NFL 

Free Agency: Decisions, Decisions

Free Agency kicks off on March 11, huge decisions will be made across the league. Marquee players will either be retained or set free, those that are set free will find new homes. As those pieces fall in place, it will impact this year’s draft heavily. One of the biggest factors as to whether players are retained or not  is money, either roster bonuses or base salary. While the salary cap has been estimated to be $132 million this year, which is higher than last years, some teams are still in the red and have to cut dead weight. Who will stay, who will go? Let’s go through each team and find out which teams have big time decisions to make. Who should be retained, who should walk?

Arizona – Out of the 14 players eligible for Free Agency (FA), the Cardinals can ill afford to lose Karlos Dansby after a season in which he made 122 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles. The only issue may be his age, at 32 years old is he worth giving a 3-4 year deal or could he be replaced  by a younger player on the roster or in the draft? If he isn’t retained, any team needing an impact player in the middle of their 3-4 defense will be ready to sign him. Obviously the Cardinals have issues on their offensive line, but Eric Winston started all 16 games last season. If he’s asking for top dollar, the Cardinals can find a replacement in FA or in the draft. With an estimated 15 million in cap space, it will be interesting to see what the Cardinals do.

Atlanta – One thing is for sure for the Falcons, they need to improve their defense and offensive line. They have 12 players entering FA, of the 12 only one needs to be retained and that is the 25 year old defensive tackle Corey Peters who is coming off a 46 tackle, 5 sack season. Peters is also coming off of an injury, but at such a young age he should be able to bounce back. On a defense short of impact players, why let one go? The Falcons have 18 million to play with, there will be impact players available in both FA & the draft.

Baltimore – The Ravens have already retained Dennis Pitta, signing a five year deal last week. Their work isn’t done yet, with 15 more players to hit the market the Ravens have decisions to make. Inside backer Daryl Smith had a huge season, tallying 123 tackles,  5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 3 interceptions. Smith must be retained, but the same can’t be said for Jameel McClain as his replacement was drafted last year in Arthur Brown. A decision must be made at offensive tackle as well, both Michael Oher & Eugene Monroe are eligible to hit the market. Monroe was acquired in a late season trade last year, one must stay and one will go. Expect Monroe to be retained, the Ravens also have a decision to make on special teams superstar Jacoby Jones. The good news is the Ravens front office has a good track record, they should make the correct decisions.

Buffalo – Of the seven players to hit the market, this all comes down to one. Safety Jairus Byrd, his talent is not in question but his durability is. After playing all 16 games in both 2011 & 2012, Byrd played in just 11 games last season. Will he be tagged or will he be shown the door, the Bills can certainly afford to retain him as they have 24 million in cap space. If he does hit the open market, there will be teams lined up to sign him. This is a deep class of Defensive Backs in the draft, the Bills could certainly find a player to be Byrd’s replacement.

Carolina – The Panthers are coming off of a great season, one that ended in the playoffs. They are in a great place going forward but they have many decisions to make with 20 players eligible for FA. One of the players that has removed himself is Jordan Gross, the offensive tackle announced his retirement this offseason. With 13 million in cap space and young players on the roster capable of stepping up this isn’t as hairy a situation as it appears. Panther great Steve Smith has a high cap number this season, 7 million. There are rumors that he will be cut, but the cap being 132 million should keep that from happening. They have already tagged Greg Hardy aka “The Kracken” and they can easily plug holes through thrifty FA deals and a strong draft. Tough decisions will be made, but the Panthers certainly have options.

Chicago – The Bears have 20 players eligible for FA with only 9 million in cap space, most of the players that will make the market are special teams & rotational players. Of the special team players, Devin Hester & Blake Conztanzo should be retained. Major Wright will be an interesting decision, starting at safety last season the 25 year old made 100 tackles while forcing 2 fumbles and picking off two passes. While he’s not a big name, he is a solid starter. The Bears defense is in the midst of an overhaul, with limited cap space it wouldn’t be surprising if they elect to make the changes via the draft. Let’s not forget about Charles “Peanut” Tillman, one of the best corners in the league in terms of making plays on the ball. Tillman is indeed a FA and will hit the market if not retained before March 11, there is a chance he could take less to return to Chicago or take less on a team that is ready to contend immediately considering his age and how much time he has left.

