the Browns are going into the new league year with $49,759,595 of cap room, which includes Alex Mack’s transition tag. Due to the trade of Trent Richardson and release of D’Qwell Jackson, they also have over $11 million in dead money. With only a couple players on the roster that are likely to earn extensions, the Browns have the potential to be big players the first couple days.

The Bengals have $27,352,957 in room, but that does not factor in Mike Pollak’s three-year extension that was signed on Saturday. Cincinnati’s approach this offseason will be the same as last year — retain their own while trying to get some extensions done like A.J. Green and Vontaze Burfict. As much as Cincinnati would love to keep Michael Johnson or Anthony Collins, you can’t re-sign everyone.

THIS ISN’T BASEBALL OR THE NBA: Last year’s winner of the March Lombardi for biggest splashes in free agency was the Dolphins, but they finished 7-9 and didn’t make the playoffs. The Redskins have been offseason champions multiple times without in-season success.

While the NFL has done a tremendous job of making the first couple days of free agency into a made-for-TV version of the Nevada gold rush, the best way to build teams is through the draft while adding a couple pieces in free agency. As much as some owners have tried, you can’t spend your way to a title.