NFL free agency is right around the corner, and salary cap space is key. How active teams can be is reliant on the amount of cap space they have at their disposal.
Teams with large amounts of cap room can often sign players to more team-friendly contracts, while those without room must modify their rosters to sneak in guys on player-friendly contracts.
Here we look at the teams that have the best and worst cap situations heading into free agency, which begins March 9.
The Jaguars lead the way with a projection of nearly $80 million in cap room, and that’s before roster cuts. Jacksonville simply has not had talent worth extending in recent years, which has given them cap carryover funds to apply to this season.
The Jaguars’ losing culture — they haven’t won more than five games since 2011 — and relocation rumors put them in a position where they need to overpay to attract players, and they have shown a willingness to do so. Don’t be surprised if they make strong plays for Alex Mack, a pass rusher like Olivier Vernon, a top-tier safety like Eric Berry, a top cornerback and possibly a guard, setting new market standards at a few positions. The Jaguars are lagging in CBA-mandated spending, so each of these players likely would earn a large salary in Jacksonville.
With nearly $75 million in cap space, Oakland should be able to compete with Jacksonville as top dollar-offering teams. The Raiders generated cap room with prior periods of poor drafting, plus a rebuilding effort that focused on value-oriented positions and short-term contracts for aging veterans. Oakland has overpaid in recent years, in part because it has not been a desirable location for free agents.
But the arrow is trending up with the emergence of Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, so the Raiders should continue to support their young talent. But how far they’re willing to go is the question. We have not seen Oakland target premier players in the past, so it may not be expected to go after the biggest names. With Carr and Mack both extension-eligible in January, expect the Raiders to set aside money for those players.
The Bears have around $60 million in projected cap space, and that number will grow when more players are removed from the roster. The Bears more or less entered a dead period last year, when they minimized free-agent spending while dealing with questionable acquisitions under their former general manager.
Chicago likely will use its franchise tag on star receiver Alshon Jeffery, a move that would eat $15 million of its cap room. With questions still surrounding Jay Cutler’s long-term future, Chicago may take a wait-and-see approach to free agency and stockpile cap room for 2017.
Last year, Buffalo spent with almost no consideration for the future when it signed LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay and Marcell Dareus to big-money contracts. The Bills project to be right at the cap limit this year and still have to sign their left tackle. And it doesn’t get easier moving forward: Quarterback Tyrod Taylor will be a free agent next year, and if he plays well in 2016, he’ll command a hefty raise.
Expect the Bills to slice and dice their roster, cutting players like Mario Williams and Leodis McKelvin in order to function. If they want to go into free agency, they must convert salary to bonus money, which would create more problems for the future.
The Ravens, thanks to their deferring of Joe Flacco charges to this season, will rank 31st in the league with just around $6 million in cap space — Flacco will eat up nearly $29 million of the Ravens’ cap space. Underperformers like Eugene Monroe, Denis Pitta and Lardarius Webb will eat up another $25 million. Even if they cut those three players, the Ravens’ heavy reliance on bonuses in lieu of guarantees would only see them gain around $7 million in cap room.
Baltimore may lose starting guard Kelechi Osemele and could find it hard to keep kicker Justin Tucker, depending on other roster decisions. If there’s one saving grace for the Ravens, it’s that they rarely sign free agents outside of the organization. At least they won’t be lose out in that area.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints have about $7.5 million in cap space, and that’s after releasing starting guard Jahri Evans and restructuring Cameron Jordan’s contract. They’re paying for years of “kicking the can” with their contracts — bad signings, overpaid players, constant restructures and some bad luck in between have led to a difficult position.
With $22 million in dead money already on the books, the Saints have little else they can do to improve the team this offseason. They can gain cap room by extending Drew Brees’ contract, but not even that would create the kind of space needed to sign team-friendly deals. New Orleans just needs to stay on the sidelines this year in free agency.