Cincinnati – The Bengals have lost their offensive coordinator but their roster is in a very good place. They have 14 players ready to hit the market. Fortunately, they have young players on the roster that can step up in several spots. Take defensive end Michael Johnson, a very talented young player but if the Bengals were ready to commit to him then he would already have a deal in place. The Bengals also prepared for this last season by drafting Maragus Hunt, with 29 million in cap space it isn’t as if Cincinnati can’t afford to keep him. Looking at the roster long term, it is understandable of he does walk. With several teams having great cap space, Johnson wouldn’t last too long on the open market. Keep an eye on Brandon Ghee & Taylor Mays, two young players that could make an impact on other teams or step up for the Bengals.

Cleveland – The Browns had two impact players to retain, the already let D’Qwell Jackson hit the open market. Jackson will be heavily sought as a very good 3-4 inside backer, tallying 141 tackles last season. He was let go over a 4.1 roster bonus, now the Browns must deal with TJ Ward. Do they retain the young playmaking safety or will he hit the open market? Their starting center, Alex Mack is also eligible for FA. The Browns could have afforded all three as they have 51 million in cap space, but Jackson has already been let go. Cleveland is interesting as they have the means to retain players, but the decision to do so relies solely on them.

Dallas – The Cowboys have bigger issues to worry about than Free Agency, they are currently 18 million over the salary cap. There has been rumors of DeMarcus Ware being let go do to his high cap number. It wouldn’t be surprising as the Cowboys are in a horrible position regarding the cap, they tagged Anthony Spencer last season and he is once again eligible for FA. Spencer could be a nice addition to a team on the brink of contending with cap space. Will the Cowboys be able to bring their cap number down? That’s all that matters in Dallas right now, everything revolves around that cap situation.

Denver – Fresh off a Super Bowl appearance the Broncos have decisions to make going forward, with 17 players eligible for free agency. The Broncos can’t afford to lose Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie or Wesley Woodyard, both made an impact on their defense last season. The good news is that they have 18 million in cap space, so they can afford to let some players hit the open market. Responsible shopping in FA and a good draft can replenish the talent that will be lost on the open market.

Detroit – The Lions are in a good place this offseason as well, they don’t HAVE to retain any of the players they have eligible for free agency. With only 10 million in cap space and all of your core players under contract, there is no reason to spend money when you can get key players in the draft. Louis Delmas is an impact player, but he doesn’t want to be there and the Lions can easily draft a replacement. Some may argue that Brandon Pettigrew must be retained, in 14 games last season he had just 416 yards. Once again, the Lions don’t HAVE to retain him or any of their other free agents to be.

Green Bay – The Packers have holes to fill and have money to do it with, they have 34 million in cap room. They do have 19 players set to be free agents, the good news is that not all of these players are impact players. Not much is wrong on the offensive side of the ball, but James Jones, Jermichael Finley & Andrew Quarless are all Free Agents. Whether through poor play or  a bad fit within the scheme, players will hit the market and not be retained. Green Bay is starving for impact players on the defensive side of the ball, there have been reports this offseason that they want a different type of defensive lineman that is currently on their roster. If those reports are true and they do  want more versatility up front, players like BJ Raji, Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett may not be retained. A decision will be made on Sam Shields as well, is he a top tier corner or can they live without him. The two sides have failed to reach an agreement thus far, barring any changes he will hit the open market. The Packers have a chance to change their defense with cap space and a strong draft, keep an eye on their offseason activity. They were a playoff team even with a bunch of injuries and a horrible defense, they won’t get worse.

Houston – The Texans have just 8 million in cap space, the good news is that they don’t NEED any of the players that will hit the market. This is a very solid team despite their horrible record last season, the priority for Houston is solidifying the Quarterback position. A strong draft can land them a QB and also fill the rotational needs. Free Agency shouldn’t be very eventful for the Texans, of course anything is possible.

