So you want to buy your way to a championship?
As a USA TODAY Sports analysis of the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks pay scales illustrates, there surely is more than one blueprint for navigating the NFL's salary cap.
Consider the pay of the quarterbacks.
The Broncos committed a bundle to lure Peyton Manning — whose $17.5 million cap figure for 2013 accounts for 12.8% of the team's adjusted salary cap – but spent wisely to avoid short-changing themselves elsewhere.
The Seahawks gained a windfall with the emergence of second-year pro Russell Wilson — who counts a mere $686,685 against the cap – that allowed them to invest big elsewhere.
Of course, the Broncos and Seahawks have a key factor in common — they are getting much bang for their bucks.
Managing cap dollars is one thing. Making sure you're spending on the right players at the right time often is the difference between winning and losing.
Seahawks general manager John Schneider has used money he doesn't have to pay to a franchise quarterback to bolster a deep defensive line that is arguably the deepest in the NFL.
"It's easy to say the reason they've been able to do what they've done is because of the flexibility of Russell Wilson's contract," ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said. "It helped them sign Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Chris Clemons. And they could go get a Percy Harvin. But they are not building by spending cap dollars on free agents. They are drafting and developing.
"They've filled in with some of their acquisitions, but that has not been the driving force."
The John Elway-managed Broncos, on the other hand, impress Riddick as a franchise that went all-in to win quickly with Manning by supplementing him with other key moves.
"They don't get as much credit as a draft-and-develop franchise," said Riddick, formerly pro personnel director with the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington.
"They tried to hit the jackpot in the short term. When Peyton walks away, they won't be nearly as strong, down to 53 players, as Seattle would be without Russell Wilson."
Still, the Broncos have scored big in protecting Manning with one of the league's best O-lines — despite losing left tackle Ryan Clady and center Dan Koppen to season-ending injuries.
Denver's current starting O-linemen count about $8.3 million against the cap — which is less than it is costing the Seahawks alone on the cap for left tackle Russell Okung ($9.54 million).
When they meet in the trenches, Denver's O-line will match up against a Seattle starting defensive line that counts nearly $21.6million against the cap — led by right end Clemons ($8.2million).
Both teams are getting great returns. The Broncos allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL, and the Seahawks pass rush has been a key element for a unit that gave up the fewest points.
The Super Bowl teams also have benefited from a crucial feature of the post-lockout collective bargaining agreement that was struck in 2011. The CBA guarantees a cash spend but also allows teams to more easily roll over unused cap space from year to year.
After rollovers and other credits on top of the original $123 million salary cap, the XLVIII teams ranked among the top six for adjusted salary caps. The Broncos had an adjusted cap of $140.3 million, third highest. The Seahawks came in sixth highest, at $137.2million, based on NFL Players Association figures obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
On the road to the Super Bowl, every few million dollars helps.
Yet in these cases, it's striking how they eased on down this road. Consider:
-- Manning threw at least 10 TD passes to four targets – Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas – who combined to count $8.92 million against the cap. That's just slightly more than one Beast Mode running back, Marshawn Lynch, counts against the Seahawks cap ($8.5 million).
-- Seahawks star Richard Sherman is an all-pro – and who can argue with him that he isn't the NFL's best cover corner – but counts for less against the cap ($605,700) than backup corners Walter Thurmond ($612,900) and Jeromy Lane ($691,200). They are all on rookie contracts.
-- The biggest cap figure for a Seahawks player is for Zach Miller at $11 million. Yes, the tight end. It's also an aberration, illustrative of the ebb and flow of fluid salary caps. Miller's in the middle year of a five-year contract. In the other four years, his cap figures total $13 million.
-- The Broncos are paying good money for strong legs. Punter Dustin Colquitt ranks eighth on the team for average salary ($3.9 million), while Matt Prater ranks sixth among NFL kickers with an average pay of $3.25 million.
-- The Seahawks are paying more than twice as much in dead money against the cap ($4 million) for a quarterback who is long gone (Matt Flynn) than they are for Wilson and backup Tavaris Jackson, who count for a combined $1.547 million in cap dollars.
-- Injured players account for significant chunks for both teams. Clady, who struck a deal last summer, counts $12.6 million against Denver's cap. Seattle receiver Sidney has a $9.7 million figure.
-- The Seahawks boosted the D-line by adding Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who come off the bench in the second wave and count for a combined $8.56 million against the cap. Keeping track of this? Seattle's nine D-lineman count for $31.686 million against the adjusted cap – 23% of the team's total.
In the future, they will have to devise a formula – which will also include hitting on draft picks.
Before long, the Seahawks will have to pony up for huge contracts for so many of their stars currently playing on the rookie deals that are locked in for four years – or risk losing them as free agents.
Sherman. Wilson. Earl Thomas. Bruce Irvin. Bigger paydays loom.
Yet there's no need to sweat. As the Broncos can attest, managing the cap is an ever-evolving exercise.