Free Agent Countdown: Teams That Should Spend a Little

Plaxico BurressPhew. Two pieces into our NFL free agency preview and we’ve knocked off the 16 teams who are unlikely to spend all that much this month, which yields the exciting leftovers that we’ll sift through over the next two days: the 16 teams we expect to do the bulk of the work in this year’s marketplace. These are the teams with both money to burn and reasons to spend it, although NFL teams have never required either to justify their pursuits.

For each of the remaining teams, we’re going to identify the types of players they need to target in terms of age, pedigree, and cost. Some teams need to target one high-profile player at a particular position and save their money if they don’t end up with him; others just desperately need to upgrade their roster and throw money at a variety of players. The good news is that the NFL finally confirmed the 2012 salary cap figure this weekend at $120.6 million, so we now have an idea of each team’s salary-cap space heading into the free agent period, courtesy of Pro Football Talk. We’ve also adjusted each team’s cap figure by the $1.6 million they received as part of Monday’s sanctions against the Redskins and Cowboys.

Today, we’re going to focus on the teams that should only spend a little bit in free agency; this can mean that they either need to go after players at one position, or that they should focus on retaining their own players while making forays into the market for depth or borderline starters. We finish up tomorrow with the huge spenders.

Arizona Cardinals

Cap space: $-14.8 million

That’s right: The Cardinals are rumored to be among the front-runners for Peyton Manning, but they’re further over the cap than any other team in football. So how can the Cardinals even consider going after Manning or anybody else in free agency? By cutting Levi Brown, that’s how. Arizona’s embattled left tackle has been a huge disappointment since the team selected him with the fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft, and he has a $17 million cap hold for the final year of his rookie deal with the team. The Cardinals are likely to release him before free agency begins in order to avoid paying him a $6 million roster bonus, a move that would push them under the cap and begin to create space for a possible Manning signing. Arizona will also try to come to a long-term deal with franchised defensive end Calais Campbell, who has a $10.2 million salary and cap hold for this season that could be cut in half with a long-term deal.

If Manning goes elsewhere, Arizona is unlikely to go after Matt Flynn, who would represent even more of a gamble on the unknown than Kevin Kolb did a year ago. With limited cap space and a hole at left tackle, the team might gamble on a veteran like ex-Steelers tackle Max Starks, who tore his ACL and might not be 100 percent for camp. They could also try to agree to terms on a smaller deal with Brown, which is a more plausible outcome. The good news for Arizona is that outside of Campbell and cornerback Richard Marshall, none of their unrestricted free agents are key contributors.

Chicago Bears

Cap space: $24.2 million

Two years ago, the Bears spent heavily in free agency and came out of the market with Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor, and Brandon Manumaleuna. They made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game. Last year, they spent very little in free agency and went 8-8. So the solution is to spend a ton in free agency again in 2012, right? For some reason, the Bears seem to think so, as they’ve been linked to just about every big-name player on the market over the past couple of weeks. The Bears aren’t unwise to spend, but they might want to be selective about where they put their money.

Chicago’s biggest problem last year was that they didn’t have a real backup quarterback to come in for Jay Cutler when the starter broke his thumb in November. If Cutler stays healthy or Caleb Hanie isn’t the worst quarterback ever, the Bears make the playoffs. As a result, backup quarterback should be a priority for the Bears this offseason. They could choose to re-sign Josh McCown, who looked competent once the Bears gave up on Hanie, or shell out a little bit of guaranteed money for one of the league’s better backups. Would they consider going after former Bears Rex Grossman or Kyle Orton? They’re both free agents who have looked better since leaving Chicago, but neither of them have a shot at being a full-time starter somewhere else, so they might consider a return to the Windy City as the backup for the somewhat breakable Cutler.

The Bears have been heavily linked with a move for Chargers wideout Vincent Jackson, but it’s hard to see the Bears pulling the trigger on that sort of move. They’ve already committed long-term contracts at wideout to Earl Bennett and Devin Hester, and if their offensive line can’t keep Cutler upright long enough for Jackson to get open, he’s not going to be worth the $19 million or so in guaranteed money that Jackson’s winning suitor might have to shell out. The Bears might be better off adding an offensive tackle like Jared Gaither in free agency to try to shore up the line in front of Cutler. Gaither could play on the left side and move rookie J’Marcus Webb, who is wildly stretched at the line’s most important position, to the right tackle spot.

The problem with the Bears is that spending won’t guarantee an improvement, but they’re virtually forced to spend right now because of where they are as a team. The Briggs-Urlacher-Tillman core on defense got a boost when Peppers came into the mix, but they’ll be a combined 97 years old this season and can’t keep this up forever. Lovie Smith is in his ninth year as the team’s head coach and unlikely to survive a rebuilding project, but new general manager Phil Emery isn’t as desperate as the deposed Jerry Angelo would have been in the same situation. Instead of going after one big-name free agent in the hopes that they’ll revitalize the team, as Peppers did in 2009, the Bears might be better off selling their big names to veterans who will come in on short-term deals to try to win a ring. Could they get Plaxico Burress, John Abraham, and Ronde Barber for less than what it would cost to sign Jackson? And would they be better off?