Indianapolis – The Colts are in great hands, not only on the field with QB Andrew Luck but financially as well. With 40 million in cap space, they only have a few of their 23 free agency eligible players to retain. That being said, there will be several big time decisions made by the Colts in the coming days. They must decide on the futures of Vontae Davis, Antoine Bethea,Pat McAfee & Adam Vinateri. Obviously most deem Davis & Bathea to be no-brainers but keep in mind that they’ve reached this point without having received contract extensions. While 40 million seems like a lot, keep in mind they still have to pay Mr. Luck. The Colts could also be buyers in this FA period as well, impact players may be available.

Jacksonville – The Jaguars have 55 million in cap space, a lack of talent on their roster & will be picking at the top of most rounds in the upcoming draft. They have 10 players set to hit the open market, there is no reason to retain any of them. Expect the Jacksonville to be buyers come March 11, while it may be a hard sell to some players, the new coaching staff had this team playing very hard last year. They have an opportunity in FA & the draft to make strides to becoming more competitive week in and week out.

Kansas City – The Chiefs went from 2-14 two seasons ago, to a playoff team that started the season 9-0. The Andy Reid era is off to a great start, entering free agency the will have several decisions to make with only 8 million in cap space. Amongst those decisions is which offensive lineman to retain, they have Brandon Albert, Jon Asamoah & Geoff Schwartz. They must also decide on the future of the explosive Dexter McCluster. Any team would like to have either of the three offensive lineman or the explosive McCluster, several of these free agents would be great additions to other teams. It will certainly be interesting to see what the Chiefs are able to do with that cap space. Who will remain a Chief?

Miami – While the Dolphins have made new for the decorum in their locker room or the lack there of, they do have plenty of cap space heading into the free agency period. With 38 million to play with, the Dolphins could be very active in free agency. First, they have some important decisions to make. Brent Grimes & Nolan Carroll combined for 107 tackles & 7 interceptions, it’s madness that they’re even about to hit the market. Then again, this is the same team that is rumored to be shopping last year’s 1st round selection Dion Jordan. Will the Dolphins retain both DBs or will they both hit the open market? After making strides last season, the Dolphins must be responsible and not go backwards.

Minnesota – The Vikings have 18 players set to hit the market, the most notable being Jared Allen. Even in this stage of his career, Allen has shown that he is still productive as he racked up 11.5 sacks last year. Allen could be a great addition to a contender on a one year deal. Minnesota has 30 million in cap space, they drafted fairly well last season. Rather than retain any of the players set to hit the market, the Vikings should be become buyers. They are a much better team than advertised, similar to Houston their biggest issue is the lack of production at QB. Adding pieces to a young and talented defense while adding a few more weapons on offense would be huge, but none of that means anything if they don’t find “the” guy under center. Is it Ponder or will their QB be found in the offseason?

New England – The Patriots have 9 million in cap space and 13 players that are eligible free agents. While they came up short in the playoffs last season, the Patriots maximized the potential of the roster they had. With many young players being asked to perform they found out which players are keepers going forward and who’s not. Jamie Collins stepped up and showed his worth, his play making ability may have made Brandon Spikes expendable. Aquib Talib came over as a one year rental, he is set to be a free agent but most believe that he will remain a Patriot. LeGarrette Blount should be retained as well, he not only contributed in the run game but played a role in special teams as well. Year after year, New England does a great job managing their talent and cap space. The last thing New England will do is stand pat, they will once again be a contender next season. The steps to get there will be taken this offseason.

New Orleans – The Saints were once again in the thick of things last season; while they were not able to win the division thanks the the Carolina Panthers, they did reach the playoffs. Rob Ryan’s defense looked good last year as well, the Saints have 18 free agents including outstanding TE Jimmy Graham. Graham has been assigned a non-exclusive tag meaning he can be acquired but it will be at a great price, two first rounders to be exact. New Orleans will have tough decisions to make on several key players including Will Smith, Malcolm Jenkins, Brian De La Puente & Jonathan Vilma. With only 8 million in cap space, there will be many teams keeping an eye on their decisions this offseason. Will a team pay the price to acquire Jimmy Graham or will they agree to a long term deal? The Saints must tread carefully as they don’t want to fall back of their Division counterparts. The other three teams all have more cap space, so the Saints can’t afford to lose the offseason battle.

