Cortland Finnegan's Release: Salary Cap And Off Season Implications

USA TODAY Sports

As expected, the Rams designated CB Cortland Finnegan for release. How does his release affect the Rams' salary cap situation, their plans for the draft, and how they approach free agency?

By now, everyone is aware of the news regarding CB Cortland Finnegan: he is being released from his contract with the Rams, with 3 years remaining on it. The news came as no surprise, as Finnegan's performance as a Ram never quite lived up to the 5 year/ $50 million contract he signed in 2012. Finnegan's departure is another piece of the Rams' off season puzzle. What are the implications of the Rams releasing Finnegan? How does it affect the Rams' salary cap, their plans for the draft, and how they approach free agency?

Timing of his release

As noted in last weeks major salary cap update (link), and Monday's cap space update (link), the Rams are well under the salary cap heading into the new league year. The Rams are not in a position where they are forced to release players/restructure contracts - to be in compliance with the off season salary cap - by March 11. The timing of Finnegan's release is not a desperate maneuver to get under the salary cap. What it does is bring some clarity to the Rams' plans for free agency - and the draft - while immediately freeing up $4 million in salary cap space, days before the opening of free agency. Indications are the Rams attempted to negotiate a salary reduction, and released Finnegan when he refused to accept the terms of a restructure.

According to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, the Rams met with Finnegan on Wednesday to go over options, igniting this chain of events:

Finnegan "broke" the news with a tweet to ESPN's Adam Schefter:

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch confirmed the news:

Thomas noted Jeff Fisher's interest in re-signing Finnegan at a later date (no doubt at a reduced salary), in a Wednesday follow-up article (link):

"We've expressed interest in him coming back to our football team. We appreciate what he's done for us. I know he was personally disappointed the way last year ended up for us. But as we told him, he can help win football games for us next year."

The Rams can't officially release Finnegan until March 11, after the start of the new league year. If he was released now, his 2014 roster bonus would accelerate onto the 2013 salary cap, and the Rams don't have enough cap space left from 2013 to execute the transaction..

Finnegan's contract and salary cap savings

The accompanying chart presents the remaining three years of Cortland Finnegan's contract (before his release):

Year Base Salary Prorated Bonus Roster Bonus Cap Hit
2014 6,000,000 1,000,000 3,000,000 10,000,000
2015 8,000,000 1,000,000 9,000,000
2016 7,000,000 1,000,000 2,000,000 10,000,000

By releasing Cortland Finnegan, the Rams immediately receive $23 million in salary cap savings: $10 million in 2016, $9 million in 2015, and $4 million in 2014. At present, there is $6 million in dead money for 2014 associated with his release, the result of all guaranteed and prorated monies accelerating into 2014 as salary cap hits. For the moment, Finnegan's $10 million salary cap hit for 2014 is reduced to $6 million.

Finnegan's $3 million 2014 roster bonus

Much of the misinformation surrounding Finnegan's contract is regarding the $3 million roster bonus due on March 13. The two keys to understanding the implications of the roster bonus are: the guarantees associated with it, and the offset language built into its terms.

Any monies can be guaranteed for up to 3 different circumstances: skill, injury, and salary cap. A contract including player protection for all three circumstances is said to be "fully guaranteed". Finnegan's roster bonus was guaranteed for injury upon signing, and guaranteed for skill on February 8, 2013, the 5th day after the Super Bowl. Cutting Finnegan for salary cap purposes would be the only means available to the Rams for avoiding payment - and the salary cap hit - of the bonus. Releasing him before March 11 - in the 2013 league year - for cap purposes would not work, as the 2013 season is over, and no justification exists for a cap termination. The Rams will attempt to use 2014 salary cap purposes as the means to avoid payment of the bonus in 2014 (when the real reason is skill). Finnegan will likely argue the reason for release is "skill", making the bonus guaranteed. If the Rams can avoid the payment, the result would be a $7 million salary cap savings in 2014, with only $3 million in dead money remaining. It may end up being a moot point - due to offsets - if Finnegan signs elsewhere for at least $3 million.

The terms of the roster bonus includes offset language. If Finnegan is signed by another team, the roster bonus will be offset by his new contract, up to a limit of $3 million. As an example, if the Oakland Raiders sign Finnegan for $4 million, the Rams would receive $3 million to offset the roster bonus paid to him. Finnegan can only collect the $3 million once. The net result would be the Rams carrying only $3 million in dead money - instead of $6 million - and a salary cap savings of $7 million for 2014.

Free Agency and the NFL Draft

Finnegan's release may have implications for the Rams, in both free agency, and the NFL draft. Although Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson are young starters on the rise, NFL teams need three bona fide starters in today's pass-happy league. Depth at the CB position is thin as the result of Finnegan's release. The Rams will likely address the position in free agency and/or the draft. I expect the Rams - who are now in a relatively decent salary cap position - to look at signing a CB in free agency. The most obvious candidate is Alterraun Verner, due to his ties with both Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams. Verner will command a contract upwards of 5 years/$45 million. If the Rams don't sign a CB in free agency, I expect them to select one early in the 2014 NFL draft. My favourites in the draft are Justin Gilbert with the #13 pick, or Kyle Fuller in the 2nd round.

The release of Cortland Finnegan frees up a minimum of $4 million in salary cap space. The savings could be used to sign a free agent at another position - such as guard Jon Asamoah - or be used to help re-sign Rodger Saffold. In addition, the salary cap savings could be used towards an estimated $10.5 million in additional operating expenses for 2014.

The Rams have another decision that must be made by March 13. As part of Harvey Dahl's 2013 contract restructure, his $4 million 2014 salary cap hit was split evenly between base salary and a non-guaranteed roster bonus, due on the third day of the new league year. The Rams must make a decision very shortly regarding his future with the team.

It should be a very busy - and interesting - week ahead for the St. Louis Rams.

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