Cleveland Browns

Cap space: $19.0 million

The Browns have already made some moves before free agency by locking up linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and giving the franchise tag for a second consecutive year to kicker Phil Dawson, who will receive an absurd $3.8 million for an easily replaceable performance. Cleveland’s other prominent free agent is running back Peyton Hillis, who is likely to leave town after a terribly disappointing year that saw him go through four agents while scoring just three touchdowns. It’s never good when team sources leak a story about you wanting to quit football and join the CIA after the season and nobody seems to doubt that it’s true. That’s close to Tyson Zone territory.

So, with a roster that lacks skill position talent, the Browns have their work cut out for them. They do have two first-round picks to work with, and they could end up using the fourth overall selection on Oklahoma State wideout Justin Blackmon or Alabama halfback Trent Richardson, each of whom would be there if the Vikings follow the script and take USC tackle Matt Kalil third. They should figure out who they want more now and act accordingly in free agency by taking a player at the opposite position. If they grab Blackmon, the Browns could make a run at Michael Bush, although he’s already 28 years old and struggles to stay healthy. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a year younger and would come cheaper, although he’s nowhere near as effective of a receiver as Bush. If they prefer Richardson, the market at wide receiver is far more fruitful, as the Browns could consider young players with upside like Mario Manningham, Pierre Garcon, and Robert Meachem.

A pass rusher across from Jabaal Sheard, who had 8.5 sacks in a quietly impressive rookie season, would also be a worthwhile expenditure. The Browns are probably wary of the Patriots after spending years under Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, but this could be a team that considers bringing in revitalized pass rusher Mark Anderson, who had a 10-sack year with the Pats in 2011.

Dallas Cowboys

Cap space: ???

The Cowboys had $4.7 million available to them before a league ruling on Monday afternoon took away $10 million of cap space from the organization over the next two years. The Cowboys can spread the hit from the penalty over two years, so it’s not quite as bad as it seems (or as it will be for the Redskins), but the sudden decision throws Dallas’s free agent planning into wild disarray and raises questions about whether they can really make significant improvements on last year’s disappointing 8-8 team.

For one, the chatter about adding a superstar lineman like Carl Nicks or Mario Williams can end. The logic in adding Williams didn’t make much sense once the Cowboys franchised outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, who plays in the exact spot where Williams would line up if he came to Dallas. Nicks was slightly more plausible, but the team won’t be able to invest serious money in upgrading their offensive line this offseason because of the cap penalties.

The only move the team could still really consider is one for Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr, who would serve as a replacement for Terence Newman. Dallas would have to cut Newman, which would save the team about $5 million on their cap, and then structure a deal with Carr that would include a large signing bonus, but a low base salary over the first year or two of the deal, depending on how Dallas handles the cap penalty. Players get the actual cash from their signing bonus up front, but teams can spread the cap hit from the bonus over the length of the player’s contract, which makes the big signings a little easier to handle. A $10 million signing bonus on a five-year deal only produces a $2 million cap hit per season. If the Cowboys can convince Carr to take a low base salary and offer him an enormous signing bonus up front, he could still somehow find his way to Dallas.

Dallas will also likely miss out on re-signing wideout Laurent Robinson, who impressed as a starting wideout during Miles Austin’s absence this past season. With the team committed to Austin and Dez Bryant as their starting wideouts, the Cowboys won’t be able to match the starter money Robinson can get elsewhere. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they built their team and now they’re mostly stuck with it.

Indianapolis Colts

Cap space: $13.2 million

Fortunately for Colts fans, this organization is under no delusions about its ability to contend in 2012. They’re going to grab Andrew Luck and release just about every middling veteran they can in the process, clearing out cap space while creating opportunities for young players to build the next great Colts team alongside Luck in the process. That process led to the releases of Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark, Gary Brackett, and Melvin Bullitt last weekend, four players who had spent their entire careers with Indy and had little to offer the Luck era. The only weird exception was the long-term deal given to 31-year-old Robert Mathis, who will move to outside linebacker along with Dwight Freeney in Indianapolis’s new 3-4 alignment.

With that in mind, the Colts should follow the blueprint we laid out for the Vikings yesterday and target a few low-risk, high-reward players in free agency. That strategy focuses primarily on young players with solid performance records coming off of injuries, like Josh Morgan and Tracy Porter. Unlike the Vikings, though, they might want to go after some veterans in the front seven to fill a few of the gaps in their 3-4 alignment, with a particular focus on players with experience in the defense that Chuck Pagano is bringing over from the Ravens. Jarret Johnson played outside linebacker under Pagano in Baltimore, but the team could choose to move him inside to play next to Pat Angerer, who might be the Colts’ best young player. Former Ravens defensive lineman Aubrayo Franklin might also be targeted to play the nose tackle up front, where he excelled for the 49ers. Either way, the Colts should save the serious spending in free agency till 2014, when Luck should be coming into his own as a franchise quarterback.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Cap space: $42.2 million

While the Jaguars have plenty of money to work with, it would be naive of them to jump into free agency and spend it all in the hopes of becoming playoff contenders in 2012. Their biggest priority is figuring out whether Blaine Gabbert is actually a franchise quarterback, and barring some incredible season-over-season improvement, he’s not going to be a playoff-caliber passer for this upcoming season.

