It's finally here! With free agency just 24 hours away, we finish up our free agent preview today with a look at the teams who we think should spend exorbitant sums of money to improve themselves over the next couple of weeks. And while last year's free agency period was overshadowed by the lockout and the mass confusion that emanated from said work stoppage, it's good to see that this year's shopping spree will not be overshadowed by any pressing NFL business that could have been resolved months ago.
Well, shit. Just when we thought Bountygate was going to occupy us for the next few weeks, the league decided to add a spending scandal to the mix and dramatically change the financial outlook for the Cowboys and Redskins. Toss in Peyton Manning's nationwide tour and the holding period that a fifth of the league seems to be in while waiting for his decision, and it seems like the crop of veteran free agents we expected to be the lead story are basically irrelevant right about now.
Amazingly, we still don't know the answers to free agency's most important questions. Is what the NFL did to Washington and Dallas legal? Can the Redskins file an injunction to get their cap space back? Does Peyton Manning's arm work? Is he part of a package deal with six or seven other Colts? We only found out how much salary cap space everybody had on Monday, and even that information is outdated after teams spent the day engaging in a massive salary bloodletting league-wide. This may end up being a more frantic free agency period than last year's, or it could go extremely slowly as Peyton makes his decision and Jerry Jones takes the league office hostage. We'll find out starting Wednesday, but until then we're going to review the roster situations for each of the eight teams we expect will spend heavily in free agency.
Make that seven teams, actually. We were going to suggest that the Redskins should use some of the $31.1 million they had available to surround RG3 with talent, but after the NFL docked Washington $36 million in cap space over the next two seasons, the Redskins might not be able to make any serious investments in free agency until 2014. In fact, the Redskins already went ahead on Monday and released safety O.J. Atogwe and fullback Mike Sellers, two veterans who might have been kept on the roster if Washington hadn't been penalized. The Bears are likeliest to benefit from the punishment, as they were rumored to be alongside the Redskins in close pursuit of Vincent Jackson. Now, the Bears might have Jackson all to themselves.
All the salary cap figures below are estimated from the totals provided to profootballtalk.com and any changes the teams have made since Sunday afternoon. In addition, each figure includes the extra $1.6 million that 28 of the other 30 teams received as a result of the spending scandal.
Cap space: $51.5 million
After shocking everyone by making a run to the playoffs last year, things suddenly look promising in Cincinnati for the Bengals. With the Ravens and Steelers getting a bit long in the tooth on defense and the mandatory spending floor coming into effect next season, 2012 might be a good time for the Bengals to press the issue and spend heavily in free agency as part of an attempt to claim the AFC North. And unlike some of our other teams on the spend-heavily list, the Bengals have a pretty simple shopping list:
1. A starting running back
2. A complementary wide receiver to play across from A.J. Green
3. A starting safety to replace Reggie Nelson
That's it. If the Bengals wade out into free agency and come back with those three parts, they'll be a significantly better football team. The obvious running back candidate is Michael Bush, the only three-down back with fresh legs on the market, although the Bengals could choose to use him as a two-down back and expand Bernard Scott's role as the primary backup. At safety, the Bengals could try to re-sign Nelson or target a veteran like Atogwe. The wide receiver problem is the easiest of the three, since just about any ambulatory NFL wideout could play across from A.J. Green and look good. The Bengals could also add some depth on their defensive line, but remember that they have an extra first-round pick this year from the Carson Palmer deal and will have the ability to trade up, down, or around as they please. Is it actually possible that nobody is in a more enviable position heading into free agency than the Bengals?
Cap space: $46.3 million
While the Broncos are a young team, they were 25th in points scored and 24th in points allowed. They're not going to even go 8-8 again unless they bring in talent to support those young players. That could start by adding Peyton Manning, but if Manning heads elsewhere, the Broncos will still want to consider adding a weapon or two for Tim Tebow to work with. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker showed promise at wideout, but mixing in a deep threat like Robert Meachem would help things, as would a pass-catching tight end. Denver would have loved to have gotten a shot at the Packers' Jermichael Finley, but with Finley locked up, they could make a run at John Carlson or Kevin Boss, who was released by the Raiders on Monday.
The six-game suspension levied on D.J. Williams for providing non-human urine to a drug tester might get appealed, but the Broncos will still likely consider adding a weakside linebacker to serve as insurance for an absent Williams in 2012. The only problem is that there are no outside linebackers worth devoting serious money to in free agency. With middle linebacker Joe Mays and primary backup Wesley Woodyard also hitting free agency, the team could make a splash by bringing in vicious Lions run-stopper Stephen Tulloch to play the middle and play second-year linebacker Nate Irving on the weak side. If they really need a 4-3 outside linebacker, the market can provide the likes of Erin Henderson, Rocky McIntosh, and Philip Wheeler, none of whom should inspire confidence.
Where Denver can make a serious upgrade, though, is at defensive back. Champ Bailey and Andre' Goodman will be 34 next season, and the team will have to replace the departed Brian Dawkins. 2011 second-rounder Rahim Moore will be in the running to replace Dawkins, but the Broncos desperately need an upgrade across from Bailey. They should be in the market for the likes of Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan, especially the former; Carr would take a young starter away from a division rival (Kansas City), and his age (25) matches up well with the young core of this Broncos team.
Of course, if they do end up grabbing Manning, all of this could play out very differently. Manning might insist that his new team sign Reggie Wayne, which would move Decker into the slot while taking away his starting spot. The Broncos would also likely seek a pass-catching running back and could add another Manning teammate, Joseph Addai.
Kansas City Chiefs
Cap space: $34.1 million
Despite their cap space, the Chiefs appear to have already moved on from starting cornerback Brandon Carr, as the team added released veteran Stanford Routt from the Raiders to team up with incumbents Brandon Flowers and Javier Arenas. Bringing Carr back would be an unlikely luxury now.
The good news is that the Chiefs have a young, deep roster; the bad news is that their biggest hole is at right tackle, which is a remarkably thin position in free agency this year. They could try and make a move for Pro Bowl-caliber tackle Eric Winston, released by the Texans yesterday, but Winston's coming from a zone-blocking scheme in Houston and may not be as effective in a different style of play. He's certainly the most talented player available to fill the position, though, and the Chiefs should at least give him some consideration.
With Justin Houston coming on at outside linebacker at the end of the season, the Chiefs might also trust Houston to develop into the team's second-best pass-rusher across from Tamba Hali and try to find an answer at inside linebacker, where Derrick Johnson has propped up Jovan Belcher over the past couple of years. The organization's paid lip service to Belcher's abilities, but they only tendered him at a second-round level and there are far better run stoppers available. They could consider going after Curtis Lofton, who would represent a huge upgrade on Belcher, or stick with Belcher for another season. Nose tackle Kelly Gregg is also gone, and the Chiefs could consider a veteran like Aubrayo Franklin or Paul Soliai to replace him.
Cap space: $13.4 million
And here come the Dolphins, who desperately want a quarterback and wouldn't mind bringing along half of an offensive line with him. The good news is that the Dolphins are mostly set elsewhere; years of solid drafting and development have produced a young, deep team that played better than their record in 2011. We suggested in our RG3 reverberations piece yesterday that the Dolphins could consider Mario Williams as a luxurious option across from Cam Wake in Miami's new 4-3 defense, but that's unlikely to occur unless owner Stephen Ross misses out on Manning and starts crying and throwing his toys out of his stroller.
At the moment, it seems like the most likely starting quarterback for the Dolphins in Week 1 is Matt Flynn. Let's take that somewhat-conservative view and start plugging in free agency for the Dolphins accordingly. Regardless of who plays quarterback, the Dolphins need to rebuild the right side of their offensive line, where Vernon Carey and Marc Colombo played subpar football and aren't likely to return. They could take a shot at Texans right tackle Eric Winston, but Winston is likely to be signed by somebody else by the time Flynn and Manning make up their minds. A more realistic target at tackle might be longtime Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie, but he wasn't much better than Colombo last year.
Miami will also need to replace nose tackle Paul Soliai, who will leave as the Dolphins move into a 4-3 from their previous 3-4 alignment. The Dolphins will look for a smaller, speedier defensive tackle who can penetrate into the backfield, like Titans free agent Jason Jones or even Albert Haynesworth. They could also choose to re-sign Kendall Langford, who played defensive end in their 3-4, and move him inside to play defensive tackle in the 4-3. If that were going to happen, though, wouldn't the Dolphins have locked him up by now?
If the Dolphins get Manning, they will struggle to find the cap space to add Wayne while bringing in competent starters to man the right side of the line. That could lead them to cut veteran safety Yeremiah Bell or tight end Anthony Fasano.
San Francisco 49ers
Cap space: $21.2 million
The 49ers were busy before free agency even began. In addition to locking up rotation linebacker Ahmad Brooks and franchising safety Dashon Goldson, the Niners made headlines on Monday night by signing veteran wideout Randy Moss after Moss spent the 2011 season out of football. The move likely brings an end to Josh Morgan's tenure in San Francisco.
Those moves leave the Niners with three prominent free agents to consider re-signing: cornerback Carlos Rogers, guard Adam Snyder, and, notably, quarterback Alex Smith. San Francisco hasn't been able to come to terms on a long-term deal with Rogers, so they might not be able to retain him once he hits the free market. Snyder just hit the wrong side of 30 in January, but the team is also losing backup guard Chilo Rachal and has no obvious option for a replacement. They could be in the market for a player like Ben Grubbs or Steve Hutchinson, the latter of whom was released by the Vikings over the weekend.
The issue of Smith's contract, though, remains curiously unaddressed. The Niners have failed to meet Smith's terms as part of a three-year deal, with a reported gap of about $4 million per season between the two sides, but it's hard to imagine that Smith's price will go down once he hits the free market. It's not as if the Niners have a veteran backup to work with, as the no. 2 quarterback on the roster is 2011 second-rounder Colin Kaepernick. Would San Francisco really be comfortable turning the offense over to Kaepernick if Smith signed elsewhere? They might go after someone like Kyle Orton early in free agency to get some sort of veteran presence under contract.
Once the quarterback situation is taken care of, the Niners will still want to add depth at wide receiver and across the defense. While the San Francisco defense was fantastic last year, they were lucky to have their 11 defensive starters combine to miss just eight games. And although Isaac Sopoaga did an admirable job at nose tackle last season, the 49ers could try to re-sign Aubrayo Franklin, who left the team in free agency last season and was a disappointment in New Orleans.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cap space: $44.3 million
After years of saving their money and operating with one of the league's smallest payrolls, the Buccaneers will need to start spending money next season. With more than $40 million of cap space to work with and an increasingly disenchanted fan base, they might want to get that process started this year. With Carolina making huge strides last year and likely to be healthier in 2012, the Buccaneers are in danger of getting lapped in terms of talent by the rest of their division.
So far, the Bucs have been linked to improvements at wide receiver and cornerback, each of which would make sense. Both Vincent Jackson and Mario Manningham have been rumored as likely targets for general manager Mark Dominik, and while Tampa could afford to add them both, the presence of Mike Williams makes it more likely that they would try to get Jackson and then only nab Manningham as a fallback plan. Cortland Finnegan has reportedly attempted to bring Jackson along with him as a package deal to Tampa Bay, which would represent a nice one-two punch for Tampa at the top of the market. Any move for a cornerback would likely spell the end of Ronde Barber's tenure in Tampa Bay, as the longtime Bucs starter is a free agent this year.
Tampa's needs don't end there. Adding parts to a porous front seven is essential for a team that ranked 31st in rushing yards allowed per carry and last in sacks. If Mario Williams is looking purely for the largest financial package available in free agency, the Buccaneers should find a way to offer him that package. He could take the heat off of Adrian Clayborn, who had an impressive 7.5 sacks as a rookie starter, while moving Da'Quan Bowers into a situational role. Alternately, Tampa could try to improve up the middle at linebacker by giving a long-term deal to Tulloch or former Falcons starter Curtis Lofton, who seems likely to leave after Atlanta signed Lofa Tatupu this weekend. Taking a chance on a talented, injury-riddled player like LaRon Landry at safety would also make some sense.
Cap space: $29.7 million
While the Titans appeared to have their quarterback situation under control with Matt Hasselbeck and 2011 first-rounder Jake Locker at the helm, owner Bud Adams tossed all that into the garbage by publicly announcing his team's interest in Peyton Manning, apparently over the wishes of his head coach and general manager. We saw the Titans as a possible long-shot option for Manning last week for a few reasons, but we didn't think the team would give up on Locker so quickly. If they do get Manning, though, this offense could be downright scary from Week 1 on. The only hole on their offense is at right guard, where veteran Jake Scott is a free agent and the Titans might consider the aforementioned Hutchinson as a short-term replacement.
Instead, the Titans need to go shopping to improve their defense, despite the fact that they allowed the eighth-fewest points in the league last season. They gave safety Michael Griffin the franchise tag, but four other full- or part-time starters from a year ago are unrestricted free agents, most notably Cortland Finnegan. Finnegan is as good as gone, but the Titans haven't been linked to Brandon Carr as a replacement. They could go for someone further down the hype chain, like Tracy Porter. Barrett Ruud, Jason Jones, and Dave Ball are all also likely to follow Finnegan out the door.
Although it seems like Tennessee is yet another organization that could benefit from making a huge offer to Mario Williams, they're probably going to save the bulk of their cap space for a run at Manning and Reggie Wayne, so they may need to shop in a less expensive aisle. That could see them target a speedy edge rusher like Mark Anderson while opting for the bulk of Red Bryant or Brodrick Bunkley in the middle of the defensive line.