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Heart of Dukeness

The 10 Teams That Should Dominate Free Agency

A blueprint for everyone from the Raiders to the Broncos

After patiently awaiting some semblance of NFL happenings for six weeks while having to sit through interminable distractions like “the Winter Olympics” and “interacting with other human beings in the outside world,” professional football is finally back in our lives. Sorta. Tuesday marks the beginning of free agency, which is music to the ears of unhinged sports talk radio callers and message board posters around this great nation. It’s a day when your team can change the course of history in one fell swoop. More likely, it’s the stupidest day of the NFL year, when teams make dizzyingly naive decisions the moment they’re allowed to spend money.1 It’s the reverse Black Friday.

Of course, this year’s free-agent market is set to be particularly exciting, thanks to an unexpected influx of revenue driving up the salary cap to a league-record $133 million. And after middle-class players were squeezed a year ago by a stagnant cap, 2014 should bring more big, dumb deals on opening day than we’ve ever seen. Last year was a buyer’s market. This year, we’re back to buyer beware.

In trying to construct a dream March for each of the league’s 32 teams, I’ve made some suggestions/assumptions about the moves they might make to improve their team and the ways that the market might play out for many of the league’s free agents. Some … many … most — OK, just about everything will turn out differently in real life. But this is one person’s best guess.

Here, I’m covering the 10 teams with the most to gain during this free-agent period by virtue of having the most estimated cap space (per Spotrac) and identifying what their dream March might look like. I cover the other 22 teams over on the Triangle. Each of the team recommendations take place in their own world. In other words, it makes a lot of sense for both Philadelphia and Washington to go after Jairus Byrd, so he would be in the dream offseason description of both teams.2 It would also make a ton of sense for the Cowboys to go after him, but since they almost surely won’t have the cap space to do so, I wouldn’t suggest him for Dallas. You’ll get the idea. We’ll be starting with the general manager who might need to start spending this offseason to save his job:

Oakland Raiders v New York Giants

Oakland Raiders

Estimated Cap Space: $64,907,921
Likely Cuts: G Mike Brisiel
Should Re-sign: DE Lamarr Houston, RB Rashad Jennings, CB Tracy Porter, T Jared Veldheer

About two weeks ago, I thought I had a really good grasp on what general manager Reggie McKenzie was doing in Oakland. Facing the unenviable task of rebuilding the Raiders after the final days of Al Davis’s largesse, McKenzie spent his first two years on the job torching the place. He dumped salary as quickly as possible to try to solve the team’s cap woes, which is why the Raiders dropped a staggering $56 million in dead money on their cap last year. And with the team missing draft picks after the disastrous Carson Palmer trade, McKenzie traded down three times in the 2013 draft, picking up a second-rounder to replace the one he lost in the Palmer trade in the process. When McKenzie needed talent to play out the string in 2013, he signed a bunch of veterans to short-term deals, keeping his future flexibility intact. You could smell the Ted Thompson on the new-look Raiders front office.

Part of the rebuilding process, though, involves keeping the talented young players you already have. The Raiders don’t have many talented players, mind you, but if you broke down their assets, the two best are a pair of 26-year-olds, left tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive end Lamarr Houston. Signing the duo to long-term extensions would seem to be an obvious move, but when the franchise tag deadline came up a week ago, McKenzie didn’t tag either player to ensure they’ll return to Oakland in 2014. That doesn’t make much sense.3

What’s happening here, I suspect, is that the Raiders are paying a loser’s tax. They’re a putrid team playing in a decaying stadium in a division with Peyton Manning. Would you want to spend your prime with them? With that in mind, the demands from the agents of Veldheer and Houston are sufficiently large as to make signing these young players a dangerous proposition. Houston’s a good player, as Robert Mays broke down earlier this week, but is he really worth, say, $12 million a year? That type of outsize pricing is the mistake Marty Hurney made when he gave Charles Johnson a six-year, $76 million deal. When bad teams let their young players get to the end of their deals, you have little leverage and a lot to lose. That’s what has happened to McKenzie here.

In a dream offseason, the Raiders retain Houston and Veldheer on deals in the $8 million range, keep the quietly impressive Rashad Jennings in town on a two-year deal, and bring back either Tracy Porter or Mike Jenkins to start across from 2013 first-rounder D.J. Hayden next year.

