I’ve written about what the dream free-agency periods might look like for the 10 teams in the NFL with the most salary-cap space available. Here are the abbreviated looks at the league’s other 22 teams, most of whom (perhaps luckily) don’t have the available space to capitalize on the bounty of free-agent talent available:
11. Atlanta Falcons
Estimated Cap Space: $26,157,188
Likely Cuts: S Thomas DeCoud
Who They Should Keep: DT Jonathan Babineaux
Who They Should Sign: G Rodger Saffold, T Michael Oher, DT Jason Hatcher, DE Will Smith, DE Jeremy Mincey
No team in football is more heavily weighted toward the passing game than Atlanta. As a result, the Falcons need to focus their offseason efforts on the trenches, where they are brutally subpar. Signing Saffold and Oher wouldn’t solve their problems, but it would solidify a dismal right side of the Atlanta offensive line. On the other side, Hatcher would be a high-upside option after he excelled last year once Dallas moved to a 4-3, and he would still remain a viable player if defensive coordinator Mike Nolan eventually decided to move things into his oft-preferred 3-4. And given that the Falcons had the league’s third-fewest sacks a year ago, adding pass-rush depth in Smith and Mincey (or other low-cost, moderate-upside players in that vein) is a must.
12. Baltimore Ravens
Estimated Cap Space: $24,929,137
Likely Cuts: none
Who They Should Keep: LT Eugene Monroe, DE Arthur Jones, ILB Daryl Smith, S James Ihedigbo
Who They Should Sign: WR James Jones, T Anthony Collins, DE Tyson Jackson
The Ravens are perennially a talent-development machine, but after losing Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe to free agency a year ago, it’s a surprise they appear to be letting Arthur Jones follow those two. It would make sense for a 5-technique end like Jackson or Red Bryant to take Jones’s place. The same is true of Michael Oher, and with reviews mixed on the former first-round pick, it’s even more of a surprise the Ravens have been unable to come to terms on a long-term deal with left tackle Eugene Monroe, whom the team acquired via midseason trade. Losing Monroe and Oher would leave the Ravens catastrophically thin on the offensive line, but it seems likely the team will eventually re-sign Monroe and go into the market for a new right tackle, possibly Collins. I think Baltimore will wait until draft day’s deep class of wideouts for a starter across from Torrey Smith, but Jones is a physical receiver who can give the Ravens a viable target in the red zone, something they lacked a year ago.
13. Buffalo Bills
Estimated Cap Space: $24,417,410
Likely Cuts: QB Kevin Kolb
Who They Should Keep: S Jairus Byrd
Who They Should Sign: TE Brandon Pettigrew, G Zane Beadles, LB Wesley Woodyard
Byrd is unlikely to return to Buffalo, which seems like a shame for a team that did such a solid job of developing him into an upper-echelon free safety. If he doesn’t return, the Bills would likely need to look toward somebody like Malcolm Jenkins as a replacement. Pettigrew’s often a frustrating player, but he’s also the most complete tight end on the market, and the Bills are desperately thin in that spot, with Tony Moeaki possibly starting there in 2014. And hey, stealing from the Broncos isn’t the worst idea; Beadles is a good-enough athlete to adapt to Buffalo’s scheme and serve as the replacement to Andy Levitre that Buffalo needed a year ago, and Woodyard could fill in as the weakside linebacker next to Kiko Alonso.
14. New York Jets
Estimated Cap Space: $23,328,583
Likely Cuts: QB Mark Sanchez, RB Mike Goodson, WR Santonio Holmes, CB Antonio Cromartie
Who They Should Keep: TE Jeff Cumberland
Who They Should Sign: QB Josh McCown, WR Eric Decker, WR Dexter McCluster, TE Garrett Graham, T Michael Oher, LB Anthony Spencer, CB Tarell Brown
Start with the cap figure; the estimated cap space above doesn’t include those four likely cuts, which would give the Jets more than $50 million in cap space and leave them as major players in the free-agent marketplace. That’s good, too, because their offensive cupboard is almost totally bare, and they have no pass-rusher of note on the outside. That leads to a rebuilding project: Decker is a dangerous proposition, and it’s hard to imagine a bigger drop in quarterback quality from Peyton Manning to Geno Smith, but he should be an above-average no. 2 receiver at worst, and that would be a huge upgrade for the Jets. McCluster is a viable slot option, and Graham offers a pair of soft hands. McCown would be a suitable backup quarterback capable of filling in for an extended stretch if the Jets were to decide Smith wasn’t their quarterback of the future. Oher would solidify the right side of the line, Spencer adds a pass-rusher with some upside in his more familiar role as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and Brown’s a solid second corner who would take some of the pressure off Dee Milliner.
Estimated Cap Space: $20,383,235
Likely Cuts: none
Who They Should Keep: none
Who They Should Sign: ILB Karlos Dansby, S Malcolm Jenkins, S James Ihedigbo
If you’re a Washington fan, you should be terrified the team has this much money to spend, but you either know that already or should have known that a long time ago. I would be worried that Washington will end up signing Decker and Byrd and then leave the massive holes elsewhere on the roster open, but let’s try to make this dream a nice one. Signing Brian Orakpo to a long-term deal (as opposed to the one-year franchise tag) would clear out more cap space, so it would be nice if that happened. Washington’s very thin up the middle on defense, so adding Dansby, Jenkins, and Ihedigbo would put a number of veterans into meaningful roles without having to break the bank in the process. Washington would still lack a no. 2 wideout, but with a deep draft waiting and a variety of overrated options available in free agency, it would behoove the team to wait until May on that front. Sometimes, the dream is about not spending money.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Estimated Cap Space: $18,641,710
Likely Cuts: G Davin Joseph, OL Jeremy Zuttah, P Michael Koenen
Who They Should Keep: FB Erik Lorig
Who They Should Sign: QB Matt Schaub, C Brian de la Puente, DE Jared Allen, CB Asante Samuel
The Buccaneers have spent heavily in free agency over the past several seasons, adding top-tier free agents like Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, and Dashon Goldson with mixed results. They’re unlikely to invest in a player like that this offseason, but with Tampa Bay in desperate need of a pass rush, Allen would make sense on a two-year deal. It’s likely the new football regime will move on from middling 2013 rookie Mike Glennon, and while they might not draft a quarterback this year, Schaub (sure to be released by Houston) would be an instant upgrade for a team that might be only a quarterback away from competing for a division title.
17. New York Giants
Estimated Cap Space: $18,127,186
Likely Cuts: G Chris Snee
Who They Should Keep: RB Andre Brown, DT Linval Joseph, LB Jon Beason, S Stevie Brown
Who They Should Sign: TE Jeff Cumberland, DE Everson Griffen, DT Red Bryant, CB Cortland Finnegan
How on earth did this team win a Super Bowl 25 months ago? Oh, Tom Brady can’t win in the clutch, right! I remember now. It’s actually scary how little is left on this team, especially in that front seven, traditionally the core of every great Giants team. That seems like a natural place for the Giants to rebuild. Griffen can be protected as a situational pass-rusher, where he should excel. Bryant can hold up as a run-stopping tackle next to Cullen Jenkins. I’ve given up on the Giants ever spending serious money on linebackers, but taking a flier on Finnegan — who was worth $10 million a year two seasons ago — would make sense, given the team’s lack of experience at corner. If there’s a time machine lurking somewhere in the market, that would be nice, too.
18. Arizona Cardinals
Estimated Cap Space: $17,725,088
Likely Cuts: RB Ryan Williams
Who They Should Keep: OLB Matt Shaughnessy, ILB Karlos Dansby, K Jay Feely
Who They Should Sign: RB Donald Brown, T Anthony Collins, LB Wesley Woodyard, S Mike Mitchell
Arizona has spent the better part of a decade looking for an effective left tackle; Collins isn’t a guarantee, but he’s far better than the alternatives currently on the roster, and he won’t cost an arm and a leg. Bruce Arians will probably want to add a back to supplement the limited role he’s already prescribed for Andre Ellington, and Brown — who played for Arians in Indy — would fit the bill.
19. Seattle Seahawks
Estimated Cap Space: $16,042,553
Likely Cuts: DE Chris Clemons
Who They Should Keep: T Breno Giacomini, DE Michael Bennett, DE O’Brien Schofield
Who They Should Sign: QB Colt McCoy
Winning the Super Bowl qualifies as living the dream, so let’s grant Seahawks fans another wish by getting Bennett to return, where he would take over for the departing Clemons, who is currently due $9.7 million. The underrated Schofield would take over in a situational role. Otherwise, the Seahawks are deep at just about every position; all they need is a backup for Russell Wilson.
