As the NFL’s 3-day negotiating period winds down and the free agency market prepares to officially open, players and agents alike wait patiently for 4 p.m. ET Tuesday. A mix of bottom-dwellers and borderline contenders are equipped with enough salary cap room to make multiple splashes during the official signing and trading period.
Below is a free agency game-plan for the six NFL teams with the most available cap room to work with.
Oakland Raiders (cap room: $63.8 million)
Top 3 needs: QB, OT/OG, DL
No team possesses more holes than the Raiders but fortunately bringing back two big names could go a long way for this squad. Re-signing LT Jared Veldheer and DE Lamarr Houston can return the best players on both sides of the ball.
As is often the case with most 4-12 teams that end the season losing six straight games, the quarterback position remains a major issue. General manager Reggie McKenzie has stripped down the roster and cleared plenty of space to make a giant splash in this area, but no quarterback inspiring much confidence is set to hit the market. Michael Vick would be the “so Raiders” selection, yet it would be hard to snicker at Oakland starting him over Matt McGloin or Terrelle Pryor, who both finished in the bottom 10 of Pro Football Focus’ accuracy percentage metric in 2013.
When your current QB depth chart makes Vick look like an accurate passer, it speaks volumes about the lack of talent at the position. Whoever starts should be accompanied by a promising young quarterback in the wings.
The left guard spot is dying for an upgrade as well, where Lucas Nix finished last among 81 qualifying guards in PFF positional grading in 2013. Meanwhile, Travelle Wharton hits free agency after a renaissance season at that same LG spot in Carolina.
Jacksonville Jaguars (cap room: $56.4 million)
Top 3 needs: Interior OL, LB, RB
Jacksonville wrighted ship in dramatic fashion in mid-2013 thanks in large part to eight solid draft selections. It helps when each comes near the top of their respective round. The climb from an 0-8 start to a 4-4 finish came without No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel, who shall return from a broken leg to bolster one end of the offensive line. Austin Pasztor has proved a frugal find at right tackle, but adding upper-level interior linemen like ex-Saint Brian De La Puente at center and ex-Chief Geoff Schwartz at left guard could have this unit looking above-average by end of 2014.
The young influx of talent—coupled with Gus Bradley’s excellent job coaching it up—means Jacksonville doesn’t necessarily need to go on a wild spree with their cap space this offseason. Chad Henne’s re-signing provides the right veteran complement for an early-round rookie quarterback likely to come, so Bradley can follow up 2013’s secondary overhaul with a front-seven push here in free agency. They could do much worse than pairing Paul Posluszny with a cagey vet at strongside like ex-Cardinal Karlos Dansby, or the return of Daryl Smith if there’s belief he’ll regain pre-injury form.
Maurice Jones-Drews’ departure leaves a void at running back that they’ll need more than Jordan Todman alone to fill. Perhaps a return to the team who drafted him is in order for Rashad Jennings, who’s coming off a career year with over 1,000 total yards and 4.5 yards per carry in Oakland.
Cleveland Browns (cap room: $49.2 million)
Top 3 needs: ILB, S, WR
D’Qwell Jackson left for Indianapolis so the Browns attempted to replace him by tendering Craig Robertson. Wait, I did say attempted, right? Because the fact remains, they let the (not much) better half of an extremely poor-performing duo walk, and that’s it so far for the heart of Cleveland’s LB corps. The Browns brass should pair Robertson with an athletic linebacker that can cover, an area Dansby really excelled in last season.
The Browns surprised many by tagging center Alex Mack instead of safety TJ Ward, giving the transition tag to a center that will pay him like a top-10 offensive lineman if no team matches the offer. This frees up arguably the best strong safety in the game and leaves the Cleveland cupboard barren at safety, unless they’re confident Tashaun Gipson will take a huge step in 2014.
Regardless, safety is a big need with Ward’s impending departure, and could even be addressed if someone like ex-Bill Jairus Byrd accepts a massive contract at FS. Cleveland’s cap-healthy enough to also hit SS with someone like ex-Lion Louis Delmas, and find a nice Josh Gordon counterpart in ex-Seahawks Sidney Rice or Golden Tate to spread opposing defenses out and keep them honest.
Minnesota Vikings (cap room: $40.7 million [at present time])
Top 3 needs: CB, DT, LB
The re-signings of quarterback Matt Cassel (two years, $10 million), DE Everson Griffen (five years, $42.5 million) and to a lesser degree cornerback/kick returner Marcus Sherels will bring the above cap figure down once the terms for the 2014 cap hit are known—although Minny should still have some spending cash in-pocket. There’s a lot of buzz about Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer’s connection to ex-Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, who Zimmer oversaw as defensive coordinator in Cincy.
