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Inside the mind of the cap manager

A former NFL cap manager describes what it’s like during free agency. Jack Bechta

Print This March 12, 2014, 01:31 PM EST

Free agency for the agents is a stressful time and also an exciting time. It’s a time where we get to use our negotiating skill set, be clever, bluff, beg, out maneuver, and fulfill the fiscal dreams of our clients.

For every deal an agent gets done there is a salary cap manager on the other side getting it done for his team. Some of the best deals a salary cap manager does for his team can be the one he doesn’t allow his team to do. Cap managers can be a team’s best or worst performing front office asset. During the start of free agency, most active cap managers are relied on to get deals done for players that will be the difference makers.

I’ve written many times what it’s like for the agent during free agency so I thought we would let our readers hear what its like from the cap managers side.

Therefore, I asked Ari Nissim, former Jets cap manager to give us a look at what goes on in the mind and office of a cap manager before and during free agency.

The Mindset of a Salary Cap Manager entering into the First 72 hours of Free Agency - Ari Nissim

If the pile of diet coke bottles around the recycle bin in my office was overflowing, it was typically one of two times of the year, either the start of free agency or the draft signing period. In fact if anyone from Coke is reading this, you can thank me for single handedly raising your sales in the North Jersey area at this time of the year. The 72 hour period that begins Free Agency was the focus of a month long process of constant preparation and planning. But as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.”

Every year each team goes through a process that typically begins with evaluating their own team throughout the season that just finished and then finalizing with year-end evaluations. This typically will lead to forging the plan for the off-season and building the roster for the season to come. 

After thoroughly evaluating your own team, it’s time to start looking at what players may be available to replace, upgrade and restock your team. Teams will do this by evaluating all the upcoming free agents, positions that are deep in the coming year’s draft, and identify which young players on the backend of their own roster they believe are ready to make the step up to starter/major contributor in the next year.

Regardless, the person labeled as the “salary cap manager” for their respective club has to be ready for everything, and have multiple models on how the roster could be built out from both a cash and cap standpoint. 

What helped me manage the Jets cap was the fact that I always looked at our club in a three to four year window. Thus, when having to add a contract, I could understand how it would affect the cash and cap for each year going forward, allowing me to get a better idea of how the deal needed to be structured to best benefit the club. 

With all this preparation that I am describing you may wonder or ask, “what about that bad deal that was written about here” or, “that atrocious deal given to player X”. Listen, all club cap managers know the bad deals that they were a part of, but deals are done for a variety of different reasons and unfortunately, not all of the reasons are good ones. Every cap manager would agree some of the worse deals are created in the first frenzied 72 hours of free agency. 

Most teams typically would like to avoid the start of free agency if all things are considered equal. Between the demanding agents that are usually full of themselves, playing psychiatrist within the building so your club doesn’t panic and immediately overpay the next player on the list after missing out on the primary targeted player, the cap manager sits at the intersection of fulfilling the ‘wants’ of players and agents, while safe guarding the club’s interests. For him/her, the start of free agency is a 100-yard sprint running backwards. 

For those 72 hours, the world is flipped upside down: General Managers will literally stand on chairs yelling at an agent that just reneged on an agreed upon deal, along with coaches becoming distraught saying that we might as well cancel the season because the team cannot lineup and play because the one player that could work in their system just signed somewhere else. 

Through it all cap managers must adapt on the go. Cap management is about having flexibility and allowing your team to have as many alternatives as possible at all times. The club cap manager must literally have 12 plans ready because after his/her club just signed the three players deemed as necessities right out of the gate, invariably, there is the call from the club’s general manager who just got off the phone with another club looking to trade you Darrelle Revis, and he is asking, “Can we do this?” Or if the cap manager is truly unfortunate, the GM is saying, “figure out how we do this and let me know how to make it work in the next 10 minutes, plus, I want to sign these other 3 players as well”. 

When every one is focused on free agency, the cap manager still has to make sure there is enough budgeted to pay for the draft picks, injury settlements, the practice squad and any potential player extensions that may occur through the season. 

For the cap manager, he is not only managing the team’s payroll but also the hopes, emotions, needs, wants, rules, personalities, egos, and sanity of his club.

Follow me on Twitter: @AriNissim

Ari Nissim worked with the New York Jets from 2006 through 2013, six as Director of Football Administration; In addition he interned at the NFL League office and worked at Athletic Resource Management Sports Agency, and currently teaches in the NYU Sports Management Program.

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