20. New England Patriots
Estimated Cap Space: $12,699,255
Likely Cuts: WR Matthew Slater, DT Isaac Sopoaga, DT Tommy Kelly, S Adrian Wilson
Who They Should Keep: RB LeGarrette Blount, CB Aqib Talib
Who They Should Sign: WR Emmanuel Sanders, DT Kevin Williams, DE Tyson Jackson, S Malcolm Jenkins
The Patriots could clear another $8 million off their cap by cutting Vince Wilfork, but it’s more likely New England would ask its defensive stalwart to restructure his deal instead. The key free agent here is Talib, of course, and he’ll eat up much of New England’s cap space if the team can find a way to re-sign him. Bill Belichick otherwise values big athletes, which would lead him to the likes of Williams and Jackson. And after trying to sign Sanders as a restricted free agent a year ago, it would make sense for the Patriots to bring him in on a modest deal this year, especially if Julian Edelman leaves town.
21. Detroit Lions
Estimated Cap Space: $11,745,130
Likely Cuts: none
Who They Should Keep: TE Brandon Pettigrew, CB Rashean Mathis
Who They Should Sign: WR James Jones, WR Mario Manningham, S Stevie Brown, CB Captain Munnerlyn, CB Tracy Porter
Desperate for help at wideout and in the secondary, the Lions simply don’t have the cap space they need to make serious improvements at those spots. Extending Ndamukong Suh will help, but Detroit’s most likely path is to add some low-risk, low-salary players at both positions. The Lions will likely have to wait a week or so in free agency before prices come down.
22. St. Louis Rams
Estimated Cap Space: $10,522,229
Likely Cuts: none
Who They Should Keep: G Rodger Saffold, OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar
Who They Should Sign: RB Donald Brown, CB Sam Shields
Much of what the Rams do this offseason will be informed by their plans with regard to the second overall pick; my suspicion is that they will draft a tackle, either in their current spot or after trading down, so they don’t need to go into the market for a tackle this March. They’ll need another cornerback after informing Cortland Finnegan he will be released, and given the relatively young core of their team, signing a player in his prime like Shields would make sense. Now, if Sam Bradford could just stay healthy …
23. San Francisco 49ers
Estimated Cap Space: $10,021,111
Likely Cuts: CB Carlos Rogers
Who They Should Keep: CB Tarell Brown, K Phil Dawson
Who They Should Sign: QB Matt Cassel, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB Asante Samuel, S Louis Delmas
Did you know the largest cap hit on the 2014 San Francisco 49ers belongs, of all people, to Carlos Rogers? The 49ers would clear $5 million off their cap by releasing Rogers, a move likely to occur despite San Francisco’s relative lack of depth in the secondary. Signing the younger, more talented Rodgers-Cromartie makes more sense, with Samuel filling in as depth and Delmas replacing the departing Donte Whitner. The Niners are sufficiently deep elsewhere to stay out of free agency, although they will certainly sneak in after a couple of weeks if they see a bargain lurking unsigned.
24. Kansas City Chiefs
Estimated Cap Space: $9,942,443
Likely Cuts: none
Who They Should Keep: G Geoff Schwartz, LB Frank Zombo
Who They Should Sign: DE Antonio Smith, KR Devin Hester
Having spent much of their cap space a year ago, the Chiefs will be more concerned this offseason about re-signing safety Eric Berry and outside linebacker Justin Houston, each of whom are in the final years of their deals. Retaining Schwartz, who won the right guard spot midseason, might be their biggest move in unrestricted free agency. Reuniting Hester with former special teams coach Dave Toub could be fun.
25. Tennessee Titans
Estimated Cap Space: $9,071,953
Likely Cuts: RB Chris Johnson, WR Nate Washington, T David Stewart, DE Kamerion Wimbley
Who They Should Keep: CB Alterraun Verner
Who They Should Sign: T Michael Oher, DE Justin Tuck, DT Henry Melton
Cutting those four players would clear an additional $19 million off Tennessee’s cap. The team can get by with Shonn Greene and the re-signed Jackie Battle at halfback, and probably has enough at wide receiver to get by without needing a replacement for Washington. The Titans would be better off using their cap space to upgrade on defense, where a frequently frustrating pass rush could use the athleticism of Tuck and Melton. If they can’t re-sign Verner, they’ll also need to add a cornerback; somebody like Vontae Davis would make sense.
26. Houston Texans
Estimated Cap Space: $8,995,932
Likely Cuts: QB Matt Schaub
Who They Should Keep: DE Antonio Smith
Who They Should Sign: QB Shaun Hill, ILB Brandon Spikes
Much of the talent that led the Texans to back-to-back AFC South titles is still around and locked into long-term contracts, so the Texans are really just retooling, not rebuilding. That begins at quarterback, but everything I’ve read leads me to believe Houston will draft a passer with the first overall pick, which would leave the team in the market for a veteran backup like Hill. Spikes would be a useful run-stopper next to the versatility of Brian Cushing, although signing him would leave Houston with two injury-prone inside linebackers.