Ideal Free-Agent Blueprint: QB Michael Vick, WR Sidney Rice, TE Jermichael Finley, G Jon Asamoah, OL Evan Dietrich-Smith, DE Will Smith, DT B.J. Raji, DE/OLB Mike Neal, FS Jairus Byrd

With his job on the line, McKenzie needs to start showing progress. The good news is that the Raiders have holes just about everywhere, so McKenzie can upgrade pretty much anywhere. The bad news is that the state of Oakland isn’t exactly a secret and the Raiders are stuck either paying an exorbitant premium for top-tier talent or signing guys nobody else wants. In an ideal world, they would have retained Houston and Veldheer already, so we want a balance of both.

And look at all these Packers! New GMs always like to go after their old players, for better or worse, but in this case the moves would make some sense. Finley (injuries) and Raji (rumors of being malcontent) are both at the relative nadir of their value and could offer some upside in a fresh locale. Neal, who impressed last year after several seasons ruined by injuries, played outside linebacker for the Packers, but would likely move back to end if Oakland sticks with the 4-3. And Dietrich-Smith is a competent utility lineman who would likely bounce around different starting spots for the Raiders.

Byrd is the premium signing; he would combine with Tyvon Branch to give Oakland its very first position of strength at safety. Vick, the biggest name in the group, would have first crack at one of the few available starting quarterback spots in the league that isn’t likely to be filled by a rookie passer. Signing Vick would give the Raiders the flexibility to either draft a quarterback in the first round or select Jadeveon Clowney if he (or another non-quarterback of choice) falls to them at no. 5. (And the Raiders would sell a ton of Vick jerseys, which can’t hurt.) Add a few high-upside bets and McKenzie could have some serious hopes of competing in 2014 without incurring moral hazard and ruining his team’s chances down the line.

Houston Texans v Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville Jaguars

Estimated Cap Space: $59,338,624
Likely Cuts: DE Jason Babin
Should Re-sign: CB Will Blackmon, QB Chad Henne

The Jaguars are like the Raiders but without any good young players to re-sign this offseason. While the Raiders were drafting Houston and Veldheer in 2010, the Jaguars had two picks in the first four rounds and used them on Tyson Alualu and D’Anthony Smith. Ideally, the Jaguars would try to execute a 76ers-esque strategy of sacrificing their current cap space for draft picks, but the league would never let that happen.4 Of their few free agents, Blackmon showed flashes of competence as a starting corner last year, and Henne is basically the perfect veteran quarterback for the Jaguars, given that he already knows the scheme and won’t be an impediment to a passer with any sort of promise if the Jags draft one.

Ideal Free-Agent Blueprint: RB Darren McFadden, G Zane Beadles, C Phil Costa, DE Everson Griffen, DE/OLB O’Brien Schofield, CB Walter Thurmond III, CB Brandon Browner

You’ll see Griffen show up a lot on these lists; he had 17.5 sacks over the last three years in a reserve role for Minnesota, and while a guy like that sometimes becomes Jacob Ford, other times he becomes Junior Galette. He should get a modest deal, but the upside is high. Schofield’s a versatile lineman who learned the Gus Bradley system while playing in Seattle last year (after Bradley left for Jacksonville), and with Bradley’s scheme calling for big, strong cornerbacks, it would make sense to target a pair of Seattle refugees in Thurmond and Browner. McFadden’s a lottery ticket.

Chicago Bears v Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns

Estimated Cap Space: $45,756,355
Likely Cuts: QB Jason Campbell
Should Re-sign: S T.J. Ward

Ward is apparently going to seek his fortune in the open market, but it’s hard to imagine that anybody will outbid the Browns for their starting strong safety, one of the most underrated big hitters in football. Then again, despite all their cap space, the Browns still thought it was necessary to release well-regarded veteran D’Qwell Jackson, so the new regime might have some very strong opinions about the Cleveland roster.

Ideal Free-Agent Blueprint: RB Knowshon Moreno, G Geoff Schwartz, ILB Brandon Spikes, OLB Calvin Pace, CB Antonio Cromartie

The new Cleveland staff includes head coach Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, both of whom sprang from the Rex Ryan tree. Ryan leaned heavily on players who knew his scheme when he arrived in New York, and it would make sense for Pettine to do the same. Cromartie’s release is all but assured, and playing across from Joe Haden, he would be an excellent second cornerback. Pace can come along, too. Spikes was playing in New England, but he’s the sort of run-thumping middle linebacker the Browns need at the heart of the defense, especially if they don’t hold on to Ward.

Tennessee Titans v Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts

Estimated Cap Space: $42,501,028
Likely Cuts: none
Should Re-sign: S Antoine Bethea, RB Donald Brown, CB Vontae Davis, K Adam Vinatieri

Ah, our old friends in Indianapolis. They’ve already been active; they re-signed punter Pat McAfee this morning, added D’Qwell Jackson after his release from the Browns earlier this week, and no more than 60 seconds after I typed Samson Satele’s name as a likely cut, the news came across the wire (well, Twitter) that the Colts were actually doing so. Given their record, lack of draft picks, and large amounts of cap space, they’re expected to be among free agency’s biggest spenders for the second consecutive season.

I’ve compared the Colts with Andrew Luck to the Cavaliers with LeBron James a few times, and that still holds. LeBron was so valuable that the Cavs could bring in spare parts like Mo Williams, Boobie Gibson, and late-period Shaquille O’Neal and still make serious playoff runs, just because James was capable of carrying the team that far on his own. Their success didn’t make those acquisitions good moves, and when James left, the team fell apart.5 Likewise, Indy gave a lot of middling players serious money last year in a depressed market, and because it had Luck in a collapsing division, it didn’t matter.

The Colts will probably make similar sorts of moves this offseason, paying a premium for replacement-level talent, with the only good news being that rest of the league will likely join them this time around. Rumors are linking them to Eric Decker, and while Decker would undoubtedly produce big numbers with Luck at the helm, there are better ways for Indianapolis to spend its money.6 Just for a moment, though, let’s imagine what a dream Colts offseason might look like:

Ideal Free-Agent Blueprint: WR Julian Edelman, OL Evan Dietrich-Smith, DL Arthur Jones, DL Red Bryant, LB Michael Johnson, CB Aqib Talib

Oh, the Patriots want to blow you out in the playoffs? You’ll show them. The Colts need top-line talent, and here, they get a bunch of it. Edelman is the slot receiver who represents a perfect contrast with the deep speed of T.Y. Hilton and the tough possession-based approach of Reggie Wayne. Talib and Davis would be an upper-echelon pair of starting cornerbacks, and with the path to the Super Bowl running through Indy, the Colts would be deep at corner with Greg Toler and Darius Butler in part-time roles. Jones and Bryant would be massive upgrades on the defensive line, where Indy is stuck playing veterans like Cory “Burr” Redding and various cast-offs. And while Johnson isn’t a dominant pass-rusher, he’s a freak athlete who can make teams pay if they focus too closely on Robert Mathis, and his presence would allow 2013 first-rounder Bjoern Werner more time to develop. If the Colts really want to win now, that would be a truly transformative offseason.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS VS. BALTIMORE RAVENS

Minnesota Vikings

Estimated Cap Space: $40,956,092
Likely Cuts: none
Should Re-sign: RB Toby Gerhart, DE Everson Griffen

With longtime stalwarts Jared Allen and Kevin Williams leaving up front, I’m surprised the Vikings haven’t made more of an effort to retain Griffen, who would join lone holdover Brian Robison to form a reasonable pair of defensive ends. Of course, that might be because …

Ideal Free-Agent Blueprint: QB Michael Vick, G Zane Beadles, DE Michael Johnson, MLB Daryl Smith, S Donte Whitner

… speculation is already linking them to a deal with Johnson, who played for new head coach Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati and would represent a solid replacement for the departing Allen, albeit as a different sort of player. Johnson is more balanced, but he lacks the sort of pass-rushing ability Allen had during his best days with Minnesota.

This would be a group of veterans who could seriously turn things around quickly. Harrison Smith is capable of playing either safety spot, but should stay at free safety while the Vikings bring in the physical presence of Whitner as an in-the-box defender and run-stopper. Daryl Smith is a versatile, talented linebacker when healthy, and the excellent training staff in Minnesota can keep him healthy. Beadles would be a massive upgrade at guard on a line with two Pro Bowl–caliber players at left tackle (Matt Kalil) and center (John Sullivan). Vick is naturally going to come up since the Vikings don’t have an obvious path to a rookie QB at no. 8 and have little confidence in Christian Ponder, and it might be fun to have Vick taking deep shots in Norv Turner’s downfield passing attack. Adrian Peterson suggested on Thursday that signing Vick would propel the Vikings into the playoffs, and while I think that’s an aggressive interpretation of reality, it could be fun. The next-best quarterback on the market with a big arm is Josh Freeman and, well, let’s move on.

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers

Green Bay Packers

Estimated Cap Space: $35,123,261
Likely Cuts: K Mason Crosby, CB Jarrett Bush
Should Re-sign: CB Sam Shields, OL Evan Dietrich-Smith, FB John Kuhn, OLB Mike Neal, QB Matt Flynn

For a team that’s so good at drafting and developing young talent, it’s really a surprise to see so many Green Bay draftees hitting the market next week. Players once seen as building blocks of the franchise, like Jermichael Finley, B.J. Raji, and Shields, are hitting the market. Even depth pieces like James Starks, Smith, and Andrew Quarless appear to be moving on this offseason.

