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The 2015 NFL salary cap explained

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The NFL salary cap is as high as it has ever been, but what exactly does that mean?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL announced the 2015 salary cap Monday, setting the official number at $143.28 million. That's higher than previous projections, including the $140-143 million range that was reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter earlier in February and the $138.6-141.8 million projection made by the NFL in December.

The fact that projections fell short of the actual number highlights just how complex the NFL salary cap is. The figure is derived from NFL revenue, of which players receive no less than 47 percent and no more than 48.5 percent according to the collective bargaining agreement ratified in 2011.

Because the NFL is a megalithic corporation that is somehow still growing at a confounding rate, the salary cap has taken some of its biggest leaps in recent years. The 2015 cap is more than $10 million richer than the $133 million salary cap in 2014, which jumped up another $10 million from the $123 million salary cap in 2013.

That means the NFL has more and more money to spend on players themselves, making some, like Chicago's Jay Cutler, very happy.

But first things first:

What does the salary cap do?

The salary cap is, at its heart, a way to maintain competitive balance within a sports league by placing an upper limit on how much teams can spend on players. Among the four major American professional sports, only Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap in place. The result, according to some critics of the sport, is a league in which only big market teams in cities like New York and Los Angeles can afford to buy the best free agents, leaving scraps for the smaller markets. In 2014, the Los Angeles Dodgers led MLB by spending more than $235 million on players -- more than five time as much as the Houston Astros spent.

Conversely, the NFL is lauded for its parity perhaps because of its stringent salary cap. Teams that go over their cap numbers are subject to hefty fines, cancelled contracts and/or lost draft picks. In 2012, Dallas and Washington were fined $10 million and $36 million, respectively, for exorbitant spending during the uncapped 2010 season.

That doesn't mean that teams can't fudge the cap a little bit, however. A provision introduced in the 2011 CBA allows teams to bank money from one season to the next like rollover cell phone minutes.

What is carryover?

NFL teams won't actually be working with the exact same salary cap in 2015. Since 2011, teams have been allowed to take unused cap space and apply it to the following season provided they announce the amount before the end of the regular season in progress. For example, The Jaguars will be carrying over nearly $21.8 million to the 2015 salary cap because they spent so little in 2014, which, in addition to "other adjustments," gives them a league-leading $168.5 million adjusted cap figure to work with.

Top five adjusted salary caps for 2015
Team Carryover Other Adj. Cap
Jacksonville Jaguars $21,768,205 $3,437,902 $168,486,107
Cleveland Browns $18,908,285 (-)$420,885 $161,767,400
Philadelphia Eagles $15,715,700 $876,678 $159,872,378
New York Jets $12,619,394 $250,000 $156,149,394
Tennessee Titans $11,254,828 (-)$181,250 $154,353,578

The latest salary cap figures put three teams -- the Kansas City Chiefs (-$5.76 million), New England Patriots (-$11.39 million) and New Orleans Saints (-$20.65 million) -- above the limit, according to Over The Cap. The Oakland Raiders join the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns among the teams with the most space to work with under their caps, thanks to a bevy of expiring contracts heading into the 2015 free agency period.

How can my team save money?

By jettisoning players! While the NFL's CBA is great at creating competition among teams, it's not very fair to its players relative to other major sports leagues. Primarily, NFL contracts are not guaranteed, meaning that teams can sign a player to an exorbitant salary, realize they overpaid, then yank the contract away to save themselves a boatload of money and put the player back on the free agent market. Players who are released get to keep the money they've earned and their signing bonus ... that's it.

Though cutting players is the easiest method of saving money, there are other fancy tricks. Occasionally, players will agree to restructure their contracts, either by taking paycuts or allowing the team to withhold salary until later in the lifespan of the deal to save money in the short-term. Every team can also make use of a franchise tag, which it can apply to big-name players to keep them from entering the free agent market. The franchise tag is essentially a one-year deal that players can't negotiate -- it can only be accepted or declined. Though it guarantees they will be paid like one of the best players at their position, it may keep elite players from making what they're worth, and it provides no career security beyond the upcoming season.

The franchise tag numbers for each position were announced alongside the 2015 salary cap. Each number is an average of the five highest salaries at each position for the upcoming season. The 2015 franchise tag numbers, via a pair of tweets from Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network:

Quarterback: $18.544 million
Running back: $10.951 million
Wide receiver: $12.823 million
Tight end: $8.347 million
Offensive line: $12.943 million
Defensive end: $14.813 million
Defensive tackle: $11.193 million
Linebacker: $13.195 million
Cornerback: $13.075 million
Safety: $9.618 million
Punter/Kicker: $4.126 million

Cool. How much time does my team have to get under the salary cap?

The first salary cap deadline is Tuesday, March 10, so you better get cracking New Orleans.

Fortunately for the Saints, they get a bit of respite thanks to the Top 51 rule, which says that only each team's 51 highest salaries will count against the cap during the offseason. There will be no fudging as soon as the regular season starts, however, and teams will have to account for their entire 53-man rosters.