27. Chicago Bears
Estimated Cap Space: $8,919,728
Likely Cuts: RB Michael Bush, WR Earl Bennett, DE Julius Peppers
Who They Should Keep: QB Josh McCown, DT Henry Melton
Who They Should Sign: DE Michael Bennett, CB Sam Shields, S Malcolm Jenkins
Cutting Peppers would save the Bears nearly $10 million, making his release inevitable. Bennett’s been a long-rumored replacement, thanks to the presence of brother Martellus on the roster. That would still leave the Bears razor-thin in the secondary, but they could make additions there to replace the dearly departed Charles Tillman and the total opposite of dearly departed Chris Conte.
28. Carolina Panthers
Estimated Cap Space: $7,263,215
Likely Cuts: :(
Who They Should Keep: CB Captain Munnerlyn, S Mike Mitchell
Who They Should Sign: WR Hakeem Nicks
With no cap space, the Panthers will hope to convince Munnerlyn and Mitchell to return to Carolina on small deals after they surprisingly excelled as starters in 2013. If there’s any space left for a single free agent, the Panthers could sure use a wideout to take the pressure off Steve Smith, and signing Nicks — who was born and raised in Charlotte and played his college ball at North Carolina — would be a low-risk, high-upside shot at finding a star.
29. San Diego Chargers
Estimated Cap Space: $4,906,336
Likely Cuts: WR Eddie Royal, OLB Dwight Freeney
Who They Should Keep: G Chad Rinehart
Who They Should Sign: OLB Anthony Spencer, CB Jabari Greer, CB Will Blackmon
The Chargers enjoyed a surprising playoff run a year ago, but they did strike out in attempting to improve their defense, with Freeney getting injured and corner Derek Cox washing out halfway through the first year of a $20 million deal before being released. They can only make relatively minor investments this offseason, which is why they will have to look for talented players coming off injury-riddled seasons, like Spencer and Greer.
30. New Orleans Saints
Estimated Cap Space: $2,567,990
Likely Cuts: RB Pierre Thomas, WR Lance Moore
Who They Should Keep: S Malcolm Jenkins
Who They Should Sign: CB Tarell Brown
The Saints started leaking rumors that they would be interested in dealing Thomas and Moore this week, which is usually a precursor to cutting those very same players. They would save $5.6 million by moving on, which the Saints could then use on depth at cornerback and/or the versatile Jenkins, who is worth retaining at free safety.
31. Dallas Cowboys
Estimated Cap Space: $329,312
Likely Cuts: LB DeMarcus Ware?, WR Miles Austin
Who They Should Keep: none
Who They Should Sign: Warren Buffett?
Having pushed almost all their big contracts into the future with restructuring while signing their kicker to a seven-year contract, the Cowboys are having a typical Dallas offseason. The big question mark is Ware, who could be released over the next few days, but it seems more likely the Cowboys will get Ware to restructure his deal to remain with the team. Were he to leave, Dallas could use the $7.5 million it will save to re-sign Anthony Spencer and go after depth in the secondary. Austin will eventually be released as a post–June 1 cut, which will clear out space for Dallas to add a player or two over the summer.
32. Pittsburgh Steelers
Estimated Cap Space: -$1,042,074
Likely Cuts: QB Bruce Gradkowski, LB LaMarr Woodley, CB Ike Taylor
Who They Should Keep: Did you see that minus sign?
Who They Should Sign: CB Corey Graham, CB Champ Bailey
Yes, the Steelers are the one team currently projected to be over the cap. They just cleared $10 million or so off the books by releasing Levi Brown, Larry Foote, and Curtis Brown, but in lieu of making tough decisions about some of their veterans, the Steelers restructured Heath Miller’s deal and gave Troy Polamalu a contract extension. That eliminated two clear paths to clearing out cap space. They’ll need to dump one more big deal to make it through the offseason, and the only option that makes sense is Taylor, whose release would save the team $7 million. After that, having signed Jason Worilds to a one-year deal using the transition tag, the Steelers will likely release Woodley, but they’ll have to wait until June 1 to actually create any cap space doing so. Once the league’s model franchise, the Steelers have simply failed to manage their cap, leaving them with a subpar roster and little hope of improving it in the short term.