Free Agent Countdown: Teams That Can’t Spend

Ray RiceWith just four business days left before the start of the NFL free agency period, it’s high time for us to start the final portion of our sprawling, seemingly endless free agent preview. After standing in for agents, scoffing at the largesse of owners, and identifying comparables for the pool’s key players, it’s finally time to approach free agency from the perspective of the league’s general managers and player personnel departments.

Of course, there’s just one problem with figuring out who’s going where and what every team’s plan should be: We still don’t know what the salary cap is going to be for the 2012 league year. The NFL year officially starts this upcoming Wednesday, so the league will have to come to some sort of conclusion about the figure by then. It won’t make a difference for some teams — who cares if the Buccaneers have $60 million or $62 million to spend? — but for a team like the Steelers, an extra $2 million could be the difference between locking up Mike Wallace or losing him to a rival. We have a vague idea of how much each team has to spend, but specific numbers remain unavailable.

We’ll be splitting the league into four groups, as is our wont, and covering eight teams per day. Today, we’re starting with an extremely unexciting group: The teams who can’t spend much money at all in free agency this year. Wait, don’t close that tab! We can — and will — still talk about the free agents those teams have to retain and the choices they’ll have to make as free agency goes along. At the very least, we can make fun of them for having no money to spend and point out all the dumb mistakes they made to get in this situation. It’ll be fun, we swear.

Our tour around the league starts in Baltimore, where the Ravens will focus on keeping their own before they go after anybody else’s treasure …

Baltimore Ravens

Why they can’t spend money: Need to lock up their future first

Ozzie Newsome’s two best draft picks during the John Harbaugh era are set to hit the free agent market this offseason, and it’s essential that the Ravens lock them both up. Ray Rice (25 years old) and Lardarius Webb (26) are key contributors to this current Ravens team, but they also should be viable contributors to the Ravens team that forms after Ray Lewis and Ed Reed retire. You’re undoubtedly familiar with Rice, who serves as an effective runner while supplementing his game by serving as Joe Flacco’s security blanket, but Webb emerged as one of the league’s top cornerbacks last season after tearing his ACL in 2009 and playing at less than 100 percent in 2010. Baltimore has spent money on veteran free agents like Domonique Foxworth and traded for the likes of Fabian Washington, but Webb is the best cornerback the team’s developed since the heyday of Chris McAllister. They should be able to retain both; Rice has already received the franchise tag and should be amenable to a long-term contract, and Webb is a restricted free agent. The Ravens can tender him a one-year deal for $2.7 million and either keep him at that salary or match any offer Webb gets. If Webb got a deal they couldn’t match, Baltimore would receive a first-round pick.

While the Ravens waived Foxworth and wideout Lee Evans to create cap space, long-term deals for Rice and Webb could cause them to be stuck making some tough decisions. It seems likely that outside linebacker Jarret Johnson will leave; Johnson gets talked up as the hidden star of the Ravens defense, but think about the guys he plays next to and behind. The team will also take a long look at re-signing left guard Ben Grubbs, but after giving a big deal to right guard Marshal Yanda, it would be difficult to imagine Baltimore spending so much money on a pair of guards.

If they make any forays into the veteran UFA market, it will be to add some depth on their defensive line behind Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody. They could target a veteran with 3-4 experience like former Chargers end Luis Castillo or make a move for former Baltimore fifth-round pick Aubrayo Franklin, who had a soft market in last year’s free agent period and failed to make a significant impact in New Orleans’s 4-3 alignment.

Carolina Panthers

Why they can’t spend money: They spent wildly to keep a 2-14 team together last year.

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney spent last summer on a shopping spree unmatched by anyone short of the Eagles, but while Philadelphia went looking for other teams’ players, Carolina spent exorbitantly to keep its own in-house. How did it go? Not so well. Although Cam Newton revitalized the offense, virtually all of the veterans Hurney retained failed to live up to expectations. Running back DeAngelo Williams was effective, but only carried the ball 155 times in a rare healthy season. Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis were given in excess of $80 million in contract extensions but combined to make it through just one regular-season game before going on injured reserve. Defensive end Charles Johnson had nine sacks, but that’s a pedestrian figure for a player who got a $72 million contract to stay with the team.

The result of that spending spree was a four-win improvement to 6-10, but Carolina is now up against the cap and Hurney’s probably had the corporate card taken away. That won’t hurt a lot this year, but mercurial wideout Steve Smith and promising young runner Jonathan Stewart will be free agents after this season, and the Panthers won’t be able to go out and add a big weapon for Newton because their money is tied up in the mistakes of 2011.

Carolina’s in perpetual search of a tall wideout to play across from Smith, and while they have young prospects in house, they could go out and make a small offer to Braylon Edwards in the hopes that he spent the offseason remembering how to leap over things. Alternately, they could go after the other Steve Smith — the ex-Giants/Eagles wideout — and ruin football writing forever. How would we tell them apart? “The Steve Smith who is terrifying” and “The Steve Smith whose knee is not all there”? That wouldn’t be fun.

Detroit Lions

Why they can’t spend money: Megatron’s mega-contract.

As important as Calvin Johnson is to the Detroit Lions (and the Pacific Northwest), the final year of his contract with the team calls for the star receiver to receive $22 million from the team. That’s a significant portion of the team’s salary cap, and the Lions are essentially desperate to lock up Johnson to a long-term deal that would make his 2012 cap figure far more palatable. They’re also desperate, of course, to avoid a Mario Williams situation; as Adam Schefter noted in January, if the Lions don’t lock up Megatron before next season, his figure under the franchise tag would be a whopping $27.5 million. In other words, Johnson would probably hit the market as an unrestricted free agent. At 27. That’s going to be a fun agent book to put together.