Giants – As an organization New York hopes that last year was simply an aberration, their front office has their work cut out for them this offseason. The Giants have several key players that are scheduled to hit the open market; including Justin Tuck, Stevie Brown, Jon Beason, Linval Joseph, Hakeem Nicks & more. While some players aren’t expected to be back, like Nicks. Others have to be signed, such as Beason. The Giants have struggled to field an effective corps of linebackers for several years, Beason tallied 93 tackles in 12 games with New York. The Giants can ill afford to lose him as their defense has several holes that need to be filled. Joseph has flown under the radar, if he does end up hitting the open market, many teams will be after him. It’s difficult to find defensive tackles that can anchor a line along with pushing the pocket. A pass rusher opposite Jason Pierre-Paul would be high on that list, some of their decisions will be based on the durability of players. Several of their Free Agents have struggled to stay healthy, so the question is whether to cut ties now or fill the needs in the free agency period and draft. With 18 million in cap space, the front office definitely has options. Expect the front office of the Giants to make up for the debacle they fielded last year.

Jets – The Jets have already franchised Nick Folk, yes they tagged their kicker. In the first year with Geno Smith under center, the Jets had a decent year. While the offense struggled at times, their defense was stingy like any other Rex Ryan coached unit. Armed with 25 million in cap room, the Jets have an opportunity to improve this offseason. There will be some key decisions regarding the offensive line as well as whether to retain Calvin Pace. They already have one of the better front sevens in the league, adding some depth to the back end of the defense wouldn’t hurt either. They will also look to get weapons for their young QB, either through free agency or the draft. The toughest decision for the Jets won’t be whether to retain anyone, but who to bring in.

Oakland – The Raiders have 18 players set to enter free agency, with 66 million in cap room it is certainly possible for them to retain all of them. That won’t be the case though, the Raiders are ready to make that jump. This offseason could allow them to shorten the distance between mediocre and respectable, it is completely up to them. There are some players that must be retained, such as Lamarr Houston & Tracy Porter. When trying to move forward, it’s never a good idea to leave impact players behind. With a draft class full of playmakers, along with smart choices in free agency Oakland can once again make themselves relevant. Their QB situation is the most intriguing, no matter what they do with the rest of the roster it means nothing without having that resolved. Will it be Pryor, McGloin or one of the three top QBs in the upcoming draft? Sorry Oakland fans, but don’t expect Darren McFadden to return.

 Philadelphia – The Eagles have been awfully busy, with the start of Free Agency on the horizon Philly has accomplished a lot. They have extended Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Riley Cooper & Jeremy Maclin. That leaves seven players eligible to hit the market, none of which need to be on the team going forward. The Eagles have 25 million in cap space, another strong draft will only improve a talented team. Chip Kelley worked wonders in year one, they are in a great place heading into year two.

Pittsburgh – The Steelers have many decisions to make, being 6 million over the cap certainly doesn’t help. There are 22 Steelers ready to hit the market, it’s going to be awfully hard to retain players when already over the cap. Ziggy Hood, Stevenson Sylvester, Jason Worldis & Emmanuel Sanders are just a few of the names that will hit the market. Many of which will be coveted by other teams, it will be tough to lose players but the Steelers have known this was coming for some time now. They can plug a few of these holes by promoting the younger players on the roster and in the draft. Their options are limited to such due to the cap restraints, it will definitely be interesting to see how the Steeler front office handles this offseason.

San Diego -The Chargers are in a fairly good place heading into the free agency period, they have 12 players entering free agency. Of the twelve, not one jumps out as a must have. Which is a great considering the Chargers only have 4 million in cap space. While there can be deals made with the allotted cap space, it makes more sense to address needs through the draft this year. In a year when the draft is considered extremely deep, why not take advantage of it?

San Francisco – The 49ers are coming off of yet another disappointing deep postseason run, they have a few decisions to make this offseason. The front office has shown that no one player is bigger than the team no recently than last offseason, Dashon Goldson was coming off a Pro-Bowl campaign and was not retained. They traded up in the first round to draft his replacement or upgrade in Eric Reid. San Francisco has 11 free agents, they are currently working with Anquan Boldin on an extension. They will attempt to retain as many players that are willing to take discounts, for those who aren’t willing, well they won’t be 49ers next year. This is an extremely deep draft class, the 49ers have 12 picks and only need 4-5 players. There is no reason to go out of the way to extend Whitner, Goodwin, Dixon, or McCoy. Look for the 49ers to re-sign Boldin, possibly take a few fliers on cheap free agents, but make up for the bulk of it in the draft.

Seattle Seahawks – The newly crowned Super Bowl Champions will have several decisions as well, but like San Francisco, they will trim the fat as needed to move forward. They will retain Doug Baldwin and extend Sherman & WilsonThe draft extremely well and will have players ready to take one year deals to compete for a championship. The Seahawks have one of the deepest rosters in all of football, that will pay off as they have already let go of several big name players. They will continue to build to the draft, the Seahawks are in no danger of falling off. They will continue to add talent this offseason, yes they will contend for another championship this coming season.

St. Louis – This is the last year the the Rams have the draft picks of the Washington Redskins, the payment from the RG III trade is nearly complete. The Rams have done a great job drafting and stockpiling talent over the last two years. They have 6 million in cap space, but only one or two players to retain if at all. There are 10 players entering free agency, but the Rams can look to the draft to plug holes. Similar to their division foes in Seattle & San Francisco, they do a great job drafting. They will continue to do so this year as the proud owners of the #2 overall pick, no one can predict what they will do. Do they stand pat and select a player or trade down to acquire even more picks. Once again, St. Louis is in a great position heading into the offseason.

Tampa – The Buccaneers have a new coach and a talented defense, they also have 17 million in cap space. The Lovie Smith regime enters their first offseason with 22 free agents. Tampa has to figure out if Mike Glennon is the franchise guy under center, then they can focus on the rest of the roster. With the excess of cap room plus a talented young core, the Bucs can add veteran depth in free agency as needed. Back to this draft class, there is a surplus of receivers and playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. The Bucs don’t need much to contend for the division next year, identifying their guy under center is of the utmost importance. The defense will only get better as it will be properly used under the direction of Smith, it’s all about finding an identity on the offensive side of the ball.

Tennessee – The Titans, like the Bucs have to decide if Jake Locker is the man going forward. In regards to free agency, they have 12 million in cap space and 17 free agents to be. Tennessee has several offensive lineman they must mull over as well as two veteran members of the secondary. Both Alterraun Verner and Benard Pollard deserve to be retained, due to the deep crop of defensive backs in the draft it is understandable if they are not Titans next year. Looking at Kenny Britt’s history with the Titans, it would be very surprising if he is retained. Troubles aside, he is a 25 year old playmaker and teams may be willing to sign him for a one year deal. The full back position is often overlooked in today’s league, but it would be a mistake to let go of Greg Jones. It will be extremely interesting to see what the Titans do this offseason in regards to Verner & Pollard, they don’t HAVE to re-sign either of them.

Washington – The Redskins have survived last year’s cap penalty a bit better than the Cowboys as they have 28 million in cap room. Having gone from NFC East Champions to the doldrums of the league, the Redskins have a big offseason ahead of them. Make no mistake, this is a very talented team that Jay Gruden inherited. Washington has already re-signed DeAngelo Hall, they now have their sights on pass rusher Brian Orakpo. “Rak” is a highly controversial subject amongst Redskin fans, as everyone is eager to see how this plays out. While it is possible that Washington could elect to let Rak walk, they do have the cap room to retain him. If by chance he isn’t retained, look for the Redskins to fill the need in the draft. London Fletcher retired, they have to find his successor and D’Qwell Jackson is available. There are options for the Redskins, it is up to them to make the most of this offseason. If they have a strong draft, they will be right back in the race for the division crown. Will Orakpo get signed to a long term deal or will the Ryan Kerrigan have a new partner?

 

Cap figures are an estimate from the ESPN Roster Managment System

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CEO/Founder of My Mind on Sports For More Information on Wilson, check out his Bio in the "Team" Section Follow Wilson on Twitter: @Willietspeaks

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