That’s not to say that Gabbert should spend his season throwing to the likes of Chastin West and Cecil Shorts again. Jacksonville would be smart to bring in possible weapons for Gabbert, but there needs to be an emphasis on acquiring players who will be part of the long-term equation as opposed to guys who might deliver most of their value as an acquisition in 2012. Instead of targeting Vincent Jackson, who turns 29 this season, the Jags would be better off looking at Mario Manningham (26 this year) or Josh Morgan (27) at a much cheaper rate. In fact, since the only viable wideout the Jags have on their roster at the moment is Mike Thomas, why not both?

General manager Gene Smith also faces a tricky path on the defensive side of the ball, where an underrated unit that spent the entire season facing terrible field position has a number of question marks. Do the Jaguars spend serious money to retain defensive end Jeremy Mincey, who became a regular starter for the first time at 28 and had a team-high eight sacks? If not, the Jags won’t return a single player who had more than 3.5 sacks last season. A dreadful run of injuries at cornerback led the team to start nine different guys there last season; Jacksonville already locked up longtime corner Rashean Mathis with a one-year deal, but Mathis is coming off of a torn ACL and will turn 32 in August. Should they look for certainty at cornerback and target a known quantity like Tracy Porter or Aaron Ross, or do they hope that someone like Derek Cox emerges from the mass of young players with torn ligaments from last season? The answer isn’t clear, and it’s a good idea to save your money until the answer becomes clear.

New Orleans Saints

Cap space: $5.2 million

(Note: The Saints did not receive a portion of the money made available by the sanctions placed upon the Cowboys and Redskins, for reasons unknown.)

It’s safe to say that the Saints are an organization in flux right now. In addition to the bounty scandal that seems likely to cost the team a future first-round pick, general manager Mickey Loomis managed to royally piss off star quarterback Drew Brees by failing to come to terms on a long-term deal before franchising him this past week. That decision prevented the team from placing the franchise tag on wideout Marques Colston or guard Carl Nicks, and with Brees taking up just under $16 million on the Saints’ cap because of the tag, the Saints won’t have the cap space to re-sign either player. What fun!

While the league hasn’t yet announced the penalties for the bounty program, it’s essential that the Saints know their fate by Tuesday so they can plan accordingly for free agency. If middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is suspended for a large portion of the 2012 season, they’ll need to find a replacement for him in free agency, most likely a veteran in the neighborhood of London Fletcher. On the other hand, if Vilma escapes a suspension, the Saints could use that money to earmark a deal for somebody like Robert Meachem or Tracy Porter. Of the two, Meachem seems more likely to return, as the Saints will likely move 2011 first-rounder Patrick Robinson into the starting lineup at corner and let the inconsistent Porter depart.

Departing veterans Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers also leave the Saints thin at defensive tackle, where they’ve struggled to find a solution since Sean Payton arrived in 2006. Because the team has limited cap space, expect the Saints to try to solve the problem on the cheap again in 2012, with a veteran like Brodrick Bunkley likely to suit up next to inconsistent 2008 first-rounder Sedrick Ellis up front.

Seattle Seahawks

Cap space: $31.4 million

Despite investing heavily on their offense in free agency last season, a young, talented defense allows the Seahawks to remain a possible landing point for many key free agents this offseason. Seattle will obviously hope to get more out of free agency this year than they did out of the combination of Tarvaris Jackson, Sidney Rice, Zach Miller, and Robert Gallery in 2011, but three of those four guys should be back and playing at a higher level in 2012.

The exception is Jackson, who proved yet again that he’s maxed out as a backup who won’t embarrass the team in limited work as a starter during an inconsistent, injury-filled 2011 season. Because of the presence of former Packers staffer John Schneider at general manager, the Seahawks have been linked to Matt Flynn as a quarterback upgrade, a move that would make sense in both the short and long term. None of the other prominent free agents on offense make real sense for Seattle, as the team remains deep at the skill positions with a promising offensive line protecting the quarterback, whoever he is. The only exception might be Alex Smith, but buying high on Smith might be worse than taking him away from the divisional rival 49ers.

Remember that cheap and effective defense? Well, the reason why the Seahawks aren’t likely to spend very much this offseason is because that defense is about to get more expensive. Three of the defense’s likely starters are free agents this year, notably kick-blocking dynamo Red Bryant. Because he’s a mammoth 333 pounds, the 28-year-old defensive lineman should attract interest from both 3-4 and 4-3 teams, which could make it harder for the Seahawks to keep him in town. Linebackers David Hawthorne and Leroy Hill are also free agents, and the Seahawks are thin at linebacker after trading away Aaron Curry last season. Regardless of whether they re-sign Hawthorne and Hill, they could consider adding a versatile veteran like Omar Gaither or Erik Walden for depth.

Filed Under: NFL

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell