As we approach the Superbowl, most NFL teams’ seasons have come to a close and they have begun the task of restructuring their rosters and re-signing players. Determining how much freedom and comfort teams can have during this time of year is not solely dependent on how much room they have under the salary cap. Rather, it’s essential to look at how many unrestricted free agents they will aim to re-sign from their own roster and those of other teams. That goes along with what positions need to be filled and also what freedom certain teams will have in this year’s draft. Even “dead money”, which is the amount owed contractually to players who have been either cut or traded, can be a factor in a team’s options this time of year.
Here is a list of teams that are financially stable, can come out successfully from this offseason and which need to be watched carefully in the next few months. The list will not simply describe which teams have the most cap room, but which ones can make the biggest improvements in the off season, with their cap room being one among other factors. All cap space estimations are from a spot-on report from overthecap.com and individual player stats were harvested from their respective team websites.
10 Buffalo Bills: Estimated Cap Room – $27.5 million
The Bills are in an interesting position this year. They are solid at special teams with punter Brian Moorman and kicker Dan Carpenter. Moorman is past his prime but is still a dependable punter. Whether or not they bring him back, it will not have a major impact. Carpenter on the other hand, is tied for the Bills’ record for most field goals in a season. His field goal percentage this season was 91.6% and four out of six were from beyond fifty yards, so Carpenter is a keeper. In terms of defense, Jairus Byrd and Jim Leonhard are both finished their contracts at safety. Byrd is an essential to keep, but Leonhard is no slouch at the position either.
On offense, the Bills need to do something significant about their quarterback situation. Their running backs, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, were consistent this year but the Bills simply couldn’t rely on a quarterback. Additionally, they need to upgrade their offensive line and protect that quarterback once they find him. They gave up 48 sacks in 2013 which was fourth-worst in the league. However, roughly $28 million dollars is a great amount to be working with and they should be able to accomplish most of their goals this offseason.
9 Miami Dolphins: Estimated Cap Room – $35.2 million
The Dolphins have a good amount of money to spend this offseason and they need to spend it mostly on offense. Firstly, Ryan Tannehill needs better protection in order to produce. With all the drama that occurred on Miami's offensive line last season, it is no wonder Tannehill was the most sacked quarterback in the NFL. However, giving up 58 sacks in one season is beyond inexcusable. With Jonathan Martin not interested in playing for Miami and the team building expert Richie Incognito not being signed back to the club, offensive line is where the Dolphins must spend their efforts in the next few months.
On defense this Miami squad has significantly more stability. They had a great pass defense last year but it may be wise for them to focus on keeping at least one of the two defensive linemen who are becoming free agents; Paul Soliai and Randy Starks. Their linebackers have also been somewhat hit or miss and it would be a good idea for them to use some picks to solidify their run defense before the 2014 season. Overall though, given the amount of money they are working with, Miami has plenty and can come out of this offseason stronger than the previous year.
8 Philadelphia Eagles: Estimated Cap Room – $21.6 million
One of the great things about the Eagles’ situation this offseason is that they have very few contracts ending and only four starters who are now unrestricted free agents. On offense, they have very little to do. At quarterback, they have a young starter who led them well in Nick Foles, and are stacked at running back with the phenomenal LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown. Their biggest concern should be to hold on to Jeremy Maclin at all costs, as he is an integral part of what is already one of the most explosive wide receiver groups in the league, along with DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper.
On defense the Eagles need to upgrade both in the secondary and on the defensive line, but they have a decent amount of room to manoeuvre under the cap for free agents or can choose a strategy to lean on potential draft picks to fill those holes.
7 Green Bay Packers: Estimated Cap Room – $28.4 million
Green Bay has an interesting situation this off season which could allow them to save quite a bit of money. In terms of receivers and running backs; James Jones, Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, James Starks and John Khun are all unrestricted free agents. Finley was unreliable this year and did not earn his $7 million. There has been talk of not offering James Starks a new contract, but this seems absurd. Starks, along with Eddie Lacy, proved to be a very solid combination at running back this season and to split them up may be a bonehead move. However, they should be sure to upgrade the weapons around superstar QB Aaron Rodgers, who only has two reliable targets under contract in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
On defense, several defensive linemen, including Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji, are now UFA’s and both are worth holding on to. Additionally, Sam Shields’ contract is up but he performed well this year and should not be let go. Overall, Green Bay is in a stable position and has enough money to get creative this offseason.
6 Minnesota Vikings: Estimated Cap Room – $24.3 million
Jared Allen’s contract is up, and it’s no secret that he is the cornerstone of the Vikings’ defense. It is however important to consider whether the Vikings can keep him without offering more money. In spite of his reputation as one of the toughest and most durable players in the league, it is always a gamble to offer a new contract to a 32-year-old defensive end. His contract currently pays him just over $12 million per year and he has been worth every penny, but will he continue to be?
Maybe it’s time for Minnesota to put that money towards their quarterback situation and possibly look into a new cornerback. Xavier Rhodes looked fantastic this year at CB, but Chris Cook largely failed to produce at that position.
They have already largely spent on their offensive line and have a variety of talent at the skill positions with Adrian Peterson and Cordarrelle Patterson. So the offense only really needs a quality quarterback to take the next step.
5 Cincinnati Bengals: Estimated Cap Room – $25.5 million
Quarterback, running back and wide receiver are all positions at which the Bengals are currently getting pretty good bang for their buck. Their offensive line is not unusually expensive although they do spend quite a bit of money on offensive tackles. With an elite player like A.J. Green, an emerging running back in Giovani Bernard and a solid QB in Andy Dalton, the future is bright offensively.