It’s fair to say that Ted Thompson isn’t exactly known for being aggressive in free agency, but when he has made moves, they’ve tended to work out all right. What could Thompson do if he decided to dip a toe into the water for a player or two?

Ideal Free-Agent Blueprint: T Anthony Collins, DT Randy Starks, LB Karlos Dansby, CB Charles Tillman

Time, as a wizened philosopher on a certain HBO show once said, is a flat circle. The Packers once took a shot on Charles Woodson when he was an injury-prone playmaker, and while Tillman is significantly older now than Woodson was in 2006, his experience and ball-hawking ability could help him fill in. Starks would provide a much-needed big body up front who could fill in as a situational lineman, while Collins showed flashes of brilliance as a left tackle for the Bengals last year; the Packers could try him out there and move Bryan Bulaga back to right tackle, or eventually play Collins as a guard if Bulaga and Derek Sherrod are able to stay healthy and hold up at the tackle spots.

Even in a dream, the Packers will pick their spots, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them repeat one past free-agent success. Could the team that once bought low on an injury-riddled Woodson do the same on Tillman, a defensive playmaker who could either play cornerback or move to safety? Bears fans can already see Tillman returning a horrifying Jay Cutler pick for a touchdown in their heads. And with both Bulaga and Sherrod subject to serious injury concerns, Collins would give Green Bay a possible left tackle of the future who could fill in elsewhere on the line if those former first-round picks manage to stay healthy.

San Diego Chargers v Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins

Estimated Cap Space: $34,611,214
Likely Cuts: LT Jonathan Martin
Should Re-sign: S Chris Clemons, DT Paul Soliai

New general manager Dennis Hickey hasn’t exactly inherited a great situation; then again, had it been a more appealing landing spot, someone with more experience would have gotten the job instead. Miami still has cap space after its spending spree last season, but it also has the league’s worst offensive line and problems at halfback, defensive tackle, and safety.

Rumors have suggested that Miami might look to get rid of some of Jeff Ireland’s mistakes, but that doesn’t seem likely given the financial cost of making those kinds of moves. In fact, it’s probably impossible. Wide receiver Mike Wallace already costs $17.3 million on this year’s cap, but if the Dolphins cut or traded Wallace, he would be responsible for $23.8 million in dead money. Philip Wheeler costs $6.4 million to keep and $10.6 million to dump. And 2013 third overall pick Dion Jordan, who probably won’t start this year, would cost the team more than $16 million in dead money if he were traded as opposed to $4.7 million on the cap were he to stay. Thanks, Jeff.

Ideal Free-Agent Blueprint: RB Maurice Jones-Drew, T Branden Albert, T Michael Oher, G Uche Nwaneri

You better believe that whoever the Dolphins sign is going to have a spotless personal record. So who better to enlist than Michael “The Blind Side” Oher to show the world that the Dolphins are a family-friendly organization? Oher can’t play left tackle, so it would make sense for the Dolphins to renew their interest in Albert, the Miami native whom they nearly acquired a year ago from the Chiefs. Add a nondescript guard — I chose Nwaneri, you can choose whoever you want — and the Dolphins would rebuild their line overnight. The one exception the Dolphins might make is for somebody who they think will help sell tickets, and while MJD was briefly charged with battery a year ago and had a dismal season, he’s still only 28 and two years removed from leading the league in rushing. I’m also trying to get a Dolphins-Jaguars intrastate rivalry thing going by myself, so there’s that, too.

Chicago Bears v Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles

Estimated Cap Space: $29,149,200
Likely Cuts: TE James Casey, S Patrick Chung
Should Re-sign: none

The Eagles are perennially one of the best teams in the league at managing their cap, which leaves them with space on an annual basis. They’ve already been busy this offseason by extending the contracts of Jason Peters and Jason Kelce while re-signing Jeremy Maclin to a one-year deal and giving Riley Cooper a very curious five-year, $25 million contract. Hey, nobody’s perfect. They would save $7.2 million by releasing Casey and Chung, busts from last year’s crop of free agents. Rumors have suggested they might consider moving on from DeSean Jackson, but that seems unlikely. So, given that this was once the team that had a “dream” offseason turn horribly wrong, whom might these Eagles add to their roster?