However, Johnson would likely command a much bigger contract than Griffen or fellow Vikes DE Brian Robison, potentially pushing the combined money devoted to those three defensive ends to close to $100 million over the next four years. Looking at recent Super Bowl champions, stacking up on defensive end talent isn’t such a bad thing, but Minnesota would be wise to leave some available spending for other spots on the defense at all levels.
First-round CB Xavier Rhodes showed encouraging flashes and Minny could round out its secondary by bolstering the area opposite him. Word is they’ve reached out to prized corner Alterraun Verner, who Tennessee relented from giving the franchise tag. Adding one of the league’s best young cover men could do wonders in Mike Zimmer’s defensive unit.
Outside of defensive end and Sharrif Floyd, the front-seven could stand to upgrade pretty much anywhere. The Vikes have some nice options here, with the hopes to re-sign Kevin Williams on a hometown discount or snag a rising star like Jason Hatcher in free agency. The linebacker pool is much weaker yet a downhill thumper like Brandon Spikes could add a powerful presence on early downs.
New York Jets (cap room: $39.6 million after Holmes’ impending release)
Top 3 needs: WR, S, CB
While the Jets have red flags at the quarterback and offensive line positions, they also have other more pressing needs that they will look to improve upon during free agency. Geno Smith arguably outperformed the other rookie quarterbacks in his class despite a rag-tag, oft-injured receiving group. Smith, playing behind an offensive line featuring D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold—coming off major down years—figures to improve upon last season’s play and could be rejoined by free agent RT Austin Howard.
As far as positional needs go, wide receiver is screaming loud and clear, especially with the Holmes cut seeming imminent. Jeremy Kerley’s a nice weapon to utilize but isn’t a true No. 1 threat. Perhaps this is Eric Decker or Emmanuel Sanders’ chance to move up the pecking order of a pass offense as focal points.
The Gang Green secondary raises a ton of questions outside of the rapidly improving play of 2013 first-round corner Dee Milliner. Antonio Allen performed well at strong safety—with some admirable work on Rob Gronkowski and others—while head coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik must have their eyes on division rival Byrd. The ex-Bill recorded a sack and two interceptions when the teams faced in Week 11, and front offices tend to remember these things when free agency rolls around.
The release of Antonio Cromartie makes sound cap sense and perhaps he understands this. It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that Cromartie could return next season on more palatable contract terms.
I would like 2 thank the Jets organization so much with helpin me grow as leader and a player. S/O 2 my teammates I wish u guys the best. — ANTONIO CROMARTIE (@CRO31) March 9, 2014
Indianapolis Colts (cap room: $37.5 million)
Top 3 needs: Interior OL, CB, S
There is a lot to like about the young receiving talent they have on hand, and the group receives excellent tutelage from veteran WR Reggie Wayne. Tight end Dwayne Allen returns from injury in 2014 while Coby Fleener’s a fine second tight end.
The one gaping hole on this offense has been the interior offensive line, a spot where Indy’s been weaker than anyone in recent years. Every other area of this offense has either the quality or potential to get by, but the Colts have gone long enough getting bullied inside and relying on Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck to make up for it. Indy could do much worse than adding ex-Chief guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz or Packers’ versatile center Evan Dietrich-Smith.
If Indy can find a way to ink unrestricted free agent Vontae Davis—reported to be nearing a deal to stay—their cornerback corps might turn out quite strong, if they can stay healthy. When Greg Toler and Davis can both stay healthy, and Darius Butler goes to work in the slot, this unit can show what it can do at full strength, as in the Colts’ Sunday night win against the AFC Champion Denver Broncos.
LaRon Landry’s a severely limited strong safety but still has three years worth of significant dead-money hits left on his contract, so Indy will probably only look to replenish the free safety spot at the final line of defense. Antoine Bethea hits free agency and is a player they will probably let walk, while Byrd would provide the most ideal complement—the FS drop-off after is so great that an early draft pick might be the best contingency plan to shore up that area.
(Cap room figures via OverTheCap.com as of 6 a.m. ET Monday morning—with me personally bumping the No. 7 Jets ahead of the No. 6 Dolphins and No. 5 Colts due to the impending release of Santonio Holmes, which would free up $8.25 million off their cap figure.)