What is a key aspect of free agency for the Bengals is the fact that only two of their 2013 starters are currently unrestricted free agents. Defense is where Cincinnati could use some upgrades. Michael Johnson is a very solid defensive end, but he may be too expensive for the Bengals. He is a free agent this off season and it may be a better idea for Cincinnati to look to use their money to upgrade the secondary rather than continuing to spend that money on their defensive line, as their cornerbacks have under produced and are injury prone.
4 Indianapolis Colts: Estimated Cap Room – $36.8 million
I'll consider their secondary first. It is ideal for Indianapolis to re-sign free agents Antoine Bethea and Vontae Davis, who are both fairly solid defensive backs. With regard to special teams, it is important to recognize that punter Pat Mcafee and kicker Adam Vinatieri are among the best in the league and even though their salaries are fairly high, at $3.4 and $2.98 million respectfully, they are both worth every penny.
Looking to the offensive side of the ball, Ahmad Bradshaw and Darrius Heyward-Bey are both major questions. Bradshaw was chronically plagued by injuries while playing for the New York Giants, but suffered his most significant injury while playing for the Colts. Ahmad Bradshaw’s health makes him a major gamble. Darrius Heyward-Bey is a player I won’t even call a gamble, as he is a $2.5 million wide receiver who simply did not produce this year. These are two players that the Colts do not need and could free up some money. Without any shadow of a doubt, with Andrew Luck at the helm of their offense, they will get amazing production as long as they are willing to spend a little more money on reliable receivers and running backs.
They are also anxiously waiting the return of Reggie Wayne, and there will be concerns that he will not be the same player at his age and coming off a significant injury.
3 Jacksonville Jaguars: Estimated Cap Room – $53 million
Another team with a massive amount of money to spend is the Jaguars. The key to the Jags’ situation this offseason is that of the nine unrestricted free agents on their roster at present, only four are starters. The fact that they are also looking at roughly $53 million to work with, they can decide whether to keep Chad Henne as their starter or as a backup quarterback while they look for the long-term answer. The same can be said of their long time running back and arguably the most successful back in the history of their club, Maurice Jones-Drew. Furthermore, the Jaguars need to make changes to their offensive line. Fifty sacks in the 2013 season is one reason that some quarterbacks might start running when Jacksonville calls.
Another interesting scenario for the Jags is the case of Justin Blackmon. His production when on the field is sublime, but his conduct off the field has left him in a precarious position. The former first-round pick has already violated the substance abuse policy twice and the Jags need to determine if they want to continue taking the risk.
With regards to defense it may be in the Jaguars’ best interest to focus on picking up a defensive lineman with significant pass rushing ability. Overall, however, the biggest impact on the Jaguars’ next season may well be the draft in which they have ten picks with the third and thirty-ninth among them.
2 Oakland Raiders: Estimated Cap Room - $64.7 million
The basic fact with the Raiders right now is that they have such an obscene amount of money to spend and that even if they choose to re-sign all ten of their unrestricted free agent starters, there is no doubt that they will still have money left over to pursue other possible players. Their defensive priorities should be to keep Lamarr Houston, as he is reliable and will continue to produce on defense. Charles Woodson is a major question for the Raiders because of his age. At 37, it is unsure whether he is worth another contract. On the other hand, it may be wise to sign him for another year and start grooming a younger defensive back or two who can learn from him. After all, he is one of the best DB’s of all time.
The Raiders’ biggest problem right now is their quarterback situation. This is looking like a year where they should turn to the draft for a quarterback. With the fifth pick in the first round, there is great potential that the solution to their offensive problems could be found among the NCAA’s former best. They also need to re-sign top left tackle Jared Veldheer who is an unrestricted free agent and a major piece to their team.
More good news for the Raiders is that the massive amount of dead money accrued in 2013 will translate to just over $9 million in 2014, and while that is a large number, it is a major decrease for them. The bottom line for Oakland is that they can spend the most this year and need to find productive and stable offensive playmakers.
1 Cleveland Browns: Estimated Cap Room - $50.1 Million
The Cleveland Browns have not spent nearly as much money as they could have in recent years during free agency. This is part of the reason that they have so much to spend in 2014. Obviously they need to spend a large amount of money on both quarterbacks and running backs. At QB, Brandon Weeden needs to go, as his $2 million salary cap hit is far more than he is worth, and much of the same can be said of Jason Campbell. There is the interesting case of Brian Hoyer, who impressed before a season-ending injury. They may wish to give him a chance to compete next year. At running back, the Browns have roughly all the freedom they could ever want as their total salary for their running backs is less than $2 million. The offensive line is another area for improvement. Sacks totaled 49 this year and that’s third worst in the league. They are stacked at WR and TE, with potential superstars in Josh Gordan and Jordan Cameron.
Of the unrestricted free agents on Cleveland’s roster right now, five are starters, but with $50 million available to be spent, this is nothing to worry about. Whether they choose to or not, these five can easily be signed with more than enough cash to throw at numerous additional acquisitions and any potential draft picks. On the defensive side of the ball they have a solid group of linebackers and must look to hold on to T.J. Ward, a very solid safety who should continue to produce like he did this year.
Although Oakland has more money to spend this offseason, Cleveland takes number one here because they have ten draft picks! Among these are two in the first, third and fourth round. It’s safe to say that Cleveland is going to have an interesting off season and has a strong chance to improve exponentially in 2014.