Assuming that the Lions do end up negotiating a long-term deal for Calvin, their next move will be to lock up pass rusher Cliff Avril, who received the franchise tag after an 11-sack season that took him to 30 sacks through his first four years. You want to know why one team’s bad contract affects another? Cliff Avril’s agent is going to the Lions right now and pointing out that Charles Johnson got a $72 million deal after an 11.5-sack season when he only had 21.5 sacks through his first four years. The Lions may be forced to pay for Marty Hurney’s stupidity. Starting linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch are also both free agents, although Levy is restricted.

Detroit has attempted to get by with stopgaps at middle linebacker under Jim Schwartz, and since they’re also in need of some leadership on the defensive side of the ball, could London Fletcher be an option on a one-year deal?

New York Giants

Why they can’t spend money: Spent it all on confetti, lacking cap space

When the Giants won the Super Bowl in 2007, they did so with a crop of talented youngsters who emerged during the playoffs as viable contributors despite their rookie salaries. Outside of Jason Pierre-Paul, that’s not really the case for this team’s title run, which mostly came out of great work by Big Blue’s veterans. The bad news is that those veterans make a lot of money, but the good news is that most of them are still signed for another year or two. The biggest decision the Giants will have to make is at cornerback, where first-round pick Prince Amukamara might be ready to step into the starting lineup ahead of free agents Terrell Thomas and Aaron Ross. They’ve reportedly already decided to move on from right tackle Kareem McKenzie, and third wideout Mario Manningham will be forced out by the emergence of Victor Cruz and Manningham’s insistence that he’s secretly a no. 1 receiver.

The Giants will replace those departed players from within, but they have options if they want to create cap space. They could choose to trade Osi Umenyiora or, alternately, give him a contract extension that would free up room for a veteran or two. Brandon Jacobs might also be released. New York’s been seeking a middle linebacker ever since Antonio Pierce left town, and for all of Chase Blackburn’s heroics after he made his way back onto the Giants’ roster last season, they might look to someone like Dan Connor or even Fletcher in free agency.

New York Jets

Why they can’t spend money: Went all in last year.

All the cap tricks in the world can’t hide it when you spend money at seemingly every position, and outside of their defensive line, the Jets simply aren’t a frugal organization. That line will be thinned further by the likely departure of Sione Pouha, a glue guy for Gang Green up front dating back to the Herm Edwards days. They’ll have to hope that 2011 first-rounder Muhammad Wilkerson can become a starter in his second year with the team.

General manager Mike Tannenbaum restructured his fair share of deals last year to lock up Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie while opening up the space to go after Nnamdi Asomugha, but those deals didn’t work out and Asomugha went elsewhere. He can try to keep pushing that fateful piper-paying day to future years, but who knows if the new CBA makes that quite as easy? If they don’t continue to restructure veteran contracts in the hopes of grabbing Peyton Manning, the Jets should actually have a quiet offseason for the first time in years.

Oakland Raiders

Why they can’t spend money: Way over the cap.

New Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie appears to be desperate to steer the ship back on course, even if it means kneecapping his team’s chances to compete in 2012. The huge deals given to merely above-average players like Stanford Routt and Kamerion Wimbley are gone, with Routt released and Wimbley about to be. Richard Seymour and Michael Huff restructured their deal to create some breathing room, but veterans like Aaron Curry, Hiram Eugene, John Henderson, and Chris Johnson are likely going to be shot out of a cannon into the market, saving the team $15 million or so in the process.

Because of the cap issues, they might also lose some young talent that’s about to get expensive. Center Samson Satele is undersized and athletic, which would fit in offensive coordinator Greg Knapp’s new zone-blocking scheme, but the team appears set to move on in the middle of the line. Running back Michael Bush may also be too expensive to retain, as the Raiders depend on Darren McFadden to stay healthy and Bush’s agents try to portray him as the next Michael Turner.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Why they can’t spend money: Held hostage by Mike Wallace.

The Steelers simply don’t wade into the free-agent waters very frequently. When they do shop, it’s for veteran role players who might fill in as injury replacements. The last time they expected starting-caliber play out of a free agent was from offensive lineman Sean Mahan in 2007, and he only lasted one year before Pittsburgh let him go. Whatever money they have is going to be earmarked for a possible Mike Wallace bid, with the idea that teams around the league will offer Wallace front-loaded contracts in an attempt to prevent the Steelers from retaining their star wideout.

With injuries crippling them on both sides of the line in 2010 and 2011, expect Pittsburgh to target versatile veterans like Leonard Davis and Cory Redding for one-year deals at something close to the veterans’ minimum, especially if the Wallace deal gets taken care of quickly.

St. Louis Rams

Why they can’t spend money: Saddled with old-style rookie contracts

While the Panthers got more than their money’s worth out of Cam Newton this past year, the Rams spent twice as much on the likes of Sam Bradford and Jason Smith because the league’s rules for rookie contracts were different when they were drafted. Those contracts are exorbitant and take up a disproportionate amount of the St. Louis cap space.

The team hasn’t given up on Bradford, but only three years after he was the second overall pick in the draft, it’s a make-or-break season for Smith. Selected to be the team’s left tackle of the future, he’s been moved to right tackle and spent time on the injured reserve during each of his first two seasons. His $10 million contract for this year is guaranteed, so the Rams can’t even justify giving up on him until next year. When you throw in Chris Long’s deal and the contracts given to failed veterans like Jason Brown and Quintin Mikell, there’s just not a lot of flexibility to be had for the Rams in free agency.

Filed Under: Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, New York Giants, New York Jets, NFL, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers, St. Louis Rams

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell