Calculating the salary-cap space for any NFL team is — at best — approximate.
Many of the league's teams — including the Kansas City Chiefs — never publicize the contract details for their players. Salary-cap sites like Spotrac and OvertheCap often rely on information provided by player agents, who have a clear incentive to show their clients in the best possible light.
So on Monday, when news broke that the Chiefs had restructured the contract of defensive end Frank Clark in order to avoid making him a cap casualty for 2022, we didn't really know what effect the new deal would have upon the cap.
For 2022, Clark's base salary drops from $19 million to just $3.725 million. That's a pay cut of more than $15 million. But Clark can earn a little of that back with a $75,000 bonus for every game he is active — which over the 17 games of the season, could earn him as much as an additional $1.275 million. Clark was active for 12 games in 2021, so just $900,000 of that potential bonus (12 times $75,000) will count against the salary cap as likely-to-be-earned (LTBE) compensation.
To entice Clark to take this deal, the Chiefs did two things: they fully guaranteed his $3.725 million base salary and paid him a signing bonus of $4.55 million.
Therefore, Clark's 2022 cap hit will be $13.7 million: his $3.725 base salary, half of his new signing bonus ($2.275 million), $5.2 million prorated from the original contract's $19 million signing bonus, his $900,000 LTBE roster bonus and a $1.6 million charge prorated from the $6.4 million in cap space the Chiefs gained two years ago with Clark's last contract restructure.
This means that the restructure has cleared $12.6 million in cap space for 2022. Other than the additional prorated signing bonus (which adds $2.275 million to his 2023 cap number), the terms of Clark's 2023 contract year have not changed. He'll now carry a salary-cap hit of $30 million — and if he is cut, the team will have $9 million in dead money to carry through the season.
With the cap savings from this restructure — and accounting for all known Kansas City signings, most of which have not yet officially been reported to the NFL — we estimate that the Chiefs are between $1.2 million over the cap and $114,000 under the cap. But we're almost certain that the team is $114,000 under.
The bottom line
Since we first learned of this restructure — which was originally rumored to reduce Clark's 2022 cap hit by $11.6 million instead of $12.6 million — much has been made about the Chiefs spending only a little more on the cap for him than they would have had to do anyway — and there is some truth in that.
If the team had chosen to cut Clark in order to get under the cap before the beginning of the new league year, they would have had to carry his $13.6 million in dead money against the cap — and sign a player to replace him. (Although they could have made Clark's release a post-June 1 cut to spread the dead money through both this season and next, they wouldn't have had access to the cap savings until June 1).
So the presumed $14.7 million cap hit of the restructured contract was going to be just over $1 million more than the money the team would have had to carry against the cap after Clark's release — and there would be one less player to acquire. But as it turned out, Clark's actual cap hit of $13.7 million is almost exactly the same as the money the Chiefs would have had to carry against the cap if they had released him.
But that's not the whole story. Under the restructured deal, the team will still have to carry dead money from Clark's contract into 2023. If Clark cannot produce well enough to justify a $30 million cap hit next season, releasing him will put the team on the hook for $9 million in dead money.
This means that unless Clark performs close to the level that we expected when he was first signed to his five-year, $104 million contract in 2019, it's very likely he'll be cut a year from now — and the cap cost of retaining him for 2022 will then rise to $22.7 million.
Given the free-agent market we have been seeing for defensive ends — most of whom have been at (or above) Clark's age — it's possible that this $22.7 million cost for an established player in the Kansas City defense could end up being a pretty good deal; this is especially true because a big chunk of it will count in a season with a substantially higher cap figure. But in the end, how this transaction will ultimately be viewed will depend almost entirely on how Clark performs in 2022.