Ideal Free-Agent Blueprint: QB Tarvaris Jackson, DE Antonio Smith, DT B.J. Raji, S Jairus Byrd

Oh, how the Eagles have longed for a safety since the Brian Dawkins days. They’ve tried by drafting guys like Nate Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett and signing veterans like Chung, but nothing has worked for them, and it’s been Philadelphia’s biggest weakness for years. If they are ever going to invest at safety, Byrd — a top-of-the-line model in the prime of his career at 27 — is the guy who makes the most sense. (The only way he could fit Philly better would be if his name were Wawa Byrd.) This would be the right move for everyone involved. Raji would be a reclamation project moving back to the nose for the Eagles, while Smith would offer depth for a perilously thin front three. And if the Eagles let Vick go, Jackson would be the backup quarterback who would make the most sense for Chip Kelly’s offense. What, you would prefer Matt Barkley again?

New York Giants v Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals

Estimated Cap Space: $27,554,960
Likely Cuts: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, LB James Harrison
Should Re-sign: S Chris Crocker

It’s a shame they’re likely to lose swing tackle Anthony Collins, who is probably ready to play left tackle somewhere, but the Bengals are already set with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, and there’s no way they can match the offers Collins will get on the open market. They could also be aggressive and cut cornerback Leon Hall, who is coming off his second torn Achilles, but I don’t think they would use the $5.1 million they would save, anyway, given the franchise’s reputation for cutting costs.

Ideal Free-Agent Blueprint: RB Darren McFadden, WR Julian Edelman, DE Anthony Spencer, SS Donte Whitner

Edelman might be the biggest signing here. Andy Dalton does not lack for weapons, but he hasn’t had a reliable slot receiver during his tenure in Cincinnati. The diminutive Patriots star could play that role. McFadden, who enjoyed his greatest professional success under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson in Oakland, would purely be an insurance policy for new starter Gio Bernard. Spencer would be a nice buy-low signing as a defensive end to replace Michael Johnson, and Whitner would be an upgrade on George Iloka as an in-the-box safety. They still probably need to upgrade on Dalton, but with no significant quarterback available in free agency, they might want to wait a year and see if the 49ers are serious about letting Colin Kaepernick walk.

BRONCOS CHARGERS

Denver Broncos

Estimated Cap Space: $27,492,168
Likely Cuts: TE Joel Dreessen, TE Jacob Tamme, G Chris Kuper
Should Re-sign: CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, S Duke Ihenacho

Proper management and a lack of long-term investments on defense have left the Broncos with plenty of cap room despite making it to the Super Bowl last season. They can even clear out just more than $9.5 million more by releasing that trio of backups above, although a chunk of that would go to re-signing Rodgers-Cromartie. Assuming that the Broncos will continue to pursue elite talent on short-term deals, here’s what their dream March might look like:

Ideal Free-Agent Blueprint: RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR Sidney Rice, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, G Jon Asamoah, DE Jared Allen, MLB Daryl Smith, CB Derek Cox, CB Asante Samuel, CB Cortland Finnegan, KR Devin Hester

The Broncos are always a fun team to think about because they’re going to sign lots of famous players, the same way you do when you load up franchise mode in Madden and sign the five players with the best overall rating. The biggest name here is Allen, who represents just about a perfect fit. Denver has a yawning need for a defensive end across from Derek Wolfe and a second pass-rusher next to Von Miller, and Allen would fill both roles. He quietly hit double-digit sacks for the seventh consecutive season last year, and at 31, he’s still young enough to have an impact while rebuilding his value. Outside of maybe Byrd and the Eagles, no player makes more sense for any given team than Allen and the Broncos.

Beyond that, there are plenty of upside plays being made here. Denver would be paper-thin at corner even after re-signing Rodgers-Cromartie, so bringing in a trio of veteran cornerbacks would seem likely. Cox had an awful season in San Diego last year, so it will be up for Jack Del Rio — who originally coached Cox in Jacksonville — to repeat the reclamation work he did with fellow Jags cast-off Terrance Knighton. Smith would also be a returning part, albeit with a more impressive recent past with the Ravens. Rice wouldn’t be a suitable replacement for Eric Decker, but he could be a useful player in a limited role, especially if Denver drafts a wideout. MJD is a solid pass-blocker and would be a useful contrast to Montee Ball. And while Hester looked done last year in Chicago, Trindon Holliday was brutal for the Broncos on returns, so it might make sense to give Hester a one-year deal to prove he’s still got something left in the tank.

And those are just the 10 teams with the most cap space available; for a rundown of the other 22 teams, check out the Triangle.

Filed Under: NFL, Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Bill Barnwell

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell

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